Certain Things In Naples
( Originally Published 1893 )
PERHAPS some reader of mine who visited Naples under the old disorder of things, when the Bourbon and the Camorra reigned, will like to hear that the pitched battle which travellers formerly fought, in landing from their steamer, is now gone out of fashion. Less truculent boatmen I never saw than those who rowed us ashore at Naples ; they were so quiet and peaceful that they harmonized perfectly with that tranquil scene of drowsy-twinkling city lights, slum-brous mountains, and calm sea, and, as they dipped softly toward us in the glare of the steamer's lamps, I could only think of Tennyson's description ; —
"And round about the keel with faces pale, Dark faces pale against the rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy lotus-eaters came."
The mystery of this placidity had been already solved by our captain, whom I had asked what price I should bargain to pay from the steamer to the shore. "There is a tariff," said he, " and the boatmen keep to it. The Neapolitans are good people, (buona gente,) and only needed justice to make them obedient to he laws." I must say that I found this to be true.
The fares of all public conveyances are now fixed, Ind the attempts which drivers occasionally make to cheat you, seem to be rather the involuntary impulses of old habit than deliberate intentions to do you wrong. You pay what is due, and as your man merely rumbles internally when you turn away, you must be a very timid signorin, indeed, if you buy his content with any thing more. I fancy that all these things are now much better managed in Italy than in America, only we grumble at them there and stand them in silence at home. Every one can recall frightful instances of plunder, in which he was the victim, at New York -- in which the robbery had none of the neatness of an operation, as it often has in Italy, but was a brutal mutilation. And then as regards civility from the same kind of people in the two countries, there is no comparison that holds in favor of us. All questions are readily and politely answered in Italian travel, and the servants of companies are required to be courteous to the public ; whereas, one is only too glad to receive a silent snub from such people at home.
THE first sun that rose after our arrival in Naples was mild and warm as a May sun, though we were quite in the heart of November. We early strolled out under it into the crowded ways of the city, and drew near as we might to that restless, throning gossiping southern life, in contrast with which all northern existence seems only a sort of hibernation. The long Toledo, on which the magnificence of mod. ern Naples is threaded, is the most brilliant and joyous street in the world ; but I think there is less of the quaintness of Italian civilization to be seen in its vivacious crowds than anywhere else in Italy. One easily understands how, with its superb length and straightness, and its fine, respectable, commonplace-looking houses, it should be the pride of a people fond of show ; but after Venice and Genoa it has no picturesque charm ; nay, even busy Milan seems less modern and more picturesque. The lines of the lofty palaces on the Toledo are seldom broken by the façade of a church or other public edifice ; and when this does happen, the building is sure to be coldly classic or frantically baroque.
You weary of the Toledo's perfect repair, of its monotonous iron balconies, its monotonous lofty windows ; and it would be insufferable if you could not turn out from it at intervals into one of those wondrous little streets which branch up on lone hand and down on the other, rising and falling with flights of steps between the high, many-balconied walls. They .ing all day with the motleyest life of fishermen, fruit-venders, chestnut-roasters, and idlers of every age and sex ; and there is nothing so full of local color, unless it be the little up-and-down-hill streets n Genoa. Like those, the by-streets of Naples are only meant for foot-passengers, and a carriage never enters them ; but sometimes, if you are so blest, you 'may see a mule climbing the long stairways, moving solemnly under a stack of straw, or tinkling gayly down-stairs, bestridden by a swarthy, handsome peasant — all glittering teeth and eyes and flaming Phrygian cap. The rider exchanges lively salutations and sarcasms with the by-standers in his way, and perhaps brushes against the bagpipers who bray constantly in those hilly defiles. They are in Neapolitan costume, these pifferari, and have their legs in-comprehensibly tied up in the stockings and garters affected by the peasantry of the provinces, and wear brave red sashes about their waists. They are simple, harmless-looking people, and would no doubt rob and kill in the most amiable manner, if brigandage came into fashion in their neighborhood.
