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Books on Naples

Robert Barrett

Naples is maddening, brutally alive, quite wonderful; some wise travelers hate it. I love it. This is a list of books that helped me comprehend this complex city; I welcome any suggestions.


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With a broad selection like this, it seemed to me that it might be handy to mark books I have found especially helpful or interesting; they are marked by stars, thus:

There are two books that are extremely rewarding for pre-visit reading.

-- The history of Naples is immensely complex, and there is a book that gives theOrder In The Shadow of Vesuvius entire narrative of the place, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Angevins, Bourbons and all the rest. In The Shadow Of Vesuvius, by Jordan Lancaster, certainly covers the ground well. Her mistakes, which any good editor should have caught (ancient Greeks did not grow tomatoes; there were no photographs of Marie Antoinette) do make me wonder about her general accuracy, but as far as I can tell, she has taken on a massive task and brought it off quite well.

Order Gomorrah -- The story of modern Naples is, alas, often the story of the organized crime outfit, the camorra. In 2007, Roberto Saviano published Gomorrah, a very scary and necessary exposure of the gang. He lived amidst the criminals and is now under police protection. It really is a horrible story that goes a long way to help explain the sad side of Naples.

And once you are there, a guide book is essential. I took eight with me, and two were the most helpful:

Order the Eyewitness Naples Guide -- The best for on-the-ground exploring is the Eyewitness Naples and the Amalfi Coast guide. The street-by-street map/drawings are amazingly helpful. While Naples isn't quite as confusing as Venice, it is easy to get lost, and the Eyewitness guide is the best for navigating the streets. So-so on restaurants. Good on art and churches.


-- The Regione Campania published through Electa Naples and Campi Flegrei: Museums And Places Of Art. The public castles, palaces, churches, and museums are well-described with invaluable floor-plans for most of the sites.

Both the Archaeological Museum and the Capodimonte publish very good guides to their collections.

The fold-up, laminated Streetwise Naples map is very handy.


Here are the other six guides, listed in descending order of usefulness:

History and Memoirs

Naples has more than enough history to go around, and it has inspired many wonderful writers. I'll start with history and memoirs then move into fiction.

-- Harold Acton has written two massive and insanely detailed histories of the Bourbon rulers of Naples, flannel-heads one and all. Sort of fun, but really only for the committed:

-- The Ancient Shore, by the brilliant novelist Shirley Hazzard and her late husband Francis Steegmuller, is a series of gentle reflections on the city. Steegmuller's essay on his experiences in the Neapolitan health-care system says much about the city and its inhabitants.

-- Palaces of Naples, Donatello Mazzoleni, photography by Mark E Smith. New York: Rizzoli, 2000. Copies as cheap as $20.00 on-line. Luscious color photos of the interiors of palazzi not open to the gawker.

-- Falling Palace, by Dan Hofstadter. A love story, where the object of affection is both the girl and the city. Recommended.

-- Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy, by Norman Lewis. Grim, grim, and grimmer. The war and occupation shattered Naples, and gimlet-eyed Lewis was there to record the pain, as well as the spirit. A great read.

-- The Broken Fountain, by Thomas Belmonte. A terribly sad book, purporting to be an anthropological study of the criminal youth of Naples, but which is really a book about loneliness and belonging.

-- More specialized, and more than a little dismal, is Frank M. Snowden's Naples in the Time of Cholera, 1884-1911.

-- Italica Press is bringing out an interesting series of collected primary texts on Naples, in English translation. The last two, chronologically, are the first two be published: Baroque Naples, 1600-1800 And Modern Naples, 1799-1999. Again, for the dedicated.


-- The Gallery, by John Horne Burns, was the first great novel to come out of WWII, but it was soon overshadowed by The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity (don't those portentous titles sound dated?) This is too bad, as it is a wonderful sprawling book that centers around the glassless Galleria Umberto I, and the Italians and the Americans struggling to make lives for themselves in the occupied city. Highly recommended.

-- Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon, her Naples novel, isn't one of her best, but it is evocative and it might spur one on to read her later, better books.

-- The madman Curzio Malaparte wrote his version of the occupation in his nasty The Skin. Violent and cruel, but fascinating, in a train-wreck sort of way.

-- Even Susan Sontag got the Naples bug. The Volcano Lover is her novel about Sir William Hamilton and his Emma, and it is quite wonderful; certainly her most accessible work.

Robert works in publishing and bookselling in Santa Monica, CA, between yearly trips to Italy. Robert and Deb are writing a guidebook - Churches of Rome.

© Robert Barrett, 2010

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