Naples – Through The Old Streets

Women dodge through the streets carrying great bundles on their heads, and pause from time to time for friendly greetings with frowzy acquaintances tilting out of the upper windows where the laundry hangs. It is from these mysterious upper windows that the housewife in the morning lowers a pail and a bit of money wrapped in a piece of newspaper, and bargains with the leatherlunged padulano when he comes loafing along beside his panniered donkey, crying his wares in that “carrying voice” we all admire in our opera singers. Those are the hours of trying domestic exaction, when the woman who does not care for water in the milk watches the production of the raw material with the cow standing at the doorway, or from the frolicsome goat that nimbly ascends every flight of stairs to the very portal of the combined kitchen and sleeping-room. But just now neighbors are shouting conversations in those same upper windows, or calling down to the women and girls who go shuffling along on the lava pavement below in wooden sabots that look like bath-slippers – if, indeed, one has imagination enough to think of bath-slippers in this vicinity.

Restless activity prevails. The most unnatural things are the statues, chiefly because they do not move. One catches glimpses of them now and then in the niches of the motley-marbled churches, – churches of memories grave and gay, of Boccaccio’s first glimpse of Fiammetta, or the slaying of the young fisherman-tribune, Masaniello, whom Salvator Rosa delighted to paint. There is buying and selling, eating and drinking. There are fruit stands and lemonade stalls and macaroni stores and dejected little shops with festoons of vegetables pendent from the smoky ceilings over whose homepainted counters weary women await custom with babies in their arms. A brisk demand prevails for the famous cheese-flavored biscuit called “pizza,” set with little powdered fish, and those who desire can have a slice of devilfish-tentacle for a soldo, which the purchaser dips in the kettle of hot water and devours on the spot. Should this latter fare disagree with any one, there will be access on the morrow to the miracle-working ” La Bruna ” – the picture of the Virgin in the church of St. Mary of the Carmine – which every child in Naples knows was painted by St. Luke; and if that should fail, there is still the liquefying blood of St. Januarius in the inner shrine of the cathedral.

Happily, the senses are more than four; and when seeing, smelling, tasting, and feeling fail from over-exertion in the Mercato, still hearing remains, so that one may study the Sicilian-like prattle of the Neapolitan in all its ramifications from a whisper to a shriek. The character of the man is expressed along with it; and thus one observes that while a Piedmontese may be steady and industrious, a Venetian gossipy and artistic, a Tuscan reserved and frugal, and a Roman proud and lordly, the Neapolitan is merry, loquacious, generous, quarrelsome, superstitious, and, too frequently, vicious.

Thus the Mafia flourishes with him, and the Camorra, an unbegrudged possession, is wholly his own. His vendetta may, perhaps, be mildly defended on the ground that it is, at least, only a personal affair, and certainly less foolish and reprehensible than the perennial jealousy of an entire people, as, for example, the ancient feud between Florence and Siena, where an inherited antagonism is still devoutly cherished and the old battle of Montaperti refought with fury every morning. The Neapolitan had rather spend that time on the lottery, dream his lucky numbers, look them up in his dreambook, and go to the Saturday afternoon drawings with a fresh and stimulating interest in life.

It is a nice question whether the Mercato loves singing best, or eating – when it can get it. At night one inclines to the latter view. There is a prodigious hubbub around all the open-air cooking-stoves and in every smoky trattoria and family eating-place. One would scarcely hazard an opinion as to the number of bowls of macaroni, quantities of polenta, and whole nations of snails and frogs that are being devoured between appreciative gestures and puffs of cigarettes, and washed down unctiously with minestra soup and watery wines. But as all these good people have probably breakfasted solely on dry bread and black coffee, no one would think of begrudging them the delight they are taking in dining so gayly and at so modest an outlay. If stricter economy becomes necessary later, they will patronize the charity “kitchens,” where soup, vegetables, meat, and wine are supplied at cost, or perhaps some friend will give them a voucher and they will be able to get it all for nothing.

So far as economy is concerned, they know all there is to be learned on the subject. Several families of them will live in a single room; and when that room is the damp, foul cellar they call f ondaco, it is something one does not care to think of a second time. When they indulge in street-car riding they never neglect to take the middle seats, because they are the cheapest. They know all about the market for restaurant scraps and cigar stumps, where quotations are governed by length.

