Located under the shadow of Vesuvius, Naples is the most vibrant city in Italy—a steaming, bubbling, reverberating minestrone in which each block is a small village and everything seems to be a backdrop for an opera not yet composed.
It’s said that northern Italians vacation here to remind themselves of the time when Italy was molto Italiana—really Italian. In this respect, Naples (Napoli in Italian) doesn’t disappoint: Neapolitan rainbows of laundry wave in the wind over alleyways, mothers caress children, men break out into impromptu arias at sidewalk cafés, and street scenes offer Fellini-esque slices of life. Everywhere contrasting elements of faded gilt and romance, grandeur and squalor form a pageant of pure Italianità—Italy at its most Italian.
As the historic capital of the region known as Campania, Naples has been perpetually and tumultuously in a state of flux. Neapolitans are instinctively the most hospitable of people, and they’ve often paid a price for being so, having unwittingly extended a warm welcome to wave after wave of invaders. Lombards, Goths, Normans, Swabians, Spanish viceroys and kings, and Napoleonic generals arrived in turn; most of them proved to be greedy and self-serving. Still, if these foreign rulers bled the populace dry with taxes, they left the impoverished city with a rich architectural inheritance.
Much of that inheritance is on display in the Centro Storico neighborhood, where the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo and the surrounding blocks are a showplace for the city’s most beloved churches. Compared to most other great metropolises of the world, Naples has little tourist infrastructure, forcing you to become a native very quickly, which you will if you spend enough time wandering through the gridlike narrow streets of the old center.
POINTS OF INTEREST
MUSEO DI CAPODIMONTE
The grandiose 18th-century neoclassical Bourbon royal palace houses fine and decorative art. Capodimonte’s greatest treasure is the excellent collection of paintings displayed in the Galleria Nazionale, on the palace’s first and second floors. Aside from the artwork, part of the royal apartments still has a collection of beautiful antique furniture (most of it on the splashy scale so dear to the Bourbons), and a staggering range of porcelain and majolica from the various royal residences. Most rooms have fairly comprehensive information cards in English, whereas the audio guide is overly selective and somewhat quirky. The main galleries on the first floor are devoted to work from the 13th to the 18th century, including many pieces by Dutch and Spanish masters. On the second floor look for stunning paintings by Simone Martini (circa 1284–1344), Titian (1488/90–1576), and Caravaggio (1573–1610). The palace is in the vast Bosco di Capodimonte (Capodimonte Park), which served as the royal hunting preserve and later as the site of the Capodimonte porcelain works.
REGGIA DI CASERTA
The palace known as the Reggia shows how Bourbon royals lived in the mid-18th century. Architect Luigi Vanvitelli devoted 20 years to its construction under Bourbon ruler Charles III, whose son, Ferdinand IV (1751–1825), moved in when it was completed in 1774. Both king and architect were inspired by Versailles, and the rectangular palace was conceived on a massive scale, with four interconnecting courtyards, 1,200 rooms, and a vast park. Though the palace is not as well maintained as its French counterpart, the main staircase puts the one at Versailles to shame, and the royal apartments are sumptuous. It was here, in what Eisenhower called “a castle near Naples,” that the Allied High Command had its headquarters in World War II, and here that German forces in Italy surrendered in April 1945. There’s a museum of items relating to the palace and the region. Most enjoyable are the gardens and parks, particularly the Cascades, adorned with sculptures of the goddess Diana and her maidens, and the landscaped English Garden at the far end. A shuttle bus will help you cover the 3-km (2-mile) path from the palace to the end of the gardens. You can also rent a bicycle just inside the park. Take the frequent—but slow—train service from Stazione Centrale. The palace is just across from the station. By car, leave the Naples-Caserta motorway at Caserta Sud and follow signs to the Reggia. Park in the underground lot opposite the palace.
Perched on the Vomero, this massive castle is almost the size of a small town. Built by the Angevins in the 14th century to dominate the port and the old city, it was remodeled by the Spanish in 1537. The parapets, configured in the form of a six-pointed star, provide fabulous views. The whole bay lies on one side; on another, the city spreads out like a map, its every dome and turret clearly visible; to the east is slumbering Vesuvius. Once a major military outpost, the castle these days hosts occasional cultural events. Its prison, the Carcere alto di Castel Sant’Elmo, is the site of the Museo del Novecento Napoli, which traces Naples’s 20th-century artistic output, from the Futurist period through the 1980s.
CERTOSA E MUSEO DI SAN MARTINO
Atop a rocky promontory with fabulous view of the entire city and majestic salons that would please any monarch, the Certosa di San Martino is a monastery that seems more like a palace. The certosa, or charter house, had been started in 1325, but by the 18th century, it had grown so sumptuous that Ferdinand IV was threatening to halt the religious order’s government subsidy. Although the Angevin heritage can be seen in the pointed arches and cross-vaulted ceiling of the Certosa Church, over the years dour Gothic was traded in for varicolored Neapolitan Baroque.
The sacristy leads into the Cappella del Tesoro, with Luca Giordano’s ceiling fresco of Judith holding aloft Holofernes’s head and the painting by Il Ribera (the Pietà over the altar is one of his masterpieces). The polychrome marble work of the architect and sculptor Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678) is at its finest here, and he displays a gamut of sculptural skills in the Chiostro Grande (Great Cloister). Fanzago’s ceremonial portals at each corner of the cloister are among the most spectacular of all Baroque creations, aswirl with Michelangelo-esque ornament. The nearby Museo dell’Opera, not always open, contains sociology-theme rooms that add up to a chronological tour of the city. One room has 13 gouaches of Vesuvius, and another has paintings depicting the Plague. The Quarto del Priore (Prior’s Quarters), the residence of the only monk allowed contact with the outside world, is an extravaganza of salons filled with frescoes, majolica-tile floors, and paintings, plus extensive gardens where scenic pergolati (roofed balconies) overlook the bay.
