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If the Volcano Allows

Naples is the most densely populated city in Europe. The people here make their own rules, organizing their everyday lives in close quarters. What are the areas of freedom in a city that’s short on space? To find out, project partners Sophia Karimi and Yasser Almaamoun travelled from Amsterdam down to the southern Italian metropolis in late May 2018 - and came to grips with the density, fatalism and energy of Naples

By Uwe Rada

In a collection of miniatures entitled Neapel Lieblingsorte, Neapolitan writer Maria Carmen Morese writes about her favourite places in Naples – and about the novelist Elena Ferrante. Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012) from her Neapolitan Novels tetralogy has brought Italy’s southern metropolis back to the forefront of European consciousness. "Literature had already established Naples’ image," writes Morese, referring, of course, to Goethe and his Italian Journey. "But then came the films about Naples, and its image got worse. With Ferrante, the ball is now back in the literary court."
So what was the city’s image for such a long time? The sea, the Camorra, the lazy south? Morese describes the first time that Lenú and Lila, the heroines of Ferrante's novels, who grew up somewhere in the city in the 1950s, see the sea at Castel dell'Ovo – at the age of 13. "Only the rich and beautiful can enjoy the view of the blue bay from the fashionable districts of Chiaia and Posillipo," Morese observes matter-of-factly, adding that the title of Anna Maria Ortese’s novel, Il mare non bagna Napoli ("The Sea Does Not Reach Naples"), says it all. "Those who dwell in the gloomy lanes," Morese continues, "don’t even know Naples lies by the sea. To them, the ‘shining sea’ is just words. At best a hazy dream."

Where Space is a luxury

It’s not surprising that Morese should have plenty to say about Naples and the sea, about the darkness of the narrow streets and the brightness up in the rich neighbourhoods of Vomero, where the view of the sea is free, but the rent unaffordable for most people. And of course the author, who is also the director of the Goethe-Institut in Naples, has a lot to say about freedom and free space. In the posh district of Chiaia, where the Goethe-Institut is domiciled in the Palazzo Sessa, the sea is omnipresent, and the sea means freedom and vastness: with a view of the sea, one’s thoughts can run free.
That’s a far cry from the narrow lanes and poky homes of the poor in the adjacent Quartieri Spagnoli or in the Camorra-infested Sanità. Stepping out of their cramped dwellings and taking to the street, they find themselves on cramped streets. Space is in short supply around here. This is one reason the Goethe-Institut Naples and its project partner are asking what life is like in a city where there’s hardly any space. “The residents of Naples react to their city’s extremely high population density and close confines by embracing a way of life characterized by a high level of tolerance," it says almost admiringly in Naples’ question for the Freiraum project. But this lifestyle also comes at a price: "Illegal construction is viewed as one way to take action against stringent zoning regulations and exercise a basic right: freedom to expand one’s living space. But is this really freedom?"

Constantly – and lawlessly – shifting boundaries

So the question is: can there be freedom without free space? In the Quartieri Spagnoli it is customary, once you’ve managed with effort and a little luck to find to a parking space, to subsequently mark “your spot”, next time you drive off, by leaving some plastic chairs there. It’s a way of “claiming the street” – at the expense of others looking for a place to park. But nobody would confront a driver who’s placing two plastic chairs in the street and running barrier tape around them, or a vendor spreading out his wares in the street. "Everyone tests boundaries here to see how far they can go," says Johanna Wand, head of programming at the Goethe-Institut in Naples, who moved here from Thuringia eleven years ago. "This is how boundaries in the city are constantly being shifted." Another example is the way the occupants of bassi, dark and often damp ground-floor apartments, occupy little stair heads or balconies to enlarge their living space – at the expense of public space. What is a survival strategy for these residents is, in the eyes of the city, a privatization of public space, a resource that’s already scarce enough in this city. "These boundaries are shifting all the time," Wand remarks. "Though according to what rules is a secret to outsiders."
Shifting boundaries can also be seen in a short film the Goethe-Institut shot in Naples to illustrate its Freiraum question, in which vendors display their merchandise on the ledge of a building. No matter how small, there’s not a spot in the city that’s safe from such appropriation. Not even the rooftops are off limits, as you can see looking down into the city from Castel Sant’Elmo on the Vomero hilltops.

