On a spring day in Naples I went into a shop to buy some chewing gum. The shopkeeper smiled at me. ‘Inglese? Francese?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘Tedesco’. He then high-fived me. Puzzled, I walked back to the 17th-century palazzo that is home to the private foundation of the collector Maurizio Morra Greco, where I was curating an exhibition. On the way I stopped to get an espresso and glanced at a newspaper on the counter. Suddenly I understood the high-five. Apparently the only tourists still coming to Naples, despite the city’s persistent rubbish crisis, were Germans.
Postwar Germans have an insatiable love of holidays in the sun, but they return to Naples for two reasons: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a song. In 1816 Goethe started a Teutonic trend with the publication of his book Italian Journey. Believing that experiencing Naples’ beauty would make anyone’s life complete, he declared: ‘See Naples and die.’ (Although it is assumed that he coined the phrase, he actually borrowed it from Virgil, who lived in the city in 29 bc.)
The second reason Germans come to Naples is a melancholy song, ‘Die Capri-Fischer’ (The Capri Fishermen). Despite the fact that its chorus, ‘Bella Maria, forget me not’, is about the heartache of fishermen, it struck a chord with soldiers going off to war. It was written in 1943, a year otherwise marked by Stalingrad, devastating Allied air raids on Germany and the accelerating genocide of the European Jews. With its opening line praising the beauty of the sun sinking over Capri, the tune was quickly banned from German radio as US forces had just landed on the famous island off the Bay of Naples. But in 1947 it became a huge hit, and it remained popular for decades – the looped soundtrack of Germany’s postwar prosperity and travelmania. Ex-chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder both love it, and Joseph Beuys was possibly humming it when, in 1985, a few months before he died, recovering from pneumonia in the Capri villa of legendary Neapolitan gallerist Lucio Amelio, he stuck a lemon to a yellow light bulb and called it Capri Battery (1985).
In the German imagination Naples combines a zest for life with an undercurrent of death. But many people in the city’s lively art scene – with its numerous institutions and at least a dozen or so galleries that have, or deserve, international recognition – are tired of the latter part of that equation. When I was in Naples, Matteo Garrone’s film Gomorrah (2008), based on Roberto Saviano’s eponymous bestselling book from 2006 about the Camorra (a Mafia-like criminal organization based in Naples) won the Grand Prix at Cannes and more than one Neapolitan I talked to felt that the film provided the ultimate confirmation for an international audience that Naples is a hopeless case. To them it threatened to make any effort to maintain the idea of a normal, civilized society amid a hostile environment – such as being part of an international discourse about cultural production – look pathetic. Indeed, the only option the film offers for ‘resistance’ is to leave, but then it’s not the job of the film to offer hope or solutions, and one could argue, especially in view of recent incidents of African immigrants being killed by a Camorra commando, that the film is not dystopian enough.
And yet it’s impossible to ignore the sentiment shared by many in the Naples art scene that they’d rather get fired up about aesthetic debates than keep banging on about what is, for the whole world to see, a miserable situation. This was palpable when I had the pleasure to chat to Umberto Raucci of Galleria Raucci/Santamaria – which brings artists such as Cathy Wilkes and Torbjörn Vejvi to the city – about his passion for music, and when I walked through the fascinating retrospective of Luciano Fabro at the Museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina (MADRE). It was evident too when I witnessed Aleksandra Mir and Lisa Anne Auerbach ‘correcting’ the plaster casts of ancient statues at the Naples Academy of Fine Arts by giving them marzipan prosthetics (Marzarama, 2008), as part of the show I curated, and when I watched a video by the Neapolitan artist Giulia Piscitelli at Giangi Fonti’s thriving gallery, of a very old man attempting to eat a plate of spaghetti (Rodolfo 102, 2002). The common criticism of gentrification – that museums and art institutions function as the vanguard of property interests that destroy organic neighbourhoods in the interest of the well-to-do – is wide of the mark in Naples. Apparently one key to resisting Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia) in Palermo in the late 1990s was a concerted effort to repair the streets and reopen the long-closed opera house. The same should be hoped for in Naples. MADRE opened in 2005, in the middle of the historical centre, a difficult and louche quarter in most parts; the nearby Fondazione Morra Greco is located on a narrow cobbled street known for its sales of hard drugs; Supportico Lopez, the project space curators Gigiotto del Vecchio and Stefania Palumbo have been running in their flat since 2003, showing artists such as Luke Fowler or Kirsten Pieroth, was also based in one of the roughest parts of the city (it’s moving to Berlin this month).
