World ? Europe ? Italy ? Naples

Naples: Introduction

219km (136 miles) SE of Rome, 263km (163 miles) W of Bari

Naples (Napoli) is Italy's most controversial city: You'll either love it or hate it. Is it paradiso or the inferno? It's louder, more intense, more unnerving, but perhaps ultimately more satisfying than almost anywhere else in Italy.

To foreigners unfamiliar with the complexities of all the "Italys" and their regional types, the Neapolitan is still the quintessence of the country and easy to caricature ("O Sole Mio," "Mamma Mia," bel canto). If Sophia Loren (a native who moved elsewhere) evokes the Italian woman for you, you'll find more of her look-alikes here than any other city. Naples also gave the world Enrico Caruso.

In more modern times, Naples has made world headlines for its cultural renaissance and its fight against crime. Despite Mafia-directed crime, political corruption, prostitution, street hoodlums, chaotic traffic, and pervasive unemployment, the longtime mayor of Naples, Antonio Bassolino, chose culture as a weapon to clean up the city's image. Taking office in 1993, the former Communist party official made cultural revaluation his top priority -- and it seemed to still be a priority under his successor, Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino.

Bassolino received a national government grant of $30 million to make Naples look safer and more presentable. The first civic move was to restore and reopen scores of museums and palaces in dilapidated neighborhoods. Muggers, prostitutes, and cars were driven from many historic plazas, especially Piazza del Plebiscito, and from around the San Carlo opera house and Royal Palace areas. All this activity seemed to spark a minor renaissance among the city's musicians, writers, moviemakers, artists, and playwrights. The Neapolitan art scene has been given a shot in the arm.

New rock groups are born in Naples every month, and interest in traditional Neapolitan music is also increasing. Founded by a group of young Neapolitans, the Falso Movimento troupe has brought new life to the city's theatrical scene. Film companies, following in the footsteps of Neapolitan directors such as Francesco Rossi and Gabriele Salvatore, are choosing to shoot in Naples once again. Neapolitan writers are gaining increasing recognition, especially Ermanno Rea for Mistero Napolitano and Gabriele Frasca for his poems. And Naples is now becoming popular with a younger generation, especially those from countries to the north. Undeterred by reports of unfavorable conditions, they flood into the city and lend it a new vitality. The hippest scene is at the bars and cafes on Piazza Bellini, near Piazza Dante.

Of course, Naples's deeper ills can't be swept away overnight. In spite of all this talk of a renaissance, which is true in some sense, Naples fell back to its old ways in 2005 and 2006. Crime rose to such a degree that the government at one point debated sending in army troops. In the first few months of 2006 alone there were 756 muggings reported and an astonishing 120 murders.

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