Naples will never escape the shadow of Vesuvius



Naples, the tatterdemalion capital of the Italian south, is said to be awash with heroin. Chinese-run morphine refineries on its outskirts masquerade as ‘legitimate’ couture operations that transform bolts of Chinese silk into contraband Dolce & Gabbana or Versace. The textile sweatshops are controlled by the Neapolitan mafia, or Camorra. All this was exposed by the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano in his scorching reportage, Gomorrah. Published in Italy in 2006, Saviano’s was nevertheless a partial account, in which the carnival city of mandolins and ‘O Sole Mio’ was overrun by Armani-coutured killer-capitalists.

Marius Kociejowski, poet, essayist and travel writer, is alert to the city’s reputation for Camorra and pickpocketing crime. ‘There is no getting around the fact that Naples is a bit of a shambles,’ he writes. Beneath the city’s obscure exuberance of life, though, is a picturesqueness of Hellenic and Virgilian myth and a wealth of folklore. Kociejowski’s book (which takes its title from the Sicilian proverb ‘Never fear Rome – the serpent lies coiled in Naples’) is one of the best I have read on the ramshackle Mediterranean outpost (and I have read a few). In pages of scholarly but engagingly droll prose, Kociejowski conjures a death-haunted city, where the meaning of life is everywhere connected to what it is to die.

Neapolitan attitudes to death are shadowed by elements of pagan belief and by the dromedary-like mound of Vesuvius smoking like a warning in the distance. In the brilliant chapter ‘Old Bones’, Kociejowski considers the network of underground volcanic quarries in Naples known as the Fontanelle, which are piled high with ancient human skulls. Until recently, devout Catholic women (it was usually women) would mutter prayers to a cranium of their choosing, in order to speed its owner on to paradise or for some other intercessory purpose. A number of the skulls have a sheen to them like well-polished shoes where they have been touched for good luck. Christianity has left only a translucent veneer, like a snail’s trail, over the superstitious surface of the Fontanelle mortuary cult. The ossuary is situated in the old Camorra stronghold of La Sanità, where traces of a Greco-Roman necropolis have come to light.



Along the way, Kociejowski interviews Neapolitan musicologists, restaurateurs, street musicians, folklorists, artists and puppeteers. Punctilious descriptions of churches, crypts and chapels combine with a sensuous immediacy of detail and an appreciation of the many writers who have immortalised Naples, among them the Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi, Charles Dickens, Goethe and Curzio Malaparte. (Malaparte’s great 1944 novel of wartime Naples, The Skin, is a ‘warped masterpiece’.) A restlessly enquiring spirit, Kociejowski is drawn to the commedia dell’arte’s stock character Pulcinella, since the 17th century a staple of Neapolitan puppetry. Pulcinella (our Mr Punch) has a dark knowledge of the afterlife and likes to bring the wealthy down a peg.

It was in the Campi Flegrei (the Burning Fields) outside Naples that Aeneas consulted the Sibyl prior to his descent into Hades. The soothsayer’s presumed grotto is still there, its roof blackened by centuries of torch smoke. To Kociejowski’s dismay, the path leading to the site is strewn with quantities of soiled lavatory paper, ‘as if whole busloads of people have together relieved themselves’. In 2017, dreadfully, three members of a holidaying family from northern Italy died when they fell into a pit in the Solfatara volcanic crater close to the grotto. The formula ‘See Naples and die’ acquired a ghastly significance that day. A pungent amalgam of reportage and travel, The Serpent Coiled in Naples does Naples and its citizenry proud.

Born in Canada (in 1949), Kociejowski settled in London in his mid-twenties, where he joined Bertram Rota booksellers. He remained in the antiquarian book trade for close on 45 years. For much of that time he worked in Cecil Court, the pedestrian alley in central London once nicknamed ‘Flicker Alley’ for its film industry connections. A Factotum in the Book Trade is his memoir of those times. Among his clients were Bryan Ferry and Patti Smith (collectors of Wyndham Lewis and Robert Louis Stevenson respectively).



Bruce Chatwin lived in the flat above Bertram Rota and Kociejowski got to know him. In his boyishly adventurous way, Chatwin announced one day that he was investigating the ‘dwarf-kidnapping trade in the Middle East’. When he came into the shop with the likes of David Hockney or Stephen Spender, he pointedly ignored Kociejowski. Like all social climbers, Chatwin was socially anxious.

Full of humour, and gossipy in a good way, A Factotum is also tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of a man looking back on half a century in the trade. From start to finish the book is a delight.

This article first appeared in the Spectator on 9 July 2022