Organized crime aside, there is a huge plus to living in Naples: it must be one of the best places in the world to eat. Take, for example, Europeo Mattozzi. I know that the artist Pierre Bismuth has spent many nights dining well but you should have seen the look on his face when he took his first mouthful of the buffalo mozzarella at this long-established restaurant. I must have looked similarly enraptured when I bit into the tempura-style, deep-fried, ricotta-filled courgette flowers and fish eggs, and pasta alla Genovese at Osteria da Carmela, an inconspicuous little place right next to the Academy. (Pasta alla Genovese, despite its name, stems not from Genoa but from Naples.) Maurizio Morra Greco couldn’t haven chosen a better moment than just after dinner at the Osteria to explain the unique experience of growing up in a city that’s like heaven and hell. Not that food, obviously, could make up for the hell part, but there are moments in Naples when you could, just for a moment, believe it might.
Naples revels in the enduring myths that define it and, perhaps more than any other Italian city, hangs suspended between the great historical weight of its over two thousand-year past and its desire to adapt to the innovations of modernity. Experiencing the polarity that characterizes most contemporary metropolises, the city exists at the extremes of the contradictions it harbours. Cultivated and criminal, traditionalist and anarchic, conventional and pagan, harrowing in its beauty and often theatrically filthy and chaotic, full of life but plastered with images of death, Naples has attracted and bewitched generations of artists from all over the world who have glimpsed in its grandeur and miseries tangible proof of their own personal visions of humanity. Over the years, this attraction, along with the passion many local dealers have for contemporary art, has favoured the creation of a relatively small but very sophisticated network of gallerists, historians, curators and collectors, who all share the broad aim of enhancing the city’s international visibility through important ongoing initiatives backed by both public and private institutions.
Until about 20 years ago, the contemporary art scene in Naples was represented almost exclusively by two main protagonists: Lucio Amelio, who regularly exhibited artists of the calibre of Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly, and Lia Rumma, who from the outset represented and exhibited artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Andreas Gursky and Joseph Kosuth. Recently, commercial galleries have gradually been multiplying, thanks to a motivated new generation of gallerists. Alfonso Artiaco, who took over Amelio’s historic space when he passed away in 1994, exhibits established artists such as Giovanni Anselmo and Carl Andre alongside representatives of a younger generation, including Thomas Hirschhorn and Darren Almond. In a similar spirit, his colleagues at Studio Trisorio regularly work with, among others, Daniel Buren and Ettore Spalletti. For over 15 years the team of Raucci/Santamaria has presented a vast range of international artists, from Yang Fudong to Ugo Rondinone. As attentive to what’s going on locally as internationally, Giangi Fonti exhibits the work of Piero Golia as well as Giulia Piscitelli, one of the few Italian artists to be included at the last Berlin Biennial, alongside Manfred Pernice and Eric Wesley. One of Paola Guadagnino’s artists at T293, Tris Vonna-Michell, won the Baloise Art Prize at this year’s Art Basel, while Umberto di Marino exhibits, among others, Francesco Jodice, one of the more interesting photographers of his generation and a native Neapolitan.
Two very ambitious private foundations have their bases in significant buildings in the city centre. The Fondazione Morra Greco, in the process of renovating its premises in the 17th-century Palazzo Caracciolo d’Avellino into a state-of-the-art museum facility, has a significant programme of exhibitions by contemporary artists, many of whose works also belong to their extensive collection. Meanwhile, the (similarly named) Fondazione Morra has just opened a museum dedicated to Hermann Nitsch in a former electricity plant.
