Wandering the narrow streets and alleys of Naples, Italy one may find poets and jesters; saints and sinners, the exalted and the damned. Tears of joy and sadness fall in equal measure. The city seems inhabited not just by the living, but by spirits of those who have long ago tread the earth. It is fitting that a statue of the great poet Dante towers over a broad plaza here. One could undertake their own quasi-trek through the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso on the streets of the modern-day city. I can think of no other place in Italy that better exemplifies the middle ground where good and bad coexist, the throbbing heart of humanity, in all its chaos and conflict. The quote that opens this book are words uttered by Virgil, addressing Dante as they completed their journey through Purgatory, just having traversed the sufferers paying penance for the seven deadly sins.Virgil, about to take his final leave of Dante, who will continue on to Paradise without the elder’s guidance, implores the younger poet (and us as well) to honor and commit to one’s unique vision during our search for rapture.
Naples is in many ways the beating, bleeding heart of Italy; the true manifestation of its contradictions and glories. Scattered throughout the city one will find the peaceful face of Padre Pio, the stigmata-bearing icon of hope for many Italian Catholics. Shrines to a multitude of other saints can be found on nearly every street corner of the city, each a testament to the powerful faith of the local denizens. Just as ubiquitous is the visage of the greatest Italian comedic actor, Totó, who was born and raised in the rough and tumble streets of Naples’ Sanità neighborhood. No mere jester, Totó is considered as much as a poet as he is “il Principe della risata” (the Prince of laughter.)
For the ultimate foil to the poetic, artistic or pious ideal of the city, one might look no further than to Diego Maradona, the great Argentine football star. More than any other contemporary figure, he may best represent the complicated soul of Naples and its people. Some would argue that his prowess on the football pitch is evidence of divine intervention; that he was truly touched by the “Hand of God.” Maradona provided salvation for the city (via goals and championships) and as I explored the unfamiliar streets and of the city with my camera in hand, I would see his likeness everywhere. A complicated and flawed figure, known as much for his exploits off the field as on, he can certainly be considered the embodiment of both good and evil. Yet, he is as omnipresent and as beloved to the people of Naples as Padre Pio, the Virgin Mary, or Jesus Christ himself.