Entering from the Quarto del Priore side, you come upon two splendid gilded coaches and then the “Vessels of the King” naval museum, with a 20-meter (65-foot) boat occupying a whole room. Beyond this lie two rooms with Early Renaissance masterpieces; subsequent rooms hold works by later artists, including the tireless Luca Giordano. Past the library, with its heavenly majolica-tile floor, comes the Sezione Presepiale, the world’s greatest collection of Christmas cribs. Pride of place goes to the Presepe (Nativity scene) of Michele Cucineniello. Equally amazing in its own way is a crib inside an eggshell.
CATACOMBA DI SAN GENNARO
These catacombs—designed for Christian burial—date back at least as far as the 2nd century AD. This was where St. Gennaro’s body was brought from Pozzuoli in the 5th century, after which the catacombs became a key pilgrimage center. The 45-minute guided tour of the two-level site takes you down a series of vestibules with frescoed niche tombs. Looming over the site is the imposing bulk of the early-20th-century Madre del Buon Consiglio Church, whose form was apparently inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome. Under the general site name of Catacombe di Napoli, these catacombs are now linked ticketwise with the Catacomba di San Gaudioso, in the Sanità district.
Now a chiefly residential neighborhood, the Vomero Hill was once the patrician address of many of Naples’s most extravagant estates. La Floridiana is the sole surviving 19th-century example, built in 1817 on order of Ferdinand I for Lucia Migliaccio, duchess of Floridia—their portraits hang by the main entrance of the villa. Only nine shocking months after his first wife, the Habsburg Maria Carolina, died, when the court was still in mourning, Ferdinand secretly married Lucia, his longtime mistress. Scandal ensued, but the king and his new wife were too happy to worry, escaping high above the city to this elegant little estate. Designed by architect Antonio Niccolini in the Neoclassical style, the house is now occupied by the Museo Nazionale della Ceramica Duca di Martina, a museum devoted to the decorative arts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Countless cases on the upper floor display what Edith Wharton described as “all those fragile and elaborate trifles the irony of fate preserves when brick and marble crumble”: Sèvres, Limoges, and Meissen porcelains, gold watches, ivory fans, glassware, enamels, majolica vases. Sadly, there are no period rooms left to see. Outside is a park done in the English style by Degenhardt, who also designed the park at Capodimonte.
MUSEO CIVICO GAETANO FILANGIERI
Housed in a 15th-century palazzo, this museum was opened in 1888 by Gaetano Filangieri, prince of Satriano, to house his large and varied collection of paintings, sculptures, porcelain, weapons, and manuscripts. The arched ceiling of the armory features a glittering golden mosaic that bears the family’s coat of arms, and the Sala Agata upstairs, with its wooden tiers and majolica floor, is a museum piece in and of itself. The archive stores letters from Benjamin Franklin to Filangieri’s grandfather, author of The Science of Legislation (1780); it’s said that the book and its mention of the pursuit of happiness inspired the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In the 1870s, the impressive Palazzo Como became known locally as o palazzo ca cammina (the walking building), when it was moved back 65 feet, brick by brick, to widen Via Duomo.
THE MADONNA AND PISTOL
There is now just one piece by controversial street artist Banksy in Italy (a second, in nearby Santa Chiara, was covered over in 2010). Located on the wall of the birthplace of 17th-century philospher Giambattista Vico, a stencilled La Madonna con la Pistola sits beside a religious shrine to the Virgin Mary.
SAN LORENZO MAGGIORE
One of the city’s unmissable sights, with a travel-through-time descent to Roman and Greek times, as well as the grandest medieval church of the Decumano Maggiore. The Archaeological Area explores the original streets below the bustling Centro Storico, first with the Roman law courts then down a level to the streets, markets, and workshops on the cardo (North-South road) crossing the decumani (East-West road) of the 1st century BC Neapolis.
The church of San Lorenzo features a very unmedieval facade of 18th-century splendor. Due to the effects and threats of earthquakes, the church was reinforced and reshaped along Baroque lines in the 17th and 18th centuries. Begun by Robert d’Anjou in 1270 on the site of a previous 6th-century church, the church has a single, barnlike nave that reflects the Franciscans’ desire for simple spaces with enough room to preach to large crowds. A grandiose triumphal arch announces the transept, and the main altar (1530) is the sculptor Giovanni da Nola’s masterpiece; this is a copy of the original, now disappeared, pedestal. Also found here is the church’s most important monument: the tomb of Catherine of Austria (circa 1323), by Tino da Camaino, among the first sculptors to introduce the Gothic style into Italy.
The apse, designed by an unknown French architect of great caliber, is pure French Angevin in style, complete with an ambulatory of nine chapels covered by a magnificent web of cross arches. The left transept contains the 14th-century funerary monument of Carlo di Durazzo and yet another Cosimo Fanzago masterpiece, the Cappellone di Sant’Antonio.
Tickets to the scavi also gives access to the Museo dell’Opera di San Lorenzo, installed in the 16th-century palazzo around the torre campanaria (bell tower). In Room 1 ancient remains from the Greek agora beneath combine with modern maps to provide a fascinating impression of import and export trends in the 4th century BC. The museum also contains ceramics dug up from the Svevian period, many pieces from the early Middle Ages, large tracts of mosaics from the 6th-century basilica, and helpful models of how the ancient Roman forum and nearby buildings must have looked. An app is available to do further do justice to a place that exists in several historical dimensions.
