“In Naples you might find several towns. Naples is dirty. It’s wonderful. Maybe dangerous. Maybe fantastic. You might find all these things in Naples. All this means one thing. It is alive.” Bruno Leone, Pulcinella Master.
He was a beast of a man and he was enraged. He threw the crates of vegetables to the floor of the little cafe, picked up a dilapidated plastic chair and threatened the owner of the cafe with it, letting forth a stream of what I presumed to be colourful Neapolitan expletives. The cafe owner carefully avoided provoking the man, but at the same time was resolute in refusing to acquiesce to whatever it was the man wanted.
The exchange took place in the Karachi Chicken Cafe off Piazza Garibaldi in the Centro Storico neighbourhood of Naples. I don’t speak Italian and was intrigued to find out what the dispute had been about. Being Pakistani owned by owned, I thought there was a chance the owner spoke English; sure enough, he explained to me what had just happened: ‘He came this morning and showed me some crates of vegetables and we agreed a price and for him to come back later to deliver. However, when he arrived just now with the delivery, the crates were smaller, so I refused to take delivery. But he’ll be back later - I know him well. He’s always like this. It’s normal; that’s how things are here in Naples. ’
Over the next few days, I managed to get an insight into this peculiarly Neapolitan way of doing business and the curious mixture of warmth and gruffness of its inhabitants. This meant that the city proved rich pickings for a photographer. Rubbish lay strewn throughout its run-down, chaotic streets and on every corner, a little Shakespearean drama vignette played itself out as the locals argued and cajoled with one another.
Markets are always good for characters, so early the next morning I took myself to the nearby Porta Nolana fish market. I was nervous at first, the stall holders were brusque and a little suspicious, but, after a while, we warmed to one another and I found myself merrily clicking away, starting to get what I felt were some good quality images. My favourite moment was when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a cat pawing at some sardines on one of the market counters, before running off down a side alleyway with his prize. I chased after him and started snapping away. Lower and lower, I ended up prostrate on the ground, using my wide lens, inches away from the cat. Glimpsing behind me, I then noticed a number of the stall holders gathered around staring at this odd English bloke with a camera lying in the dirty alley way taking pictures of a cat with a fish. I was to visit this market a number of times over the next few days, taking pictures and doing audio interviews. Feeling I’d become accepted and almost one of them, I approached an old lady whose photo I had taken a couple of days before and, through my interpreter, asked if I could interview her. ‘No’, she said, ‘Ive had enough of you.’
That evening, I made my way to Montesanto station, ready to go up in the funicular to capture a view of the city at dusk. I really wasn’t in the mood for it - I’m not keen on landscape photography, but felt that I should have at least one decent image to give an establishing shot giving an idea of this sprawling city under Vesuviuous (in the event, I wasn’t really thrilled with any and ended up using a snap form my iPhone - see above). I had some time to kill before catching the funicular and so wandered around the market. One of my favourite shots I got was of a couple of a butchers outside their shop; I rather liked it as one of them was quite portly, seemingly a good customer himself. With sunset nearing, I started making my way back to the funicular, but, on a whim, decided to take a slightly different route back - there are always enticing alleyways in Naples and you never know what you might be rewarded with. Sure enough, I happened across some sort of Catholic social club, glowing with a fetching, ethereal light. With my usual mime of pointing at my camera, smiling and raising my eyebrows quizzically, I asked if could take pictures, but to my surprise, the elderly gentlemen beckoned me inside. After some coffee and cream cakes, they return to their game, ignoring me while I clicked away.
The following day, I dropped in on an establishment that I’d noticed the previous evening and felt would make a good photographic subject - Ciardi Barber shop. As I was becoming accustomed to in Naples, I received a warm welcome and began clicking away. And again, as I was becoming acclaimed to in Naples, the locals made for interesting photos. At the first I was drawn to a rather hair-raising individual, who looked like a cross between a mafia hood and a boxer (for all I know, he was indeed both) and sported a huge circular scar on the side of his head. I rather like that his fearsome appearance was somewhat at odds with his garb of an enormous blue and white striped, barber’s gown and that he was attended to by a number of supplicants as his nails were manicured. For me, he had the air of an emporer or caliph being attended to to by his minions. I was also rather taken with a particularly voluble individual with a bald head, smothered in shaving cream.
