Entertaining and informative… a thorough and fascinating guide.
The most literary and fluently written of the available guidebooks.
The best guide to this region.
Eye-opening and refreshingly upbeat.
The first Normans came to southern Italy in the 11th century as pilgrims to the great shrine of St Michael at Monte Sant’Angelo in Puglia. Obviously, they could have saved themselves a long journey by choosing the saint’s northern branch office, Mont Saint Michael, close at hand at Normandy. Yet Monte Sant’Angelo must have had a reputation even then; in fact, this is one of the most uncanny sites in Christendom. The light and air, the austere treeless landscape, and the dramatic mountaintop setting all conspire to strangeness, and the churches and shrines of the town only add to the effect.
Across Europe the cult of St Michael was often associated with water, especially underground water. At Monte Sant’Angelo, the sanctuary is a cave that once had a flowing fountain in it. Souvenir stands outside peddle familiar images of the archangel spearing his dragon, or serpent, but it is likely that this tableau recalls something older and deeper than Christian legend – you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible. Some mythologists speculate that, before they were demonized by Christian theologians, western dragons were really more like the benign Chinese sort, representing underground streams and currents of energy in the earth. On some of the other weird old churches of Monte Sant’Angelo you will encounter the serpent again—a pair of them, usually, whispering into the ear of a fork-tailed mermaid or siren. Whoever this lady might be, she is figured in a quite alarming pose, with her tails spread wide to expose a part of mermaids seldom seen in churches.
Nearly every shrine of St Michael has something mysterious about it, but this one would be hard to beat. There is a suggestion of something ancient and a bit heretical, something that could be openly portrayed in the anarchically tolerant 12th century, but was later suppressed or just disappeared, leaving no trace; one Italian scholar suggests the mermaids were a symbol of a Dionysiac dancing cult—but your guess is as good as his. The Church has any number of explanations for the mermaid, all of them dubious: she is the Church itself, personified wisdom or personified vice, or else just meaningless decoration. When you meet the local priests and monks you’ll find they don’t want to talk about her at all. Twin-tailed mermaids do not only occur in Puglia. You can see them in medieval churches all over Italy, Spain and southern France, often hidden—look hard and you’ll find her peeking out from the back of pier, or on a capital in a dimly-lit corner.
Nevertheless, Puglia is the lady’s special province. In Monte Sant’Angelo she seems to be the reigning deity, and she turns up in a conspicuous place in churches all over the region. If you follow her tracks as far as they lead, you’ll see her in the unique mosaic floor of Otranto cathedral, at Puglia’s Land’s End. There the smiling, spread-tailed mermaid presides over all Creation, seated next to King Solomon himself. There is an inscription around the figure that probably explains everything—only it is in Arabic Kufic script, and nobody knows what it says.
Sotto questo cielo non nascono sciocchi.
(Under these skies no fools are born)
Camorra means a short jacket, of the kind the street toughs of Naples used to wear in the days of the Bourbon kings. But as with Sicily’s Mafia, the origin of the Neapolitan Camorra is lost in legend. Some accounts put it in the slums of the Quartiere Spagnuole, under the rule of the Spanish viceroys of the 16th century. Spanish soldiers of that time lived the life of picaresque novels—or at least tried to—and the fathers and brothers of the district did their best to defend their girls from such picaresqueness, which often meant a knife in the back in some dark alley.
There may be some truth to that, or it could all be romantic bosh. Criminals in southern Italy seem always to have been well organized, with a hierarchy, a set of rules, and a code of omertà. Foreign visitors to Naples in the 1700’s wrote that when something was stolen, they were able to get in touch with the ‘King of Thieves’ who would magically get it restored—stealing from guests, after all, was a discourtesy.