Of physical confinement and the free space of a studio: Artist duo Bianco-Valente

On a sunny morning in May, Maria Carmen Morese and Johanna Wand meet up with Giovanna Bianco and Giuseppe Valente in Spaccanapoli, the main drag in the centre of Naples’ old town. Bianco and Valente are a duo of artists, and they’re the Goethe-Institut’s Freiraum project partners in Naples. They often work, as they put it, “at the interface between mind and body”. They are currently working on an exhibition about refugees to be held in Palermo. It’s not about the past, but about the future of those who left virtually everything behind to flee across the Mediterranean. "All they have left is their bodies and their hopes," says Giuseppe Valente, whom everyone just calls Pino.
"When asked to take part in the Freiraum project, we didn't think twice because this is such a vital issue for Naples," says Pino. "There’s no freedom without free space." Bianco-Valente have created a free space for themselves and their art in rented rooms in the Palazzo Marigliano. And in front of their studio is an inviting garden in which to chill out under palm trees. This is a luxury in Naples, whose city centre, with over 8,000 people per square kilometre, is probably the most densely populated urban area in Europe.
But does that make present-day Naples, once the New York City of the ancient world, a city of unfreedom? Johanna Wand wouldn’t go that far, though she does concede, "There’s hardly any privacy in Naples. People live closely crowded together. Being so near the bodies of others is part and parcel of life in this city, all this physical contact doesn’t bother anyone here."
And indeed, when walking down the narrow streets of Europe's largest historic old town, you find yourself brushing up against the walls of buildings and the shoulders of passers-by time and again, while the cars just barely squeeze past. "I feel very physically confined here," says Wand. "The very concept of ’distance’ doesn’t exist here. People want to be close to one another, they take everything outside." And yet the atmosphere is not aggressive in the narrow lanes of the Centro Storico, in the shopping street Via Toledo, or in the Quartieri Spagnoli or Sanità. Drivers honk their horns only to make themselves heard; honking after the fact in reproach, as self-righteous drivers do in Germany, is rare in Naples. Instead, one finds plenty of patience, even surprising acts of courtesy and attentiveness. Nothing goes quickly here anyway, so a few seconds or minutes don’t matter.

Working to enjoy: The up- and downsides of inertia

It’s always been this way in Naples, a city in which everyone heads outdoors as soon as the weather warms up. "Naples is a paradise; everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included," Goethe wrote in his Italian Journey. "I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize." The flipside of Neapolitan patience and tolerance is inertia, which Goethe also became acquainted with here. "They all in their way do not work simply to live,” he observes, “but to enjoy, and they are intent on enjoying themselves even while at work.”
Many who’ve travelled to Naples after Goethe have described this sluggishness as being not only typically Neapolitan, but also a cause of the city's permanent crisis. For, after Italy’s unification in 1861, Naples was unable to recover from its loss of importance and sank instead into the demimonde of corruption and Camorra.
So does Naples make people not only patient and tolerant, but also inert and inured to the shady sides of the south, to corruption and organized crime? Wand, who studied Italian literature at university, has to laugh. Like Goethe, she’s had first-hand experience of slipping into inertia: "The first years I spent in the city I was full of energy, I wanted to pass some of that on to the city and not just accept things as they are, as most people do.” But she realizes she’s become a Neapolitan too. "The city has absorbed me," she says with a grin.