I had arranged to meet Bruno Leone, master puppeteer at his home and studio in the Aranella neighbourhood overlooking the city. Bruno is a legend in puppeteering circles and is credited with single handedly reviving the art form in the1970s when he persuaded the only remaining practitioning punch professor to come out of retirement to teach Bruno his craft. Bruno - like his cave-like studio - was a cool respite from the fiery nature of his fellow Neoplitans. Calm and thoughtful, he made me coffee as we discussed the deep connection that exists between Naples and Punchinella (the home of this art form). At the end of our little interview, he asked me if I would like to go up to his flat, higher up in the same building as his studio. After checking with his wife (a retired neurologist and ‘a difficult woman’), up we went, where to my great surprise, the rear of the flat backed on to an enormous garden with majestic views of Vesuvius. It turned out the block of flats was built into a hill-side, hence the possibility of a penthouse flat with garden (also, unlike Bruno’s playful description of her, Dra Leone proved to be delightful). As a parting gift, he presented me with two sweet-smelling lemons from his trees (soon to be turned in a lemon-drizzle cake back in the UK).
On my final day in Naples, I thought I might be able to dig out a nugget of photographic gold in the day’s football match between Naples and arch-rivals, Roma. I visited a couple of cafes recommended to me, but neither proved suitabl (one was too quiet and the other a bit too public). At half-time, tired of lugging my camera gear about, I trudged wearily back to my hostel. Nearing the hostel, I heard an echoey roar in the distance. In the street, a group of men were watching the game which was being shown on a screen outside a betting my office. Tired and unsure as to whether I had the energy to take photographs. Eventually, I decided to do so and was just changing lenses when, much to my dismay, Naples scored a goal, bringing the score to 3-1 in favour of Naples. I cursed my luck and settled in, hoping for another goal for Naples, perhaps more so than the Neapolitans surrounding me. As I waited, it occurred to me that what made Naples such a rewarding place for a photographer, was (in addition to its faded streets and friendly locals), was the piratical appearance of its native men - though, I hasten to add, the warmest and kindest pirates I’ve very met. Eventually, my patience was rewarded as the god of photographers and his friend, the god of Neapolitans colluded to smile upon myself and my new friends: another goal, 4-1 to Naples and I captured what I felt to be suitably frenzied celebrations.
It is difficult to describe Naples without resorting to hackneyed observations. But let me try. Naples really is special. On the one hand, ugly, noisy, dilapidated and claustrophobic; but on the other hand, gentle, charming and warm. However, you could say this of many cities in the mediterranean, or the tropics. But, Naples has something extra, something deeper. There are many places in the world that are supposedly friendly and welcoming, but, in my experience, this judgement tends to confuse extroversion for openness and friendliness. Naples is different because there is an accompanying depth, genuineness and integrity to the warmth - and outsiders have a meaningful opportunity to become part of the community. Mausam, the owner of the Karachi Chicken Cafe illustrated this with the story of his time training as a chef in Naples. When it was time for all the trainees to say goodbye to one another at the end of the course, his fellow trainee chefs were in tears, but even more tellingly, he remains friends with them all, regularly seeing them and their families at social occasions. Mausam has lived in the UK for a number of years but, in his words, “this is something that I never felt in the UK, where there was always some kind of separation between myself and English people. But here in Naples, I feel like a Neapolitan and am treated as such by other Neapolitans.”
In the words of Bruno, the puppeteer: “The first people who lived here were the Greeks, but there has
always been strong sense of autonomy here. After the Greeks came the Romans, the French,
the Lombardi, the Spanish. But all those
who come here become the kings of Naples and forget their original country.
So, the dominators become Neapolitan. There’s something so strong in this place
that can transform the people who come here. This makes Naples one of the capitals
of the world.”