Marius Kociejowski’s offbeat paean to the city emphasizes the resilience of its inhabitants in the face of blows dealt by fate.

By Claudia Roth PierpontSeptember 19, 2022

Neapolitan culture, hatched in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, is adaptive.Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

One day a few years ago, an Englishman walked into a tourist shop on the ground floor of a Neapolitan palazzo and told a woman he encountered there that he was searching for the soul of Naples. The building, named Palazzo del Panormita, for an obscure fifteenth-century author of erotic Latin epigrams, stands near a small piazza named for the River Nile, recalling the Egyptian traders who once lived in a mini-quarter within the city center’s ancient Greek grid. (There was a Greek settlement there before the Parthenon was built.) Today, that grid runs into a thoroughfare cut by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, when the Kingdom of Naples was under their imperial control. Named Via Toledo by the Spanish, the street became Via Roma three centuries later, when Naples, at last free of a series of foreign overlords, joined a unified Italy. And yet for many Neapolitans the idea of being governed from Rome was apparently as abhorrent as Spanish dominion: the name Via Roma aroused so much resentment that, in the nineteen-eighties, the city brought the old Spanish name back into official use. Even now, Neapolitans differ sharply on what their central commercial street should be called.

The soul, then, of which Naples? Who could think of locating so elusive an aspect of a place built on such deep yet never fully buried layers of history, myth, culture, memory? What sort of dreamer enters a shop selling Pompeian-themed mouse pads to announce this quixotic goal? The circumstances would be ridiculous, except for the fact that the seasoned Neapolitan woman replied, as though she were a Sibyl in a cave and had been awaiting her questioner for centuries, “I am the soul of Naples,” and went on to prove her statement at least partly true.

Marius Kociejowski, the man who stood before her, is one of life’s great questioners. He professes to be shy, and is evidently incapable of small talk, but something about his enthusiasm (“the engine that drives the universe,” he notes) elicits answers, some improbable, most (at least those he records) detailed and shrewd. Perhaps it’s because he asks the right people, the kind of people you might glimpse in a foreign city and wish (but how?) to get to know. His new book, “The Serpent Coiled in Naples” (Haus Publishing), takes on some of the largest questions that come with searching for this stupendous city’s soul: Has paganism survived Christianity in subtle or not so subtle ways? Do people think differently about death when living in immediate reach of a large volcano? What does their music tell us? (Wasn’t melody invented in Naples?) Yet, for all the book’s exalted aims, the tone remains light, the content varied, the sense of mission wholly personal. The experience is more of an intellectual joyride than a standard history.

Kociejowski, a poet who for decades made his living in London’s rare-book trade, tells a good story, and if the telling sometimes requires an imaginative leap he generally arrives at a compelling truth—or, at times, a compelling proposition. Did the notoriously unhappy poet Giacomo Leopardi find a measure of peace and even pleasure in Naples, where he moved in 1833 and spent the last four years of his life? It may be so, judging by a private list in his own hand of almost fifty exceedingly rich dishes that he appears to have particularly enjoyed eating there: pasticcini di maccheroni! bodin di ricotta! Who could despair? Above all, Kociejowski realizes how much an outsider can never know, and has the good sense and the nerve to pursue a host of knowledgeable Neapolitans, not merely professors and anthropologists but painters and a chef and puppeteers and street musicians—one woman regularly drags a concert harp into the street and teaches Greek and Latin on the side—as well as sundry artisans, a novelist, and people who maintain the surrounding volcanic countryside along with the diverse entrances to Hades that the land once credibly contained.

Take, for example, Pina Cipriani, the woman in the tourist shop in the Palazzo del Panormita. Her voice was once so captivating that, for years, she drew audiences to a local theatre, which she had founded with her husband in the toniest part of town, singing Neapolitan songs accompanied by a string ensemble. When Kociejowski meets her, she still has her voice, but the woman once billed as “la Voce dell’ Anima”—the voice of the soul—has been reduced, in her seventies, to performing to prerecorded music at the rear of the shop for small groups of tourists and old supporters. Still, if her former billing helps to explain how readily she claimed to be the soul of Naples, it doesn’t diminish her assertion. You don’t have to take Kociejowski’s word for it. Anyone can hear her, on YouTube, singing with the soft expressiveness she insisted is required for a species of song that began in poetry. (“If you do it in an operatic way then it is not really Neapolitan.”) Here is a voice imbued with what speakers of Neapolitan dialect currently describe as “ ’O feeling.” There’s a self-conscious irony in the borrowing of the English word, but it also testifies to the vigor of a living language, which swallows everything that comes its way.

Neapolitan culture is by force of circumstance adaptive; the exemplary Neapolitan song “ ’O Sole Mio” has a rhythmic pattern derived from the Cuban habanera. But the people, of course, have had to be most formidably adaptive. Kociejowski’s serpentine title refers to the sudden crushing blows that fate can seem to dispense in this place. Just such a fate left Pina Cipriani, after the death of her husband and the loss of her theatre, trooping on courageously until her death, in 2019. All is exemplified in another song, the deceptively sweet-sounding “Munasterio ’e Santa Chiara,” written in 1945, in which a faraway Neapolitan emigrant longs to return home but fears discovering that tales of wartime destruction are true. The song does not need to mention that the magnificent Gothic church of Santa Chiara was bombed to near-obliteration in 1943. “Six centuries destroyed in ten seconds,” they say in Naples. The serpent strikes; and then you sing.

