Four Weeks of Naples and Six Days in Sicily
So many people have told us that Naples is their favorite Italian city. When we first came here at the beginning of November I didn’t understand the attraction. During the month of December I was determined to find out why people are so passionate about this place. We started out by watching a film online called Four Days of Naples. It is a 1960s Italian film about the 1943 uprising by the citizens of Naples against the German army during WWII. They heroically and successfully kicked out the Germans before the Allies entered the city. It is hard to find but well worth seeing. It helped us with a little historical background on the people of Naples during the war. Of course, this region is one of the longest continuously-settled urban areas in the world. Understanding southern Italy is understanding that long history as well.
We started that journey by going way back to the days of Pompeii. As many of you know, the Roman town of Pompeii and the surrounding area was completely covered in volcanic mud and ash in 79 AD. In an instant it was destroyed and preserved until it was rediscovered in the 1600s. One place destroyed was the nearby sea side town of Herculaneum. In one of the wealthy villas was a large private library of papyri scrolls that were carbonized in the destruction, but also preserved. Once the Villa of the Papyri was discovered people realized it was the largest surviving library from the ancient world. The National Library of Naples (our host) is where most of the papyri are housed. Researchers come from all over the world to study these very fragile and priceless objects. We were given complete access to the papyri and the scholars working there.
The New Yorker published an article in 2013 called “A Very Rare Book” by Nicholas Schmidle. To make a very interesting and long story short it is partly about the Director of the Girolamini Library in Naples stealing books from his library over time and selling the books and manuscripts on the rare book market. We visited the Library a few times which is housed in the ancient Church and Convent of the Girolamini. The Library is now moving beyond the tragedy but the staff and new Director have their work cut out for them. We also photographed young scholars helping to catalog their vast collection. Their presence seemed to help move this beautiful place towards the future.
Across the street from the Girolamini was the Church of San Lorenzo with its famous Duomo. It is also the church that has the dried blood of a famous saint that turns to liquid once a year. It’s a big deal but we missed it.
A few blocks away in the gritty neighborhood of Forcella was the Annalisa Durante “Open Door” Library. It was set up by the father of Annalisa Durante who died in 2004 during an armed clash of the mafia gangs in the alleys of Forecella. The father was the only person in the library when we were there. He didn’t speak English but his powerful story moved us to tears. The memory of his daughter is sustained by the outpouring of donated books and events that are designed to stop the violence.
On another day we went back to the National Library of Naples and photographed one of their more unique collections. The Library is enormous and is housed in a former Royal Palace. One of the former princesses was a big-game hunter and loved to go on safari in Africa in the early 20th century. I photographed her collection of her trophies that she donated to the library. It was amazing to see what constitutes a “collection” in a library. I also photographed a few Fascist-era items such as a bust of Mussolini himself and a map of Italy’s “colonies” in Africa.
Conservations Departments in libraries are usually interesting places because they contain so much stuff to photograph. The one at the National Library was smaller than the one in Florence but I happily photographed there for several hours.
On the same day we visited the Born To Read (Nato per Leggere) program which is part of the National Library. Here we saw a program that supports reading early and often to children. We met the remarkable men and women that volunteer to make this happen and later the parents and children that participate. We also saw Hitler’s order to kill blind and disabled people written in braille on one of the windows as an earlier art piece.
As I mentioned before, the National Library of Naples has been our host here in Italy. It is a remarkable institution that, unfortunately, seems under stress and is struggling with constant budget cut-backs. They are tasked with not only preserving the national memory of Italy but also preserving the mind-boggling Royal Palace that they are housed in. I am in awe of what they do, especially with the limited resources available.
The exterior of the school library Andrea Anguilli in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Sanitá hides a darker story. Due to neglect the basement contained thousands of books mouldering away. It was supposed to become a public library that, for some unknown reason, never happened. It is especially tradgic in this neighborhood of Sanitá which needs all the help it can get, including books. Here we saw several monuments to young people slain in the cross fire of mafia violence. This one statue claimed that the young slain boy is now “playing with the angels.”
On the same rainy day, we went to the Biblioteca Andreoli located in the Luzzatti District in the Industrial Zone of Naples. Finding the library was difficult in this bleak neighborhood. This is the home of the now famous writer Elena Ferrante who wrote the book which is now the hit TV series “My Brilliant Friend.” The story is set in this city and especially in this industrial neighborhood. Like most libraries, this one was filled with young people working away on their studies. We struggled for a common language but after they visited my web site they enthusiastically helped us and posed for their group portrait. There is hope in the world. Just look at their faces.
On another day we took a cab to the farthest northern edge of Naples to a violence-prone neighborhood called Scampia. The Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde” is named after another 14 year-old girl killed in Camorra (Naples’ mafia) violence. We attended a news conference at the library and listened to a panel of journalists, writers, politicians and neighborhood activists. It was a remarkable place and I struggled to understand what life must be like for the people living here. The building the library is located used to be a Camorra drug house/torture chamber. It took a long time to clean up and some of the items found were incorporated into a striking mural on the outside which included thousands of bullet shells. On the outside I spoke with an African refugee from one of the nearby housing projects and looked at the murals and security fencing surrounding the library.