It’s doubtful they were ever so polite to their fellow citizens, for as long as there has been a Camorra it has lived mainly by extortion, with a fat finger in whatever rackets of the age looked most profitable. For a long time the gang’s biggest takings came from the prisons, which they controlled. In the old days prisoners in Naples, as anywhere else, had to pay for their upkeep, and each new arrival would be met by the Camorristi with a subtle request for ‘money for oil for the Madonna’: that is, to keep the light burning at the shrine of the Camorra’s favoured church, the Madonna del Carmine in Piazza del Mercato; you can imagine that the Madonna required a lot of fuel.
Relations between the Camorra and the authorities have always been complex. In the last days of the Bourbon kingdom, Ferdinand II made use of them as a kind of anti-liberal secret police. In 1860, it was claimed that Garibaldi was forced to cut a deal with them, handing over control of the city government in return for nobody shooting at him and his army when they entered the city.
The new Italian state, run by northerners, could not see the logic in this, and tried to wipe out the Camorra by vigorous police action. The mob trumped that ploy easily by going into politics, setting the pattern of close alliance between organized crime and centre-rightist parties that continues to this day. In a typical irony of parliamentary democracy, the titled gentry of the ruling class and the thugs found that their interests coincided perfectly, and by 1900 the theory and practice of southern machine politics had been refined to an art. As people used to say: ‘the government candidate always wins.’ In another place that might seem a cliché; in Naples it was a proverb, a piece of the deepest folk wisdom.
Like the Mafia, the Camorra took some hard knocks under Mussolini. If there was any cream to be skimmed, the Fascists wanted it all for themselves, and a dictatorship proved wonderfully convenient for getting around the legal niceties of arrest and conviction. And like the Mafia, the Camorra easily manipulated the Allied military government after 1944 to get back on its feet. Perhaps the Americans were sincerely convinced that the mobsters would be a useful ally in an impossible situation, or maybe they had a message that a little cooperation would save their army a lot of trouble (accidents can happen...). In any case, it seems to have been Allied policy on the Italian front to throw open the prisons in all the towns they captured.
In 1944, top American mobster Lucky Luciano went to Sicily to arrange things. He was swindled royally by his supposed brethren; there was always less of a connection between the native and foreign mobs than one might suppose. One of his New York lieutentants, Vito Genovese, was from around Naples; he went back there, and had better luck than Lucky, insinuating his way into the confidence of the Allied High Command. From the old Camorra stronghold of the ‘Triangle of Death’ in the villages north of the city, and for the bancarelle of the Forcella market, Genovese oversaw an incredible orgy of black-market wheeling and dealing, largely over stolen army supplies, while the old Camorra hands revived the ancient and hallowed traditions of extortion.
Today it is estimated that 60 per cent of all businesses in the Naples area pay protection money to the Camorra. The gang takes its cut from most sorts of crime and, like the Mafia, has become heavily involved in drugs—not so much exporting them as pushing them on their neighbours. If the old Camorra ever knew any bounds, or had any sense of decency, the current model has forgotten it; even the youngest children are tricked into crime. Unlike the Mafia, the Camorra has no recognized central authority; factions settle their differences with reciprocal assassinations—spectacles conducted out in the streets of the old quarters where all may enjoy them. The politicians in league with the Camorra have cheated Naples of fantastic amounts, enough to make the difference between the modern European metropolis it could be and the decomposing live body it is.
As late as 1992, your newspapers and Italy’s newspapers managed to cover events in southern Italy, and on a national level, without ever daring to mention the obvious fact that government and organized crime were one and the same; it wasn’t ‘proved’, and so even the most discreet insinuation might have been risky. For a while, it seemed as if the heroic work of Italian judges, prosecutors and police might finally put an end to the national racket and its political allies. Today, though, the bad guys are winning again, and we can all start considering what the newspapers aren’t telling us now.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls
Congratulations on your Cadogan Guide "The Bay of Naples and Southern Italy" having just returned from an early short break to this area. We would not have had such an enjoyable time without your guide.
Let me first of all congratulate you on your brilliant travel guide to the Bay of Napoli and the Amalfi Coast. So much information and history about the place I could not have hoped for more.