In this city of dualities—where the staunchest of Catholics readily invoke pagan superstitions— it’s perhaps no surprise that among its ancient Pompeii an relics and Farnese we find a thriving contemporary art scene.
There will be no pizza. Forget about the thousand flavors of gelato. Let’s for the moment skip over even the most banal of Naples generalities—the Grand Guignol crime, the welter of saints and leprous corruption and a decline apparently already under way in the fifth century b.c., when the place was settled (actually, resettled) by the Greeks and named Neapolis.
While we’re at it, let’s also give a pass to the literary sphinx Elena Ferrante.
Better than any other person since Goethe, it is Ms. Ferrante (if she is a she) who — with her brilliant though soap-operatic fictional tetralogy—piqued international interest in her somewhat benighted hometown. Ms. Ferrante wishes to remain the Garbo of Italian letters, and I say let her.’
There is more to this messy and layered, resplendent and gorgeously decadent metropolis than My Brilliant Friend. There is, to cite but one surprising paradox, an astonishing quantity of contemporary art in this city of nearly 3,000 years.
But, wait “What exactly is ‘contemporary’?” my friend, the museum director Andrea Viliani, challenged me one November day in Naples.
The two of us were touring the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, or MADRE, an unlikely arts center embedded in the warren of the ancient city. MADRE occupies an old palazzo in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, from whose streets it was separated this cool morning by a yellow entry curtain made from the kind of vinyl flaps you see at a carwash.
Behind them, the French artist Daniel Buren had installed a site-specific trompe l’oeil artwork—a jaunty and radical architectural intervention that managed subtly to tweak the rigid lines of the palace by using stone paving to shift its visual axis, introducing disorienting perspectives then amplified and refracted by mirrors applied to the arches, the ceilings, and the walls. A giant’s toy set of cylinders and blocks in bright saturated colors installed in the secondary galleries made a visitor as dazed as Gulliver in Brobdingnag.
Before my arrival in Naples, I’d received an email from another friend, the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, calling the Buren “amazing.” Given the distaste I feel for Mr. Buren’s work, I was dubious. Yet Francesco was right. With its kiddie colors popping against the somber stone of the palazzo, its mirrors teasingly eliciting an inevitable selfie, the Buren piece functioned as a giddy, conceptual Post-it reminder of the varied means by which contemporary art has insinuated itself into the texture of this old city, and how a deep and settled past is always here in conversation with the lively present
This dialogue takes the form of, say, the more than 200 commissioned artworks by 100 or so international artists and designers installed in the underground Metro stations as part of the city’s Art Stations program. It is evident at fine contemporary art spaces like Giangi Fonti’s Galleria Fonti, tucked into a neighborhood-y stretch of the bustling Via Chiaia, just a short stroll from the city’s main drag of Via Toledo—where, from the terrace of the storied Gran Caffe Gambrinus coffeehouse, a visitor has a ringside seat on the Neapolitan life which so overwhelmed Goethe that it made his eyes, as he wrote, “pop out of my head.”
Contemporary art can be found at any of the galleries that have emerged there since the visionary dealer Lucio Amelio appeared in the 1960s, seemingly out of nowhere, to establish the Modern Art Agency, a pioneering gallery that served as a beachhead in Naples for works first by artists of Italy’s Arte Povera movement and later by key proponents of the Pop and German neo-Expressionist schools.
With his impeccable eye and preternatural energy, the ill-fated Amelio (he died of AIDS- related complications in 1994) lured Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and others to show at his renamed Galleria Lucio Amelio. The gallerist acted as both proselytizer and pied piper for movements that wouldn’t be embraced by Italy’s richer industrial cities for decades. In Amelio’s wake came establishments like Galleria Lia Rumma, Dino Morra Arte Contemporanea, and Galleria Fonti, with its roster of stars from the international art fair circuit
But contemporary art can also be found in surprising places. For a time, a suite of moody water- color works by the Naples-born artist Francesco Clemente were slyly interspersed among the Farnese Marbles and relics of Pompeii at Naples’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale. At the hilltop Museo di Capodimonte one afternoon on my visit, I happened upon display cases crammed with rare objects amassed by the eighteenth-century Bourbon rulers of Naples and, stealthily inserted among them, Fallen Woman, a wornan-headed porcelain baton by the French-born American sculptor Louise Bourgeois.