Sometimes the student of men may witness a Neapolitan quarrel in these streets, and may pick up useful ideas of invective from the remarks of the fat old women who always take part in the contests. But, though we were ten days in Naples, I only saw one quarrel, and I could have heard much finer violence of language among the gondoliers at any ferry in Venice than I heard in this altercation.
The Neapolitans are, of course, furious in traffic. They sell a great deal, and very boisterously, the fruit of the cactus, which is about as large as an egg, and which they peel to a very bloody pulp, and lay out, a sanguinary presence, on boards for purchase. [t is not good to the uncultivated taste but the stranger may stop and drink, with relish and refreshment, the orangeade and lemonade mixed with snow and sold at the little booths on the street-corners.
These stands looks much like the shrines of the Malonna in other Italian cities, and a friend of ours was ed, before looking carefully into their office, to argue mmense Neapolitan piety from the frequency of their ecclesiastical architecture. They are, indeed, the shrines of a god much worshiped during the long Neapolitan summers ; and it was the profound theory of the Bourbon kings of Naples, that, if they kept their subjects well supplied with snow to cool their drink, there was no fear of revolution. It shows how liable statesmen are to err, that, after all, the Neapolitans rose, drove out the Bourbons, and welcomed Garibaldi.
The only part of the picturesque life of the side streets which seems ever to issue from them into the Toledo is the goatherd with his flock of milch-goats, which mingle with the passers in the avenues as familiarly as with those of the alley, and thrust aside silk-hidden hoops, and brush against dandies' legs, in their course, but keep on perfect terms with every body. The goatherd leads the eldest of the flock, and the rest follow in docile order and stop as he stops to ask at the doors if milk is wanted. When he happens to have an order, one of the goats is haled, much against her will, into the entry of a house, and there milked, while the others wait outside alone, nibbling and smelling thoughtfully about the masonry. It is noticeable that none of the good-natured passers seem to think these goats a great nuisance in the crowded street ; but all make way for them as if they were there by perfect right, and were no inconvenience.
On the Toledo people keep upon the narrow side. walks, or strike out into the carriage-way, with an indifference to hoofs and wheels which one, after long residence in tranquil Venice, cannot acquire, in view of the furious Neapolitan driving. That old comprehensive gig of Naples, with which many pens and pencils have familiarized the reader, is nearly as hard to find there now as the lazzaroni, who have gone out altogether. You may still see it in the remoter quarters of the city, with its complement of twelve passengers to one horse, distributed, two on each thill, four on the top seats, one at each side, and two be-hind ; but in the Toledo it has given place to much finer vehicles. Slight buggies, which take you any-where for half a franc, are the favorite means of public conveyance, and the private turn-outs are of every description and degree. Indeed, all the Neapolitans take to carriages, and the Strand in London at six o'clock in the evening is not a greater jam of wheels than the Toledo in the afternoon. Shopping feels the expansive influence of the out-of-doors life, and ladies do most of it as they sit in their open carriages at the shop-doors, ministered to by the neat-handed shopmen. They are, very languid ladies, as they recline upon their carriage cushions ; they are all black-eyed, and of an olive pallor, and have gloomy rings about their fine eyes, like the dark, faced dandies who bow to them. This Neapolitan look is very curious, and I have not seen it elsewhere in Italy ; it is a look of peculiar pensiveness, and comes, no doubt, from the peculiarly heavy growth of lashes which fringes the lower eyelid. Then there is the weariness in it of all peoples whose summers are fierce and long.
As the Italians usually dress beyond their means, the dandies of Naples are very gorgeous. If it is now, say, four o'clock in the afternoon, they are all coming down the Toledo with the streams of carriages bound for the long drive around the bay. But our foot-passers go to walk in the beautiful Villa Reale, between this course and the sea. The Villa is a slender strip of Paradise, a mile long ; it is rapture to walk in it, and it comes, in description, to be a garden-grove, with feathery palms, Greekish temples, musical fountains, white statues of the gods, and groups of fair girls in spring silks. If I remember aright, the sun is always setting on the bay, and you cannot tell whether this sunset is cooled by the water or the water is warmed by the golden light upon it, and upon the city, and upon all the soft mountain-heights around.
