(…) The fantastic descriptions of numerous travelers have colored the city. In reality it is gray: a gray or ocher red, a gray white. It is absolutely gray in comparison to the sky and the sea. Which contributes not a little to take away the pleasure from the visitor. Because for those who do not grasp the shapes, there is little to see here. The city has a rocky aspect. Seen from above, from Castel San Martino, where there are no shouts, at dusk it lies dead, one with the stone. Only one strip along the coast stretches flat, while behind, the buildings are staggered one above the other. Barracks of six or seven floors with stairs that climb from the foundations, which in comparison to the villas look like skyscrapers. In the basement of the rock, where it reaches the shore, caves have been dug. As on the paintings of hermits of the fourteenth century, here and there in the rocks you can make out a door. When it is open, large cellars can be seen which together serve as accommodation for the night and for storage of goods. There are also steps leading to the sea, in fishermen’s taverns, set up inside natural caves. From there, in the evening, dim lights and faint music rise upwards.
Architecture is as porous as this stone. Construction and action interpenetrate in courtyards, arches and stairways. Everywhere suitable space is kept to become the scene of new unforeseen circumstances. What is final, formed is avoided. No situation appears as it is, thought forever, no form declares its “so and not otherwise”. This is how architecture develops here as a synthesis of community rhythm: civilized, private, ordered only in the large hotels and warehouses on the quays – anarchic, intertwined, rustic in the center where excavation began just forty years ago great roads. And it is only in these that the house constitutes the nucleus of urban architecture in the Nordic sense. Inside, on the other hand, this nucleus is represented by the block, held together at the corners, as if they were iron grappas, by wall paintings depicting the Madonna. No one uses house numbers to find their way around. The points of reference are given by shops, fountains and churches, but even these are not always clear. In fact, the typical Neapolitan church does not stand out on a large, clearly visible square, complete with transverse buildings, choir and dome. It is hidden and embedded; the tall domes can often be seen only from a few points, but even in these cases it is not easy to reach them; impossible to distinguish the mass of the church from that of the adjoining civil buildings. The stranger passes in front of you. The inconspicuous door, often nothing more than a curtain, is a kind of secret entrance for initiates. A single step and from the confusion of the dirty courtyards you are transported into the pure solitude of the high and whitewashed environment of a church. The private life of the Neapolitan is the bizarre outlet of a public life pushed to excess. In fact, it is not within the home, between wives and children, that it develops, but in devotion or despair. In the side alleys, going down the filthy stairs, the gaze slides over taverns, where three or four men at some distance from each other sit and drink, hidden behind bins that look like the pillars of a church. In corners like these it is difficult to distinguish the parts where construction is continuing from those already in ruins. In fact, nothing is finished and concluded. Porosity is not only met with the indolence of the southern craftsman, but above all with the passion for improvisation. In any case, space and opportunities must be left to this.
The yards are used as a popular theater. They all split into an infinity of simultaneously animated spotlights. Balcony, entrance, window, driveway, staircase and roof act as stage and scene at the same time. Even the most miserable of existences is sovereign in its dark awareness of being part, despite all its depravity, of one of the unrepeatable images of the Neapolitan road, of enjoying idleness in its poverty and following the great general view. What takes place on the stairs is a great school of direction. These lives, never completely laid bare, but even less enclosed within the dark Nordic barracks, rush out of the shattered houses, make a corner turn and disappear, only to burst out again.
(…) Private life is fragmented, porous and discontinuous. What distinguishes it from all other cities Naples has in common with the kraal of the Hottentots: private actions and behaviors are flooded with flows of community life. Existence, which for the Northern European represents the most private of affairs, is here, as in the kraal of the Hottentots, a collective matter. Thus the house is not so much the refuge to which men retreat, but the inexhaustible reservoir from which they pour out. Not only from the doors life bursts out, not only on the square in front where people do their work sitting on a chair (since they have the ability to transform their bodies into a table).
Taken from: Walter Benjamin, Images of the City, first publication: Neapel, Frankfurter Zeitung, August 19, 1925