After a blistering heatwave that lasted a couple of weeks and wrung the green out of our dazzling new lawn, London’s weather has regained its familiar gloomier aspect. For some reason, though, despite a drop in temperature the air has retained a heavy feel, moist and dense and tiring to wade through. By mid-afternoon each day, I feel my eyes pulling shut, gravity and exhaustion besting my good intentions. Of course, these are sensations to which folks in some cultures are encouraged – required, even – to surrender. It’s called the siesta, and boy could I use a couple of those.

From time to time, such frustratingly languid afternoons, wherein Protestants and Catholics seem to be waging a fierce battle for my will, bring to mind the summer I surrendered to one long siesta under the fiery sun of Campania, the region that fans out from the smouldering shadow of Mt Vesuvius in southern Italy. That’s where I found myself more than a decade ago, playing groupie to an Italian folk band whose gruff frontman, Antonio Matrone detto (aka) ‘o’Lione’, was the lover of my Canadian friend, Kate.

O’Lione’s group specialised in tammurriata music which originates in the rough countryside around the volcano, and the music is driven by the rhythms of a crude drum called a tammorra at which o’Lione was an acknowledged master. While the concert season follows the Easter calendar and the seven festivals honouring the Virgin Mary, your ear detects instantly that the music is pagan. In fact, these hints of its pre-Christian origins are bolstered in the ruins of nearby Pompeii, the famed casualty of Vesuvius’s wrath, where a markedly similar drum appears in frescoes. 

Fumbling kisses in the moonlight

Like much percussive music, tammurriata is throbbingly sexy and it’s accompanied by a simple dance in which a couple remains within a few inches of one another throughout, their bodies sometimes even entwined, without ever touching. I recall one concert where the dancers were so carried away that he leaned down and kissed her, instantly earning the hissing disapproval of the entire audience. At nightly feste in town squares primped with twinkling Christmas lights, drummers, accordionists and other musicians would gather and play till early morning, while passers-by and die hards joined in the sweaty dance. Groups of older men clustered alongside the musicians, freestyling tammurriata lyrics about pretty girls who break boys’ hearts and other familiar disappointments with bravado and wit. But it’s not all fumbling kisses in the moonlight: the most famous tammurriata song is the Tammurriata Nera, an anti-war song about all the dark-skinned babies born in Naples after the Second World War when those pretty Neapolitan girls briefly turned their attentions to the African-American soldiers who poured in during the Allied invasion of Italy.

Bald from head to toe thanks to the alopecia he’d suffered as a child, o’Lione was a stocky chain-smoker and avowed Communist. He was terrified of airplanes and elevators and cursed northern Italians as cold-blooded tedeschi (Germans). But he was also a legend in the Campania region, and I soon observed that whatever grubby town we drove through on our way to one of his group’s nightly concerts, hearty shouts of ‘o’Lione!!’ would carry through the streets as word got out that the maestro was in town.

Pitstops for cigarettes and roadside espresso

Startling heat conspired with those nightly street parties to transform my days with Kate and o’Lione into an undifferentiated succession of simple meals and random activities, climaxing in a performance by o’Lione’s band. Most days we woke up in late morning and made milky coffee into which we dunked the plain, dry biscuits Italians call breakfast. Idle chatter filled a couple of hours till it was time for lunch: typically, pasta topped with sauce made from sweet local tomatoes, basil and garlic, sopped up with crusty bread we’d bought from the dour widow who ran the shop down our dusty road, and vinegary homemade wine someone had left at the door with no note attached. A brief siesta revived us for afternoons spent making our way through Kate’s teetering pile of English language books – Somerset Maugham, say, followed by Dominick Dunne. Otherwise, we’d decorate tammorras o’Lione had constructed from scrap wood and the lids of tins, which we’d sell at festivals. (It was here that I discovered the complexities of the Italian verb ‘arrangiarsi’, which simply means ‘to get by’ but forms the basis of the economy in Italy’s Mezzogiorno, as the south is known.) Then at about six, we’d head off to that night’s gig, collecting members of the group along the way with pit-stops for cigarettes and roadside espresso. No journey was ever direct.

I confess that the memory of those seductively insouciant days still prompts my eyelids to droop with sleepy pleasure. At the time, this Italian sojourn simply provided a reprieve from notions of ‘productivity’ and ‘status’ that had dominated my middle-class upbringing. In retrospect, though, I see that my dream-like holiday also offered relief from the relentless strain of envisaging myself at the centre of things, and then fully inhabiting my own life. I had become a casual witness to other people’s lives, actively observant but only mildly engaged. After all, aside from a few would-be lotharios whose attentions were decidedly capricious, none of these Italians could care less who I was, and soon enough I began to care a little less, too. Campania suited me fine.

‘See Naples and die’

Although I’d visited Italy many times before that hazy summer, I had never dared venture south of Rome and I was both fascinated and terrified by Naples. The city had achieved infamy for its bold pickpockets and vicious local Mafia (known as the Camorra), and in the contemporary era Goethe’s memorable aphorism ‘see Naples and die’ sounded more like a threat than an homage. Nonetheless, a balmy evening’s concert in one of the historic centre’s beguiling squares had ignited my curiosity, so when Gigi – a mercurial actor-friend of Kate and o’Lione’s, and a dead-ringer for Che Guevara – offered me a tour a few days later, I seized the chance.

Our adventure began at Scaturchio, a renowned patisserie in charming Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, where we gorged on cappuccini and sfogliatelle riccie, semi-sweet ricotta-filled phylo pastries invented in the city. Then in the ferocious heat of late July we wandered through a maze of nearby streets, slender corridors formed by dilapidated palazzi with laundry lines zig-zagging overhead. Teenagers on mopeds zipped past within inches of us, invariably helmetless, cigarettes dangling from mouths already sullen with the disappointment they’d inherited from parents worn down by hard work and Catholic fatalism.

Eventually we ended up at the Cappella Sansevero de’ Sangri which houses Veiled Christ, a famous sculpture of Jesus prostrate beneath a shroud. Now if you’ve ever visited the Louvre in Paris you’re certain to recall the way the Mona Lisa’s eyes stalk you around the room, while a smile plays coyly at the edges of her mouth. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself riveted to one of Duane Hanson’s eerily lifelike sculptures – Queenie II, say, or Jogger – certain that if you’re patient enough, you’ll catch them blink. Veiled Christ embodies precisely the opposite phenomenon: death depicted with such profound stillness that the shroud that covers the corpse appears to tremble with it. And in the few moments I spent with my eyes open wide and unblinking, waiting for the deathly gesture that would surely come – a final, earthly sigh? a ghostly soul rising heavenward? – I determined that I had to return to Naples where miracles like these might occur.

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