Under the balcony
One of the most fascinating things on the streets of Naples is how full of life they are. Surely the same can be said about lots of other cities; but, while in London or Paris most of the traffic and commotion calms down as soon as the markets are closing and people return home, in Naples one gets the feeling that streets are busy around the clock. Neapolitans like to stay out, day in, day out, come rain or come shine; but not just anywhere: their favorite place to hang out is on the streets around their homes.
You will spot them on balconies hanging laundry, or downstairs, sweeping doorsteps; sitting on chairs outside their house, chatting with neighbors or by themselves, gazing at the passers-by. In fact, if I was asked to draw one picture that best represents Naples’ street-life, it would depict a lady sitting on a chair outside her ground-floor flat. Go past their nonchalant, motionless looks, and you will realize they have everything under control. Stick around for a while and you will likely cross some guy waiting in front of a residential building carrying grocery bags. Unsuspected travelers may mistake him for a resident or visitor; soon, they will notice a bucket, tied from a rope, coming down from an upper floor. The man will take the money from inside and place the bag of the grocery order. In a flash, the bucket will be pulled back up and the porter will already be gone.
For the eminent writer and journalist Émile Zola, this system of house delivery is part of a general culture prevailing in Naples -long before the advent of e-shops: the “culture of the balcony”. One of the greatest social reporters of all times, Zola outlines the timeless habit of the Neapolitans to spend their day on a balcony cooking, chatting, observing, and pulling up and down grocery shopping baskets.
Roger Peyrefitte was yet another French writer who drew a portrait of the Neapolitan streets squeezed somewhere between the ugly face of abandonment and the smiling, pretty faces of its people. Like most visitors, the author took notice of the omnipresent linen hanging from balconies, in a setting reminiscent of the old city in the Greek island of Corfu. There is a dedicated citinote article on the Corfiot lifestyle of narrow alleys and balconies.
Where there is no balcony, there is probably a basso. In a much grimmer setting, writers Domenico Rea and Dominique Fernandez describe the poor living conditions in the Neapolitan bassi: these one-room dwellings, half on the ground floor half on the basement, sheltering entire families between their narrow walls. Domenico Rea points out the spirit of solidarity that people who experience economic insecurity develop when living so close to one another. Dominique Fernandez, an expert in the Baroque movement, is drawn by the city’s disorder that looks so absurd, so theatrical that it somehow manages to take the edge off the misery.
If you think Naples comes down to a bunch of narrow streets and poor houses, take a cable car up to Vomero hill. There you will discover a whole new planet made of large, quiet avenues, stately neoclassical houses, and elegant squares under thick foliage. Walk further up to Castel Sant’Elmo and you will admire a breathtaking panorama of the city from its balconies. The views to the port, the countless tile roofs, the sea, the islands of the gulf, and the imposing volume of the Vesuvius compose a stunning landscape that makes one realize how multilayered this city is.
Getting to know the real identity of Naples means that one goes past the tourist zone between Toledo Street and the Spanish quarters to also discover more peaceful areas: the authentic Rione Sanità, the sunny seafront promenade in Chiaia and the affluent quarters of Vomero and Posillipo. This way, the visitor has the chance to appreciate Naples for what it is: an eternal contrast of speed and inertia, chaos and nonchalance, cheerfulness and nostalgia.
The true soul of Naples lives in the streets: its marvelous, picturesque, stirring streets! First impression: ugliness (in terms of houses, clothing, general approach). Second impression: dazzling pretty faces – faces that look Greek or Roman. Beauty no longer serves -as it did in Stendhal’s time- to “hide the dirt”; but it can still hide the misery.
Laughs and smiles – Naples was the only courtyard in Europe where Casanova was heard to burst out laughing.
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century facades featuring female busts and gentlemen in short jackets. […] Public buildings of a grandiose style built before the war – in a style influenced by the Thermal baths of Caracalla, also visible in new Rome. […] The black pavement, lava of the Vesuvius, makes you feel as if you are walking on a volcano. Alleyways with a long vaulted entrance give the impression of crossing a border, or entering a forbidden city: they look like a knife stab between very high buildings.
Linen floats from one house to another like a rainbow of colors in harmony. Neapolitans have a true mastery in draping and gathering the drapery; their know-how is surely inherited from the ancient tradition of hanging flags from windows to celebrate their kings’ triumphs.
Baskets, tied up at the tip of a long rope, come out house windows and down to some itinerant merchant; there is a way of spinning the rope that allows for more services to be rendered in these baskets: […] I once saw the delivery of a cup of coffee from the fifth floor of a building to be consumed on the sidewalk.
Roger Peyrefitte, Du Vésuve à l’Etna, Flammarion, 1966.
Narrow streets are descending under the shade of roofs that touch each other… There is laundry everywhere, humidity and a nauseating smell. The whole city lives outdoors. Light-weighted balconies hang from every window together with women and children when they are not out on the street.
