Dante, Virgil and Augustus and the clouds of Naples

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Augustus, in Naples, looks out at Vesuvius, the volcano that covered Pompeii and Herculaneum in lava and ash thousands of years ago. Clouds puff out around Vesuvio like plumes of smoke. Virgil, a great Roman poet of the Augustan era, is entombed not far away. His Aeneid, inspired by Homer‘s Odyssey and Iliad. Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri, in 14th century Italy, wrote Virgil into his Divine Comedy as a sage pagan guide through hell and purgatory.

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Dante Alighieri commands the clouds, overlooking the passersby in the Piazza Dante off Via Toledo. The day before it had stormed on nearby Capri and the clouds were thick and dramatic against the bright blue sky of central Napoli.

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I wept not, so to stone within I grew. – Dante

slide4Dante is host to one of Naple’s most popular “outdoor living rooms” where Neapolitans meet in the evenings for conversation, snacks, flirting and delicious coffee.

“With the color that paints the morning and evening clouds that face the sun I saw then the whole heaven suffused.” – Dante

All photographs shot on velvia film slides by Rebecca Price Butler, alovelettertorome.com

italian journey

  • Rome is a Fellini movie. It is the annual barbarian invasion. It is a lack of catalytic converters. It is hundreds of vespas whirring and beeping through roundabouts. It is a hypnotic siren screaming through the city.
  • Rome is an open-aired art museum, a feast for all the senses. It is packed with all that I want out of life, footsteps away from the next breathtaking view or taste. It is life and death in some delicate balance, in a dance on the edge of something imperceptible. It is the footsteps of Artemisia Gentileschi, it is the footsteps of the Caesars. It is 6,000 year old Egyptian obelisks, it is 1800 year old Aurelian walls, it is the Grand Old Tour still walkable. It is the burial grounds of the English Romantic Poets. It is a dream. It is the eternal city. All roads still lead to it.
  • Venezia is a Grimm fairytale come to life, a place of winding, labyrinthine bridges and walkways. A place for spies and mercenaries. A city of corners and gondola rides at night, when no-one else is on the water and the gondolier sings old songs out into the dark while you float past the Rialto Bridge and the apartments of Casanova. Venice is the 1700s. Venice is a child’s dream, or nightmare; a place to wander to hear the echoes of your footsteps over endless stone. To move in and out of chocolate shops, each window more and more decadent in their display, until your pockets are overflowing with Venus’ Nipples and confectionaries. Venice is candy and wine, canals and shuttered windows with a latch missing so you can listen to a record playing Billie Holiday songs, her voice finding nowhere to rest, because Venice is not made of earth it is made of bones. Venice is gnocchi and gorgonzola. It is carnival masks and orchestras. It is the smell of water and decay. It is a memory.
  • Firenze is for the maestros. Florence is sweet shops and pignolis and bridges. Florence is theRenaissance. It is inventions and giants and towers. It is candied almonds and hot chocolate and olive trees. It is truffled pesto. It is chestnuts and hazelnut cream. Florence is old bookshops and new students among a sea of young faces and young lovers’ bodies. It is rolling hills and gardens. It is palazzos and art museums and intrigues. It is Dante’s inferno. It is Savonarola’s funeral pyre. It is the last gasp of the Medicis.
  • Milano is birds and textiles and modern life teeming with the future. It is fashion. It is elegant and impersonal. It is brief. It is closed for renovation so you don’t get to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which is the reason you went there in the first place. It is Occidental, it is larger than life, it is dry white wines and prosecco. It is always moving.
  • Capri is Tiberius’ playground, it is the Blue Grotto, it is a private boat around the island, it is climbing jagged rocks and everything painted Santorini like; blue and white, yellow and gold. It isAna Capri, it is postcard pretty, boutique hotels, it is capreses and spumante for breakfast. It is the blue-green sea and sailboats glittering among the Bay of Naples. It is the jet-setters and the day-trippers. It is one little piazza and two cafes. It is the Madonna of the rocks. It is the Villa San Michele. It is the bird’s eye view of everything. It is the sparkle of sun on the water.
  • Sorrento is a bustling city-village. It is on the edge of the Bay of Naples, the connector to sights and sounds of the Amalfi coast. Sorrento is orange and lemon scented. It is orange and lemon groves and tomatoes on the vine, ripening to a deep red. It is gigantic, fleshy lemons used for white fish and sweet delicate lemons for limoncello. It is capers and shellfish and bufalo mozzarella from Campania.
  • Napoli is the street, it is life in the streets. Naples is long, narrow alleyways, with tiny rows of iron balconies draped neatly with laundry. It the smell of the sea. It is the best view of Vesuvius. Naples is a garbage problem. It is 30% unemployment thirty years running. Naples is beautiful between the shadows.
  • Naples is a sprawling, glittering, wild animal of a city, it is the pulse and growl of a wild thing. It is a faded kingdom, a half empty castle, a city on a hill. It is the Spaccanapoli, it is the best coffee in the world, the best bread, the best pizza. It is the tarnished jewel of the south, it is, as oneMilanese said to me recently, the North’s shame. It is proud.
  • Naples is a living, breathing chiaroscuro. It is Caravaggios getaway. It is fishing boats. It is theMuseo Archeoligico, the Capidimonte, the cloistered gardens filled with painted Spanish tiles. Naples is the house for the spoils of Pompeii. It is an opera, played out in the living room of the town square, it is the family pasiegetta. It is Januarius’ blood, it is the outstretched wings of aswallow, it is the solemn hum of machinery. It is ecstasy and despair. It is a crying out.

    It is see Naples and die.

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  • * an extra note on rome:

    Roma was my first European city.

    It was my first glimpse of the things I find most beautiful in the world.

    There were ruins, Renaissance architecture, 600 year old fountains and marble floors. 

    There were Greco-Roman mosaics, pagan temples, frescoes, umbrella pines and cypress trees in manicured gardens.

    And ancient aqueducts to wander around in.

    There was hot espresso and spicy wine to drink and penne all’arrabbiata, a classic Roman dish, to taste.

    Rome had decayed beauty balanced out by its bright earthy colors against the perfect sunsets.

    There were fat clouds against azure skies. 

    When in Rome that oft used but true cliché – that la dolce vita – the sweet life, is alive and well in the eternal city.

    There were a thousand church bells ringing throughout the city on afternoon walks, from the very churches packed with masterpieces.

    There were elegant villa museums full of Italian art and baroque curves and decorated with ancient statuary. Rome was everything all at once.