A WEEK IN NAPLES, OR: NAPOLI GRAN TOUR: THEATRICALITY AS A METAPHOR AND A WAY OF BEING
Every city has a key. Indeed, often they have different ones. Naples is perhaps a city that, among many others, has a universal key, able to open all doors, to throw light on every aspect, or almost. It is not an original key, I had probably already heard about it many times, but this time I discovered it, I saw it with my own eyes and then I tested it, and actually all the doors opened. The key, of course, is the theater. Naples is really a theater city, where everything is constantly on stage, where everything seems conceived for a representation, not necessarily pleasant or captivating, but still a public performance. On the other hand, Naples is a city that often adheres to its stereotypes, both positive and negative: the city of music, ironic fatalism, exuberant merriment, and even that of mice on the street in broad daylight, dirtiness that makes impracticable some sidewalks (our sister-in-law Cuban Nenè loves Naples because it reminds her of Havana: the sea, the splendid and decadent city, the architecture of Spanish seventeenth-century, the frankness of the inhabitants ...). The spectacle of the city enchanted Cervantes, who called it the most beautiful in Europe, and Stendhal, for which it was the most beautiful in the universe; it scandalized with the spectacle of the carnage of Carnival and of sex market an unexpected moralist Marquis de Sade, fleeing from his crimes; Dickens wrote of the spectacle of the awakening of the city, which among Pulcinella, comedians, beggars, marionettes, dirt and degradation, every day shows in the sun "his Harlequin dress". But, of course, I don’t mean the real theater, even if the tradition of the Neapolitan theater is universally recognized (from Pulcinella to Totò, from De Filippo to Martone and to the theatrical cabaret of Troisi), and if the city brags aboutf having the greatest number of theatrical halls compared to the rest of Italy (just now, for example, in Milan there are both De Filippo and Pulcinella on stage). And I don’t mean neither cinema and television, even if some of the most interesting and original Italian films of the last season were produced and filmed in Naples (and variously awarded with the David di Donatello: Ammore e malavita, Gatta Cinderella , Napoli velata - which has instilled the desire to see Naples after so many years); and even if the imagery of television fiction has been outlined in opposite directions by Un posto al sole - the longest-running Italian soap - and by Gomorra; and if in front of Castel Capuano (today the court house) we came across the production means of L’amica geniale, the TV drama inspired by the famous saga of Elena Ferrante. I'm talking about the city, the streets, the walls, the people, the sounds, the churches, the windows, the panorama. Everything is theater and the Neapolitans are the characters of a gigantic representation: a representation that is both popular and very cultured, full of libraries, archives, splendid museums, intellectuals and history; a very crowded representation, which fills the streets and squares of characters, with impressive mass scenes, immense, inexhaustible rivers, that flow along Via dei Tribunali, Spaccanapoli, Toledo, and clog them, which fill the pedestrianized promenade: families, old people, children, proudly prosperous girls, unavoidable jaguar ladies, tamarri dressed in what they think to be latest fashion; many people who saturate local restaurants and pizzerias, which fills the tables and aligns in the streets and alleys waiting for their turn at the restaurant. An exuberant, affable, noisy, difficult representation, expressed in dialect and resonating in the streets, in the alleys under the vaults of the arcades or covered passages, which sometimes take on a Middle Eastern appearance; that animates the markets and the ubiquitous stalls and that fills the airspace in the alleys of linen perennially spread out to dry (a domestic intimacy turned upside down outside, perpetually put in the square and in public); a disordered representation also made of heavy and impatient traffic, of motorcycles whizzing everywhere (beware!), of motorcycle riders, mostly without helmets, of whole families on the same scooter - as we have seen with surprise in India or Indonesia -, or gangs of girls on the same saddle, or - the most reckless - children whizzing through the alleys by scooter, cutting corners, zigzagging dangerously in the middle of passers-by, stalls, other children. In an alley a pipe broke down and from the wall a powerful stream of water broke out and formed a torrent that flowed up to Via dei Tribunali: when a lady arrived with a shopping bag, a man stopped the leak with his hand and made it pass ... The photos I publish on this page give only an idea of the scene, of the background, but they can not do justice: the action, the performance, the music, the sound of words and things are missing. And if theater people are proverbially superstitious, the Neapolitans outclass them with the smells of grimaces, lucky horns, talismans and amulets, but also ex-voto (in bookstores there is even a book that collects the most bizarre requests for divine grace expressed by the Neapolitans) and religious altars and niches placed in the streets and alleys, real architectural little theaters, illuminated, populated with images and