Underground in Naples
The meeting wrapped up. The agenda set towards the next UN Habitat World Urban Forum aiming for more direct engagement and advocacy. I went back into the centre of Naples to explore.
Days of rain to a degree have cleaned the streets and habituation has begun to awake me to its charms. The long narrow side streets are fascinating, six to eight stories of apartment building pile up upon each other teeming with human life, evidence of which spills out: in the laundry hanging from the balcony, from the music and conversation coming from open windows, from the people navigating their scooters from narrow containing passages or stairwells. You quickly realise why Italy is the home of the scooter and the very small car! Striking was a glimpse behind the neatly painted front facade of one apartment building into a backyard of jumbled twisted balconies and fraying masonry. This is a poor city, relatively speaking, with a vibrant, fraying past.
I went to San Lorenzo Maggiore which is a ‘Complesso Monumentale’ comprising church building, Neapolitan assembly hall, archaeological remains and museum.
The archaeological remains sat below the building and descending the stairs I found myself in what was effectively a Roman shopping mall, some human habits remain eternal. It was fascinating to see the row of shops ‘below’ mirroring those above – small, in narrow streets, probably specialised, family owned and serving a diverse and sophisticated community. The continuity of history and basic human needs (and aspirations) was evident.
Next I stepped into the Neapolitan assembly hall which had been decorated at the start of the seventeenth century with vivid, florid frescos of the virtues required by both the delegates and their Duke. I thought, starting at the far end, that it was interesting that each male figure bearing or representing a virtue, was balanced by a female counterpart. But this initial impression was not borne out, by the time I worked my way back to the entrance, all the virtues had become feminine in their symbolic clothing (always appearing in balanced pairs). What did people think contemplating the finished design as all the delegates would have been men? In order to rule wisely they were being asked to put on the overwhelming femininity of virtue. Did they see this as necessary, as distant aspiration, as delightful folly to their cynical manipulation of power? However, they saw it, it struck me as a mystery, that unlike the arts of shopping, other mentalities (to use that phrase from French historical thinking) are ‘different’ from ours. We cannot assume that the continuity of human nature is not substantially disrupted by culture.
Finally, I went to the museum and found myself again addressed by the balance and joy of medieval fresco. They were three – a Madonna and Child, the head of St Francis and St Francis being honoured by a company of friars and sisters including St Clare. It is their freedom from sentimentality that is so arrestingly beautiful. Seeing the real is a balanced act of feeling in these frescoes – what you see is the natural state of being human facing no contradiction either from competing Christian forms or from reason. This is not what you see in the examples of seventeenth and eighteenth century religious art on display in the same museum. Here you see uncertainty and over-compensation either of emotion or theological point scoring (accompanied by passion) that fails to convict the viewer of its truth.