Naples: The Living Medieval City

Gritty, overwhelming, vibrant, ancient, fascinating, obnoxious, overcrowded – Naples may have as many adjectives as it does peeling layers of history. It has been an inhabited urban area for over 4000 years, from its beginnings as a Greek colonial settlement around 2000 BCE, to today’s third largest city in Italy (after Rome and Milan). It is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, and this overcrowding is intensified by the lack of public parks and the compact, narrow streets that run between multi-storey apartment blocks.

A visit to Naples today is an intense, immersive assault on the senses. Naples has often been described as a living medieval city – a congested and bustling urban jungle where daily life is lived in public. This is exemplified by the Neapolitan Bassi, one- or two- roomed ground floor apartments that are accessed directly from the street. This ‘low living’ creates a unique phenomenon of obligatory oversharing as passers-by get a glimpse of the people whose lives spill out onto the streets.

We witnessed intimate slices of life as we walked the streets – a dishevelled man in his underwear smoking in the doorway of his tiny apartment while his huge German Shepard dog defecated next to a broken marble fountain that was cordened off with tattered municipal tape. Laundry hung out to dry on washing lines that span the narrow streets below, buckets on ropes used to haul groceries up from street level, and elderly residents sitting outside playing cards and drinking coffee in the haze of motorino fumes.

naples street scene
Typical Neapolitan street scene – motorinos, peeling paint, laundry hanging from a balcony

The streets ebb and flow with markets selling anything and everything from sunrise until long after sunset. People are friendly to their neighbours and indifferent to tourists, and social meetings with friends and family are a high priority. The city never stops, never sleeps, and never loses its intensity.

Naples in a Nutshell: A Timeline of the History of Naples

The history of Naples is long, complicated, and fascinating. Here are some important dates that will help you to orientate yourself when considering the different time periods of this immortal city. My timeline is by no means exhaustive, but you can easily research the history of the city and surrounding areas independently if you’d like to know more!

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A view of Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, as seen from the Port of Naples
  • The very first signs of human settlement in the area of Naples appear towards the end of the Stone Age. The first Greek settlement dates back to around 2000 BCE
  • The Greek settlement Parthenope is established in the 9th century BCE
  • Another Greek settlement, Neapolis, is established to replace Parthenope in the 6th century BCE
  • Naples is conquered by the Romans in 326 BCE and joins the Roman Empire
  • Vesuvius erupts and destroys the nearby Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 72 CE
  • Western Roman Empire falls when emperor Romulus Augustulus dies in Naples in 511 CE
  • In the 6th century CE both the Byzantines and the Goths conquer Naples
  • Duchy of Naples created in the 7th century CE and Naples becomes independent
  • Normans invade Naples in the 12th century CE. Norman castles and fortified walls are built
  • The Kingdom of Naples is formed in the 13th century CE
  • Naples becomes the largest city in the Spanish Empire in the 17th century CE
  • In 1816 Naples becomes the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies
  • 1861: Italian Unification – Naples becomes part of Italy

Naples as a Greek Colony – The ‘New City’ of Magna Graecia

Naples wasn’t always a part of the Roman empire. In fact, it was originally a Greek colony, established around the 9th century BCE and named after the siren (mermaid) Parthenope. Legend has it that Parthenope was one of the sirens that attempted to lure the Greek hero Odysseus to his death with her beautiful singing voice. Wily Odysseus thwarted her efforts by ordering his men to plug their ears with wax so that they would not hear the fatal songstresses and prevented them sailing towards certain death. He also had them lash him to the mast of the ship with rope, so that he could satiate his curiosity and hear their songs from relative safety.

bay of naples sunset
The Bay of Naples on a late summer’s evening

Parthenope was distraught at her failure to seduce the sailors and committed suicide. Her body was said to have drifted upon the waves until it was set ashore on the tiny island of Megaride. On this island, the mortal remains of Parthenope dissolved, birthing the city of Parthenope (later Naples) – her head resting on the hill of Capodimonte and her tail on the hills of Posillipo.

The Greeks had regular conflict with the Etruscans, but they prevailed and developed the urban area of Neapolis, or ‘New City’, which corresponds roughly with the centre of modern day Naples. Neapolis quickly became the most important city in Magna Graecia, and even after Roman conquest the city retained a great deal of its Greek identity and culture.

Naples as part of the Roman Empire

Roman Naples was a respected centre of Hellenistic culture, and with Roman infrastructure and beautification it became a popular vacation destination for Roman emperors, including the emperors Claudius and Tiberius who had holiday villas in the area. Most of the ancient Roman archaeology in Naples is below ground, and there are a few fascinating subterranean tours of the city that you can book if you want to explore Neapolitan history below ground. A subterranean tour is high on our priority list for our next visit!

A view of Vesuvius from the main forum in Pompeii

The nearby ill-fated city of Pompeii gives a fascinating look at life in the Roman empire in the 1st century CE, and a day trip to the archaeological site is highly recommended if you are interested in ancient Rome. The archaeological museum in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) is also a must-see as it houses the majority of the art recovered from the preserved city of Pompeii, including many astonishingly intricate mosaics.

