Naples Serenades

We take an aesthetic interest in the Pagliaccian ravings of Canio, and grieve for the “little frozen hands” of “La Boheme”; while, by way of contrast, all the peace and serenity of moonlight comes to us in the chaste, stately measures of the pensive “Luna Nova.” Serenades seem twice serenades when breathed in the soft, lissome dialect of Naples. There is no tiring of the impassioned refrain of “Sole Mio”.

Like old Ulysses, the swift little felucca soon stops its ears to these fascinating distractions, and bears Luigi and me off into the purple darkness. The prison-capped rock of Nisida drops astern with all its august memories of Brutus and his devoted Portia, and its repugnant ones of Queen Joanna, the very bad, and King Robert, the very good. In the moonlit path the distant cliffs of Procida, isle of romance and beauty, loom afar, but we distinguish no faintest echo of the bewildering tarantella music that is danced there in its perfection. What a different spectacle its observers are enjoying from the stale perfunctory performances of the Sorrento hotels, which the tourists see at two dollars a head. For the tarantella, well done, is the intensest and most expressive of dances. All the emotions of the lover and his coquettish sweetheart are aptly portrayed – the advances, rebuffs, encouragements, slights, and final triumph. The Procida dance is a revelation when rendered out of sheer delight -con amore, as the Italians say.

An occasional faint light marks dissolute Rome’s favorite place of revelry, Baiae the magnificent. In its heyday every house, as we read, was a palace; and it has been said that every woman who entered it a Penelope came out a Helen. Through their faded green blinds no light may be seen in the yellow stone houses of neighboring Puteoli where Paul, Timothy, and Luke took refuge in the early days of the Faith. Stolid pagan Rome had little time for them, considering that Cumae was just around the headland, with Daedalus landing from his flight from Crete and the frantic Sibyl, at the very jaws of Avernus, screaming her “Dies irae! Dies illa!”

Distant Ischia appears a huge ghostly blot, mysterious and solemn. Scarce an outline can be caught of its fabled, crag-hung castle, chambered as the very nautilus and eloquent of the unhappy Vittoria Colonna. How often has Michael Angelo climbed with sighs that old stone causeway where now the fishermen mend their blackened nets! Ischia never wants for devotees, however, and already a quarter-century has sufficed to dull the horror of that July night when Casamicciola paid its quota of three thousand lives to the dread greed of the earthquake. Today one lingers, undisturbed by such memories, amidst the pretty whitewashed cottages set in olive groves and vineyards, loiters among the picturesque straw plaiters of Lacco, or dreams to the drowsy tinkle of goat bells in the myrtle and chestnut groves on the slopes of Mont’ Epomeo.

Shadowy Capri, isle of enchantment, lies soft and dim off the Sorrento headland as we swing our little vessel toward the city. It seems only a delightful dream that a few mornings ago my dejeuner was served on a cool terrace of the Quisisana there, and that I looked down over the coffee-urn on olive groves and sloping hillsides green with famous vineyards. With joy I relive the row around its precipitous shores, the eerie swim in the elfland of the Blue Grotto, the drive down the white, dusty road from the lofty perch of Anacapri to the pebbly beaches of Marina Grande, before a fascinating, unfolding panorama of verdant lawns, fruited terraces, snowy villas, and bold cliffs crowned with fantastic ruins. Sinister Tiberius and his unspeakable companions have small place in our permanent memories of Capri; one is more apt to recall the charming blue and white Virgin in the cool grotto beside the old Stone Stairs.

A faint rim of lights on the mainland marks Sorrento, and a patch nearer the city, Castellammare; and were we nearer, the great white hotels would doubtless be found brilliant and musical. Could we but see it now, we should find the moonlit statue of Tasso in the little square vastly more tolerable than by day, and this would be a pleasant hour to spend on the old green bench before it absorbed in stirring thoughts of the “Gerusalemme Liberata” in the place where its author was born. Monte Sant’ Angelo looms above Castallammare spectre-like in night shadows, and the royal ilex groves must be taken on faith. The crested hoopoes, crowned of King Solomon, have long been asleep on the mountain-sides, but Italian Fashion, devoted to its Castellammare, having idled and rested all day in the bagni, now flirts and dances at the verandaed stabilimenti. An occasional faint breath of fragrance recalls the floral luxuriance that is so notable here – the gorgeous scarlet geraniums, snowy daturas, cactus, and aloe, festoons of smilax, and the carmine oleanders that they call “St. Joseph’s Nosegay.”