MUSEO CAPPELLA SANSEVERO
The dazzling funerary chapel of the Sangro di Sansevero princes combines noble swagger, overwhelming color, and a touch of the macabre—which expresses Naples perfectly. The chapel was begun in 1590 by Prince Giovan Francesco di Sangro to fulfill a vow to the Virgin if he were cured of a dire illness. The seventh Sangro di Sansevero prince, Raimondo, had the building modified in the mid-18th century and is generally credited for its current Baroque styling, the noteworthy elements of which include the splendid marble-inlay floor. A larger-than-life figure, Prince Raimondo was believed to have signed a pact with the devil allowing him to plumb nature’s secrets. He commissioned the young sculptor Giuseppe Sammartino to create numerous works, including the chapel’s centerpiece, the remarkable Veiled Christ, which has a seemingly transparent marble veil some say was produced using a chemical formula provided by the prince. If you have the stomach for it, take a look in the crypt, where some of the anatomical experiments conducted by the prince are gruesomely displayed.
Hemmed in on three sides, this cathedral is a trip through the city’s history. Although the cathedral was established in the 1200s, the building you see was erected a century later and has since undergone radical changes—especially during the Baroque period. Inside, ancient columns salvaged from pagan buildings rise to the 350-year-old richly decorated false wooden ceiling (the original Gothic ceiling is 6 meters higher). Off the left aisle, step down into the 4th-century church of Santa Restituta, which was incorporated into the cathedral. Though Santa Restituta was redecorated in the late 1600s in the prevalent Baroque style, the Battistero (Baptistery) is the oldest in the Western world, with what some claim to be the most beautiful mosaics in Italy.
On the right aisle of the cathedral, in the Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro, multicolor marbles and frescoes honor Saint Januarius, the miracle-working patron saint of Naples, whose altar and relics are encased in silver. Three times a year—on September 19 (his feast day); on the Saturday preceding the first Sunday in May, which commemorates the transfer of his relics to Naples; and on December 16—his dried blood, contained in two sealed vials, is believed to liquefy during rites in his honor; the rare occasions on which it does not liquefy portend ill, as in 1980, the year of the Irpinia earthquake. The most spectacular painting on display is Ribera’s San Gennaro in the Furnace (1647), depicting the saint emerging unscathed from the furnace while his persecutors scatter in disarray. These days large numbers of devout Neapolitans offer up prayers in his memory. The Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro houses a rich collection of treasures associated with the saint. Paintings by Solimena and Luca Giordano hang alongside statues, busts, candelabras, and tabernacles in gold, silver, and marble by Cosimo Fanzago and other 18th-century Baroque masters.
PIO MONTE DELLA MISERICORDIA
One of the Centro Storico’s defining sites, this octagonal church was built around the corner from the Duomo for a charitable institution seven noblemen founded in 1601. The institution’s aim was to carry out acts of Christian charity like feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, nursing the sick, sheltering pilgrims, visiting prisoners, and burying the indigent dead—acts immortalized in the history of art by Caravaggio’s famous altarpiece depicting the Sette Opere della Misericordia (Seven Acts of Mercy). In this haunting work, the artist has brought the Virgin, borne atop the shoulders of two angels, down into the streets of Spaccanapoli, populated by figures in whose spontaneous and passionate movements the people could see themselves. The original church was considered too small and was destroyed in 1658 to make way for a new church that was designed by Antonio Picchiatti and built between 1658 and 1672. Pride of place is given to the great Caravaggio above the altar, but there are other important Baroque paintings on view here. Some hang in the church—among them seven other works of mercy depicted individually by Caravaggio acolytes—while other works, including a wonderful self-portrait by Luca Giordano, are in the adjoining pinacoteca (picture gallery). Step into the choral chamber for a bird’s-eye view of the Sette Opere della Misericordia.
Offering a stark and telling contrast to the opulence of the nearby Gesù Nuovo, Santa Chiara is the leading Angevin Gothic monument in Naples. The fashionable house of worship for the 14th-century nobility and a favorite Angevin church from the start, the church of St. Clare was intended to be a great dynastic monument by Robert d’Anjou. His second wife, Sancia di Majorca, added the adjoining convent for the Poor Clares to a monastery of the Franciscan Minors so she could vicariously satisfy a lifelong desire for the cloistered seclusion of a convent. This was the first time the two sexes were combined in a single complex. Built in a Provençal Gothic style between 1310 and 1328 (probably by Guglielmo Primario) and dedicated in 1340, the church had its aspect radically altered, as did so many others, in the Baroque period. A six-day fire started by Allied bombs on August 4, 1943, put an end to all that, as well as to what might have been left of the important cycle of frescoes by Giotto and his Neapolitan workshop. The church’s most important tomb towers behind the altar. Sculpted by Giovanni and Pacio Bertini of Florence (1343–45), it is, fittingly, the tomb of the founding king: the great Robert d’Anjou, known as the Wise. Nearby are the tombs of Carlo, duke of Calabria, and his wife, Marie de Valois, both by Tino da Camaino.
Around the left side of the church is the Chiostro delle Clarisse, the most famous cloister in Naples. Complemented by citrus trees, the benches and octagonal columns comprise a light-handed masterpiece of painted majolica designed by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, with a delightful profusion of landscapes and light yellow and green floral motifs realized by Donato and Giuseppe Massa and their studio (1742).
