Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 97,  entry Jan. 2003

rooked Streets

Lovely Rita, a dear friend who used to live in Naples, has written. She says:

Last weekend we were in San Francisco and we drove the kids down Lombard Street which claims it is the crookedest street in the world. I remember a street in Naples that was kind of hidden that was at least equally as crooked. I believe it ended up at Mergellina…what can you tell me about this very old street?

I'm not sure. She has described a number of streets in that area. She is probably talking about Rampe S. Antonio (photo), a road that makes seven 180–degrees turns to navigate down the hillside from above the Church of Piedigrotta and comes out a couple of blocks from the small Mergellina harbor. It's not a major thoroughfare, so maybe that doesn't count in the "world's crookedest street" contest. Off hand, however, I can think of a few busy roads in the city that make two or three "180s" with a few right–angle turns thrown in over the length of half a mile or so.

That is what happens when a city is spread from sea level to about 200 meters/600 feet, as is Naples; roads have to be either very crooked or very steep and maybe even both. For pedestrians there are also four heavily–used cable–cars in Naples. (They are also termed “funicular railways,” as in Funiculì–Funiculà, though that song was written about the long–gone cable–car on Vesuvius). And only brave sherpa Tenzing Norkay would feel much like singing on the way up the many stairways that web the hillside.

The original Greek (and then Roman) city was laid out on a neat grid of symmetrical blocks. (Pythagoras, himself, would whack a stone surveyor’s tripod across your brow if you tried to sneak in even one little dog-leg.) There were no crooked roads. After centuries of wandering around in the Dark Ages, however, people had simply reinvented crookedness on their own. Then, in the sixteenth century, the Spanish straightened a lot of that out. Ironically, the Baroque—known for complexity and ornateness—oversaw the construction of broad, straight roads in Naples for the first time in 1500 years. The famous Spanish Quarters in Naples were built during that period. (I include here a quote from the entry about the Spanish Quarters)—

Here, one does well to recall Lewis Mumford’s remark that  the clearing away of the small winding medieval streets of Paris by Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century did away with the last physical barrier which protected the common citizen from the power of the absolute state. Such was the case in Naples — a long rebellious nest of medieval clutter into which the King’s soldiers ventured at considerable risk was made more manageable by the introduction of broad straight roads that were easy to patrol.
If my friend is looking for steep streets, I think via Kagoshima takes the prize in Naples, though others come close. That's the name, too—Kagoshima. That Japanese city and Naples have paired off in one of these "sister city" affairs. Presumably, in Kagoshima there is a street named after Naples. I took a carpenter's level over to via Kagoshima the other day just to check my little car’s complaint that the street has a 45–degree grade, at least in part. The tiny air bubble went way over to one side. I don't think I got an exact readout of 45 degrees, but I remember thinking that if I used that carpenter's level to make tables like that, I could sell them to people who just wanted to sit at one end and have all their food roll down to them.

We don't worry too much about crooked and steep; it's "holeyness" we are concerned with. We had a sink-hole a few years ago up on the Vomero hill, above the main part of Naples, that opened and swallowed a filling station. Folklore already insists that the filling station has never been found. It has become a Texaco Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the netherworld of Naples forever.

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