A cultural guide to Naples
As Italy’s third city, Naples has a wildly diverse history and tremendous cultural heritage. Despite its recent struggles with organised crime and corruption, its charismatic population, world-beating cuisine and dramatic natural setting mean it continues to attract tourists in their droves. This post will give you an historical overview of the Città Perduta (Lost City), examining its tumultuous past to give prospective visitors a better background on the city’s unmissable cultural attractions, both ancient and modern.
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Naples through the ages
Like many Mediterranean settlements, Naples and its surrounding suburbs were said to have been founded by Greek traders from as early as 680 BC. It wasn’t until the Roman conquest around 326 BC that the city began to flourish however, with members of the imperial elite, from Nero’s second wife to Julius Caesar’s in-laws, flocking to the coast to build lavish villas and residences away from the chaos of the capital. Remnants of these ancient aristocratic palaces can still be visited just outside Castellamare di Stabia, just over a 30 minute drive south of Naples.
During the centuries of Roman rule, ancient settlements sprung up that can still be admired today, most notably Pompeii which draws in over 2.5 million visitors annually, making it one of Italy’s most popular tourist attractions. The devastation brought about by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 meant that this once thriving centre of culture and trade was engulfed by molten ash and lava, decimating the population. Whilst many of the building’s exteriors were destroyed by the eruption, their contents down to ornaments, furniture and even electoral propaganda have been miraculously preserved, providing a unique view of day to day life in this once prosperous city. Stunning works of art such as the gigantic Alexander mosaic (made up of around a million miniature tiles) are still intact and shouldn’t be missed, whilst a visit to the world’s oldest Roman Amphitheatre, immortalised by Pink Floyd’s iconic concert film is also a must.
Fast forward several hundred years to the beginning of the French Angevins rule in 1265, which brought with it a significant period of artistic and architectural development. The imposing Castel Nuovo on the waterfront came first in 1279, and is still beautifully preserved and open to visitors today, with its commanding strategic position offering gorgeous views across the port. 1349 saw the construction of the equally impressive Castel Sant’Elmo, which served as a military prison until 1970 and is now open to the public, offering spectacular panoramic vistas across the city from its terraces. The smart surrounding Vomero neighbourhood is ideal for a stroll away from the chaotic city centre, with plenty of boutique shops and cafés to explore as well as stately residences like Villa Floridiana.
Lasting architectural masterpieces from 16th and 17th century Naples can still be admired within the narrow alleyways of the Quartieri Spagnoli, where Spanish imperial wealth funded the construction of wonderfully ornate Baroque architecture including the Guglia di San Gennaro and the grand Certosa di San Martino. However, the brightest of Naples’ golden ages took place during Bourbon rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. Gems from this era include the prestigious Palazzo Reale, which remains a glowing symbol of the city’s regal past, as well as the Teatro San Carlo, which to this day is one of the continent’s grandest opera houses.
Recent history and contemporary culture
Naples’ 20th century history is unfortunately less glamorous, as the city experienced a period of anarchy and disorder during World War II before Allied troops managed to establish control. Sadly, criminal organisations, most notably the notorious Camorra were given space to grow and continue to cause problems to this day.
In spite of these difficulties, progress has been made in recent decades with the pedestrianisation of grandiose Piazza Del Plebiscito opening up the city centre for more tourists to enjoy without traffic. The construction of “art stations” on the city’s metro line are also an exciting example of urban regeneration, brightening up the days of commuters and tourists alike with glittering mosaics and multi-coloured murals. You may even be lucky enough to stumble across an impromptu concert on your way to the train, as more and more stations become cultural hotspots.