History of Naples


Naples is the main city in the south of Italy, the capital of its home region of Campania, and the third biggest town in Italy. It’s an overcrowded and sprawling metropolis holding around a million souls, with a further two million Neopolitans populating the suburbs. It’s a major seaport, with shipyards, and thriving industries including iron and steel, petroleum, and porcelain … Naples combines great riches with some grinding poverty.

Yet the bald statistics don’t start to describe this extraordinary, chaotic, exciting and resolutely southern city - Naples isn’t like the rest of Italy.

Of course Italy is a country of regions, of former city states and fierce local loyalties and rivalries. Modern Italy broadly divides itself into north and south (the Mezzogiorno) with Naples sitting proudly as the Mezzogiorno’s capital. Staunchly Catholic, Naples is rich in historical, artistic and cultural traditions and with its own distinct cuisine. The pizza originated here and is eaten, like so many other delicious local foods, out on the street.

In fact the street is where Naples happens. Life is lived here in all its chaotic glory. It’s bustling, noisy and rather dirty; there is sometimes shocking poverty on display, and it pays to keep your wallet in an inside pocket. Cars and scooters weave frantically around each other and the baffling road system - we’d suggest you leave the car at home and walk. Meanwhile, Neapolitan is a language in its own right and you’ll hear the harsh dialect bellowed at volume. And this adds up to? One of the most exciting places you’ll ever visit. It also has some beautiful architecture, a thriving port area, and frequent ferries out to the lovely islands of Capri and Ischia; and the ancient world lies just out of town in the shape of Pompeii, Herculaneum and their ruins. (Here you will find our selection of Naples apartments for rent, holiday villas, short term rentals, rooms and bed and breakfast, and hotels.)

The city of Naples was probably founded by the Greeks around the eighth century BC, just kilometres from the older town of Partenope; this ‘new town’ or ‘Neapolis’ has been absorbing the influences of its settlers and invaders ever since. Romulus Augustulus, last emperor of the Roman Empire, was imprisoned here after being overthrown in 476. In the sixth century, Naples was conquered by the Byzantines, and it was one of the last duchies to fall to the all-conquering Normans in 1039, as they founded the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1266 Naples and the kingdom of Sicily were given by Pope Clement IV to Charles of Anjou, who moved the capital from Palermo to Naples. In 1284 the kingdom was split in two, and stayed that way till 1816, when they would form the kingdom of Two Sicilies. In between, Naples had been under the rule of Spain, Austria, and the Bourbons, and had (briefly) been a Jacobin republic. Finally, in October 1860, it became part of the new Italy.

Perhaps part of the reason that Naples isn’t more of a tourist trap is nervousness on the part of visitors. For this is definitely not a pre-packaged or sanitised destination, and Naples doesn't boast the sophisticated elegance of Florence or Venice. Couple this with its reputation as the home of the ‘camorra’ (Neapolitan organised crime), and some grinding poverty, and many are put off. There is high unemployment and many people still live in the one-room windowless bassi of the city centre, little more than overcrowded slums, which in the late 1970s assisted an outbreak of cholera.

Yet much is changing, with huge amounts of development money patching up the woefully neglected mediaeval churches and other buildings of the city centre. And Naples remains an ‘authentic’ destination; one where you can eat and sleep at reasonable prices, and where bars and cafes are more populated by locals than visitors. It’s superbly positioned too. With Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum inland (and the region of Campania to explore), there are also very good ferry routes out to Sicily and the islands of Ischia and Capri, and further afield to ports such as Genoa.

You will find Naples tiring - at times the relentless al fresco activity makes the street more akin to an Arab souk than a European boulevard - but you’ll find it exhilarating too.

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