Street Fight in Naples, By Peter Robb

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The Independent Culture

If you're heading for Sicily this autumn, Peter Robb's masterpiece Midnight in Sicily is de rigueur. If Naples and environs is your goal, you may be better off saving this extraordinary work until you get back. The muscular exuberance of Robb's style – one of the finest in contemporary English – is perfectly suited to Neapolitan brio but the central topic of this book is the art of the 16th century.

His cast includes artists like Ribera, who painted a bearded lady, Artemisia Gentileschi, whose rape by her uncle underlies a vigorously realistic depiction of Judith hacking off the head of Holofernes, and Caracciolo, whose Earthly Trinity was unforgettably influenced by Robb's hero Caravaggio. Since the book's eight small colour reproductions are of negligible value, you need Google for illustration purposes. To appreciate the linking theme of Midnight in Sicily, which is food, all you need do in Sicily is open your mouth. Though Robb focuses on Naples's unhappy spell as a colony of the skint Spanish when violence and corruption was even more prevalent than usual – the "street fight" of the title could refer to any number of grisly encounters – he reaches back to its mystical founding when the siren Parthenope expired on the rocks of Santa Lucia and forward to his spell as a long-term resident in the Seventies.

Now returned to his native Sydney, Robb is exiled from his exile. His evocative memories are strictly rationed, though a hint of gastronomic passion emerges in a description of Pignasecca market: "People on foot had to dodge not only vehicles but the tubs of fish and the squirting hoses with which he sea creatures were refreshed. Sometimes an octopus briefly slithered free among the wheels and heels."

Robb's exploration of this tumultuous city, simultaneously sun-blasted and dungeon-dark, is episodic rather than chronological. Among appearances by Cinderella, Virgil and the rebel priest Giordano Bruno, a herd of sheep drifts in and out of the latter pages. Though occasionally bemused, you keep reading, swept along by a tidal prose.