Kociejowski likes to focus on art that he describes as “reaching into people’s daily lives”—the popular traditions, rather than, say, the European paintings in the city’s Capodimonte Museum. Partly this is to keep to a less travelled path and to record a heritage that is at risk of disappearing, but it is also a way to get at the ever-nagging notion of the soul that every author knows (in his or her soul) can’t be approached head on: “Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “but look at the ceiling . . . at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo . . . and the soul slips in.” Though Kociejowski is most at home among what may be termed the cheaper beasts, they themselves don’t always appreciate the distinction. Kociejowski is honest enough to let us hear the rebuke of two highly articulate painters who have made an urban canvas of the walls of the city’s poor and troubled Spanish Quarter. These politically minded Alex Katz-ish realists don’t care whether or not they are called artists but are nevertheless unbending in their artistic allegiances. Correcting the author’s populist assumptions, they express pride in their museum—“Capodimonte flows in our blood”—and refer with reverence to one of its greatest treasures: “We carry Masaccio’s Crucifixion inside ourselves.”

It’s a valuable lesson. Kociejowski himself leaps across the cultural fence to examine one of the city’s most prestigious art works, the sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino’s mid-eighteenth-century “Veiled Christ,” a marble figure laid out beneath a shroud so transparently fine that it doesn’t seem possible for it to have been carved from the same hard white block as the body it skims. Canova said he’d give ten years of his life to have made it. The sculptor’s ill-famed patron, the Prince of Sansevero, was an inventor with a diabolical turn—he was said to experiment on resurrecting small animals from their gathered ashes—and a dark alchemical trickery was once suspected as the secret of the veil. (This was the sculptor’s first major work, and the Prince was also rumored to have had him blinded when it was done, to be sure that he never again made anything as good. Sanmartino never did make another work to compare, although not for lack of vision, or of trying.) Kociejowski points out a barely perceptible detail that has large implications: a tiny bit of veil has been drawn into one of Christ’s nostrils. Presumably, inhaled. So: he must be drawing breath. One of the world’s most admired images of the dead Christ turns out also to be—as though in one of the Prince’s experiments, carried out in a single stroke of genius bordering on magic—an image of the Resurrection and the promise of eternal life.

Kociejowski tries to be fair to the contemporary darkness in Naples, too—above all, to the presence of the Camorra, the murderous criminal organization that haunts Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and was widely exposed in Roberto Saviano’s “Gomorrah,” a portrait of Neapolitan life that shares almost nothing with Kociejowski’s. (Saviano has since been forced to live in hiding, under continual police protection.) Most of Saviano’s action happens on the outskirts, but Kociejowski retells the story of a murder that took place in the city’s heart. The victim was a fourteen-year-old girl, caught in a crossfire outside her front door. Her funeral featured a new kind of requiem: the dead teen-ager’s cell phone was placed beside her coffin, and as her body was carried away a classmate called her number, so that it rang and rang and rang. This, too, is the music of Naples.

Despite the author’s preoccupation with matters of death, this book offers a mostly sunlit Naples, the evidently grateful vision of a born outsider who has found a spiritual home. Kociejowski is not a native Englishman: he grew up in bleak rural Ontario, where his father, a Pole, and his mother, an Englishwoman, were unhappy émigrés. As a child, he longed for a fabled England of tea and bookshops but also, equally deeply, for Italy; after his parents took him to a concert by the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, when he was six, he demanded for years to be called not Marius but Mario. In his twenties, he moved to London; Italy took a lot longer to achieve. He has written other books about cities he loves—about Damascus, to which he devoted more than a decade of study, and about London—which, despite the distance of their subjects, display an equal wonderment with the people and their ways.

Now, having become a proud if honorary Neapolitan—anybody can become one, just as anybody can become a New Yorker, by sheer affinity—Kociejowski reaches his own conclusions about how to live next to a volcano, via the right philosophy and a little prestidigitation. Travelling to a nearby industrial town to interview a well-known master of an ancient type of goat- or sheepskin drum called a tammorra, which is played at funerals and may once have accompanied Dionysian rites, he finds his eminent subject, with all his life’s mementos, confined to a small apartment in a drab and soulless new building. Worst of all, the sunlight virtually has to fight its way into the place, there being only one window. Kociejowski is outraged. But the view is of Mt. Vesuvius, and so, Kociejowski begins to think, the lone window may in fact be a boon, a means of protection against the volatile mountain that for millennia has shaped the local attitude toward life and death. “If it decides to erupt,” he writes, with a sudden flash of satisfaction, “all one need do is draw the curtain.” ♦ in the print edition of the September 26, 2022, issue, with the headline “Serpentine City.”

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