Naples - on second sight

On the second day in Naples and your eyes do not become accustomed to its dirtiness but sharper. You realise that you must pick your way lest you trample in something unsuspected (or unsuspecting). After time you must become inured – the residents appear to be except one soul, a young woman, I noticed following her dog with a scoop and plastic bag. She seemed momentarily forlornly heroic!

However, eyes lifted from the pavement and the city has its charms – close packed streets of elegant apartment buildings with quiet courtyards, narrow passages and arresting shrines. Saints watch over the neighbourhood kept painted, candlelit and accompanied by flowers.

I fled Mass in the cathedral – the congregation lost amongst the circling crowds of nonchalant visitors and the swirling Baroque adornment – and found it with the Franciscans at their quieter, more austere, simpler church. Here the most noticeable art were crisp contemporary windows of stained glass whose figures presented their stories with maximal lucidity and a fifteenth century wall painting of the Trinity. God the Father, bearded red, with an expression of tender compassion, holds the cross beams of a crucified Jesus, as offering received, necessary but sadly so, between which a dove flies in dancing communion. It was strangely peaceful and matter of fact a mystery rendered present, accessible yet still utterly mysterious.

Between Mass rejected and accepted, I visited the Diocesan Museum harboured in a converted church. The Church itself was a highly decorated seventeenth century Baroque statement of counter-Reformatory piety of which the only arresting particular piece was a surviving fourteenth century fresco of Mother and Child where the child manages to appear both childlike and majestic. In the seventeenth century, so often the baby Jesus contrives to appear either arrogant or bored or misbehaved and the poor Virgin martyred by her bambini! But the impression of the whole is overwhelming – a parade of colour and light and action – that if in its detail frays the patience as a whole sucks out admiration! Upstairs the galleries had been converted into a gallery and here I walked, alone, lights clipping on as I past, revealing mostly painting after painting of seventeenth century religious art, most of it, I confess, pretty awful!

Again it was the earlier work that catches my eye, when feeling has not become sentimentalised, and there is a humanity in the figures that suggests a contemplative ideal rather than heightened emotions. There was a beautiful late fifteenth century painting of St Benedict, accompanied by panels of his life, the saint three quarters life size, holding out a copy of his Rule, turned to its first words, summoning the reader to listen to the words of the Master, to be attentive to the words and manner of Christ, to be attentive to each and everyone, because each and everyone is Christ.

After Mass, it was lunch outside a small restaurant, under an arch, and a mountain of seafood risotto, watching the world flow by and reading Niall Williams’ “Boy and Man”. I had forgotten what a good writer he is – the novels are Romantic – though the world is described with vivid realism: a grandfather of lost, restoring memory and his grandson at work in an orphanage in Ethiopia, they are charged with magic, of a world that conspires to care at heart, in which love appears to hold to itself, always, a final word.


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