Far away to the southeastward, vague and ghostly headlands are dimming toward regions of rarest beauty – Amalfi, Majori, Cetara, Salerno. In our happy thoughts the smooth, white Corniche road lies like a delicate thread along the green mountain-sides, – those Mountains of the Blest, whose rounded brows home the nightingale, whose shoulders are terraces of fruits of the tropics and whose storied feet rest eternally on white beaches that glisten in the blue waters of a matchless bay. A memory this, compounded of pebbly, curving shores sweeping around soft, distant headlands; lustrous groves of pomegranates and oranges; picturesque fishing hamlets of little stone houses nestled away in deep, shady inlets; the patter and shuffle of barefooted women trotting steadily through the dust under great hampers of lemons; sunburned workmen singing homeward through the dusk; the shouts and laughter of bareheaded fishermen drawing their red-bottomed boats up on the shore; and the low, contented singing of your Neapolitan coachman who, as twilight falls, looks long and dreamily out to sea and no longer cracks his whip over the weary little Barbary ponies that are drawing you up the dusty heights toward the cool rose-pergola of the Cappuccini. Visitors, reluctantly departing, will never forget this land “where summer sings and never dies,” and must ever after feel with Longfellow: –

“Sweet the memory is to me Of a land beyond the sea, Where the waves and mountains meet, Where, amid her mulberry-trees, Sits Amalfi in the heat, Bathing ever her white feet In the tideless summer seas.”

We distinguish Torre Annunciata, abreast of our speeding boat, by the evil redolence of its swarming fish markets and the boisterous shouting of its many children at mora; and, in striking contrast, one thinks of grim Pompeii, farther inland, – “la citta morta,” – hushed and prostrate in moonlit desolation. At the neighboring Torre del Greco we can fancy the coral fishers, who may not yet have left for the season’s diving off Sicily, to be smoking black cheroots along the wharves and planning lively times when they market their coral and Barbary ponies in November. Certainly there is little to suggest the peace that Shelley found here. Few shores are more dramatic than those of this Vesuvian Campagna Felice. Resina hangs gloomily over the entrance to the entombed Herculaneum, and Portici lights up but half-heartedly, abashed that all her royal Bourbon palaces should now be housing only schoolboys. About both villages and for miles inland any one may see the wrath of Vesuvius in dismal evidence in twisted lava rock of weird and sinister shapes. But there is a fullness of life on these shores to-night, increasing as our boat advances; individual houses multiply into villages, and villages overlap into a solid mass that is Naples’s East End. We pick our way among the clustering boats, and around long piers with little lighthouses at their ends, and presently Luigi abandons his cheroot, stands up by the mast and shouts shrill and mysterious hails, and shortly up we come to our landing at a flight of dripping stone steps at the tatterdemalion Villa del Popolo, sea-gate to the noisiest, dirtiest, most crowded (and so most characteristic) section of all Naples. A passing of silver from me, from Luigi a twisted smile and a regretful “buon riposo,” – the last, I fear, that I shall ever hear from him, – and I take leave of my amiable companion for the sputtering lights and exciting diversions of the swarming Carmine Gate and Mercato. From the tide-washed Castello dell’ Ovo to the prison heights of Sant’ Elmo and the charming cloisters of San Martino, and from the huts of the Mergellina fishermen to far beyond where I am standing on the eastern front of the city, all Naples is sparkling with lights and humming with an intense and multi-phased tumult.