The next morning we took a cheap flight to Palermo, Sicily. Our flight took us right over the Bay of Naples and towering Mt. Vesuvius. This is the semi-active volcano that wiped out Pompeii. I could see inside the crater. Palermo is a beautiful city located on the incredible island of Sicily. We got our rented car and headed straight into central Palermo to the Central Library of the Sicilian Region. It is housed in a remarkable old religious complex. The building was beautiful, the collection was wonderful and our guide was great. The architecture reflected some of the unique “Arab-Norman” mix that came out of this land conquered by many people.
The next day we headed to a place we had long wanted to see. It was a center for refugees run by the wonderful group called Libraries Without Borders (Bibliothèques Sans Frontières). We had visited a similar place in a refugee camp in Athens. We hadn’t seen much work that Italian libraries had done with refugees so this was especially important for us. While we were there a group of African young men were being tutored in Italian. I made many interesting images including a group portrait.
As we were leaving we came upon an a library that was founded by a former Italian Communist. The Gramsci Library contained a remarkable collection of newspapers and other material. It was an unexpected gift to find such a beautiful and significant library unexpectedly. I spent quite a while making several good images there.
After spending too much time at the Gramsci Library we drove for several hours through the incredibly beautiful green interior of rural Sicily to the coastal city of Catania. Towering above the city was Mt. Etna which is one of the most continuously active volcanos in the world. I was thrilled to see a faint wisp of smoke lightly emanating from its peak. Like most cities in Greece and Italy Catania had bad, gridlocked traffic. As we sat in our car inching through the streets someone opened the back door and swiped my camera bag from the back seat with my new Nikon D850 camera and six lenses. After I realized what was happening, I jumped out of the car and ran in the direction where I thought the robber went. A motorcycle zoomed by with a South Asian looking couple giving chase. By the time I caught up with them they indicated the robber had gone down the street and turned right. It was as if the robber had disappeared into thin air along with my equipment. Ellen met me in tears and didn’t know what had happened to me. I later filed a police report but really didn’t expect to get anything back. Ironically, a week later Mt. Etna violently erupted and I suspect that the gods were angry.
I was surprised that I was not as upset by all of this as one would expect. It is important equipment but hopefully, the insurance will cover most of it. It will be a pain to wait but I did have an older, backup D800 body in our apartment in Naples and will buy one lens to hold me over. What was upsetting was losing the images from the Libraries Without Borders and from the Gramsci Library in Palermo. All the rest of the images in this blog were made with our iPhones. At least Ellen and I have our health and we have each other on this long and remarkable Fulbright library road trip.
The next morning we met our friends Julie Blankenship and Dan Geiger from San Francisco at the Catania airport (which was later closed in the eruption). They are with us for the rest of the month in Italy. We take a break from libraries and head to the ancient coastal city of Siracuse. It was originally settled as one of the first ancient Greek colonies overseas. The remarkable cathedral is the home of the famous Santa Lucia. The church is amazing because it shows one civilization would build on top of another. We attended the weirdly moving parade for St. Lucy and see the statue of this early Christian martyr with a knife in her neck being carried down the street.
We spent the night in the wonderful Boroque town of Noto. Destroyed by a massive earthquake the town was rebuilt as a planned Boroque community. It was fascinating to see. The cathedral included an interesting sculpture and cross made from the remnants of the boats that have recently carried refugees to these shores.
Noto also had a small, beautiful library that included a nice Christmas tree made out of books.
After a long and beautiful drive along the coast we came to the industrial town of Gela. We drove down to the beach which may be the spot where my uncle Joe was killed during WWII. He was with the US Army Rangers during the invasion of Sicily and never made it back. I think about the sacrifice of people like him that allows people like me to live a peaceful life. This was my memorial for a man I never knew.
We end the daylight at the Valley of the Temples at the Greek Archeological Site of Agrigento. This is one of the top archeological sites in Sicily and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived just as the sun had set and the lights came on. It is stunningly beautiful and I wished we had a few more minutes of light to look around. We then drive two more hours at night on roads under construction to our destination of Palermo, dinner and sleep.
Our next few days consist of visiting the Liberty House, the Sicilian Modern Art Museum, the Palermo Arab-Norman Cathedral, a Arab-Norman center, a remarkable Library in the Branciforte Palace and a Puppet Museum. Palermo is a remarkable city and I am already making plans to come back.
Our last week in Naples was spent with Dan and Julie exploring the wonders of this great city. Highlights include seeing the Nutcracker at the astonishing Naples Opera House, visitng the Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiara and its library, going to the Museum at the Capodimonte Palace. One of the great life changing experiences for me was visiting the archeological site of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was a life-long dream come true.
I will always have a warm place in my heart for Napoli. This month has shown to me why Italians always consider this a great place, even if they don’t want to live here. I am sure we will return to this ancient city by the Bay under a volcano. Happy New Year!