On another day during an early-winter week in Naples, I climbed the zigzag streets of a sleepy residential hillside to find the place where, in 2008, the Neapolitan philanthropist and collector Giuseppe Morra converted a disused power station into the Museo Hermann Nitsch. Morra filled the museum exclusively with works by the Austrian artist, a self-mythologizing cult provocateur and overall nut job who was among the founders of the transgressive, anti-commodity Viennese Actionism movement of the ’60s, generally credited as a forerunner of performance art.
The vistas extending in all directions from a terrace outside this obscure spot were scant preparation for what lay inside: canvases spattered with animal blood; videos of Nitsch’s adherents blanketed in entrails; films of the pagan rituals that the 78-year-old artist continues to stage. As it happened, though, the shock wore off quickly. The eye adjusted in no time to Nitsch’s gore-fest evocations of Christian ritual and martyrdom.
By then I’d been in Naples for the better part of a week and had adapted, somewhat, to the local appetite for the macabre. I’d seen, for instance, the Museo Cappella Sansevero, a privately-run museum containing Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ, an eighteenth-century marble often cited as the epitome of the sculptor’s art. As can happen with official masterpieces, the Veiled Christ left me unmoved, a sight to be checked off on an imaginary list. Down in a crypt below the chapel, however, I stumbled upon two grotesque but astonishing sculptures that left me dumbfounded and in a state of mild shock. The Anatomical Machines of Dr. Giuseppe Salerno are a pair off fleshless depictions of a man and a woman constructed of iron, silk, and beeswax over the armature of human skeletons. The morbid couple—commissioned in 1763 by a Neapolitan prince—instantly summon up comparisons with Damien Hirst’s dead shark eternally afloat in a tank of formaldehyde. Of course, these were scientific studies, not ghoulish memento mori created to amuse the collecting faction of the One Percent.
“Artis always contemporary in Naples,” Andrea Viliani remarked offhandedly to me as we made our way through MADRE on that uncommonly warm November morning. He meant that antiquity and modernity are always in dialogue in a city whose nougat layers are embedded with remnants of civilizations that included Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish, French, and also Italians, of whose republic Naples can sometimes seem only notionally apart.
The observation stuck with me as I left MADRE and lit out through the slot-canyon streets of the ancient Spaccanapoli, promptly stumbling upon a wall stenciled by the elusive graffiti wizard Banksy. The enigmatic artist had apparently been through Naples, furtively covering its old stones with his culturally pointed imagery. There that day was an ascending Madonna, heaven-bound and hands upraised in bafflement or benediction.
I had a date that afternoon to meet the photographer Roberto Salomone at an open-air market in Forcella, a neighborhood where, I’m told, the local organized crime gangs still quietly hold sway. Roberto had recently returned from Lampedusa, the Italian island where he’s documented the immigrant waves that have become the Mediterranean’s grim new bounty. After wandering awhile, we exited into the centuries-old grid of streets called the Decumani and almost immediately encountered a wall-size mural depicting the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro.
The portrait, Roberto explained to me, had been commissioned by a local contemporary arts group. Instead of the usual bland depiction of the saint, this one was intensely soulful. Dressed in a silken chasuble and the customary golden bishop’s miter, this figure had the face of a tough and tender street kid.
“Every aspect of Naples has two faces,” Roberto said, as a motor scooter rounding a corner nearly clipped me. Its rider was helmetless because, according to Roberto, in Forcella only assassins cover their faces and heads. “Touch wood,” Roberto said of my near miss. “Or touch something else,” he added, motioning toward my groin.
Later that week, I found myself seated at a horseshoe-shaped metal counter in a restaurant whose name in English translates roughly as “Superstition Pizza.” The brick-oven joint was the newest endeavor of 41-year-old Gino Sorbillo, scion of a justly celebrated local pizza dynasty. Every so often a male customer could be seen reflexively tapping his crotch to ward off bad luck. I thought of an observation a friend, the designer Allegra Hicks, had made about her adopted city. “I never heard of so many superstitions until I came to Naples,” said Allegra. “You have to have a silver or a gold horn because it brings you luck. Even the priest has a corno,” said the Turin native, now married to a Neapolitan nobleman.
