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Street Fight in Naples: A City's Unseen History, By Peter Robb

Neapolitan, and not easily forgotten

When the Australian Peter Robb washed up in Naples in the Seventies, he found a city with a street life already two millennia old, its inhabitants directly descended from the models for many familiar paintings.

Understandably, he adored the place even as he watched it slide into chaos, severed from its own past.

This we already know. Robb's best-selling 1997 book Midnight in Sicily, a diverting digression about art, history, food, crime and politics made it clear, as he contrasted garrulous Naples with taciturn Palermo. Yet his long-anticipated work on the mezzogiorno's other great city lacks such wide-ranging ambition. Despite the author's stated aim to tell the city's story from below, rather than concentrating on the mighty and their imposing monuments, he falls back on his art-history background. Street Fight in Naples centres on the period of Spanish rule culminating in Masaniello's rebellion in 1647, told through the stories of the city's leading artists and thinkers. Neapolitan specialities from food to football are overlooked.

It may not run wide, but it's pretty readable nonetheless, and Robb's florid style suits a subject often compared to a stage-set complete with a cast of thousands. M, Robb's contentious biography of Caravaggio, suggested that ascribing modern mores to a man so far ahead of his time was logical. Here, the tragedies of the iconoclasts Tommaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno, heroic freethinkers in an age of suspicion, are similarly treated.

Caravaggio saw Naples then died, leaving the astonishingly cynical Seven Works of Mercy, but his admirers left their mark, from Ribera to the obscure Passante, painter of sheep. Less academically respectable are the wild visions of Monsu Desiderio – actually two Frenchmen, whose dream-like architectural views were painted straight from imagination.

Beyond artists and their subjects are bearded ladies and ungovernable Dominican monks, left alone by authorities who knew that any retaliation would raise the mob. The biggest city west of Istanbul always carried a threat of the unknown. And it's the mob whose muffled voice resounds, sacrificing Masaniello, then turning out in their thousands to show their respect and admit their guilt. Had they spoken more clearly, Spanish rule could have been defeated, yet would Naples have ever become a neat city state like its northern counterparts? Robb likes this most and least Italian of cities as it is; unknowable, or at least untellable.