The local proverb, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori” (See Naples and then die), appears on the cover of The Alcoholic Mercenary.
I use it as a running theme throughout the story. Both the protagonist and the antagonist touch on it. Rachel hears it at her leaving do, a joke in poor taste from one of her colleagues. She then questions if she has died when feeling the heat of Naples for the first time. Boccone thinks about it when things start down a steep and greasy slope.
The first time I heard it was in 1975 when my father yelled it jubilantly as we rounded a bend while travelling on the city ring road. Naples was laid out before us like an architect’s model.
But where does the saying come from, and what does it mean?
“Vedi Napoli e poi muori” is a local proverb about the city’s beauty and its surroundings. The popular belief is that Goethe translated it. However, l have heard it attributed to Wordsworth and even Keats, though Keats died in Rome without seeing Naples. Shortly after I first arrived in Lucrino in the early nineties, a local doctor told me he thought Keats was the first to translate the phrase. He is not the only one convinced that the poet visited Naples before he died. The saying is often considered to mean “see Naples before you die” rather than “you will never see better, so after seeing it, you might as well die.”
For me, personally, it goes much deeper. It is not only the city’s beauty and surroundings that are being extolled but also its rich history and the passion of its inhabitants.
Most would think of Naples as the sum of its parts: the start of the Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri and Ischia, the ruins of Pompeii, to name a few. I believe there is much more to it.
Pozzuoli, where the bulk of The Alcoholic Mercenary occurs, is a town of beauty, but also frequently surprising gems of history. Originally founded as the Greek colony of Dicaearchia (City of Justice) by Greek emigrants, Pozzuoli was taken by the Romans during the Samnite Wars and became the city of Puetoli in c. 194 BCE. Much like Rome, the town is full of ancient architecture: Roman markets; a necropolis; an amphitheatre, which used to host sea battles because it was below sea level, but now sits above the town on a hill because of the bradisismic nature of the area (that is, the tectonic plates move up and down rather than from side to side, to the extent there is a sunken village called Tripergola out in the bay opposite the modern village of Lucrino, a real Atlantis). To say Pozzuoli is a hotbed would be an understatement because it sits atop Campi Flegrei (the Fields of Fire), a volcanic belt that runs around the gulf. Solfatara is an active volcanic vent at the top of a hill above the town. When the wind is in the wrong direction, Solfatara suffuses the area with a rotten egg pong. Although on first whiff, it is almost unbearable, over time it recedes so much, the locals barely notice it.
Oh, and what history the area has. Caligula had a bridge built from Pozzuoli to Baia because an oracle predicted he would ride a horse across the Gulf of Pozzuoli before he became emperor. A little like Hell will freeze over before Donald Trump is re-elected President.
(Terme-Baia: this is a photo I took from the balcony of a friend’s apartment)
In the photo, if you look over the station of Baia (where PO Jones was shot), on the left, under the just visible shadow of Vesuvius, is the port of Pozzuoli. Imagine a bridge extending that distance and Caligula riding a white charger across it.
Sulla had a holiday villa in Cumae, which sits on top of the bay facing Pozzuoli. The village of Lucrino is hemmed in by two lakes and a volcano. The largest of the lakes, Lago d’Averno (Avernus), was considered the entrance to Hell by the Romans, and many of the locals still believe it to be so. When describing it, they proclaim — in a hushed voice — that it is the deepest lake in Europe, if not the world, which is, of course, untrue — but no less awe-inspiring for all of that.
(Miseno: This is a photo I took from the top of Monte di Procida)
The largest fleet in the world (Roman) was stationed in the port of Miseno (in the photo), where the Coast Guard interceptor that caught Beni Di Cuma was stationed — opposite the port of Pozzuoli. The Sybil’s caves (beside Lago d’Averno) are thought by some historians to be the actual location of the Greek Oracle thought by most to be at Delphi.
Having lived there from the nineties to the naughties, my wife and I felt a great affinity with the sense of atmosphere engendered by its lively past and its passionate people. We would be there still if a medical emergency had not forced us to return to Ireland.