A rapport with the irrational seems perfectly natural in a city located in an earthquake zone and nestled near an active volcano. The prospect of imminent eruption of the sort that buried Pompeii is so ordinary a part of daily life here that, strolling past the window of the pastry shop Scaturchio one afternoon, I happen upon an enormous mm cake in the shape of Mount Vesuvius.
Death in life turns up in places like the cemetery of Fontanelle, an ossuary in the Materdei district that everyone I spoke to in Naples said was a must-see. You find it in a piece by the American artist Roni Horn at MADRE, a grouping of mirrors and wall-mounted cast-iron skulls that trap the unwary with reflections of themselves alongside the image of their inevitable fate.
That MADRE came into existence only a little over a decade ago seems almost improbable, so vital is the place and already so much like a permanent civic fixture. Wending my way through it one morning, I passed Francesco Clemente’s Aye Ovo—a multi-story tile and fresco installation— and later Michelangelo Pistoletto’s wondrous Arte Povera masterpiece Venus of the Rags, on my way to see Inflatable Felix. This giant balloon sculpture is by the Turner Prize-winning British artist Mark Leckey, who often incorporates the cartoon cat into his work “I’m hoping people will leave offerings to him,” Leckey once said of his Felix, a figure he considers a sort of tutelary deity.
Slumped and slightly deflated that morning, Felix looked in need of something potent. And after gazing at art for hours, so did I. Lucidly, caffeine fortification is seldom hard to come by in Naples, and I chose a caffe shekerato, a frothy shaken blend of espresso, ice, and simple syrup that makes Red Bull seem like Enfamil.
Buzzed and ready, I plunged again into the streets, aware that among the great and abiding gifts which Naples provides a visitor is the opportunity to idle and guiltlessly play the flaneur. Tumultuous, illogical, dirty, and occasionally a place of peril (thieves relieved a cruise ship passenger of his Rolex during my visit), Naples is above all a vast stage set, one whose actors seem so entirely consumed by the drama of their own existence that a stranger registers as little more than an extra.
This is no small boon to a traveler, and it gave me pleasure to wander about in what I think of as well-companioned solitude, unbothered by the hordes that threaten to turn Rome and Venice into Old World Disneyland. Throughout the days I spent in Naples, I saw no Seventh Seal gaggles blindly following a flag-waving guide. For that matter, I never saw a selfie stick.
Stopping for a late lunch on the streetside terrace of the raw bar Cru do Re one afternoon, I ordered what looked like a modest assortment of fish appetizers from a set menu. What appeared was a sequence of imaginative culinary riffs on the possibilities of uncooked fish—elegant preparations to be expected, perhaps, as part of an omakase meal prepared by a sushi master in Tokyo, but altogether a revelation in this place: salmon tartare served on slices of apple; scallops with grapefruit; codfish carpaccio; sweet shrimp with capers and caviar, all of it to be washed down with straw-colored white from Ischia, the poor-cousin island whose one advantage over Capri is its wines.
At that hour, the restaurant was empty but for me and a family that looked to have been installed there by Mob Central Casting. The couple and their two young sons were dressed in full Dolce & Gabbana regalia. They spoke not one word to each other as they consumed what appeared to be their last meal. It was a hypnotic spectacle, the sight of even the children gorging on courses of oysters followed by clams, after which calamari and four individual two-pound lobsters were served.
As I ate and ogled, I thought of something the gallery owner Giangi Fonti remarked to me one day over coffee at Gran Caffe Gambrinus. “Paradox is fundamental to us,” he said. “Naples is a city of questions, not answers, and if you are not at home with contradiction, it is not the city for you.”
Mystified but fortified, I called for the bill and then set off on foot to see Giangi at the gallery in Chiaia where he’d mounted a show titled “Veni, Vidi, Napoli.” The exhibit featured sculptures of puddles created in cast resin by the Romanian artist Daniel Knorr, along with a series of acrylic cylinders filled with what seemed to be colored vapor but was in reality poison gas.
It was a little while later that the droll logic behind Mr. Fonti’s recasting of veni, vidi, vici, a scrap of schoolroom Latin invariably attributed to Julius Caesar, hit me. It is entirely possible that Caesar did announce to the Roman Senate, after swiftly dispatching Pharnaces II of Pontus at the Battle of Zela, that he had come and seen and conquered. The historical attribution is dubious. What is beyond question, however, is that a visitor to Naples may come and see but will never truly conquer. That victory the city alone can claim.