Sin Cities

Rome and Naples under the microscope.

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita 

By high-speed train, Rome and Naples are a mere 70 minutes apart. Yet the two cities differ greatly in temperament, atmosphere and physical appearance. They did not form part of the same country until Italy’s unification in 1861 and their divergent experiences resonate to this day. Now Rome and Naples are each put under the microscope in a pair of impressive books that use political inquiry, social history and cultural analysis to illuminate the cities’ evolving identities.

Stephen Gundle’s Death and the Dolce Vita is a brilliant, methodical investigation of a murder scandal that convulsed the Roman political and social establishment in the 1950s. It was a case that exposed mysterious, hidden networks of interest and influence as the reconstructed Italian state, democratic in form but less so in content, struggled to overcome the poisonous legacy of fascism, foreign occupation and civil war.

In April 1953, the body of Wilma Montesi, a dark-haired 21-year-old from an unexceptional lower-middle class family, was discovered on a beach at Torvaianica, now a busy seaside resort to the south of Rome, then a mere fishing village on a barren stretch of coastline.

According to a hastily prepared police report, Montesi had travelled to Ostia, higher up the coast, taken off some clothes to paddle in the sea, lost consciousness and drowned; a strong current had washed her body down to Torvaianica. This implausible version of events soon stirred the suspicions of the Roman press, which hinted that the death was linked to the shady activities of high-level politicians and their friends.

“The idea of a cover-up was nourished in a setting where suspicion about the secretiveness of authority mingled with hostility against the country’s new rulers. The shift from dictatorship to democracy had taken place too quickly for old habits to die overnight,” writes Gundle, a professor at Warwick university and a prolific writer on modern Italy.

In 1954 Silvano Muto, a journalist who knew much about the dark corners of postwar Roman life, was put on trial for having written that Montesi had died after taking drugs at an orgy for the wealthy and politically well-connected in a hunting lodge near the coast. Her body had then been dumped at sea, he alleged. When the case against Muto collapsed, uproar ensued: the Italian left railed against the moral corruption of the bourgeois ruling class, the right condemned the affair as a communist plot.

Eventually, three men—an unscrupulous Sicilian wheeler-dealer who styled himself a marquis, a former Rome police chief and a former Italian foreign minister’s son– were prosecuted for Montesi’s murder. But all were acquitted after a trial in which more than 100 witnesses testified and no pertinent facts were unequivocally established.

In this sense, the Montesi affair was just the first in a string of politically tinged criminal scandals that erupted in the first 40 years of the postwar Italian republic. Many, including the Montesi case, remain unsolved to this day—to the apparent satisfaction of certain official circles.

The strength of Gundle’s book lies not only in its careful scholarship but in the way that Rome itself emerges as a character in the drama. The city was the ancient imperial capital and historical seat of the popes but also a place of political intrigue, religious luxury, low morals and a new form of lurid, illustrated journalism that captured profits and public attention by filling its pages with glamour and crime. As Peter Ustinov, the actor and filmmaker, eloquently put it in his memoirs, Rome in this era was a “glut of over-ripe peaches in a dish of hills”, a city defined by sleepy days, wide-awake nights, nervous exacerbation and squalid temptation.

There are temptations in Naples too—lots of them. It is, as the old cliché has it, “a paradise inhabited by devils”, a place where one of the world’s most beautiful bays, glittering in sunlight under the brow of Vesuvius, is only a few minutes away from crime, poverty and squalor.

But there is no street or market in Rome that produces the extraordinarily dense combination of aromas of the Spanish quarter in the heart of Naples—”mineral, ammoniacal, salty, smoky, with traces of red wine, fresh fish, orange peel, new bread, vinegar, burnt pizza and dirt sluiced downhill with soap and water”, as Peter Robb puts it in his selective but stimulating excursion through the city’s history.

Robb is an accomplished travel writer whose Midnight in Sicily, published in 1996, was a gem of its genre. Street Fight in Naples is a different kind of book. It has little to say about the modern Camorra, the criminal clans of the sprawling Naples conurbation, and it steers clear of events such as the 1980 earthquake and the garbage collection crises that afflict the area with infuriating regularity.

Instead, Robb turns his attention to the writers, artists, and public figures of medieval and early modern Naples. Some, such as Boccaccio and Cervantes, respective authors of the Decameron and Don Quixote, spent only part of their lives in Naples but the city left a strong impression on their works. Others are deeply embedded in Neapolitan history: Don Ferrante, the 15th-century king who took revenge on his over-mighty barons by arranging their murders at a wedding feast, and Masaniello, the fishmonger who led a revolt against Spanish rule in 1647.

Robb paints an especially compelling portrait of Giordano Bruno, the philosopher and cosmologist who, in 1600, was burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy. Bruno, who was born just outside Naples and sent there for his education, wrote a little-known comedy, Il Candelaio (The Torchbearer), that gives a remarkable description of the city: “A swarm of dealers, fakes and middlemen, traffickers in non-existent influence and information, hovered like blowflies over the slimmest of material pickings. Fakery and perversion offered a livelihood. Desires and delusions were serviced by vague operators touting expertise in writing, science, magic and the occult arts. The realest skills on display were in the language of fraud, and the cement binding this fragmented society was local organised crime.”

As Robb comments: “It was a lot like Naples and Italy 450 years later.” Some readers may feel cheated that Robb chooses not to develop this point. But he undoubtedly succeeds in bringing to life a city whose “frantic dream-like lethargy” never fails to take one’s breath away.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.