Dirty, gritty Naples in southern Italy has had a bad reputation that continues to overshadow the city and prevent tourists from really giving it the chance it deserves. Everyone seems to come through Naples on their way to nearby Pompeii or Procida Island and may spend a day sightseeing the city, but there’s a wealth of history and art in Naples that often gets overlooked. From marble statues dating from antiquity to modern street art, Naples runs the gamut of fascinating and impressive artworks from a wide range of artists and mediums. And the best part? Art is EVERYWHERE in Naples, making it extremely accessible!
Despite the lingering pall the Mafia presence may cast over Naples, violent crime is actually quite rare and over the course of the two weeks I spent in Naples recently, never did I feel unsafe. Even after witnessing (a day after my arrival no less!) a man on a motorbike zip past an elderly woman on the sidewalk and strip her of her handbag in broad daylight, I would still eagerly set out with my camera swinging and a sense of adventure each morning to explore the bustling streets of Naples.
Immediately after stepping outside, I would be deeply enamored with the grungy, winding alleyways that snake their way through the distinct neighborhoods of Naples. Street art and graffiti are king in Naples and there is hardly a blank wall that the Napolitani street artists haven’t turned into colorful canvases. It’s a visual feast for the eyes everywhere you go in Naples and one I couldn’t get enough of.
Even the elusive, internationally-renowned street artist Banksy has left his mark on Naples; his Holy Virgin in Piazza Girolamini remains largely intact and looks like a shrine (the city has recently approved plans to actually restore the artwork), but another, a cheeky interpretation of Bernini’s Santa Teresa complete with a McDonald’s burger and super-sized Coca-Cola near the Cloister of Santa Chiara, has long been tagged over.
On the other side of the spectrum, going back in time to Italy and Naples’ esteemed history and culture is the Naples National Archeological Museum, considered one of the most important museums in the world, which you wouldn’t have guessed if you had gone with me during my visit. I practically had the whole museum to myself save for the few dozen people roaming the expansive halls filled with some of the highest quality pieces to have come out of the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance eras. I can’t even begin to describe the sheer bliss of being able to enjoy such staggering works of art without the encumbering crowds. The only time I experienced a backup inside the National Archeological Museum was in the “Secret Room,” or Gabbinete, where the collection of highly controversial, extremely graphic erotic art excavated primarily from Pompeii and Herculaneum is kept. The pieces are so salacious (I don’t even dare to post any photos here) that children under the age of fourteen require an adult chaperone to enter the guarded room.
Speaking of controversy, Naples is also home to three astounding works by Caravaggio, the great Renaissance painter and master of chiaroscuro with a strong proclivity for promiscuity and violence. Naples became home to the artist when he was forced to flee Rome after possibly accidentally killing a young boy under questionable circumstances. His three significant masterpieces: The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (Caravaggio’s last painting before his untimely death in 1610), The Seven Acts of Mercy, and The Flagellation of Christ are located in three separate locations throughout Naples, making it a bit of a citywide scavenger hunt and a great day out exploring. Be sure to check for opening hours, especially for the Pio Monte della Misericordia as this small, active church regulates the flow of visitors with strict viewing hours. The worst would be to show up at any of these sites only to discover that you missed the closing time by fifteen minutes. Which happened to me. Twice. The Seven Acts of Mercy, I’ll get you next time!
For a more contemporary look at art in Naples, the Palazzo della Arte, or PAN, is a comprehensive art center and event space housed inside a renovated 18th century palazzo. Although PAN doesn’t feature a permanent collection, they do offer a number of exciting exhibits throughout the year. Recent shows include a spectacular look at pop icon Andy Warhol’s connection to Naples and the evolution of Shepard Fairey, an American street artist. While you’re in the upscale Chiaia neighborhood, be sure to stroll around where you can find gorgeous, impeccably dressed Italians in luxury boutiques and my favorite gelateria in the city.
Art in Naples is so prevalent that it even extends underground into eight Metro stations where art pieces and whole installations are on glorious display. The style and theme of each station varies, ranging from groovy neon colors symbolizing digital technology inside Universitá Metro Station to the ravishing mosaics of Toledo Metro Station that depict air and water beautifully as commuters journey deeper underground. The city’s goal with the initiative was to make art more accessible to the public while serving a functional purpose; they’ve succeeded on both counts. Commuting has never been more beautiful or interesting.
Naples truly is a magnificent city that may still be a bit rough around the edges, but that grunginess is exactly what makes the art in Naples so exciting and relevant. Art is an expression, a reaction to life, and life in Naples is so deeply rooted in history, culture, and that lingering dark cloud from its recent past. Experiencing art in Naples is a revelation into Napolitano life and one that surely deserves more attention.