WALKING westward through the whole length of the Villa Reale, and keeping with the crescent shore of the bay, you come, after a while, to the Grot of Posilippo, which is not a grotto but a tunnel cut for a carriage-way under the hill. It serves, however, the purpose of a grotto, if a grotto has any, and is of great length and dimness., and is all a-twinkle night and day with numberless lamps. Overlooking the street which passes into it is the tomb of Virgil,, and it is this you have come to see. To reach it, you knock first at the door of a blacksmith, who calls a species of custodian, and, when this latter has opened a gate in a wall, you follow him up-stairs into a market-garden.
In one corner, and standing in a leafy and grassy shelter somewhat away from the vegetables, is the poet's tomb, which has a kind of claim to genuineness by virtue of its improbable appearance. It looks more like a bake-oven than even the Pompeian tombs ; the masonry is antique, and is at least in skillful imitation of the fine Roman work. The interior is a small chamber with vaulted or wagon-roof ceiling, under which a man may stand upright, and at the end next the street is a little stone commemorating the place as Virgil's tomb, which was placed there by the Queen of France in 1840, and said by the custodian (a singularly dull ass) to be an exact copy of the original, whatever the original may have been. This guide could tell us nothing more about it, and was too stupidly honest to pretend to know more. The laurel planted by Petrarch at the door of the tomb, and renewed in later times by Casimir Delavigne, has been succeeded by a third laurel. The present twig was so slender, and looked so friendless and unprotected, that even enthusiasm for the memory of two poets could not be brought to rob it of one of its few leaves ; and we contented ourselves with plucking some of the grass and weeds that grew Abundantly on the roof of the tomb.
There was a dusty quiet within the tomb, and a grassy quiet without, that pleased exceedingly ; but though the memories of the place were so high and epic, it only suggested bucolic associations, and, sunken into that nook of hillside verdure, made me think of a spring-house on some far-away Ohio farm ; a thought that, perhaps, would not have offended the poet, who loved and sang of humble country things, and, drawing wearily to his rest here, no doubt turned and remembered tenderly the rustic days before the excellent veterans of Augustus came to exile him from his father's farm at Mantua, and banish him to mere glory. But I believe most travellers have much nobler sensations in Virgil's tomb, and there is a great deal of testimony borne to their lofty sentiments on every scribbleable inch of its walls. Valery reminded me that Boccaccio, standing near it of old, first felt his fate decided for literature. ( Did he come there, I wonder, with poor Fiammetta, and enter the tomb with her tender hand in his, before ever he thought of that cruel absence she tells of ? " O donne pietose ! " I hope so, and that this pilgrimage, half of love and half of letters, took place, " nel tempo nel quale la rivestita terra più the tutto l'altro anno si mostra bella."
If you ascend from the tomb and turn Naples-ward from the crest of the hill, you have the loveliest view in the world of the sea and of the crescent beach, mightily jeweled at its further horn with the black Castel dell' Ovo. Fishermen's children are playing all along the foamy border of the sea, and boats are darting out into the surf. The present humble muse is not above saying also that the linen which the laundresses hang to dry upon lines along the beach takes the sun like a dazzling flight of white birds, and gives a breezy life to the scene which it could not spare.
THERE was a little church on our way back from Posilippo, into which we lounged a moment, pausing at the altar of some very successful saint near the door. Here there were great numbers of the usual offerings from the sick whom the saint had eased of their various ills, — waxen legs and arms from people who had been in peril of losing their limbs, as well as eyes, noses, fingers, and feet, and the crutches of those cured of lameness ; but we were most amused with the waxen effigies of several entire babies hung up about the altar, which the poor souls who had been near losing the originals had brought there in gratitude to the saint.