A basket tied at the tip of a rope comes down for the provisions: the lady bends down, shouts her shopping list to the merchant, puts the money in the basket, and lets it down; the merchant, in turn, places the goods in the basket that will go back up.
Women, seated on balconies, sew and comb their hair. They spend most of their time out on the street: this is the place where, every single day, they are going to eat, wash and comb their hair, get dressed. Women are standing or seating, while men are squatting down the edge of the sidewalk, one next to another. Children are playing. Herds of goats are passing by and are being milked.
Food lies in every small car, each one illuminated by big square lanterns […]. Pomegranates, fruits, fried food, fish and shellfish. Ready-to-eat meals are placed there on the streets, in the middle of the crowd, allowing you to consume it on the sidewalk, without having to cook. Screams and laughs, play-fighting and childish yelps.
Once again, life takes place on the streets, in the most abandoned and most carefree qualities of outdoor living: in the songs and music, in the extraordinary feeling of carelessness, and in a cheerful misery that warms up the heart.
Pierre’s reflections: “Ah! How joyful these people are in spite of all their poverty! They’re so childish, so naive… they never complain of their misery.” […] Should we be angry at them, should we desire more science, more well-being for them? There is nothing that they have asked for and are happy to live for a few cents a day. The girl who is laughing, singing, gesturing, taking stones that she throws like a child. She suddenly bursts into laughter. […] And yet, despite all this cheerfulness under the sun, a feeling of infinite sadness still manages to emerge.
Émile Zola, Rome, Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1896.
The "basso", foundation of solidarity
The smallest living unit in Europe is the Neapolitan basso. In most cases, it is set on street level, sometimes a floor higher. In the past, there were more than a hundred thousand bassi. Today, there are twenty thousand left. The basso, which was an improvement over the fondaco – a kind of room where dozens of families lived together, one next to another, sharing the same latrines – is, for the Neapolitan, an unmistakable notion.
The basso has a ceiling no more than two to three meters high, located on the ground floor of a palace, or in a cave of tuff – the reigning stone of Naples – two to three meters wide. In addition to its residents and the conjugal bed, the basso can shelter removable camp beds reserved for relatives and friends; […] and, finally, the latrines. The latter consist of a hole, turned into a water closet, hidden by a curtain and covered with a brick. […] Given the place’s tiny size, one ends up learning the art of loving from the earliest age.
The misery of the bassi dwellers has been the foundation of Neapolitan society. A floor above the basso, the so-called “noble floor”, is inhabited by wealthy people, nobles or nobles in decline and bourgeois, almost as poor as the bassi residents.
Those of the upper floors throw leftovers and food waste, worn-out clothes, etc. to the bassi residents below. […] For hundreds and hundreds of years, the basso survived, thanks to an economic system of “mutual assistance” that makes each one, continually, lend something to the other.
Domenico Rea, Visite privée : Naples, Editions du Chêne, 1991.
We walked along the alleys of the old districts, where the sun never comes in, and even the daylight has a hard time creeping in. A fifth of the population lives crammed in windowless ground-floor rooms, the bassi. The vast courtyards I am entering are as dirty and black as the guts of the earth. Light will only appear after dark, when the thousands of light bulbs will start to shine, from one balcony to another, in tinsel, in bunches, around wall-embedded tabernacles, or others, hanging out on shelves, stuck in the mouths of calve heads hanging above the door of butcher shops.
Buildings of porous walls, often unfinished […]; mysterious stairways leading to open-air landings abandoned to cats and garbage; not a single tree or garden in sight; the only thing evoking nature was the tufa of the facades, looking as if it was made out of cliffs with natural caves to enter: a landscape untouched by time or any known geological eras. A magnificent portal with a coat of arms, carved into a rotten wall, looks like the remains of a very old colonial occupation.
Here and there, people’s heads pop up, or arms laden with linen, or naked children; a pile of scrap metal takes up a corner in the yard; large copper beds with rounded frames are gleaming in the twilight. This entire baroque decor saves Naples from the smallness that would have prevailed in a French interior of a much superior condition.
Life may be humiliated there, but the residents of these caves have a marvelous familiarity with the superfluous and the absurd. They are running around between kids and troubles with a theatrical flair that keeps their misery from looking like misery; it rather looks like a whimsical and dramatic disorder.
Cries and tears escape through the windows. Women call to each other, striking their breasts with strong bangs. The delivery boy, balancing a load on his head, walks by like a tightrope walker. Tears, gestures and screams. The Neapolitans thus do not express a blinkered vital energy, as so many travelers would have thought, but the fragility, the pathetic fickleness of their being […].
Dominique Fernandez, Mère méditerranée, Bernard Grasset. 1969.
Naples for architecture lovers
Explore the city’s architectural heritage and enjoy great balcony views.