characters. In one of them we have seen many three-dimensional characters burn alive in the flames of hell, in another Maradona is worshiped as a god. We familiarize ourselves with other “spectators”, Canary girls from Erasmus project, a strange quartet of Belgians from Antwerp with a man and three women, French from Toulouse,impatient ladies from Monza; other tourists/spectators cross each other, compelling the guides at street corners, as if searching for an explanation of a show that is difficult to interpret. We are often mistaken for foreigners, perhaps for the fair complexion and for not having clothes and accessories signed. If we stop to take a spritz (1 euro) in an alley of the Spanish Quarters, there are immediately some guys with whom to chat, like Peppe, with whom we talk about cinema, Tarantino and Winding Refn, emigration and experiences abroad, of politics and of De Magistris, of critical thought and of perspectives of the left, and about little time ago in the Districts, next to the shopping street of Toledo and fashioned shops, one could be shoot at the head. On the streets it is also a show, seriously: in the squares you meet musical groups, fire dancers, madonnari, black percussionists who sing in Neapolitan dialect, a corpulent big man who plays Macbeth and Lady Macbeth all by himself; at a street corner we hear music and we look around trying to understand where it comes from: we discover it by looking at a narrow side alley and looking up: there is a man on a balcony, all decorated with fake lemons, singing Neapolitan songs to microphone, with a small amplification system. People stand with their noses up, raise their mobile phones to photograph him; he occasionally goes back to starting the bases and adjusting the system and occasionally drops a wicker basket from the balcony to collect offers: it’s "il balcone della canzone”, the balcony of the song. In which other city? On the other hand also the traditional Neapolitan music has a theatrical character: from Malaffemmena or La cammesella, which is a musical sketch, to the whole tradition of the sceneggiata, which already brings in the name the mix between music and theater, to the cultured music of De Simone , to the refined pop of the Avion Travel, for which the adjective "theatrical" has been countless times used. Petrified theater are the cribs (presepe), of which Naples is the world capital, (the shops of Via San Gregorio Armeno are overflowing), but which are found in the houses, in the museums, in the churches: a gigantic work infinitely replicated, where the canvas is always the same, but where the scenographies, the actors and the characters are continually renewed, perpetually poised between tradition and the most current relevance, reread always with a sardonic and irreverent eye; petrified theater is again the group of the late Compianto sul Cristo morto, in earthenware life-size statues, in Sant'Anna dei Lombardi; petrified theater par excellence is Pompeii and his memory, with a whole city immobilized in a moment of his life, with his characters, his animals and props, all reproduced for an impossible and eternal representation, of which they trace not only the fantastic Archaeological Museum, but even the MADRE, where contemporary art is mirrored and plays with the memories of the past in the PompeiATMadre exhibition project. The painting and architecture of the golden age of Naples are those of the Baroque, the most emphatic, artificial and theatrical style of history. But the show, like a theater hall, is not outside the building, but inside it: here are the sumptuous hidden halls, the courtyards like little stages of life, the monumental stairs. The walls themselves are not (more) simple constructive elements, which support and which exclude the look: on the contrary, they are continuously painted canvas, continuous representation. The signs of history, of time, of degradation mark them, split them, chap them, give them a new rough and painful skin, overlapping the signs of actuality, the filth of tags and scribbles that smear any wall, anarchically, inordinately, but also the expressions of an often surprising figurativity. Large murals cover entire facades, images peep out everywhere. Among the clothes hung out to dry appears a gigantic young San Gennaro; another San Gennaro has at its feet the mermaid Parthenope, while near it a volcano is erupting; and another one still exhibits its own identity card as patron saint; you can see fantastic animals, half-women and half-fish characters, creatures of every shape, priests with raised hands used as San Sebastiano, policemen and protesters facing each other - and it's from Milo Manara comics -, Frida Kahlo and ghosts of Marylin, Pulcinella with mandolin and Pino Daniele; Maradona dribbles on a wall, smiles from another, peeps from a window, from a votive shrine; somewhere, but democratically confused in a babel of signs and icons, there should also be a pair of Bansky, but who cares. Even the words give a show: as the signs of shops, usually written by hand, disorderly, sometimes ungrammatical or dialectal. One I photographed, next to a skull with incised tibias, says: "Do not stay outside the shop. Go in or go on, otherwise the machines will merciless arricetteranno you "; another, printed, beg the most distracted ones: "Please do not deposit the garbage anymore. The containers are gone". Even a well-printed flyer