“The most beautiful country in the universe inhabited by the most idiotic species.” – Marquis de Sade from Voyage d’Italie, 1775-76.`
It was a disgruntled Marquis who wrote these words from exile while under threat of imprisonment at home, Voyage d'Italie being the best face he could put on his scandalous predicament. The peripatetic Stendhal (1783-1824), who served as the French consul to Trieste, wrote that only Naples had "the true makings of a capital." As for the other cities on the Italian peninsula, they were merely "glorified provincial towns like Lyon." Rather mean-spirited commentary to heap on one of the world's oldest cities; when the Greeks arrived in the 8th century BCE they gave the name Neapolis (Greek for 'new city') to their place of exile.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, legends persist that Horace and Virgil wrote there. Beauty does that to people, inspiring poetry and bending the evidence. An old Neapolitan superstition has it that the Possuoli Bay is so beautiful that when moonlight strikes the water even fish fall under its spell. The usually rigorous W.H. Auden insisted, without much evidence, that the German poet Goethe finally lost his virginity in Naples, at the age of thirty-seven.
Would there have been the mass influx of artists in the 18th and 19th centuries without an expanding international art market and the taste for exotic travel writing? Voltaire, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Thomas Jones of Wales, were just a few who came and were beguiled the scenery - and the chance to witness an eruption by Mt. Vesuvius. Although most artists were not so fortunate (!) and had to rely on historical accounts, notably that of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written, to be sure, before he died on August 24, 79 CE, choked by ash and smoke when he sailed across the Bay of Naples to get a closer look at the eruption that buried Pompeii. Still, it comes as a disappointment to discover that a great and upright painter like J.M.W. Turner fabricated his Vesuvius From Naples from the accounts of other lesser artists.
Veduta, an Italian word meaning view, has come to be associated with paintings of grand urban vistas, which include large expanses of water. And mountains are helpful, too. Naples has both, including one of the most mythologized and ill-tempered of mountains, the volcano Mt. Vesuvius. One impressive example is The Bay of Possuoli Off the Coast of Naples by the German artists August Wilhelm Julius Ahlborn (1796-1857); it dazzles the viewer with the intense lavender blue of the water, and is typical of its origins. The veduta appears to have sprung from the paintbrushes of northern Europeans struck by the sublimity of beauty and terror in close proximity. Even spare and unromantic images, like Rooftops of Naples by Thomas Jones, of ordinary vernacular buildings that are now familiar from a million photographs, seem to hint at thrilling vistas just out of sight.
1. August Wilhlem Julius Ahlborn - The Bay of Possuoili Off the Coast of Naples, 1832, National Gallery, Berlin.
2. Thomas Jones (1742-1803)- Rooftops in Naples, Aprile (sic) 1782, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.