The best architecture in Naples - Citimarks

Under the balcony

Lady looking from house window
naples street and balconies


"Life takes place on the streets, in the 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"
Émile Zola, Rome, Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1896.
chapter 1

Floating ropes

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.

man hanging laundry
lady surrounded by balconies
chapter 2

Living outdoors

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.

chapter 3

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.

ladies chatting on the street outside of their flats

Naples for architecture lovers

Explore the city’s architectural heritage and enjoy great balcony views.