next to the university advertises exuberant "sbobbinature". But the theater is not only a stage, it is also made up of under-doors, hatches, wings, stages and feasible: Naples is then multiplied on several levels and on multiple areas, vertically and horizontally. Naples is perhaps one of the living cities in the world to be interesting underground almost as much as above ground level. Under the visible world there are archaeological remains of the city of the past, tuff quarries, water tanks full of legends, catacombs full of bones and mystery, bunkers, anti-aircraft shelters still oozing tragedies of a frightened and oppressed humanity yet alive and full of desire to live (in the one we visited there were still some disturbing games for children-ghost). Not to mention the subway: if in other cities the subway stations are non-places that resemble each other, anonymous and anodyne, in Naples have been transformed into places where art is staged, creative sets, one different from the other one. Rising up to the surface you can discover the bassi, a sort of dressing room without windows and without light, except the artificial one, whose actors are not visible until they come out on the outside scene; you discover the stairs in view in the Baroque courtyards, ramps as practicable and landings as boxes from where you look out to watch the stage of the courtyard; we discover theatrical machines such as the escalators or funiculars, which connect the top and the bottom, the emerged on the surface and the submerged chthonic world. And the landscape itself, with the brilliant sea, the mountains in the background, the volcano to give its unmistakable imprint, is it not itself a formidable theatrical backcloth, an eternal setting for Neapolitan carousel? Over the Sant'Elmo castle walls, where you can enjoy a unique view in the world, at 360 degrees, on the mountains, on the whole city where you can see every single detail - squares, streets, buildings, castles, churches, downtown skyscrapers, the stone church cupolas and the Umberto I Gallery glass domes, the shady Spaccanapoli straight -, on two peninsulas, on the sea, on three islands, on an active volcano, you feel like a deus ex -machinelooking from above the pawns of human affairs. We return with our feet on the ground to go to eat, in the streets full of scenic street food: overflowing cuoppi with fries, wallet pizzas, overlapping rum babà lying between creams layers. To dine in historic center trattorias (some of which have great fame) at the right time you have to line up and socialize with other waiting people. Every evening at the restaurant was a small theater show. At the Antica Capri trattoria the lady impersonated the smirk who looked with distrust and contempt at the customers who dared to make a request; at Nennella the owner goes out among the crowded tables arranged in the alley, announces with a loud voice, one by one, the dishes of the menu, and takes note of the raised hands; in via dei Tribunali there is a queue waiting in front of a restaurant with shutters down, despite the man who sells on the street aperitifs for a euro and a half alternates the roaring appeal "Aperol spritz!" to as many peremptory "it's closed! ""It will open tomorrow morning! ". His partner explains to me that it was he who told people to line up and wait. So "they fast, they do a diet". At Toledo Trattoria they bring the menu to the table, but when you make the orders you find that almost all the dishes are finished. The manager is lucidly distraught. Our neighbors order a plate of mussels and bring a plate of clams without a word of explanation. When they politely protest the owner explains that the clams are "just over". The client resigns and starts eating; after a few minutes a nice dish of mussels arrives at the table, always without a word. A little later, at the next table, they bring another plate of mussels. But they did not order them. I knew a joke based on a similar comic device. The ladies of another table have ordered an octopus salad. A sea salad comes silently. The lady recalls the waiter who fatalistically confirms: it is a seafood salad. The lady objects that she had ordered an octopus salad. It 'an octopus salad, he says, changing version with a tired imperturbability. Obviously a preponderant part in Neapolitan theatricality is occupied by religion. I already said of the votive shrines, of the baroque churches (in the Cathedral, winged angels open the curtain on the altar of a side chapel, as a theatre curtain); but the Easter week in which we visited the city is one of the occasions in which religiosity becomes a street show, with the processions of the various sedili (the old neighborhoods) parading through streets and alleys, with men swinging under the weight of the votive canopies, the calls and the full-throated songs that resound mysterious and indecipherable, the lights, the colored fumes, the choreographies of the bearers and the accompanist, the noisy music of the musical groups that follow or proceed by playing everything, by the way and inappropriately , even Il Piave mormorava, even Bandiera rossa. In the churches, many ancient tombs are made of canopy. Stone aedicules under which the statue of the dead is spread. In front, the angels hatch the petrified curtains to reveal the interior. The theatre curtain opens. In Naples, at the end, even death, of course, is a staging show.