QUEEN FOR A DAY

From 1 April, the English wedding will no longer be confined to the register office or church. Where will our imaginations lead us? To Alton Towers, perhaps, or the Freud Museum? In Naples, they know about these things. Photographs by FRANCESCO CITO
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Those who prefer to think romance dead, gorgeous display outdated and the baroque vulgar need not read on. The matrimonial plumage favoured by the brides of Naples does not appeal to drab souls: these women offer not a beaker, but a Nebuchadnezzar full of the warm south. Drenched as it is in the love of the ostentatious, dictated by a refusal to allow circumstances to interfere with illusion, the Neapolitan wedding remains one of the great spectacles of the Italian peninsula.

"People get up to their ears in debt," says Francesco Cito, the photographer who cap-tured these moments, all of them real, each of them fit to be arranged for a fashion shoot. "They will have to pay for years and years just to wear the most expensive dress, to have the most magnificent ceremony, just to appear, at least for one day, as Princess Diana's double.''

Almost two centuries ago, an English poet described Naples as the metropolis of a ruined paradise. Matters have not much improved since then; of all the Italian cities, Naples lives closest to a state of perpetual crisis. The city hall is bankrupt, the municipal treasury long emptied for the enjoyment of certain officials. The gridlocked traffic produces the effect of a slow-bubbling Vesuvius on the lungs and ears, the hospitals can present scenes from bedlam, the port district provides a permanent set for any film producer wanting to shoot a remake of Lucky Luciano. The local gangsters, the Camorra, extend their tentacles throughout the city's commerce. There is almost no new employment, although the Italian state maintains an army of functionaries, several varieties of policemen and whole legions of minor professionals whose carefully graduated jobs preserve a deceptive hierarchy of merit. Thousands of other people hustle for a living in the black economy, with a part-time job or a small business on the side.

"It doesn't seem to matter how poor they are," says Cito, "you get the feeling with these girls that they are determined to be treated like a queen or a Hollywood star." So from the ranks of the impoverished and the mildly shabby, myriad brides blossom forth for one radiant day. In Naples, much of life is lived out of doors. But it is also a secret city. A decaying building that seems to have rotted since the departure of the Bourbons may contain apartments of private luxury and taste to rival any in the 16th arrondissement. The meanest basement can conceal a spotless, if cramped, family home from whose kitchen there wafts a comforting aroma of fine food. And in suburban apartment blocks draped with washing, brides twirl in their lace and organza, peer anxiously into their powder compacts, and finally process to their rented limousines amid cluckings of solidarity from packs of ferocious aunts.

L'arte d'arrangiarsi - the art of getting by - is said to govern daily life in Naples. It finds its ultimate expression in the desire to present the best possible impression to family and friends on the wedding day - with apparently cavalier disregard for cost. In Naples one finds the profoundest philosophers in Italy and an entire class of people living on their wits. It must possess, collectively, the sharpest intellect in the peninsula. A great deal of mental agility, therefore, will be applied to these few hours of conspicuous pride.

There is, first and foremost, the dress to consider. Minimalism and the modern, quite clearly, will never suit a girl who desires to out-Versace Versace. Then the glory of her hair: should it cascade in tresses or flow graciously beneath a diaphanous veil? One need not, it seems, agonise about make-up, but simply apply it in copious and flattering quantities. Bouquets, parasols, bridesmaids, costumed retainers - anything may be had to order, even dignified gentlemen of a certain age, hired for the day to appear as "uncles" from Rome or Milan.

The church, of course, must be baroque and the ceremony redolent of myth and ancient ecstasy. But in a city where Spanish kings and their architects succeeded the classical Greeks and Romans, no shortage of atmospherics may be expected. The Italian language - mellifluous, drawn-out, languid and caressing - lends itself to the service of holy matrimony as to no other aspect of the liturgy. There will be connotations of virginity and sacrifice, although, mercifully for all concerned, the traditional proofs of consummation are no longer much in vogue. The religious ceremony is the centrepiece but not the highlight of the day. That distinction is reserved for the wedding meal, an abundant event for which the unfortunate parents will be paying long after the last strand of pasta has congealed.

You can eat some fearful meals in Naples and, due to the predominance of seafood, suffer some pretty memorable consequences. This would never do for guests at a distinguished event, so the wedding parties avoid the port-side tourist traps. Perched on the airy slopes of Vomero, above the city centre, or along the coastline towards Posilippo, the lavish wedding host can choose from many a restaurant where the clams will be fresh, the sea-bass well-roasted and the wine from a drinkable vintage - perhaps, indeed the white wine from the slopes of Vesuvius itself, known as Lachrimae Christi, or the tears of Christ. The bride, however, need expect to eat no more than a demure forkfull; there is the extended photo session to follow.

Here the love of fantasy and display is given full range. It is obviously considered humdrum simply to be profiled against the backdrop of the bay, with a misty Sorrento in the distance. Much better to strike a dramatic pose in the absurd arcades and mosaics of the Galleria erected for King Umberto I in 1887, perhaps awaiting sunset or dawn for luminous effect. But most symbolic of all is to take the garlanded boat out across the bay towards Capri, to be pictured gazing on Shelley's "waves upon the shore, like light dissolved in star-showers". No doubt the poet, as he wrote, mused on the nymph Parthenope, washed up in dim antiquity on the beach of the first Greek colony at Naples. One rather doubts that the modern bride does.

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