A city with no future: Neapolitan fatalism

As Wand sees it, inertia and a certain acceptance of the little trials and tribulations of everyday life are simply par for the course here. And one reason why is Vesuvius. "The volcano is omnipresent in the lives of Neapolitans," she says, and it confronts them with the transience of life every day. "Naples is the epitome of a life in which death looms large." Which, she says, engenders a certain fatalism. People live with the possibility that the volcano might destroy everything overnight just as they live with the narrowness of the city, the unemployment, the Camorra.
The experience of impermanence has etched itself so deeply into the city’s DNA over the past two thousand five hundred years that, as Giuseppe Valente observes, there is no future tense in Neapolitan, a language many people in the region still speak. "People here don’t say I’ll do this or that tomorrow, they say I would do this or that tomorrow. If the volcano allows." In Naples, life under the volcano doesn’t breed an attitude of “nothing left to lose so let’s party till the bitter end”, but one of humility and resignation to God’s will.

"The pressure on my shoulders eased up": Naples seen through other eyes

Two days after the meeting between Goethe-Institut staffers and the artist duo Bianco-Valente, the partners from Amsterdam have finally arrived: Sophia Karimi, who works in cultural programming at the Goethe-Institut Amsterdam, and Yasser Almaamoun, who has flown in from Berlin, where he works at an architectural firm. Both of them have a connection to the "newcomers" to Europe: Karimi, because she works with Pages, an Amsterdam bookshop cum café that has become a hangout for locals as well as Arab refugees; and Almaamoun, because he was once Syrian refugee himself and now guides newcomers through Berlin museums as part of the Multaka project.
But Amsterdam and Berlin seem far away as the two take their first steps through Naples. "It's so loud here," says Yasser Almaamoun, amazed – and immediately reminded of Damascus. Sophia Karimi is familiar with crowded streets in Amsterdam. "But they’re mostly tourists," she says. Whereas most of the crush in the streets of Naples is the Neapolitans themselves. Karimi and Almaamoun soon come to understand what Giovanna Bianco and Giuseppe Valente mean by “freedom”, which in Naples means, first and foremost, open space. On the other hand, Almaamoun, whose cultural heritage does not include Goethe, describes how he felt "the pressure on my shoulders immediately ease up" whilst riding in the cab from the airport to the city centre.
Almaamoun, Karimi and the Pages bookstore must now transform all their impressions into a project of some kind. Whether an exhibition, a film or a play, they don’t know what form it will take yet, but one thing’s for sure: they’ll come up with an image that symbolizes Naples, a city that runs on laws of its own and in which Rome seems as remote as Brussels. A city that might even represent a future in which regulation by the state gradually recedes, increasingly leaving its denizens to their own devices. And Naples demonstrates another thing: people are capable of working out the rules of their coexistence on their own, without the state or police. Everyone grabs what they need, and when they come up against any resistance, they back off a little. That's how the poor do it here. In fact – and this is one of the shadier sides of freedom – that's how the Mafia do it too.

A city inching towards the sea

The sea might also loom large in an artistic treatment of Naples’ question about "how to organize one’s living environment in relation to other people". For Naples, for a long time separated from the coast by the US Navy, which occupied the port and kept it separate from the rest of the city, is inching back towards the sea. The city's largest square, the Piazza del Plebiscito, was freed from parking cars as early as the 1990s. Now the poor from the Quartieri Spagnoli play football there, says Maria Carmen Morese. The seaside itself has also become a car-free zone: the Lungomare, which runs six kilometres from below the Piazza del Plebiscito all the way to Posillipo. Nowadays Elena Ferrante's heroines would definitely get a good look at the sea before the age of 13.
A few years ago, Bianco-Valente placed big letters atop the roof of the Museo Madre Sophia saying "Il mare non bagna Napoli", i.e. “The sea does not reach Naples”. So Karimi and Yasser Almaamoun’s artistic contribution could now consist in simply removing that statement and replacing it with a different one. A one on the sentiment expressed by newcomers to Europe, for example, for whom the Mediterranean is at once a sea of hope and a mass grave.