Back in Naples – weeks before Covid -soon we were all told to stay home.

On the 6th January 2020 I returned to Naples not realising it was going to be my last foreign journey anywhere for two years. On 31st January two Chinese tourists in Rome were tested positive for the Covid virus and the Italian government declared a state of emergency. The first case of Covid was documented in the UK that day too, followed by a series of lockdowns beginning in March.

Soon we were all to be grounded, all over the world, for what was to become the worst pandemic in a century. With hindsight, I am doubly happy that I had such a good time in Naples, and in Milan a month earlier, while it was still possible to leave my small but lovely English town of Lewes.

I was staying in a small apartment on the top floor of an old house in the Avvocata district of Naples – in a wonderfully atmospheric street round the corner from the historic centre of Naples. The district, the street and the house were all set high up on a hill above the city and, the apartment too was up several flights of stairs. It was a little nest at the top of a large many-branched tree, or so it felt living there. Cosy, in a word….and very Neapolitan.

The apartment was on two floors, or one floor with a loft bedroom, accessed by a ladder-type staircase which was all fine after my vertigo subsided – which it did by the second day.

In Avvocata I was never in any doubt that I was not just in Italy, but in Naples – and by now I was already thinking Napoli, not Naples.

The street, a lively short-cut for vespa scooters and macho motorbikes, also allowed a first glimpse every day of one of those dramatic and equally quick-moving, sun-dropping sunsets. Round the corner too, there was a handy life-size crucifix plus nun. Yes, this is Napoli.

It was a short down-hill stroll to the Museo Archeologico Nazionali di Napoli, the National Archaelogical museum of Naples. This was no dull storage place for crumbling rocks, dusty artefacts and broken pottery, it has quite simply one of the great art collections in the world.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (The National Archaeological Museum of Naples)
The Farnese Marbles, Ancient Roman copies of Ancient Greek scuptures.

The museum is home to not just some extraordinary artworks from the nearby remains of Pompeii (more of that in my next blog), but it also houses a collection of famous Greco-Roman sculptures known at the Farnese Marbles. The Farnese here being Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, later to become Pope Paul III (1534 – 1549), who purchased, confiscated or, let’s face it, stole, many of these important works from rich Renaissance families from all over Italy. The Farnese family, the Pope’s family, also became Dukes of Parma and then on the female side, a Queen of Spain. Her descendants became kings and queens of Naples and Sicily. Well done that Pope. Thus, the Farnese collection moved first from the Vatican to Madrid and then finally arrived in the baggage of Ferdinand IV of Naples. I. don’t know – these rich people! – nothing ever changes. We, however, have the benefit of seeing these amazing statues, probably Roman copies of Greek originals, which are among some of the most influential sculptures in Western art.

Pope Paul III and his Grandsons, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma in a painting by Titian (c.1546). This triple portrait can be seen in Naples’ other major art gallery, see below, with a major collection of other portraits by Titian.

The Farnese Hercules

Hercules, massive but exhausted after the last of his The Twelve Labours, leans on his club which is draped by the skin of the Nemean lion. This is probably a Roman copy, by Glykon, of an original Greek work, now lost, by Lysippos.

Two Farnese Athletes.

The two matching bronze statues of athletes-in-motion, found in the ruins of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, near to Pompeii, are Roman copies of 4th or 3rd-century-BC Greek originals. They will run forever.

Head of Doryphorus (the Spear-Bearer) Roman copy of Polykleitos original.

This bronze head of Doryphorus, a Marlon Brando look-alike, is a find from the Villa of the Papyri in Pompeii – a Roman copy of one of the famous Spear-Bearer statue by the Polykleitos, a Roman copy of the statue with torso is also here at the Archaeological Museum.

The Farnese Atlas

Atlas was one of the colossal Titans of Greek mythology, condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky, not a globe of the world, but a spherical representation of the constellations of the stars. The statue, which is certainly colossal, is a 2nd-century-AD copy of the Greek original that is the probably the oldest surviving representation of the celestial skies. The museum put him into a mirrored space that emphases his size and, unsurprisingly, dwarves the humbled but impressed photographer.

The Farnese Bull

Lastly, the Farnese Bull, the largest single sculpture recovered from antiquity, or so I read. It’s a first-century-AD copy of a second-century-BC Greek original, showing the death of Dirce, whose niece, Antiope, was impregnated by Zeus and gave birth to twin sons, Amphion and Zethus. Dirce hated her niece and ordered her to be killed, but, instead, Amphion and Zethus kill Dirce by tying her to the horns of a bull. The dog and the child are probably later additions, but there is no denying the vitality and drama of this masterpiece which can only be fully appreciated by seeing it from all angles.