Their extraordinary generosity to one another in times of distress is almost proverbial. Misery both fascinates and touches them, perhaps because it is never very far from their own doors. One morning I shouldered my way into the middle of a strangely silent crowd and found there a weeping crockery vender whose entire stock in trade had been demolished by some mishap. It meant his temporary ruin, as could be seen from the faces of the painfully silent and sympathetic audience. The peddler seemed utterly stunned by his misfortune and lay on the ground with his face in his arms. How touching it was to see the little cup that some one had significantly set beside him, and to know that every copperpiece that fell into it came from Poverty’s Very Self, and bore the message, “It’s hard, poor fellow; we know how hard; but here’s a little something – try again.”

But, as Thomas Hardy’s peasants say, it is time to go “home-along.” Emerging from the noisy congestion of the Mercato the quiet and cool of the water front is rather more than refreshing. The shipping along the Strada Nuova stands out stately and picturesque, silvered toward the moon and black in the dense shadows. Harbor lights sparkle brightly under the solemn eye of the molo lighthouse. The military pier points a long, black finger warningly toward Vesuvius. Along the Strada del Piliero one has pleasant choice of viewing on the left the animated steamer piers and the secure anchorage where the great ships for Marseilles and the Orient tug mildly at their hawsers, or seeing on the right the ceaseless activity of swarming little streets, some glowing in arbors of colored lights in celebration of a neighborhood festa and others observing a milder form of the same noisy programme we have just forsaken. On the broad Piazza del Municipio the massive and heavy-towered Castello Nuovo rears a sombre and storied front; and farther along we pass the vast gray bulk of the famous Teatro San Carlo and the lofty crossed-arcade of the Galleria Umberto I, and skirting the corner of the Royal Palace enter the broad and brilliant Piazza del Publiscito.

Contrasts again! What a different crowd from that of thp poor Mercato. Here is a groomed and well-conducted multitude that has come out to enjoy its coffee and cigarettes as it listens to the band in the pavilion on the western side or the open-air melodrama in that on the east. And what a change in surroundings! Palaces and splendid churches and public buildings, now. Solemn effigies of departed kings stare stonily down from niches in the moonlit faQades. A fringe of dark-eyed boys lounges in indolent content around the coping of a fountain. Hundreds of chairs and tables throng the open space, and we gladly rest on one of them and experiment with Nocera and lemon juice, preparatory to a goodnight stroll up the Toledo. Enthusiasm prevails here, too. Familiar melodies from the old operas are welcomed with storms of applause and shouts of “Bravo” or “Bis”;whereupon the conductor bows profound gratification and selects the music for the next number with a face glowing with pride. Politeness abounds. The air is gracious with “grazie,” and like expressions of courtesy. Ask a light for your cigar, and the Neapolitan raises his hat and thanks you, supplies the match, raises his hat and thanks you again, though all the while he has been doing the service. Indeed, he seems capable of expressing more civility by a touch of the hat than we can by completely doffing ours. One looks about and concludes that the women are not particularly pretty and that good dressing is a lost art with them. The men, as a rule, impress one more favorably; though they are perversely inclined to spoil their good looks by waxing their mustaches to a needle-point and trimming their long beards square, like bas-reliefs of Assyrian kings. It is nearly nine o’clock. I settle for my drink, leave the usual centesimi with the bowing waiter, and plunge into the Broadway of Naples, the renowned Toledo. Its map-name is Via Roma, but the “Toledo” it has been for ages and as such it will remain to many Neapolitans to the end of time. It is a busy and peculiar street. Rows of raised awnings in two long, converging lines dress the feet of tall, dark buildings that are studded with shallow iron balconies filled with pots of flowers. It is comparatively narrow and with sadly straitened sidewalks, but no street in Naples is so long or so continually used; if it is followed, through all its changes of names, it will carry one past the Museo and away up to the very doors of the summer palace at Capodimonte, running due north all the way. Shops of all descriptions line it, and it is thronged to the overflow of the sidewalks and the hysterical abuse of distracted cabmen in the middle of the street. One thinks of Paris when he sees the newspaper kiosks and the many bright little stands decked out with fruit and gay trifles. The shops satisfy any taste and any purse, for it is the common gathering-ground of Naples.