A stunning architectural contrast to the plain Romanesque frontage of other nearby churches, the oddly faceted stone facade of this elaborate Baroque church dates to the late 16th century. Originally a palace, the building was seized by Pedro of Toledo in 1547 and donated to the Jesuits on the condition the facade remain intact. Recent research has revealed that the symbols on the stones out front are Aramaic musical notes that produce a 45-minute concerto. Behind the entrance is Francesco Solimena’s action-packed Helidorus’ Eviction from the Temple. The bulk of the interior decoration took more than 40 years and was completed only in the 18th century. You can find the work of familiar Baroque sculptors (Naccherino, Finelli) and painters inside. The gracious Visitation above the altar in the second chapel on the right is by Massimo Stanzione, who also contributed the fine frescoes in the main nave: they’re in the presbytery (behind and around the main altar).
Don’t miss the votive chapel dedicated to the surgeon and university teacher Saint Giuseppe Moscato, along with a re-creation of his studio. Here hundreds of tiny silver images have been hung on the walls to give thanks to the saint, who was canonized in 1987, for his assistance in medical matters. On the opposite far left corner a smaller chapel similarly gives thanks to San Ciro (Saint Cyrus), also a doctor. Further down are impressive statues of David and Jeremiah by Fanzago. Left of the altar the wooden heads of various saints are aligned like gods in an antique theater.
SAN GIUSEPPE DEI RUFFI
Every morning at 8 am (and midday on Sunday), the Perpetue Adoratrici (Sacramentine nuns) beautifully sing early mass beneath Francesco de Mura’s The Paradise, inside this late-17th-century church. Dressed in immaculate white and red habits, the nuns, at the end of the celebration, prostrate themselves before the altar, which stretches upward with layer after Baroque layer of Dionisio Lazzari’s sumptuous gold and marble (1686), topped by the putti and the figures of Hope and Charity by Matteo Bottigliero (1733). Upon entering or exiting, take note of San Giuseppe dei Ruffi’s dramatically Baroque facade, designed, as was the interior, by Lazzari, a renowned architect and sculptor. Hearing the nuns sing is a unique, if little known, Naples experience, and well worth rising early for.
SAN SEVERO AL PENDINO
Erected in the 16th century atop a previous church, this building has evolved many times—from the church of San Severo into a private palace, a monastery later suppressed by Napoleon, a state archive, a World War II bomb shelter, and an earthquake-damaged relic—before a long and painstaking renovation restored its luster. To the right of the nave rests the tomb of Charles V’s general—and original church benefactor—Giovanni Bisvallo. In addition to its aesthetic highlights, the complex also provides a telling lesson on mortality. Aboveground one can view the grandeur of monuments to the dead. Less grandly, a brief excursion downstairs reveals the scolatoi; these are draining holes where the recently deceased, seated upright and left to be drained of bodily fluids, were visited daily by Domenican monks seeking to reinforce their sense of the fragility of human existence.
SAN DOMENICO MAGGIORE
One of the Centro Storico’s largest churches, this Dominican house of worship was originally constructed by Charles I of Anjou in 1238. Legend has it that a painting of the crucifixion spoke to St. Thomas Aquinas when he was at prayer here. Three centuries later a fire destroyed most of this early structure, and in 1850 a neo-Gothic edifice rose in its place, complete with a nave of awe-inspiring dimensions. In the second chapel on the right (if you enter through the north door) are remnants of the earlier church—14th-century frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, a Roman predecessor of Giotto. Note the depiction of Mary Magdalene dressed in her own hair, and, in front, the crucifixion of Andrew as a devil strangles his judge, the Prefect Aegeas, just below. Along the side are some noted funerary monuments, including those of the Carafa family, whose chapel, to the left of Cosimo Fanzago’s 17th-century altar, is a beautiful Renaissance-era set-piece. The San Carlo Borromeo chapel features an excellent Baptism of Christ (1564), by Marco Pino, a Michelangelo protégé. Other interesting works are the unusual Madonna di Latte, in the Cappella di S. Maria Maddalena, and a beautiful Madonna by Agostino Tesauro in the Cappella San Giovanni. A Ribera painting in the San Bartolomeo chapel depicts the saint’s martyrdom. Near the back of the church, looking like a giant gold peacock’s tail, is the so-called Machine of 40 Hours, a devotional device for displaying the sacrament for the 40 hours between Christ’s burial and resurrection.
Adjacent to the church is its brilliantly restored Domenican monastery, where Saint Thomas Aquinas studied and taught. Virtual photographs outside the Chapter Hall show how the monastery, parts of which date to the 13th century, would have looked before the suppression of monasteries under Napoleon. The hall itself contains a significant fresco of the Crucifixion by the late 17th-century Sicilian painter Michele Ragolia, and the ubiquitous Baroque master Fanzago is responsible for the stuccowork. Note the false windows, a work of optical illusion common to the period.
The standout work in the nearby Grand Refectory is Domenico Vaccaro’s Last Supper mural, in which Christ comforts John while Judas, clutching a moneybag, glares at something else. Another mural in Refectory depicts a famous incident from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s life here. Christ is shown directing at Thomas the words, Bravo Tommaso che parlasti bene di me. (Well done, Thomas, for speaking well of me.) Visible in the Refectory are the remains of the stations where the monks would wash their hands before eating, but more recently it served as a law court. Two Camorra bosses—Raffaele Cutolo and Pupetta Maresca—were sentenced here as late as the 1990s.
Also of note are the cloisters, originally for about a hundred monks, now less than five remain. It was here that Thomas Aquinas lived and studied and taught from 1272 to 1274. A magnificent doorway by Marco Bottiglieri marks his cell, now a chapel that is, alas, only rarely visitable.