Thanks to the foresight of local government and its ambitious policies over the last few years to highlight the city’s appreciation for contemporary art, a series of public art initiatives has been instigated. Since 1995, the annual Christmas project in the city’s main square, the Piazza del Plebiscito, has seen the installation of monumental works conceived by artists including Mario Merz, Anish Kapoor, Jenny Holzer and Richard Serra. The subway system’s new stations, which are dotted around the entire city, are embellished with installations by artists such as Mimmo Paladino and Luigi Ontani, while the inauguration of a new station designed by Kapoor, in collaboration with the architecture firm Future Systems, is planned for 2010.
The city’s various museums also have a very active contemporary art agenda. Capodimonte, which houses a world-famous collection of old master paintings, has dedicated a section of the museum to contemporary works: alongside pieces by Titian and Caravaggio you’ll find installations by modern greats from Sol LeWitt to Jannis Kounellis. Periodically, exhibitions are organized to create a dialogue with the classical collection, such as that currently dedicated to Louise Bourgeois. The Archaeological Museum, with its renowned collection of Greco-Roman sculptures and frescoes, has in recent years hosted important retrospectives by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – the latter, held in 2004, was the artist’s first show in a public institution. In 2005, Naples finally opened its first museum dedicated solely to contemporary art, MADRE, which has a series of permanent installations, among them a large fresco by Francesco Clemente and a collection on long-term loan made up of works from the postwar period to the present, mainly from the collections of local fashion designer Ernesto Esposito and the late Ileana Sonnabend, one of the city’s greatest supporters. Furthermore, the museum boasts a programme of exhibitions by both established and emerging artists, including recent retrospectives by Piero Manzoni and Georg Baselitz and shows by Neapolitan artists Lorenzo Scotto di Luzio and the collaborative duo Vedovamazzei. Another recently completed institution that will expand the city’s contemporary art possibilities yet further is the Palazzo delle Arti Napoli; through thematic exhibitions, the gallery aims to tackle the central issues of contemporary society, which are constantly reflected in the vibrant urban flux of Naples.
Naples is viewed in Italy rather like the way Liverpool is viewed in England or Marseille in France – a city that a good slice of the rest of the country will hasten to describe patronizingly as beautiful but undisciplined, dangerous and crime-ridden. Yet an Italian television show audience will still react to the strains of a Neapolitan song with affection and applause, slipping into some sentimental state of refuge, a simpler language of a simpler time. This is the classical Italian song, part of a vast folk archive going back hundreds of years, in which Italy seems to recognize and gather itself in a contradiction, as though Naples, even with its exclusive dialect, represented Italy and was at some heartfelt level imaginatively inhabited by most Italians, despite the fact that the present Neapolitan population is considered a lazy and feckless caretaker of this spiritual location.
The Naples/Italy split was understood perfectly by the Argentine football player Diego Maradona in 1990, when he encouraged local fans attending the Italy–Argentina World Cup semi-final at his club’s stadium, Napoli’s San Paolo, to cheer for the Argentines. Even football fans from the neighbouring town of Salerno sing to Napoli supporters, ‘Vesuvio, ci pensi tu’, (‘Vesuvius, you sort it out.’) – a reference to the volcano that looms over the city. Another out-of-town solution I’ve heard proffered to Naples’ litany of problems is to nuke it. At least among all this throwaway viciousness there is a kernel of truth: only an agency of enormous energy could definitively overwhelm this complex, sprawling, intractable city.
The grand piazza in front of the central railway station must be the most crude and stimulating city introduction in Italy. It is endlessly disorganized and full of con operations, dirt, litter and piss, great food smells and underground vapours. It gives you the feeling that the further away from it you are, the more chance you will have of surviving a cut foot, and it’s the first occasion of the inevitable invasion, and surrender, of your personal space that any non-pathological negotiation of the city requires. Various linked quarters of the city attest to real poverty and real wealth, high population density and unemployment, light and dark enterprises and street life. The architectural scale speaks of the city’s past as the wealthiest centre in pre-unification Italy: Cortez – the Spanish Bourbon capital of the Kingdom of Naples, and for centuries the largest city in Europe outside Paris. All of this helps to explain the street-sovereign sophistication of certain old-school Neapolitans.