Generally, however, the churches of Naples are not very interesting, and one who came away with-out seeing them would have little to regret. The pictures are seldom good, and though there are magnificent chapels in St. Januarius, and fine Gothic tombs at Santa Chiara, the architecture is usually rococo. I fancy that Naples has felt the damage of Spanish taste in such things as well as Spanish tyranny in others. Indeed, I saw much there which reminded me of what I had read about Spain rather than what I had seen in Italy ; and all Italian writers are agreed in attributing the depravation of Naples to the long Spanish dominion. It is well known how the Spaniards rule their provinces, and their gloomy despotism was probably never more cruelly felt than in Italy, where the people were least able to bear it. I had a heart-felt exultation in walking through the quarter of the city where the tumults of Massaniello had raged, and, if only for a few days, struck mortal terror to the brutal pride of the viceroy ; but I think I had a better sense of the immense retribution which has overtaken all memory of Spanish rule in Naples as we passed through the palace of Capo di Monte. This was the most splendid seat of the Spanish Bourbon, whose family, inheriting its power from the violence of other times, held it with violence in these ; and in one of the chief saloons of the palace, which is now Victor Emanuel's, were pictures representing scenes of the revolution of 1860, while the statuette of a Garibaldino, in his red shirt and all his heroic rudeness, was defiantly conspicuous on one of the tables.
THERE was nothing else that pleased me as well fir the palace, or in the grounds about it. These are all laid out in pleasant successions of grove, tangled wilderness, and pasture-land, and were thronged, the Saturday afternoon of our visit, with all ranks of people, who strolled through the beautiful walks and enjoyed themselves in the peculiarly peaceful Italian way. Valery says that the Villa Reale in the Bourbon time was closed, except for a single day in the year, to all but the nobles ; and that on this occasion it was filled with pretty peasant women, who made it a condition of their marriage bargains that their husbands should bring them to the Villa Reale on St. Mary's Day. It is now free to all on every day of the year, and the grounds of the Palace Capo di Monte are opened every Saturday. I liked the pleasant way in which sylvan Nature and Art had made friends in these beautiful grounds, in which Nature had consented to overlook even the foolish vanity of the long aisles of lime, cut and trimmed in formal and fantastic shapes, according to the taste of the silly times of bagwigs and patches. On every side wild birds fluttered through these absurd trees, and in the thickets lurked innumerable pheasants, which occasionally issued forth and stalked in stately, fearless groups over the sunset-crimsoned lawns. There was a brown gamekeeper for nearly every head of game, wearing a pheasant's wing in his hat and carrying a short, heavy sword ; and our drivel told us, with an awful solemnity in his bated breath, that no one might kill this game but the king, under penalty of the galleys.
WE went one evening to the opera at San Carlo Et is one of the three theatres — San Carlo of Naples, La Scala of Milan, and Fenice of Venice — on which the Italians pride themselves ; and it is certainly very large and imposing. The interior has a bel colpo d'occhio, which is what many Italians chiefly value in morals, manners, and architecture ; but after this comes great shabbiness of detail. The boxes, even of the first order, are paved with brick tiles, and the red velvet border of the box which the people see from the pit is not supported in style by the seats within, which are merely covered with red oil-cloth. The opera we saw was also second-rate, and was to the splendor of the scenic arrangements what the oil-cloth was to the velvet. The house was full of people, but the dress of the audience was not so fine as we had expected in Naples. The evening dress is not de rigueur at Italian theatres, and people seemed to have come to San Carlo in any pleasant carelessness of costume.
THE Italians are simple and natural folks, pleased through all their show of conventionality with little things, and as easy and unconscious as children in their ways. There happened to be a new caffè opened in Naples while we were there, and we had the pleasure of seeing all ranks of people affected by its magnificence. Artless throngs blocked the side-walk day and night before its windows, gazing upon its mirrors, fountains, and frescos, and regarding the persons over their coffee within as beings lifted by sudden magic out of the common orbit of life and set dazzling in a higher sphere. All the waiters were uniformed and brass-buttoned to blinding effect, and the head waiter was a majestic creature in a long blue coat reaching to his feet, and armed with a mighty silver-headed staff. This gorgeous apparition did nothing but walk up and down, and occasionally advance toward the door, as if to disperse the crowds. At such times, however, before executing his purpose, he would glance round on the splendors they were admiring, and, as if smitten with a sense of the enormous cruelty he had meditated in thinking to deprive them of the sight, would falter and turn away, leaving his intent unfulfilled.