It is vastly diverting to step aside and take note of the varieties of people that troop along this brilliant highway. One sees jaunty naval cadets from Leghorn; street dandies in white duck and tilted Panamas; delivery boys in long blue blouses; tattered and bareheaded bootblacks, with sleeves rolled up in business fashion; artisti in greasy coats; minor government officials in spectacles and rusty black, trying to be rakish on four hundred dollars a year; sub-lieutenants, with their month’s thirty dollars in hand, off to lose it at cards at some circolo; swarthy contadini, the farmer “Rubes” of Italy, having disposed of their poultry and their wives’ straw plaiting, are here “doing the town”; groups of impoverished laborers from near-by estates, lamenting with despairing gestures the impending failure of the olive crop and charging it to ghosts and the evil eye; venders of coral and tortoise shell; resplendent Carabinieri in pairs, fanning themselves with their picturesque chapeaux; thrifty policemen pursuing street peddlers, with an eye to a per centum of the fines; heroic school-ma’ams, trying to forget that their miserable one hundred and fifty dollars per annum is not likely to save them from such distress as De Amicis tells o£ in his impressive “Romanzo d’ un Mestro”; that odd military rara avis, the Bersagliero, pruning his glossy feathers and looking quite equal to a trot to Posilipo and back; rioting students, still unreconciled to having been “ploughed” at the recent examinations, or having failed of the coveted laurea degree when, frock-coated and nervous, they discussed their theses unsuccessfully before the jury of examiners; the pompous syndic of some commune; priests in black cassocks and fuzzy, broad-brimmed hats; some prefect returning from a many-coursed dinner, intent upon political coups when the Government’s candidates come up for election; and, most dejected and dangerous of all, the unemployed men of education, the spostati, who will hunt government jobs while there is any hope and then turn Socialists in Lombardy or Camorristi in Naples.

All along the way the soda fountains are sputtering and the” American Bars” bustling. Bookstores fascinate here, as everywhere, and shining leather volumes cry out for attention in the names of D’ Annunzio, De Amicis, Verga, and Fogazzaro. “Il Trionfo della Morta” lifts its slimy head on every counter, side by side with the breezy Neapolitan stories of Signora Serao. I always look curiously, but so far unsuccessfully, to find a single bookstore window that does not contain that national family table ornament, the “I Promessi Sposi” of Manzoni = the man for whom Verdi composed the immortal Requiem Mass.

The Toledo tide runs northward for twenty blocks or so from where we entered it, swings around the marble statue of Dante in the poet’s piazza, and sets south again. At mine o’clock it begins to diverge into the Strada di Chiaja, where there is music and promenading until midnight.

Detecting this hint of the hour, I hail a venerable, loose-jointed cab and bargain to be taken to my great, sepulchral, marble-floored room on the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. Now, cabs are cheap in Naples – after you have paid a penalty of extortion for the first few days’ experience; the real expense concerns the tailor as much as the cabman, in wear and tear to clothing, trying to keep on the seat as you bounce along over these volcanic-block pavements. This evening the cabman starts the usual trouble by demanding threefold the legal fare, and as we work it down to the tariff rate he insults me pleasantly and volubly, and I try to do as well by him. At length we arrive at a quasi-satisfactory basis; he shrugs contemptuous acceptance of my terms and I relax to the point of conceding that his ponies are only a little worse-groomed than the average and have, as far as I can see, all the mountainous brass fixtures prescribed by custom, along with the coral horn that will save me from the evil eye. So in I clamber. There is an infantry volley of whip-cracking and a burst of wild invective at the obstructing crowd and my head snaps back with sufficient force to keep me quiet to the journey’s end.

On the pleasant little balcony of my room I dare not linger long to-night. Well I know the busy programme of the departure on the morrow. There will be a hurried stop for one last hasty look into the Museo, with my luggage on the waiting cab outside; then, at my urgent “Fa presto,” some reckless Jehu will rattle me over the stones to the station; I will go down into my pocket again, in the old familiar way, for seventy centesimi and an additional pourboire to the cabby; and twenty more for the spry old porter who will shoulder my grips into the smoker; and the conductor will blow a horn, and the station bell will ring, and the engineer will blow a whistle, – in their rare Italian manner, – and the wheels will begin to squeak and groan, and I shall be off for Rome.

And that is why a cigar lacks its usual solace on my balcony tonight; the last I am to smoke in Good Night to this fascinating city. The subdued hum of cheery, happy revelry, mingled with music and song, drifts up from the bright squares and animated streets. The minutes multiply as I dwell over the varying phases of old Vesuvius, or gaze long and lingeringly over the starlit Bay and all the romantic playground of these grownup children. One cannot bring himself to say a definite farewell to this beautiful Region of Revisitors. With a yearning hope of returning some other day, he moderates it to a heartfelt Good Night and a tentative “till we meet again”: – “A rivederci, Napoli! Benedicite e buon riposo!”