Back outside, on a fine January day, Naples was showing off its ripe oranges that line even the most inner-city of its streets.

It is difficult not to stroll here, to take in not just the architecture and the verdancy, but to explore the churches, cafés and bars along the route.

Il Vero Bar del Professore, the true Professors’ Bar – as opposed to the false ones, I assume, was a very civilised place to stop for a coffee.

Seven Works of Mercy by Caravaggio in its original position in the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia.

The Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia was the first stop in my pilgrimage around Naples’ collection of paintings by everyones’ favourite painter, Caravaggio, well, you know what I mean. Here in its original position, is Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, seen as if it was a private view, with no one else around.

I took the opportunity to look round the rest of the church which has a museum of church plate, chalices, monstrances , pots and pans. If you like these things, then you will find plenty of them here in Naples. I’m afraid I just thought of all the silver polishing.

Another church, another restaurant – I could get into the habit of this Neapolitan passeggiata (Italian for an evening stroll).

After a few days in the historic centre, this titan set of escalators at Piazza Garibaldi railway station reminded me that I was still living in the 21st century.

Walking down the Via Toledo, in Naples’ well-known Spanish quarter shopping street, I came across the second stop on my Caravaggio adventure. Here at the Palazzo Zevallos, is Caravaggio’s last painting, the darkly moody Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. Once again, I had left a crowded street to spend quality time, alone, with one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces. Here the King of the Huns, who has slaughtered her eleven thousand virgin companions, is bewitched by Ursula’s beauty and, even more so, by her modesty, says he will spare her life if she agrees to marry him. She refuses, so he kills her with a well-aimed arrow.

Martyrdom of Saint Ursula by Caravaggio (1610)

Caravaggio would have been familiar with these dark Naples streets and, maybe, they were threatening places in those days whereas now they are safer, atmospheric and intoxicating.

Intoxicating too is the Piazza Bellini, which is now a centre for excellent and unpretentious restaurants and bars and an unlikely place to encounter a statue of the great Sicilian opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835) – writer of some of my favourite operas – especially the almost perfect, Norma (1831). I think the highly romantic Bellini would be happy that his figure is at the centre of a slightly bohemian and edgy piazza where, I like to imagine, anything could happen.

Mostly this part of town is a student, or a student wannabe hangout and, at night, it is the vibrant place to be if you want to be cool – or fool yourself for a moment or two that you are cool, or were once.

Just a short walk from those revelling students, off a tiny street is another sharp Neapolitan contrast. The highly ornamented Cappella Sansevero, a bit too much Rococo for me and I wouldn’t have bothered looking inside if I hadn’t wanted to see the famous sculpture that is at its centre. The Veiled Christ, by the 18th century sculptor, Giuseppe Sanmartino, is an eerily realistic image that, once seen, is difficult to forget. It draws crowds to this little church – on the day I visited there was a queue out into the street, as if, at this time, they were lining up to go to a nightclub. Once inside, people stood in solemn silence, it was as if a real body was lying there.

Cristo Velato (Veiled Christ) by Giuseppe Sanmartino (1753)

After the solemnity of the chapel, it was just another street corner before, Naples’ street life sprang back into action with a fine group of street musicians – continuing a long tradition.

Then, as per usual by now, during this week in Naples, it was dinner and then a few drinks, or a few drinks too many, in the many dimly-lit and characterful bars in the Centro storico. Here, everyone, including me, I like to think, simply blends into the background like extras in a Caravaggio painting.

The next day, it was all blue skies and palm trees with the mildest of Italian January temperatures, when I made my way up to the highest point of Naples, the top of the mountain, the capo di monte.

The Capodimonte Gallery or, more correctly, the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte ( The Museum and Royal Forest), is Naples’ principal art gallery. Once a royal palace, now a people’s palace with art and recreation combined here – inside and out.

Here too was the final stop on my Neapolitan Caravaggio pilgrimage. Once again, I could admire the painting for as long as I wanted, in relative solitude, fully exposed to the drama and agony of this most dramatic and characteristic of Caravaggio emotional exercises in Chiaroscuro – the balance of light and shade.

The Flagellation by Caravaggio (1607 – 1608)

I was alone too in this room, home to nine portraits by Titian. I felt like I could move in with a bed, a kitchen and a tv, and settle down here for life.

Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Pop Paul III’s grandson, by Titian (c.1546)

Rinaldo and Armida by Carracci (c. 1601)
Madonna of Divine Love by Raphael (1516)

Back in Avvocata, there was time for a glass of wine before bed and then, tomorrow, the journey back home to the UK. None of us knew then this was going to be the end of travelling for a couple of years.

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