PsychoGeography: #44: See Naples and fly

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The Independent Online

In 2000 I was hired by the film director Bernardo Bertolucci to write a short story based on a film script he already had.

In 2000 I was hired by the film director Bernardo Bertolucci to write a short story based on a film script he already had. The action was set in Naples, partly during the Renaissance and partly in the contemporary city. If he liked it, he was then going to get someone else to turn it back into another film script. I know this sounds like a roundabout way of arriving at a film, but the movie business is a strange one in which creative properties undergo preposterous metamorphoses: TV adverts are made into films, so are computer games. For all I know some tyro producer is currently developing a film based on a Sainsbury's ready meal.

I visited Naples for four days to sop up the atmosphere, and found the city cavernous, minatory and deathly. Almost the entire population had cleared out to Ischia, the Amalfi coast and Capri, because it was the eve of the Assumption in mid-August. I wished I'd been there for the Festival of San Gennaro, the city's patron saint. A vial, purportedly containing this personage's dried blood, is kept in the Cathedral; and twice a year, on appointed days, it liquefies. Or not. Liquefaction years are good ones, full of prosperity and joy; dry years are bad ones: the football team loses, the volcano erupts and Berlusconi remains in power.

Perhaps the greatest book on the city by an outsider is Norman Lewis's Naples '44, his account of a year spent in the Neopolitan labyrinth as a British Army intelligence officer. Lewis was treated to all sorts of wondrous occurrences, and his memoir conjures up vividly a society in which natural magic was still as potent as technology. The year before he arrived, Padre Pio, the miraculous monk, had regularly been sighted flying like a cassock-clad Superman over Vesuvius, and plucking plummeting Italian airmen out of the sky.

My own brief sojourn in this astonishing encrustation of urbanity - the impasto of successive architectural eras from Hellenistic and Roman, to medieval and Renaissance is so thick as to be geologic - was distinctly downbeat in comparison. I was put up in a modern hotel on the Partenope, a sea-front strand facing the Castel dell'Ovo, and made forays into the Old Town. Starting at Gambrinus, the exuberant art nouveau café on the expansive Piazza del Plebiscito, I gave it a good crack, gothicking along with the best of them. I visited this church, that cloister, the other convent. I plunged into crypts and stroked petrified catafalques - an act that can have you arrested anywhere but Naples.

I walked over to the scuzzy part of town, between the port and the station, where Naples' renowned transvestites ply their silicone wares, and Somalians do strange things with cloned Samsonite luggage. I rode on the subway - amazingly it was even more threatening than the narrow alleyways of the Old Town. I took the funicular up the steep hill to the Castel Sant'Elmo and wandered the battlements. At night, I went along to the Villa Comunale, a dusty strip of park on the seashore, where there were free concerts of Neopolitan music.

In short, I did what I could, and yet Naples utterly eluded me. It was too dense, too impacted, too other, too rich in meaning, and I wasn't there for a hundredth of the necessary time. The only things I found comprehensible were the presepi. These were curious models of idealised scenes - part rustic, part sacerdotal - enacted against backdrops of ruined classical architecture. Most Neopolitan churches have a presepe and a lot of private homes as well. In their glass cases they encapsulate the entire spirit of the place - "sacrificing the sensible," as Levi-Strauss puts it, "in favour of the intelligible".

In Naples there's an entire street devoted to presepi, little shops with baskets in front of them full of thousands of cherubs, angels, infant Jesuses, saints, demons, Mary Magdalenes, shepherds, etc. As well as the figures you can get the necessary ivy-choked columns and collapsed mangers to place them among. The presepi are so integral to Naples, with their peculiar air of being part magical juju, part baroque decoration, that someone should really make a film based on them.