Italy's news in English
‘Paradise inhabited by devils’: How Naples captured the world’s imagination
An aerial view over Naples, a city that has inspired travellers and artists for centuries. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

3 August 2020
15:19 CEST

Travellers have been drawn to Italy's biggest southern city for centuries – by its darker side as much as its beauty. Professor of Italian culture Ruth Glynn explores the contradictions that are key to Naples' cultural appeal.
Overlooking sparkling sea and overshadowed by Mount Vesuvius, the Italian city of Naples is a popular and evocative setting in popular culture.
READ ALSO: 'How I fell in love with Naples, a city full of contrasts'
HBO’s acclaimed TV adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan novels returned to UK screens for its second series this summer. Its popularity follows that of Sky Atlantic’s Gomorrah. This series, also set in Naples, is inspired by author Roberto Saviano’s exposé of the local criminal organisation, the Camorra.
The adaptation of these works follows the enormous commercial success of Ferrante’s and Saviano’s books within Italy and beyond. But they are also testament to the enduring appeal of Naples as a source of inspiration and as a brand that sells – and sells well – on the world stage.
A contradictory city
In the 18th century, the city was a stop on the Grand Tour, the traditional trip around Europe taken by young and wealthy northern Europeans and Americans.
These visitors were attracted by tales of Naples’ extraordinary beauty and by the nearby wonders of Vesuvius and Pompeii. They were greeted on arrival by a “demographic monster”: a frenetic and rapidly expanding city, often experienced as an assault on the senses.
The contrast between the magnificence of the city’s setting and the squalor of its rowdy underclass contributed to Naples’ proverbial reputation as a “paradise inhabited by devils”. It also resulted in the widespread portrayal of Naples as an exotic and often incomprehensible place, simultaneously seductive, thrilling and bewildering.

Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
That ambiguity is also present in Italian attitudes to the city. On one hand, since Italy was unified in 1861, Naples has been held up as the epitome of all things Italian. More often, though, it is seen as a thorn in the side of the modern nation-state. In the late 19th century, the Italian South – and Naples in particular – was viewed by its northern rulers as uncivilised and barbaric.
Over the course of the 20th century, however, Naples became celebrated as the cradle of Italian popular culture. According to media scholar Peppino Ortoleva, Naples became to “Italian popular culture what the New Orleans-Nashville axis is to US culture”. The city was a hotspot for talent and experimentation.
Cultural hotspot
Naples has a long musical history: its songs from the 19th century are still popular today. The famous “’O sole mio”, sung in Neapolitan dialect, was written in 1898. Another song, “Funiculì, funiculà”, was composed to celebrate the opening of the funicular railway on Mount Vesuvius in 1880.
This strong musical tradition evolved to produce Italy’s first musical film (Carosello Napoletano, 1953), its most celebrated singer-songwriter Pino Daniele, and its first experiments with rap and world music. Naples was quick to embrace the advent of film, with director Elvira Notari producing some of early cinema’s most intriguing work.
The city emerged as a major source of performance talent, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War. The plays of Eduardo De Filippo and the comic genius of actor Totò, the most popular Italian performer of all time, secured Naples’ renown at a national level.
READ ALSO: 
Naples’ role in film transferred to the international stage with the rise of Sofia Loren, who grew up in the city, in the 1950s. By then, Italy was a major production centre for English-language films, featuring Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck, Audrey and Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable and Charlton Heston.
The popularity of Naples among English-language audiences capitalised on the memories of Allied soldiers who had been stationed in Naples following the city’s liberation in 1943. It also profited from the large Italian community in the US, many of whom hailed from the Naples area.
Changing perceptions
These 1950s films – romances and comedies, for the most part – played on the warm sunlight and natural beauty of the Bay of Naples. They portrayed the city as an upbeat and beguiling place, populated by strong women, fallible men and resourceful rascals struggling to get by.
That picture contrasts sharply with the image of Naples in contemporary culture. For international audiences especially, Naples has become a place of dark intrigue. It is caught between Gomorrah’s post-industrial noir and the violence-tinged nostalgia of Ferrante’s world.

Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
Contrary to expectation, perhaps, the appeal of that world is not restricted to our bookshelves and screens. The (pre-pandemic) rise of Gomorrah and Ferrante-related tours confirm the allure of the dark side of Naples.
Despite its obvious selling power, this representation of the city is not without its risks – and not just for Naples. Its dark connotations threaten to overshadow the traditional image of Italy and the artisanal “Made in Italy” brand so carefully curated for the global economy.
Which version of Naples will triumph is anyone’s guess.
Ruth Glynn, Professor of Modern Italian Culture, University of Bristol
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Share this article
Member comments
The Local is not responsible for content posted by users.
Kris  -  4 August 2020 at 06:39 CEST
Naples is my second favourite city after Rome. Those who bypass Naples are missing out on an fantastic city. Naples has so much to offer with things to see, warm friendly people, brilliant food and also makes a great base for exploring the Campania Region, which is an amazing slice of Italy. The other advantage Naples has, it isn’t swamped with tourists.
Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.
More news
Italy rejects China’s bid to stop an art show by ‘Chinese Banksy’ rebel
The new guide to Florence’s Uffizi Galleries – showing only the nudes
Italian ‘art squad’ police recover 800 illegally-excavated archaeological finds
Italy has the most speed cameras in Europe, study shows
TRAVEL: Italy reports surge in bookings for ‘smart working’ summer holidays
EU travel green pass ‘ready by mid-June’, says Italy’s PM
Italy’s green pass ‘should last a year’, says health undersecretary
FOR MEMBERS
Where to find even more of Italy’s best beaches in 2021
Related articles
Italian city defies Beijing and opens exhibition by Chinese dissident artist
Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find
Why is Italy called Italy?
G20 leaders meet in Rome’s EUR district built by Mussolini
Italy rejects China’s bid to stop an art show by ‘Chinese Banksy’ rebel
Noticeboard
06/11UK to Italy Driving Licence
06/11Italian Bank that offers non-resident accounts
31/10Fun and Taste in Sicily
30/10Apartment and car (?) in Trento
13/10Tax questions when moving to italy
View all notices
Post a new notice
The Local Europe AB
Vasagatan 10
111 20 Stockholm
Sweden
Privacy