MUSEO DIOCESANO NAPOLI
This impressive museum exhibits brilliantly restored works by late-Gothic, Renaissance, and Neapolitan Baroque masters. It incorporates the Baroque church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova, which was started in 1617 and consecrated 50 years later for Francescan nuns (les Clarisses), and the Gothic Donnaregina Vecchia, which was damaged by an earthquake. In more modern times the building was used as legal offices before being closed completely, and becoming prey to the occasional theft as well as bomb damage during World War II. In 2008 the space was officially reborn as a museum.
The last two works of Luca Giordano, The Wedding at Cana and The Multiplication of Loaves, both from 1705, are displayed on either side of the church’s altar, which was moved from the original church. The central painting focuses on the life of the Virgin Mary, while the first chapel on the left houses French painter Charles Mellin’s beautiful Immaculate Conception (1646). To the left of the nave is a space rich in Gothic and Renaissance statuary from the former church. Take the elevator upstairs to where the nuns once attended Mass, concealed from the congregation by screens. The works on display there follow the theme of life as an Imitation of Christ. There is also the chance to see Francesco Solimena’s 17th-century roof frescoes close up, with floodlights showing off their restoration to maximum effect.
With 8,000 square meters (86,111 square feet) of exhibition space, a host of young and helpful attendants, and occasional late-night events, the Madre is one of the most visited museums in Naples. Most of the artworks on the first floor were installed in situ by their creators, but the second-floor gallery exhibits works by international and Italian contemporary artists. The museum also hosts temporary shows by major international artists.
COMPLESSO MUSEALE SANTA MARIA DELLE ANIME DEL PURGATORIO AD ARCO
Once a tavern, this building was rebuilt by the Monte di Pietà charity in 1616 as a church, and its two stories are fascinatingly complementary. As bare as the upper Church is lavish, the altar below-stairs is a stark black cross against a peeling gray wall. The nave covers what was a 1656 plague pit now set off by chains with four lamps to represent the flames of Purgatory. As the pit filled up, to accommodate more recent dead the skulls of earlier plague victims were placed on the central floor. So was born the cult of le anime pezzentelle (wretched souls). By praying for them, the living could accelerate these souls’ way to Heaven, at which point the pezzentelle could intercede on behalf of the living.
During the 20th century, the Second World War left many Neapolitans with missing relatives. Some families found consolation by adopting a skull in their loved ones’ stead. The skulls would be cleaned polished and then given a box-type altarino.
If all this verges on the pagan, the Catholic Church thought likewise, and in 1969 the practice was banned. The altarini were blocked off and eventually abandoned. In 1992 the church reopened and most of the skulls were taken to Cimitero delle Fontanelle. Some still remain, like that of one Lucia, princess of skulls and patron of amore infelice (unhappy love).
Fascinating 90-minute tours of a portion of Naples’s fabled underground city provide an initiation into the complex history of the city center. Efforts to dramatize the experience—amphoras lowered on ropes to draw water from cisterns, candles given to navigate narrow passages, objects shifted to reveal secret passages—combine with excellent English-speaking guides to make this particularly exciting for children.
A short descent delivers you to a section of a 400-km (249-mile) system of quarries and aqueducts used from Greek times until the 1845 cholera epidemic, including a highly claustrophobic 1-km (½-mile) walk with only a candle to light your way. At the end of the aqueduct, you come first to a Greek and then a much larger Roman cistern. Near the entrance is the War Museum, which displays uniforms, armed transportation vehicles, and weapons from World War II. Returning aboveground your guide leads you to a small house built above an amphitheater where Nero famously performed three times. During one of his performances an earthquake struck and—so Suetonius relates—the emperor forbade the 6,000 spectators to leave. The rumbling, he insisted, was only the gods applauding his performance. A room at the end of the tour contains examples of that most Neapolitan of art forms, la presepe (the crib). Be prepared on the underground tour to go up and down many steps and handle a few narrow corridors. Temperatures in summer will be much lower below than at street level, so bring a sweater.
SAN GREGORIO ARMENO
This convent is one of the oldest and most important in Naples. Set on Via San Gregorio Armeno, the street lined with Naples’ most adorable Presepe, the convent is landmarked by a picturesque campanile. The nuns who lived here, often the daughters of Naples’s richest families, must have been disappointed with heaven when they arrived—banquets here outrivaled those of the royal court, hallways were lined with paintings, and the church was filled with gilt stucco and semiprecious stones. Described as “a room of Paradise on Earth” by Carlo Celano and designed by Niccolò Taglicozzi Canle, the church has a highly detailed wooden ceiling, uniquely decorated choir lofts, shimmering organs, illuminated shrines, and important Luca Giordano frescoes of scenes of the life of St. Gregory, whose relics were brought to Naples in the 8th century from Byzantium. The newly restored Baroque fountain with Matteo Bottiglieri’s 17th century Christ and the Samaritan Woman statues is in the center of the convent’s cloister (entrance off the small square up the road—buzz on the entry phone). You can gain access from here to the nuns’ gallery shielded by 18th-century jalousies and see the church from a different perspective, as well as to the Salottino della Badessa—generally not on view, as this is still a working convent—and other areas preserved as magnificent 18th-century interiors.
