Naples is one of the largest and most captivating art cities on the Mediterranean Sea. Capital of the Region of Campania, it is the third-largest commune in Italy after Rome and Milan. The city dominates the Gulf of Naples, expanding from the Sorrentine Peninsula to the volcanic area of the Phlegraean Fields. It offers an extremely evocative vista of not only the imposing Vesuvian mount but also the three magnificent islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida – three jewels that rise like Venus from the sea. Besides its gorgeous scenery, Naples owes its much-deserved fame to the charm and intrigue of its historic center – a historic center that counts 2500 years of a fascinating existence, and that was therefore added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
Naples is a city of historic and archaeological layers that weave perfectly peculiar and enchanting visiting itineraries. Very little survives today of ancient Neapolis: the city of Greek origins has left behind a few visible traces, however, such as the Greek walls that run along Via Mezzocannone. The Roman ruins are, on the other hand, quite numerous: among the many still remaining are the archaeological site of San Lorenzo Maggiore, part of which hosts a Greek agora from the 5th Century B.C.; as well as many other finds from the Roman era, when the city was a true metropolis
Both the quotidian and the artistic fill the streets and quarters of Naples that teem with life and monuments, from the Sanità neighborhood and the Quartieri Spagnoli – a working class area rich in color and folklore, realized in the 1500s – to the large main boulevards of the city. Taking one of the main thoroughfares, “Spaccanapoli” (from spaccare in Italian, meaning “it divides the new city in two”), visitors can begin with the Church of Gesù Nuovo, with its facade taken from a noble palace of the 1400s. Afterwards, one would do no wrong to pass by the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore - built during Anjou rule – and then stop off at Naples’s magnificent Cathedral, just up Via Duomo.
Repaired several times after seismic damages, the Duomo sits atop the remains of pre-existing buildings; the vertical lift of its façade can be attributed to Enrico Alvino, architect during the 1800s. The interior boasts the pretty Chapel of the Treasury of St. Gennaro, who watches over, among other items, relics of his own blood.
A second itinerary might depart from Piazza Bellini – site of several literary cafes – then follow the Medieval porticoes to the Palazzo Filippo d’Angiò (Philippe d’Anjou) in Via Tribunali, and end at Castel Capuano: conceived as a fortress for the Normans, it eventually became a noble palace. It is one of four castles, together with St. Elmo’s Castle and Castel Nuovo, that dominate Naples: from St. Elmo’s it is possible to admire Spaccanapoli and the Castello dell’Ovo on its tiny island (connected to land by a bridge). The Palace-Fortress of Castel Nuovo, also referred to as “Maschio Angioino”, was completed around the end of the 13th Century under the reign of Charles I of Anjou.
From the Maschio Angioino one can take on an entirely new itinerary by doubling back to the opposite direction toward Piazza del Plebiscito. Plebiscito is framed by the Basilica of San Francesco di Paolo (it rather resembles the Roman Pantheon in form), and by the Bourbons’ Royal Palace, or Palazzo Reale.
Other sights to see are the Santa Chiara Monastery and its beautifully-embellished Cloister delle Clarisse; the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore and the finds of its ancient Greco-Roman structure inside the interior cloister; and the Palazzo Reale of Capodimonte, housing the National Galleries’ works by Titian, Raphael, Correggio, Masaccio, Mantegna and Caravaggio. A handful of museums should make the cut as well, especially the Gaetano Filangieri Civic Museum.
The intense cultural life of this multi-faceted capital of art lives in its museums, for instance the MADRE, throughout the cafes of the Galleria Umberto I, and in all the locales florid with the life of evening, when Naples becomes the city of students and the young, musicians, its native pizza, and, all-around good fun and good company.