Delight in Turmoil: Renaissance Naples

An old proverb, attributed variously to an 18th century French tourist, a German tourist from an indeterminate period, and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), describes Naples as “a paradise inhabited by devils.” The description, of course, isn’t mere insult: one assumes the devils and the paradise are inseparable. It is its cultivation of chaos, of year-long carnivalesque, of morality that is not rejected so much as continuously renegotiated — an impression largely drawn from the thriving and vulgar street life that continues to dominate the city to this day — that may have first drawn David Grimm to historic Naples as the site for his newest work. Its dizzying history may be partly to blame, for the culture of Renaissance Naples was discombobulated from centuries of invasions and cultural transformations. Mount Vesuvius, the always-looming volcano that had destroyed neighboring Pompeii in 79 A.D., was a symbol of Naples’ paradoxical life story: both proud and dangerous, long-lasting and unstable.

That story goes back to Ancient Greece, which established the city around 600 B.C.E. as the “new polis,” or Neapolis, alongside the “old city” of Palaeopolis, which was eventually absorbed into its younger neighbor. Since then, Naples has been conquered by (to name just a few) the Romans, the Lombards, the Byzantines, the Normans, the French Angevins, and, by the time of The Miracle at Naples, the Spanish Bourbons (followed by the Viennese, and the French, before Italian unification in 1860). Always a cultural fountainhead and historical landmark, Naples has been a glorified subject of Western letters since Horace and Virgil. Its importance in the Renaissance landscape was confirmed when the Florentine ruler Lorenzo d’Medici visited in 1479-80.

By the 16th century, Neapolitan culture was torn among the honor-code morality of medieval Europe (which urged violence, partisan loyalty, and the protection of female virginity), the virtue-driven morality of the Catholic Church (which preached forgiveness, humility, and chastity for all), and the new awakening of civic life and theatrical spectacle that was the main popular experience of the Renaissance, and which challenged the former time-honored traditions. As citizens headed from the church to the marketplace to the theatre to the altar to the bedroom, the line between pleasure and sin became a cultural fault line (it is perhaps no coincidence that syphilis can be traced back to Naples, upon the visitation of a French military unit in 1496). It was the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writing a full two centuries after The Miracle at Naples takes place, who best captured the ongoing debate into human nature that seemed native to Naples: “Everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize. Yesterday I thought to myself: Either you were mad before, or you are mad now.”

– Jason Fitzgerald


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