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See Naples, and then Die

I first learned about Naples in my Italian class during the height of COVID. Our professor showed us a travel video where a young couple tried sfogliatella, babà, and attempted to defy Queen Magherita’s curse at Piazza del Plebiscito. I watched the cream ooze out of their pastries as clouds floated above the sea, and found myself romanticizing Goethe’s famous saying–vedi Napoli e poi muori (see Naples and then die).

Two years later, I finally visited Naples and understood the phrase. If I were to die, it is not because of its decadent sweets or picturesque coasts, but because Naples represents life and all its juxtapositions. It is both young and old, decrepit and grandiose, neglected and nurtured. It reminds me of a popular line from a Chinese TV show: “If you love someone, send them to New York, for it's heaven. If you hate someone, send them to New York, for it's hell.” In a way, Naples relates to New York City as a malleable location–it is what you make of it.

Bay of Naples from Castel Sant'Elmo

This trip was the second of three overnight field trips for our Cornell in Rome semester. Previously we visited Montepulciano, Pienza and Siena for our Central Italy trip. For this trip, we spent four days and three nights in Southern Italy, specifically Padula, Paestum, Naples, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata.

My first impression of Naples did not reflect the city’s name–Napoli, from neapolis, Greek for new city–but rather its Greco-Roman past. At Paestum, we walked into ancient Greek temples from the 6th century BC. My fingers followed the grooves of the travertine columns and my feet ran amongst the remains of the enclosure walls–I was touching 2500 years of history! As the sun set over the monumental structures, we made our way to the museum to see the Tomb of the Diver. The tainted white panels are adorned with figures, some resting and others drinking. On the back of the lid of the tomb, a man plunges into the water; The composition is simple, yet it does not reveal whether the imagery symbolizes death, leaving me wondering long after we departed.

Roman civilization followed at Herculaneum, a more recent yet still ancient town that was buried and preserved under volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. With Professor Jan Gadeyne we had already seen beautiful wall frescoes near the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (~110 AD), but I was still shocked to find extremely realistic and colorful wall paintings and decorative mosaics inside houses at Herculaneum. I had always associated the Renaissance with the invention of realism and perspective, when in reality, it was only a period of re-discovery of art from antiquity. The jewelry on display also embodied timelessness, as the restored gold rings, earrings and necklaces match if not exceed those of modernity.

Neptune and Amphitrite (mosaic), and Banquet Scene (wall fresco).

When we finally experienced Naples, the proper city, in the daytime, I was not impressed. Perhaps it was the drizzling rain, the prevalence of dog poop on the sidewalks, or the rowdy precessions that clogged narrow alleys, even Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy at the Pio Monte della Misericordia seemed gloomy rather than intriguing. Only after lunch, when we took the funicular up to see the Certosa di San Martino and Castel Sant'Elmo, did I truly begin to enjoy the city.

Certosa, or, charter house, refers to a monastery of the Carthusian order. Emphasis on silence and solitude is spatially articulated by individual cells oriented around a central courtyard. In the common rooms, elaborate chairs line the wall. Rarely did the members share a meal, and when they did, it was in silence and at individual tables placed in front of their seats. At the Certosa di San Martino, the cells have been modified into a connected exhibition space. In one room, an oil painting depicted holy figures glowing over the Carthusian Brothers on the hilltop of Naples, while another showed the sick and dead commoners ravaged by plague in the city below.

As Carlos and I raced up to Castel Sant’Elmo, we were enveloped by the golden glow of the sunset. Mount Vesuvius was to the east, and the coastline curved inwards to the west. We laughed as the wind tossed our hair and took photos with the pink clouds. As the sun gradually disappeared, we trudged downhill with sore heels.

Me, Thuan, Helen and Carlos at Castel Sant'Elmo. (Photo from Austin)

Farnese Hercules, Farnese Bull were excavated at Baths of Caracalla, and now in Naples Archeological Museum.

Cameo, a carved relief made from one stone with two contrasting colors, depicting imagery similar to Farnese Bull.

I remember the discussion I had with our studio professor Alexander Valentino as we passed the State Archives of Naples at Pizzofalcone on our way down to the shore. Once the Renaissance villa of Andrea Carafa della Spina, it bears little resemblance to the grandiose villas we visited in Rome. With chipped walls and windows with mismatched rusty railings, it appeared ghostly under the flickering street lights. Alex said that the government owns it now, and like all things state-owned in the south of Italy, it doesn’t work.

My legs felt like they were going to crumble under me, so I didn’t process the complexity of his words until the next day, when our bus dropped us off in front of Vele di Scampia. Only then, did I begin to grapple with the dichotomy that is Naples. Originally started as a social housing project in 1962, the Vele was controlled by the Camorra mafia gangs from the 1980s to early 2000s and doubled as a market for cocaine and heroin. As I timidly observed the three of seven remaining concrete vele, or “sails,” I saw the intended utopian central courtyards, internal corridors and connected stairs, but also present-day abandoned and trash-filled spaces and past escape routes for drug dealers. People died here!

Neapolitan alleys, Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy, and the Vele.

At lunch, we went to a restaurant run by the Nuovo Cooperazione Organizzata (NCO), a community group dedicated to the social reuse of ex-mafia estates. They also promote inclusion of marginalized groups, and many of the restaurant staff were people with psychological difficulties. Our farm to table meal consisted of bruschetta with pickled vegetables, caprese salad, pasta in marinara sauce, concluding with babà–the famous Neapolitan rum-drenched cake. Each bite of the dessert I once romanticized brought realization of the darker sides of Naples. This is a place of contradictions–rich and poor, state and mafia, past and future.

I am ashamed of myself, for once preferring the hilltops of Naples and choosing to see only half of the picture. I am grateful for our professors, who tried to show us the real city and in doing so completely altered my perception. I am amazed by the Neapolitans, whose love for their hometown and for each other remains steadfast despite all.

I went to Naples, and saw the world.

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5 opmerkingen

15 sep. 2023

These pictures are amazing!


27 mrt. 2023

ah hence the saying "vedi Napoli e poi muori"


Sherrye Ye
Sherrye Ye
26 mrt. 2023

Ah yes New York somehow worms itself into my way of comprehending spaces as well… for better or for worse it’s home


04 mrt. 2023

amazing! very cool inside look into the "real" Naples. Waiting with bated breath for your next adventure!


03 mrt. 2023

It is a great finishing touch "I went to Naples, and saw the world."


Desai Wang

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