There’s too much information in Naples – not Stendhal’s syndrome of faint-inducing beauty and grace but an overload of pressing, dizzying sensory inputs. The streets are surfaced with pocked slabs cut from the volcano’s old spews, festooned with drying laundry, dust and more dust, litter, traffic, song, bustle, weird silences, a patchwork of stucco and painted colour combinations, dressed stone and jimmy-rigged repairs, an architectural slippage of style and period and state of preservation that builds and collapses and again builds on itself. The palpable, accretive visual texture is stunning, containing the same amount of information at all scales of enlargement, from close up on a façade, where half the dust has blown in from the Sahara, to the typical bay-wide panorama – it’s hard to clarify either by focusing on details or the grand scale, because each is equally complex. You need to lie down in a dark room to take in this city of visible strata, piled one on top of another, from the original Greek town Neapolis through the Roman grid of streets, carriage-wide, still in continuous traffic and occupation after some 2,700 years, plumped into and climbing all over an improbably beautiful geography. It’s a city that defies comprehension.
Every weeknight local television’s Canale 9 airs a short programme called The Emigrant. The presenter, Luigi Necco, reads out complaints from people afflicted by problems including incivility, illegality, irresponsibility, venality, delinquency, the lack of institutional faith or political black holes. Necco’s eternal clamour for civility is a redoubt of the pride of Naples, which fights to resist a cultural and behavioural slide towards worst-case scenarios. Yes, there is a great brain drain from the city, but ‘why do they have to leave their bodies behind?’ Discussing some kids who broke into a catacomb and played a football match using skulls as the ball, Necco is lost for words, struggling for comprehension, while his studio guest argues that the real problem is a lack of local spaces or parks for children to play football in. The city’s self-awareness and self-criticism usually feature a methodical split in interrogating each problem, that of seeing its source in either personal responsibility or institutional failure – two sides of a well-worn coin. And it’s not that kids never wreak havoc in Milan or Rome: it’s that in Naples there are more raw occasions for it to be an actual iconoclasm.
The Neapolitan heteroclite philosopher and rhetorician Giambattista Vico confronted the sweeping enthusiasm for the Cartesianism of his time in De italorum sapientia (1710), declaring that to introduce geometrical method into practical life is ‘like trying to go mad with the rules of reason, attempting to proceed by a straight line among the tortures of life, as though human affairs were not ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity and chance’. Truth itself is what is constructed, and the true is verified, if treating of civic life, not by observation but by invention and creation – a sibylline philosophy sourced somewhere between the influences of the city and, for argument’s sake, the performative rhetorical tradition. These very tortures of Neapolitan life, even half understood, provoke a dance-like stitching of approach and evasion, appearance and hiding, as if thought itself were a street where one is prepared for anything to happen and thus must remain limber and adaptive. The mad, roaring traffic stops if you actually step out into it; there are too many cars but no road rage; and the Vespas whizzing past will not even brush your clothes, as their riders have a great sense of pride in a skill set which has evolved from the press of the place and been translated into every area of movement and intercourse. There is quotidian wit in improvisation and imagination here that is sometimes absurdly memorable – like seeing a kid trying to fly a kite from the only window of his family’s basso, a dark ground-floor dwelling in an alleyway about three metres wide.
