The streets of Naples are filthy, decrepit and full of vibrant life. The graffiti is good; good colours, like they spend money on their palette. In all of Napoli, traffic lights total about six sets. Either the municipality won’t afford them or people of all ages just prefer to step sagely across the busiest intersections between cars and busses and scooters—common enough in Italy but here performed at ballet level—an unending flow of scooters, zipping up sidewalks, twisting immaculately between and around the four-wheeled traffic. As many women riders as men; bare legs, hair flowing from helmets, dodging or stopping for the peds. Not much beeping, everyone knows the stakes and I saw no display of indignation and no accidents, though I’m sure there must be some. A scooter can carry a whole family or two workmen, the pillion chappie often riding blind behind a great sheet of plasterboard or whatever. Straight, narrow ways, sombre-stoned and crowded, radiate off up or down hills overlooked by layered balconies festooned with washing. This has to be the nearest thing to India before you get to India.
The Capodimonte gallery is set well away from the centre. Up a very long hill, of course. The day we get there, a Sunday, the Fire Brigade is doing a charity thing pulling very loud families into the gardens. Picnics are spread, footballs smack off walls. Inside, the kids are better behaved than their parents and much better behaved than the gang of four officials(?) strolling everywhere we went and opining at the top of their voices, I know one of them is the curator—I know it! At a security door, an alarm goes into shrieking spasm for no apparent reason than to keep the noise level up. The lighting is not good, or more exactly there is no lighting to speak of except for one or two spot-lit corner rooms dedicated to special works. One of these is Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ, the very best work I’ve seen of his: the anatomy, the chiaroscuro, the cruel emotion.
Our Bruegels are given no such prominence consigned to a general gallery among the gazillion Crucifixions and Madonnas with atrociously ugly Childs of the period. Funny how sculptors could always get a nice-looking Mary and Jesus, but painters back then never seemed to pull it off… As far as Pieter’s concerned, I don’t think the curator—he who strolls around disputing at the top of his voice—knows quite what he’s got his hands on: namely half of all the Bruegels in Italy, and arguably the best Bruegel at that. Not only is the lighting bad but you can’t move in close enough (without setting off an alarm) to switch usefully from distance specs to readers. The Blind Leading the Blind is a painting so many times better than what surrounds it, but I have a far clearer peception of it from reproductions than from trying to see it here in the flesh. Same goes for The Misanthrope next to it and along from that the tiny Herri de Bles’ landscape studies. Oh, and the frames are mog-‘orrible too. Altogether frustrating and more than a bit sad. Send them off somewhere they’ll be appreciated. Perhaps the state of the city should have served as warning: so much of interest and so much neglect. However, in the city, there are Neapolitans to ressurect the negligence; the shabby city functions as a stage set for the spirited working people to play their roles with gusto and with a gentility that I haven’t found as often in Rome. Naples benefits from not being a mega-tourist city (but at the risk of spoiling that for them), I tell you, get over the notion you’ll be mugged or robbed and go there, meet the people.