Medieval Naples – War, Independence, and Monarchy

When the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus died in Naples in 511 CE, Naples was taken over by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Naples remained loyal to the Eastern Roman Empire during the Lombard invasion of Italy in the 6th century CE. The Duchy of Naples was formed in the 7th century CE with the permission of the Byzantine emperor Constans II, and at this time Naples functioned primarily as a military city. The Duchy became fully independent in 763 CE, and remained thus under the changing occupation of the Byzantines, Ostragoths, and the Lombards.

castel nuovo naples
Castel Nuovo, The Port of Naples

Naples boasted a fleet of war ships, and in the early Medieval period the city was more involved in war with its neighbours than it was in trade and commerce. Eventually, Norman conquest of the city in the 12th century CE led to the end of the independence of the Duchy of Naples. The Normans exerted their own influence on the already cosmopolitan city, building the first castles in Naples, as well as new fortified city walls.

The Kingdom of Naples was formed in 1285 CE, although it was officially known as the Kingdom of Sicily. For most of its existence, the kingdom was fought over by French, German, and Spanish dynasties, and the coveted throne was won and loss many times by both dynasties (and occupied by a few others in between). When Spain conquered Naples in 1502, a beautification project was begun using wealth (loot) acquired from the New World. In the 19th century Naples became the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which sounds like a confusing title because it is confusing. The Kingdom of Naples, known officially as the Kingdom of Sicily, merged with the Kingdom of Sicily, hence the ‘two Sicilies’. This short-lived kingdom was dissolved by Garibaldi in 1860, after which the unification of Italy took place.

Unification and Modernisation

Naples became a crucial sea port in the 14th – 18th centuries CE, and it became one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities on earth during the period of colonisation. However, when Europe began industrializing in the 18th century CE and trade routes shifted West, it was left behind in the wake of modernisation. It remained largely agricultural in the absence of trade to stimulate the economy, and much of the land was owned by the church.

Naples joined the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in 1861, an event that introduced widespread societal reforms throughout a rapidly moderning Italy. The Naples of today remains a cosmopolitan and vibrantly multicultural city that holds a wealth of history and culture at every turn.

Religion, Superstition, and Faith

Like most Italian cities, Naples is a stronghold of Roman Catholicism. There are myriad beautiful churches dotted throughout the city, and most of them are worth a visit if you enjoy architecture and art. It is almost impossible not to stumble across churches as you explore the city on foot. Some churches are accessed by entrances that might be easily overlooked, and I highly recommend looking out for these unassuming places of worship and popping in to see if you can find a hidden gem.

Churches are generally closed to tourists during mass, so if you have specific churches you’d like to visit, it’s wise to plan your time accordingly. Naples Cathedral (Duomo di Napoli) is a must-see, both for its stunning architecture and its reverence of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro (Saint Januarius).

San Gennaro and the Miracle of the Blood

The patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, is a matryr said to have been imprisoned and executed by beheading during the Great Persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. Legend has it that he hid his fellow Christians during the year and a half of persecutions, but he was eventually caught visiting a friend who was already in prison for his Christian faith. After his execution, a woman named Eusebia is said to have collected some of his blood, and this dried blood has been kept in two hermetically sealed ampoules safely encased in a silver reliquary. The vials of blood, bones, and skull of San Gennaro were finally reunited in the 15th century and laid to rest in a special crypt in the Duomo di Napoli.

San Gennaro is famous for the Miracle of the Blood, which is a tri-annual liquification of his blood. Devotees visit the cathedral to witness the miracle in person, and each successful liquification is said to prove that San Gennaro loves Naples and will continue to watch over the city.

Protection from the Evil Eye: Warding Off Ill Intent

A pervasive southern Italian superstition concerns the malocchio, or ‘evil eye’. The malocchio is best explained as ill intent directed from one individual towards another individual. The ill intent usually comes from someone who is envious of another, and this envy is often expressed as an insincere compliment towards the ‘victim’. The furtive nature of the malocchio is so that the target is taken unawares and cannot protect themselves against the ‘curse’ of bad luck. The malocchio can also refer to a more general concept of ‘bad luck’, and it is usually taken very seriously.

The number 13 is considered a lucky number in southern Italy, and it is often used when gambling.

There are myriad ways to protect oneself from the evil eye, and these can vary from community to community, and traditions differ even within families. The amulet of the bright red cornicello is one such protective measure. The cornicello, or ‘little horn’, talisman is worn to ward off the malocchio, and it is also believed to promote fertility and virility. In Neapolitan it is called curniciello, and you can see them for sale all over the city.

The cornicello is reminiscent of a red chilli pepper, or a curved horn, and it represents several things that encompass the power of generation – the fruit- and flower-filled cornucopia from Greek and Roman mythology, the phallus, and the horn of an eland antelope. These ancient protective amulets are a colourful reminder of the faith that is a vital part of modern Neapolitan life.

Interestingly, Catholicism and ancient superstitions thrive simultaneously in southern Italy. One can wear a cornetto around one’s neck and hold rosary beads in one’s fist without a second thought. It is fascinating to see these perhaps conflicting belief systems existing intertwined, and actually thriving in symbiosis.

This might be unsurprising to some, given that pagan traditions were blended with Christian traditions to ease the transition from a multi-theistic belief system to a more restricted monotheistic belief system. In modern life, the roots of certain beliefs and practices often become less obvious, and traditions are passed down through generations without much changing. The living medieval city of Naples is an exception, with old beliefs very much visible and celebrated.