SAN PAOLO MAGGIORE
Like the nearby Santi Apostoli, this church was erected for the Theatin fathers in the late 16th century (from 1524), the period of their order’s rapid expansion. This was another instance where Francesco Grimaldi, the (ordained) house architect, erected a church on the ruins of an ancient Roman temple, then transformed it into a Christian basilica. Spoils from the temple survive in the present incarnation, especially the two monumental Corinthian columns on the facade. An earthquake knocked down the original facade in 1688, and damage during World War II, coupled with decades of neglect, led to further deterioration that has since been reversed. Two large murals by Francesco Solimena in the sacristy have been restored. In the first, Simon Magus is depicted flying headlong down to Earth as biblical and Neapolitan figures ignore him. Similarly spectacular is the fresco depicting the imminent conversion of Saul: illuminated by a light-projecting cloud, the future Saint Paul tumbles off a horse in the picture’s center. The richly decorated Santuario di San Gaetano is below the chuch, housing Saint San Gaetano’s remains.
This Baroque church in a basic Latin-cross style with a single nave shares the piazza with a contemporary art school in a typically anarchic Neapolitan mix. The church, designed by the architect Francesco Grimaldi for the Theatin fathers and erected between 1610 and 1649, replaced a previous church, itself constructed on the remains of a temple probably dedicated to Mercury. Santi Apostoli is worth a quick peek for its coherent, intact Baroque decorative scheme. Excellent paintings (circa 1644) by Giovanni Lanfranco each narrate a different martyrdom, and there are works by his successors, Francesco Solimena and Luca Giordano. An altar in the left transept by Francesco Borromini is the only work in Naples by this noted architect whose freedom from formality so inspired the exuberance of the Baroque.
SACRO CAPPELLA DI DIEGO MARADONA
Located opposite the newly restored Roman marble statue of Egyptian river god Nile, inside the Bar Nilo, this homemade shrine to Napoli’s all-time favorite soccer player, Diego Maradona, is a masterpiece—at least by Pop Art standards. “The hand of God, the head of Maradona,” quoth the famous Argentina-born superstar after scoring a much-disputed World cup goal against England. This sentiment and its ability to mix the earthly and fallible with the divine is also peculiarly Neapolitan. The shrine, appropriately bearing the colors of Argentina’s flag, has the footballer flanked by San Gennaro and Nuestra Senora de Lujan, a clipping from La Gazzetta dello Sport (Sports Gazette), and an ampoule containing tears from the fateful year (1991) when the champion left Naples and his team’s winning streak promptly ended.
MONUMENTO NAZIONALE DEI GIROLAMINI
Il Girolamini is another name for the Oratorians, followers of St. Philip Neri, to whom the splendid church I Girolamini is dedicated. The church is part of a larger complex managed as the Monumento Nazionale dei Girolamini. The Florentine architect Giovanni Antonio Dosio designed I Girolamini, which was erected between 1592 and 1619; the dome and facade were rebuilt (circa 1780) in the most elegant Neoclassical style after a design by Ferdinando Fuga. Inside the entrance wall is Luca Giordano’s grandiose fresco (1684) of Christ chasing the money-changers from the temple. The intricate carved-wood ceiling, damaged by Allied bombs in 1943, has now been restored to its original magnificence.
The Oratorians also built the Casa dei Padri dell’Oratorio (House of the Oratorio Fathers). Step through its gate to see the two cloisters, from the 6th and the 17th centuries, the latter designed by Dosio and other Florentine architects. The gallery in this section contains 16th- and 17th-century paintings by Ribera, Reni, and other Baroque masters. One of Europe’s most gloriously decorated 18th-century libraries, the Biblioteca dei Girolamini (Girolamini Library), is currently closed, but it helped make this an intellectual nexus during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The ticket office is on Via Duomo, behind the church.
SANT’ANGELO A NILO
Amid this church’s graceful interior is the earliest evidence of the Renaissance in Naples: the funerary monument (1426–27) of Sant’Angelo’s builder, Cardinal Brancaccio, sculpted by the famous Donatello and the almost-as-famous Michelozzo. The front of the sarcophagus bears Donatello’s contribution, a bas-relief Assumption of the Virgin; upheld by angels, the Virgin seeming to float in air. Built in the late 1300s the church was redesigned in the 16th century by Arcangelo Guglielminelli.
The oldest castle in Naples, the 12th-century Castel dell’Ovo dangles over the Porto Santa Lucia on a thin promontory. Built atop the ruins of an ancient Roman villa, the castle these days shares its views with some of the city’s top hotels. Its gigantic rooms, rock tunnels, and belvederes over the bay are among Naples’s most striking sights.
You enter the castle through its main entrance, past its forbidding trio of cannons. On the right is a large picture of the castle in Renaissance times. Turn left and glimpse through the battlements to the sleepy Borgo Marinaro below. An elevator on the right ascends to the castle top, or you can also continue along the walkway overlooking the ramparts. The roof’s Sala della Terrazze offers a postcard-come-true view of Capri. This is a peaceful spot for strolling and enjoying the views, all the more so now that the Lungomare outside is a pedestrian-only area.
As for the castle’s name, the poet Virgil is supposed to have hidden inside it an egg that had protective powers as long as it remained intact. The belief was taken so seriously that to quell the people’s panic after Naples suffered an earthquake, an invasion, and a plague in quick succession, its monarch felt compelled to produce an intact egg, solemnly declaring it to be the Virgilian original.
