The best architecture in Naples - Citimarks

Under the balcony

Lady looking from house window
naples street and balconies


"Life unfolds on the streets, embracing the most carefree aspects of outdoor living: in songs and music, in the extraordinary feeling of carelessness, and in a cheerful poverty that warms the heart."
Émile Zola, Rome, Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1896.
chapter 1

Floating ropes

The true soul of Naples thrives in its streets -vibrant, picturesque, and evocative! At first glance, an impression of ruggedness prevails — in the architecture, attire, and overall demeanor. Yet, beneath this surface, one encounters dazzling faces reminiscent of Greek or Roman art. Beauty, no longer serves -as it did in Stendhal’s time- as a mere cloak to “hide the dirt”; but it can still conceal the hardships.

Laughs and smiles – Naples the sole courtyard in Europe where even Casanova couldn’t resist bursting into laughter.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century facades adorned with female busts and gentlemen in short jackets. […] Grandiose public buildings, influenced by the Thermal baths of Caracalla, stand as relics from pre-war times — a style mirrored in the new Rome. […] The black Vesuvian lava pavement imparts a sensation of walking on a volcano. Narrow alleyways, with long, vaulted entrances, create the illusion of crossing a border or entering a forbidden city; a stab between towering structures.

Linen gracefully drapes from one house to another, forming a rainbow of harmonious colors. Neapolitans exhibit true mastery in the art of draping and gathering fabric, a skill undoubtedly inherited from the age-old tradition of hanging flags to celebrate royal triumphs.

Baskets, tethered to the tip of a lengthy rope, descend from house windows to itinerant merchants; the deft spinning of the rope allows for various items to be transported in these baskets: […] I once witnessed the delivery of a cup of coffee from the fifth floor of a building to be savored 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 descend under the shade of roofs that nearly touch each other. Laundry hangs everywhere, mingling with the humidity and a distinctive, lingering scent. The entire city seems to thrive outdoors. Lightweight balconies extend from every window, often adorned with women and children when they are not out on the street.

A basket, tethered to a rope, descends for provisions: the lady leans down, calls out her shopping list to the merchant, places money in the basket, and sends it down; the merchant, in return, fills the basket with goods to be hoisted back up.

Women, seated on balconies, sew and comb their hair. They spend most of their time outdoors; the street is where they eat, wash, comb their hair, and get dressed daily. Women stand or sit, while men squat along the sidewalk, side by side. Children play. Herds of goats pass by and are milked.

Every small cart displays food, illuminated by large square lanterns […]. Pomegranates, fruits, fried food, fish, and shellfish. Ready-to-eat meals are available on the streets, amidst the crowd, allowing consumption on the sidewalk without the need to cook. The atmosphere is filled with shouts, laughter, playful skirmishes, and childish yelps.

Once again, life unfolds on the streets, embracing the most carefree aspects of outdoor living: in songs and music, in the extraordinary feeling of carelessness, and in a cheerful poverty that warms the heart.

Pierre’s reflections: ‘Ah! How joyful these people are despite their poverty! They are so childlike, so naive… never complaining about their hardship.’ […] Should we be angered by them, or should we wish for more knowledge and well-being for them? They have not asked for anything more and find contentment in living on a few cents a day. The girl, laughing, singing, gesturing, taking stones to throw like a child. She suddenly bursts into laughter. […] Yet, despite all this cheerfulness under the sun, a sense of infinite sadness manages to permeate the scene.

Émile Zola, Rome, Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1896.

chapter 3

The "basso", foundation of solidarity

The Neapolitan basso stands as the smallest living unit in Europe. In most cases, it is situated at street level or, at times, a floor higher. Historically, there were over a hundred thousand bassi, but today, only twenty thousand remain. Evolving from the fondaco, a communal room where numerous families coexisted, side by side, sharing common latrines, the basso holds a distinct place in the Neapolitan consciousness.

The basso, typically featuring a ceiling no more than two to three meters high, is positioned on the ground floor of a palace or within a cave carved from the prevalent tuff stone of Naples, measuring two to three meters in width. In addition to its residents and the matrimonial bed, the basso may accommodate portable camp beds for relatives and friends; […] and, lastly, the latrines. These consist of a hole converted into a water closet, discreetly shielded by a curtain and capped with a brick. […] Given the compact dimensions of the space, inhabitants inevitably learn the art of love from an early age.

The hardship of bassi dwellers has laid the groundwork for Neapolitan society. A floor above the basso, referred to as the ‘noble floor,’ is inhabited by the affluent—nobles or those in a state of decline—and bourgeois individuals, nearly as economically challenged as the residents of the bassi.

Inhabitants of the upper floors dispose of leftovers, food waste and worn-out clothes by casting them down to the basso residents below. This practice has persisted for centuries, illustrating an economic system of ‘mutual assistance’ where each participant consistently lends something to the other.

Domenico Rea, Visite privée : Naples, Editions du Chêne, 1991.

We meandered through the labyrinthine alleys of the ancient districts, where sunlight seldom penetrates, and even daylight struggles to make its way. Approximately a fifth of the population resides in cramped, windowless ground-floor rooms known as the bassi. The vast courtyards I entered resembled the dirty, black innards of the earth. True illumination only emerges after dark, as thousands of light bulbs begin to glow, adorning balconies like tinsel, clustering around wall-embedded tabernacles or suspended on shelves, sometimes inserted in the mouths of calf heads hanging above butcher shop entrances.

Buildings with porous, often unfinished walls […] feature mysterious stairways leading to open-air landings abandoned to cats and refuse. There isn’t a single tree or garden in sight; the only semblance of nature arises from the tufa facades, appearing as if hewn from cliffs with natural caves to enter—an untouched landscape transcending time and known geological eras. A splendid portal, adorned with a coat of arms, carved into a decaying wall, resembles the remnants of a bygone colonial occupation.

Occasionally, heads appear, arms laden with linen, or naked children; a pile of scrap metal occupies a corner in the yard, while large copper beds with rounded frames gleam in the twilight. This entire baroque spectacle rescues Naples from the constriction that might have prevailed in a French interior of far superior condition.

Life in these caves may be marked by hardship, yet the inhabitants display a remarkable acquaintance with the superfluous and the absurd. They navigate through the challenges and everyday troubles with a theatrical flair that transforms their misery into something beyond mere hardship. Instead, it takes on the semblance of a whimsical and dramatic disorder.

Cries and tears spill through the open windows. Women call out to each other, punctuating their calls with resonant beats on their chests. A delivery boy, balancing a load on his head, traverses the scene like a tightrope walker. Amidst the tears, gestures, and screams, Neapolitans reveal not a narrow, boundless vitality, as many travelers might assume, but rather the fragility and poignant capriciousness of their existence.

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.