Interviewed on the occasion of his gallery’s 20th anniversary in 1985, the visionary Neapolitan gallerist Lucio Amelio took Joseph Beuys’ Capri Battery in hand and said: ‘A lemon from Capri attached to an illuminating apparatus. The energy of this lemon, also possibly of the city of Napoli, might one day potentially illuminate this light bulb. This is the result of 20 years of work. To light this light bulb […] Napoli has 3,000 years of energy and culture, we are not trying to give birth to anything here, but we are trying to organize it […] we have developed a project to insert Napoli into an international circuit of culture.’ Amelio had spent two decades promoting Naples as a centre for contemporary art, bringing hundreds of artists through the gallery, including as many internationally recognized artists as possible, to stay in and engage with the city, widening its collecting base and promoting local artists in the same context. He recognized, with collaborators such as Pasquale Trisorio and Peppe Morra, that the real energetic charge of Naples was to galvanize creative thought, producing ideas and spurring kinds of work that might not otherwise appear: it was the place that resounded with artists such as Beuys, for its energy flux and precarious balance, and with Andy Warhol, who found here the source of one of his most famous reproductions, that of a smoking Vesuvius. The city remains charged for any artists who come here. Whatever they’re interested in, the chances are that in or around Naples there are existant live situations of their thematic concerns, or examples of works or sites locating similar interests from the city’s aeons of cultural history.
The Fondazione Morra recently inaugurated its Museo Hermann Nitsch in a former electricity station in the middle of the city, under the hillside vineyard that served as the location of Nitsch’s Pentecost procession of 1996. Another beautiful anomaly, this archive and laboratory, ‘proposing deliberations and boosting the development of new ideas’, hosts action relics and documents decades of Nitsch’s activities, not just in Naples. The foundation, expecting little in the way of help from the local administration, funded the building work itself and so completed it in a relatively short space of time. Its laudibly crazy spirit remains intact, also demonstrating the best way to renovate a space for exhibitions. Reactions ranged from the bemused to the wide-eyed to: ‘Now that Nitsch Museum’s been opened in the city, we’re not lacking anything at all.’
Galleries and organizations doing sterling work in representing Naples internationally and operating regular programmes in the city include Raucci/Santamaria, Galleria Lia Rumma, Studio Trisorio, Mimmo Scognamiglio Artecontemporanea, Alfonso Artiaco, T293, Galleria Fonti, Fondazione Morra Greco, annarumma 404 and Changing Role, all of whom continue to bring well-established and lesser-known artists, many of them from abroad, to the city. These activities are sustained in part by a healthy and widespread openness to collecting, not confined at all to the wealthy, and expressed in curiosity and a directness of approach. Many of these collectors are more interested in understanding the work and sharing living space with it than in speculating on the career prospects of its author.
However, visiting artists, recognizing energy and potential when they see it, frequently wonder why a city-wide organization is not more self-evident: where are the subsidized studio complexes (a square metre costs ten euros a month here), artist cooperatives, hang-outs or locally initiated exported shows? Something’s not quite right: it’s as though the idea of a confident cultural investment is at home with its bags packed, waiting for the airport taxi. It’s one thing for the city’s public spaces and various historical museums satisfactorily to facilitate the landfall of already complete parachute shows, which by now any provincial city in Europe with well-informed curators might secure or whose contextual sense is not location-specific – it’s another to recognize that exodus and atrophy are the results of having created a cargo cult.
There are some transverse structures, publicly and privately funded, both modest and ambitious. Beds in Art, for example, is a place to stay, a visual laboratory and a handy film and video production resource. Napoliest is organized around proposals for, and the production of, public art works, publications and architectural and planning interventions in the vast area of the docklands; it also works on exchanges with organizations in similarly faded industrial ports such as Liverpool. Expòsito is a province-funded organization targeted at initiating international exchanges and residencies for younger artists, coordinating workshops for those artists in such places as MADRE Project Room and sometimes, at least, profiting from the presence of cultural visitors by arranging voluntary lectures by them in the city’s otherwise impregnable and conservative Fine Art Academy.
Amelio died in 1994. Naples’ historically amazing and particular relation to contemporary art came from collaboration, trust, invention and practical dreaming. The constant resources of the city (energy, cultural intelligence and heritage) are still a fire in the forge. Using that heat is an easier, energy-efficient and more elegant way of forming a cultural shape than trying to bash it out from cold material with heavy hammers and brute force so it can compare favourably with national profiles. It’s a short-sighted, backsliding game to be in competition with Italy. Naples, even in a ‘state of emergency’, can do international confrontation and international significance.
Main image: Panorama of Naples showing Anish Kapoor's Taratantara (1999) installed in the Piazza del Plebiscito on the right, 2000