MUSEO DIEGO ARAGONA PIGNATELLI CORTES
Set behind what would be a very English expanse of lawn (minus the plam trees), this salmon-pink building with its Athenian-style porch was built in 1826 for Ferdinand Acton, the son of English aristocrat Sir John Acton. In 1841 it was bought by the Rothschild banking family, who brought in Gaetano Genovese—he of the Palazzo Reale’s sumptuous staircase—to design the Salotto Rosso and the ballroom. The villa then passed to a distant ancestor of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, and eventually to the Italian State in 1955. The villa contains a sumptuous collection of porcelain and a biblioteca-discoteca—a collection of classical and operatic records. It exhibits part of Banco di Napoli’s collection of paintings, including works by masters of Neapolitan Baroque, and has 18th- and 19th-century landscapes.
The Greeks originally named their colony here for the mermaid Parthenope (who slew herself after being rejected by Odysseus, at least in the poet Virgil’s version), so it’s fitting that the city should have established one of Europe’s first public aquariums in 1874. At the time Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid were stirring the public’s imagination, and technological innovations came into place to funnel seawater directly from the bay into the aquarium tanks. Officially named the Stazione Zoologica and housed in a Stile Liberty building designed by Adolf von Hildebrandt, the aquarium’s tanks showcase more than 200 species of fish.
PALAZZO DELE ARTI DI NAPOLI
Occupying the enormous Palazzo Rocella, PAN, as this arts organization calls itself, mounts temporary art exhibitions and operates a center for art research and documentation. Past exhibits have included the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin, and internationally recognized contemporary artists working in other media have received shows, but the large space showcases works by up-and-coming talents as well. Film and other events also take place here.
In the 7th century BC, Pizzofalcone was Naples. The ancient Greeks had settled here because, legend says, the body of the siren Parthenope had washed ashore on the beach at the foot of the Pizzofalcone Hill, then known as Monte Echia. In the 18th century, the hill, mere feet from the bay and the Castel dell’Ovo, became a fashionable address as Naples’ wealthy sought to escape the congestion and heat of the city center. The rocky promontory soon became studded with Baroque palaces and Rococo churches. The leading sights these days are the palazzi along Via Monte di Dio—including Palazzo Serra di Cassano—and the churches of La Nunziatella and Santa Maria degli Angeli. As with other parts of Naples, Pizzofalcone harbors both palaces and slums; unlike other parts, it’s off-the-beaten path, so make sure to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
SANTA MARIA DEGLI ANGELI A PIZZOFALCONE
In 1590 the princess of Sulmona, Costanza Doria del Carretto, donated the land not far from her palace on Pizzofalcone to the Theatine order, who built a small church. It was enlarged in the 17th century with lively vault and dome frescoes by Giovanni Beinaschi of Turin, better known as a painter of genre scenes. There are some good paintings by Luca Giordano and Massimo Stanzione tucked away in the smaller side chapels and oratory.
Perched 500 feet above the Bay of Naples, this large urban park is worth the trip for its stunning vistas that face the islet Nisida with the formerly industrial area of Bagnoli stretching out below. A raised central area has a sports field where the Naples American Football team often trains.
PAUSILYPON ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK
Located at the top of Posillipo’s hill, this small yet magical complex has a 1st-century villa and two amphitheaters; access is though the Grotta di Seiano, a 2,500-foot tunnel cut though the tufa rock over two millenia ago. Evening concerts are often held here in the summer.
PARCO VERGILIANO A PIEDIGROTTA
An often overlooked sight in western Naples, the park is named for the poet Virgil and is reputedly his burial site. Not to be confused with the Parco Virgiliano, at the western end of the Naples suburb of Posillipo, the sign at the park’s entrance indicates that not only (by legend) is Virgil’s tomb here, but also the tomb-memorial of Giacomo Leopardi, the author of the evocative poem “L’infinito,” who died during the 1837 cholera epidemic. As a safety precaution, victims of the disease were usually buried in mass graves, but the writer (and later politician) Antonio Ranieri, a close friend, arranged for this monument, which until 1939 was located elsewhere. From the Mergellina metro station walk south to Salita della Grotta and turn right just before the church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta; the park’s entrance is just before the road tunnel.
CIMITERO DELLE FONTANELLE
Once a quarry for the city’s tufa stone, this site was first used as a mass burial ground in the 16th century following a devastating plague. Skulls and bones of the city’s unfortunate citizens (including, some say, those of the poet Leopardi) are piled high against the walls in this fascinating and macabre site. Guided tours (€7) are available on Sunday mornings.
MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO NAZIONALE
Also known as MANN, this legendary museum has experienced something of a rebirth in recent years. Its unrivaled collections include world-renowned archaeological finds that put most other museums to shame, from some of the best mosaics and paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum to the legendary Farnese collection of ancient sculpture. The core masterpiece collection is almost always open to visitors, but other rooms are subject to staffing shortages and sometimes close on a rotating basis. Some of the newer rooms, covering archaeological discoveries in the Greco-Roman settlements and necropolises in and around Naples, have helpful informational panels in English. A fascinating free display of the finds unearthed during digs for the Naples metro has been set up in the Museo station, close to the museum’s entrance.
BASILICA SANTA MARIA DELLA SANITÀ
Dominican friars commissioned this Baroque, Greek cross–shape basilica, replete with majolica-tiled dome, in the early 17th century. The church acts as a small museum of the era’s Counter-Reformation art—the most flagrantly devotional school of Catholic art—and includes no less than five Luca Giordano altarpieces. Note Giovan Vincenzo Forli’s 17th century Circumcision on the right. Elsewhere, the richly decorated elevated presbytery, complete with a double staircase, provides the only note of color in the gray-and-white decoration. The stairs provide access to the recently restored Catacomba di San Gaudioso.
