The Neapolitan “soul” is guaranteed to squeeze your heart into submission. “Goethe wrote: “Naples is Paradise. Everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included.”
No painting excursion into the Campania region is complete without a visit to Naples. Yes, Naples is a big city and one of the most populace cities in Italy, but don’t forget that it is also the city that boasts the infamous dictum: “See Naples and die.” My only caution is: “Don’t see Naples by car, and live.” This is about painting in Naples and so I won’t discuss driving in Naples; just don’t do it. If you have a car, I suggest staying in nearby Sorrento or Vico Equense. You can leave your car at the hotel and take the Circumvesuviana, a commuter railway that also stops at the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The forty-five-minute rail trip to Naples from Sorrento is easy and scenic; most of all, it is traffic and stress free.
If you’re looking to set up in a piazza, the city offers a plethora to choose from and I’ll leave that long, detailed list to the travel writers. One of my favorite piazzas to paint in (at least for a few hours until the crush of humanity drives me away) is Piazza del Plebiscito, the city’s main piazza and traffic free pedestrian zone. It is paved with black cobblestones and is among the country’s grandest spaces. Clustered around the piazza are Teatro San Carlo, Italy’s largest opera house; the ornate Galleria Umberto I, the 1887 shopping gallery; the vast Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace); and across from the palace, a sweeping semicircular colonnade to rival St. Peter’s. Talk about artistic inspiration!
When you’re ready for a break from city noise and congestion, or if you’re a landscape artist hungry for vegetation, visit the Santa Chiara Cloisters. These cloisters are a sanctuary of hyacinth and white daffodils, small vegetable plots, and fruit trees. But for me, it’s the hand painted, blue-and-mustard-colored majolica tiles that cover every wall, pillar, and bench that make this verdant cloister a painter’s Mecca. The Monks at the cloister will let you set up an easel, but ask first. It’s also a nice idea to add a few Euros to their collection box to help defer the cost of maintaining this little jewel. Keep your workspace small and clean; the monks WILL be watching you. They have a posted notice that reads: “If you think you will be immortalized by signing your name on our walls, you are mistaken: it will be removed shortly after.”
My favorite neighborhood to paint in Naples is Spaccanapoli, in the heart of the city. There is always new inspiration in the midst of laundry flapping from overhead balconies and black-clad signoras hawking contraband cigarettes up and down the maze of narrow, zigzag, dead end streets.
A note to writers and book lovers: On the edge of Spaccanapoli, near the Archaeological Museum, is the refreshingly green and relaxed Piazza Bellini, a nexus of the city’s flourishing booksellers: Naples is one of Italy’s great bibliophile centers. Bookstalls like the ones along Paris’s Left Bank, selling both new and used books, line the streets on and leading from the Piazza.
A sharp contrast to Spaccanapoli is the Vomero neighborhood. If the pace in the city center becomes exasperating, board one of the funiculars from the center up to Vomero in the hills above town. This city within a city is unexpectedly calm and the views of the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius are truly “paint worthy.” If you get hungry and are looking for some “finger food” so you don’t waste good light by sitting at an indoor restaurant, go to the tiny Friggitoria Vomero (via Cimarosa 44). For just a few euros you can buy brown-paper cones filled with fritters made of eggplant or cauliflower or boiled wild greens or rectangles of polenta, all of them sprinkled with coarse local sea salt. Who said artists have to “starve?”
Certainly, you will want to take time out from your own painting to view some of the heavy hitters that Naples has to offer. The guidebooks can give you the full run down; here are my picks:
Il Museo e Gallerie di Capodimonte/ among other notables, don’t miss the works here by Botticelli, Bellini, Raphael, and Caravaggio.
A church officially named Sant’Anna dei Lombardi but commonly called Monteoliveto for the square on which it sits. Inside you’ll find a sacristy frescoed by Vasari, with eye-popping trompe l’oeil marquetry panels along the walls, and also, Guido Mazzoni’s awesome life-size group of terra cotta figures.
And finally, Caravaggio fled to Naples after he killed a man in Rome, and although he didn’t stay long, he painted several important paintings, including the “Seven Acts of Mercy” which is in Pio Monte della Misericordia in the Centro Storico. It is an amazing, complex work, commissioned as an altarpiece for the church in which it has remained for 400 years.
The Neapolitan spirit of dolce far niente (living from day to day in a devil-may-care sort of way) is instantly contagious and it reaches to the artist’s canvas. If you paint “tight” and yearn to free up your strokes, then Naples is the city to visit.