Lucifer falling from Paradise must have experienced some such contrast as those who exchange the serene evening beauty of the Bay of Naples for the odors, uproar, and confusion of the Mercato. But does not the saying run, “See Naples and die”? And to miss visiting so characteristic a district by night is almost to fail to see “Naples ” at all; though it may, perhaps, appear at first glance to assure the “and die.” The quay of Santa Lucia is the only other section that even attempts to rival this in preserving unimpaired the “best” traditions of Neapolitan uproar and picturesque squalor. And it must be remembered that one’s interest in this city is like that felt for a pretty, bright, and amiable child who is, at the same time, a very ragged and dirty one. Life, as it is found in’the Mercato, is exuberance in extenso; the most complete conception possible of a “much ado about nothing.” It is an irrelevant tumult in which matter-of-fact inconsequences are expressed with an incredibly disproportionate use of shoulders, fingers, and lungs. An inquiry as to the time of day is attended with a violence of gesticulation adequate to convey the emotions of Othello slaying Desdemona; an observation on the weather involves a pounding of the table and a wild flourish of arms like the expiring agony of an octopus. Even work itself seems half play in its accompaniment of romantic posturing, eloquent and profuse gestures, and continual overbubbling of merriment, quarrels, and song. All this is of the very essence of the Mercato – hopelessly tattered and unkempt, artlessly unconscious of its picturesque rags, and altogether so frankly frowzy and disheveled as to become, upon the whole, positively charming. No one equals the Neapolitan in expressing the full force of the Scotch proverb, “Little gear the less care.”

In appearance the Mercato is a rabbit-warren of tortuous chasms lined with dowdy structures in every advanced stage of decrepitude. Even its lumbering churches of Spanish baroque rather add to than detract from this effect. No money is squandered on upkeep. The cost of initial construction is here like an author’s definitive edition, – final. Little, cramped balconies, innocent of paint, blink under the flapping of reed-made shades, shop signs are illegible from dirt and discoloration, and the weathered house-fronts shed scales of plaster as snakes do skins. The very skies are overcast with clouds of other people’s laundry. Dead walls flame with lurid theatre posters, unless warned off by the “post-no-bills” sign -the familiar “e vietata 1′ affissione.” Cheap theatres are completely covered with life-size paintings illustrating scenes from the play for the week. Lottery signs abound. Certain window placards, by their very insistence, eventually become familiar and homelike; as, for instance, the “first floor to let,” the omnipresent Cc si loca, appartamento grande, 1° primo,” for which one comes in time to look as for a face from home. Religion contributes a garish and tawdry decorative feature in the little gaudy shrines on street corners and house-fronts, where, in a sort of shadow box covered with glass, candles sputter before painted saints. The government monopolies, salt and tobacco, the Siamese Twins of Italy, are inseparable with their everlasting “Sale e Tabacchi” signs and dwell together everywhere on a common and friendly footing, like the owls, snakes, and prairie dogs in Kansas.

Curiosity fairly plunges a man into so promising a field, and Adventure stalks at his elbow. He finds the narrow, squalid streets brimming with a restless, noisy, nervous swarm. Picturesque qualities are brought out in the play of feeble street lamps and the dejected, halfhearted lights of dingy, cavernous shops and eatingplaces. A comme il faut costume for men appears to be limited to trousers and shirt, with the latter worn open to the belt. The women affect toilettes of a general dirty disarray which their laudable interest in the life around frequently leads them absent-mindedly to arrange in the quasi-retirement of the doorways, the front sill itself being reserved for the popular diversion of combing the hair of their spawn of half-naked children. To traverse an alley and avoid stepping on some rollicking youngster in puris naturalibus is vigorous exercise of the value of a calisthenic drill. Still, it is possible to escape the babies, but scarcely the fakirs and beggars. The fakir has odds and ends of everything to sell and teases for patronage for love of all the saints; one even awaits the Oriental announcement, “In the name of the Prophet, figs!” The beggars, of course, are worse; crawling across your path and dragging themselves after you to display their physical damages, often selfinflicted, in quest of a soldo of sympathy. Express compassion in other than monetary terms and you get it back instanter, along with a dazing assortment of vitriolic maledictions. As the visitor’s patience gives way under the strain, it presently becomes a very pretty question as to whose language is the most horrific, his own or the beggar’s.