SAN GIOVANNI A CARBONARA
An engaging complex of Renaissance architecture and sculpture, this church is named for its location during medieval times near the city trash dump, where refuse was burned and carbonized. The church’s history starts in 1339, when the Neapolitan nobleman Gualtiero Galeota donated a few houses and a vegetable garden to Augustinian monks who ministered to the poor neighborhood nearby.
San Giovanni’s dramatic piperno-stone staircase, with its double run of elliptical stairs, was modeled after a 1707 design by Ferdinando Sanfelice similar to other organ-curved stairways in Rome, such as the Spanish Steps. Cross the courtyard to the left of the main entrance and enter the rectangular nave. The first thing you see is the monument to the Miroballo family, which is actually a chapel on the opposite wall, finished by Tommaso Malvito and his workshop in 1519 for the Marchese Bracigliano; the magnificent statues in the semicircular arch immediately set the tone for this surprising repository of first-class Renaissance sculpture.
Dominating the skeletal main altar, which has been stripped of its 18th-century Baroque additions, is the 59-foot-tall funerary monument of King Ladislas and Joan II, finished by Marco and Andrea da Firenze in 1428. A door underneath this monument leads to the Ser Caracciolo del Sole Chapel, with its rare and beautiful original majolica pavement. The oldest produced in Italy, from a workshop in Campania, it shows the influence of Arab motifs and glazing technique.
The dating of the circular Caracciolo di Vico Chapel, to the left of the altar, is the subject of debate. Usually given as 1517, with the sculptural decor complete by 1557, the design (often attributed to Tommaso Malvito) may go back to 1499 and thus precede the much more famous Tempietto in Rome, by Bramante, which it so resembles. Hanging to the right of the altar is the impressively restored 16th century Crucifixion by Giorgio Vasari, and in the back chapel, some brightly colored frescoes by an anonymous 16th-century master, as well as an intriguing sculpture of a knight taking a nap in his armor. Because this great church is off the path of tour groups, you can absorb the ordered beauty of the decoration in peace.
PALAZZO DELLO SPAGNOLO
Built in 1738 for the Neapolitan aristocrat Marchese Moscati, this palazzo is famed for its external “hawk-winged staircase,” believed to follow the design of star architect Ferdinando Sanfelice and decorated with sumptuous stucco and a bust and panel at the top of each flight. The palace was at one point owned by a Spanish nobleman, Don Tommas Atienza, thus the name “dello Spagnolo.” In the left corner of the courtyard in the back, a nondescript metal door leads to a tunnel running all the way to Piazza Carlo III—another example of the Neapolitan underground. The palace was immortalized in Passione, John Turturro’s excellent film about Naples and music.
Founded in 1807 by Joseph Bonaparte and Prince Joachim Murat as an oasis from hectic Naples, this is one of the largest of all Italian botanical gardens, comprising some 30 acres. Nineteenth-century greenhouses and picturesque paths hold an important collection of tree, shrub, cactus, and floral specimens from all over the world. Next to the Orto Botanico, with a 1,200-foot facade dwarfing Piazza Carlo III, is one of the largest public buildings in Europe, the Albergo dei Poveri, built in the 18th and 19th centuries to house the city’s destitute and homeless; it’s now awaiting an ambitious restoration scheme.
SAN PIETRO AD ARAM
One of Naples’s oldest churches, it contains an altar where Saint Peter supposedly preached while in Naples. Enter by the side door on Corso Umberto I, and you’ll find the altar in the vestible at the back, along with a 16th century fresco depicting the preaching scene. The chuch also houses two canvases by Luca Giordano.
SANTA CATERINA A FORMIELLO
With museum-worthy paintings and sculptures on display, this church is a must-see of Naples. The Formiello in the name refers to the formali, the nearby underground aqueduct, which, according to history, the Aragonese also used to capture the town. The church and its dark piperno stone was designed for the Dominicans by the Tuscan architect Romolo Balsimelli, a student of Brunelleschi.
The side chapels are as interesting for their relics as they are for their art. In the Orsini Chapel, are the elaborately framed remains of St. Vincent Martyr and other Dominican saints, while the fourth chapel displays some 20 skulls of the martyrs of Otranto, brought to Naples by King Alfonso in 1490 after the Ottoman sack of Otranto in 1480, when 813 Christians were executed for refusing to renounce their faith. This event is in the rather surrealistic altar painting of the beheading of Antonio Primaldo, whose decapitated body, through the strength of faith, stands upright to confound his Ottoman executioner.
In the fifth chapel, a cycle of paintings by Giacomo del Po depicts the life and afterlife of St. Catherine, while in the vault Luigi Garzi depicts the same saint in glory. Up in the faded dome painted by Paolo di Mattei, Catherine, together with the Madonna, implores the Trinity to watch over the city.
Occupying a rather unkempt pedestrianized piazza, this elegant ceremonial gateway is one of Naples’s finest landmarks of the Renaissance era. Ferdinand II of Aragon commissioned the Florentine sculptor and architect Giuliano da Maiano to build this white triumphal arch—perhaps in competition with the Arco di Trionfo found on the facade of the city’s Castel Nuovo—in the late 15th century. As at Castel Nuovo, this arch is framed by two peperino stone towers, here nicknamed Honor and Virtue, while the statue of Saint Gennaro keeps watch against Mount Vesuvius in the distance. Across Via Carbonara stands the medieval bulk of the Castel Capuano, once home to Angevin and Aragonese rulers until it was transformed in 1540 by the Spanish viceroy into law courts, a function it still fulfills today. On Sunday this is a meeting place for Naples’s extracommunitari (immigrants), who chat in their native tongues—from Ukrainian and Polish to Twi and Igbo.