Soul and Strings in Naples

What do you do when you discover you have the chance to spend a few hours in Naples one weekday afternoon? Obvious: you get in touch with old Neapolitan friends, knowing that, somehow, they’ll make time for you, and they’ll take care of everything, from finding somewhere to leave your luggage (thanks Gennaro and Antonio!) to getting you to the station in time for your train back home.

After the bagdrop, pizza and coffee stops, we went strolling around the old part of town, thankfully free of traffic nowadays. This was the quieter, post-lunch time of day too, with few people in the Spaccanapoli area. The quietness and absence of traffic may have made the centuries of history and drama shine through all the more, but my friend Fulvio’s historical narrative helped fill in the gaps!

Along the way we stopped by AnnaMaria Cirillo’s bookstore, Neapolis, with “the best collection of books about Naples in town”, and could have chatted till nightfall with Rosaria and AnnaMaria, as though I’d known them both for years. We also stopped by the Palazzo Venezia on the Spaccanapoli, currently home to a wide range of cultural events and activities, from exhibitions, concerts and lectures to music lessons and a variety of training courses.

In between the piano lessons that were taking place at the time, we also managed to catch a glimpse of the inside of the Pompei Lodge (the casina pompeiana), where Fulvio and fellow musicians perform regularly.

Having survived earthquakes and ruin, the Palazzo Venezia has been through several renovations and embellishments over the centuries. While some parts may evoke the grander moments of its past, and others have been spruced up to house, for example, exhibitions of contemporary art, there are also bits and pieces of the Palazzo that are slowly crumbling away. Still, to have turned it into such a lively home for the arts testifies to the energy, hard work, belief and – not least – investment of those running it.

In another cultural centre, the Domus Ars, housed in a former medieval church, rehearsals for an upcoming show were taking place. A chance meeting with a producer-director-actor whose Neapolitan dialect I understood no more than an occasional word of, but his enthusiasm was infectious all the same.

A few moments after leaving the Domus Ars, another chance meeting. Within minutes we were at at via Port’alba 30, at the Anema e Corde studio, photographing a group of four string instrument makers at work.

With backgrounds in music, woodwork and restoration, the four qualified as Master Luthiers in the design, construction and restoration of string instruments. They then founded their workshop taking inspiration from the Neapolitan luthiers of the past. The violins, mandolins and guitars they create are used by musicians at the San Carlo opera house, and also appear on exhibition stands at fairs in Cremona, Gubbio and Frankfurt. Concerts are held at their workshop too, the dates of which I’m told are passed on by word-of-mouth.

The story of these four Master luthiers strikes me as emblematic of the way that the Neapolitans I have known have succeeded in preserving the old, in an ongoing thread of friendship with the past, while, as the four luthiers put it, “introducing our own original and personal elements”.

Traditional, original, enchanting and completely unpretentious. While picking up my bag from Gennaro, it dawned on me that this Gennaro is the same Gennaro that is President of the Incanto company that runs activities at the Palazzo Venezia.

To my Roman friends who preferred to go straight back to Rome rather than spend the afternoon in Naples “getting pickpocketed” as they put it: be reassured – he nicked nothing from my bag!

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