The Volcano Lover

by Tom Jenkins

Everybody does it. Watch from the bottom of the escalator at Naples’ Toledo metro station and you see heads stop turning from side to side like loose bottle caps and pivot upwards. They’re looking at a portal into another dimension, or more precisely, station architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca’s perfect cone-shaped tunnel cut deep into the ceiling, illuminated by artist Robert Wilson’s LEDs, seemingly endless, at least at night. Yet it does end, on the surface. The tunnel acting as a snorkel between the calm, mosaic-lined station and the cauldron that is life above ground. Perhaps Neapolitans need to maintain a link to chaos to stay alive?

The city’s metro art project touches 14 stations across two lines, and has been ongoing for 15 years on what is an embryonic subway system (it only opened to the public in 1993). Starting as a local project, it has embraced artists and architects from all over the world, as the Bay of Naples embraces the sea. Down on the metro platform, ambassadors of street life – spotty male teens with bad footballer haircuts dice with death on the tracks to impress twirling girls. I sit quietly, jealous of the kids’ lack of self-consciousness, about to embark on a final tour of the art metro, starting at Toledo and ending at Garibaldi, where I will be catching the train back to my new hometown, Milan. There are loops to be looped and detours to be taken. I have seen it without seeing it for three days, desperate to reach the surface and taste that ancient air spiked with a not-quite-contemporary perfume.

I take my seat on a Line 1 train heading towards Piscinola, the opposite direction to my final destination. The train is a faded lemon yellow, much like the interior of the creaking Circumvesuviana train I caught back from Sorrento the previous day. As the name suggests, the Circumvesuviana runs the 30 odd miles from Naples to Sorrento via Pompeii, along the base of Mount Vesuvius, the city’s imposing constant so evocative of the Neapolitan state of mind. I wonder if the vertical tunnel at Toledo is in some way meant to represent Vesuvius’s inner workings, a magma chute lined with twinkling stars?

The journey back from Sorrento had passed in a kind of humid dream, so engorged was I on a life-enhancing spaghetti alle vongole and half a bottle of white wine consumed close to the sea, with the pull of the Amalfi rattling my soul from around the peninsula. Afterwards, I felt so content and empathetic with humankind (and evidently, pissed) that I imagined a room in the back of the restaurant, where the waiters would stroke blissful diners curled up like cats while they slipped into digestive oblivion.

My first stop on Line 1 is Dante. Here, the primary colours of Nicola De Maria’s “Universe Without Bombs...” speak of tiny crossed legs on thin beige mats, crayons underfoot half-ground into the synthetic pile. I stop and smile at it and see others doing the same. It seems like the appropriate reaction. I think of my Iranian friend at primary school with the electric hair who only stayed for a year, and wonder what happened to him – I can’t place his name. I want to say Haady, but know it’s incorrect. I remember our time was set against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, but did we ever discuss it? Unlikely.  

I decide to travel to the next stop, Museo, close to the archaeological museum, by foot. The night before, I’d abandoned the same walk after stumbling upon an (organised?) hair-pulling bout between two prostitutes while pimps lurked in the background. I had curtailed my search for a famous backstreet pizzeria and retreated to my local joint on Via Toledo, reasoning a slightly inferior pizza was better than having one’s throat slit in a catfight – surly buzz-haired waiter and all. (Although there’s a power cut and the staff begin making jokes about not being able to see a black kitchen hand, in English, and I feel sick about handing over my money).

It’s half a mile or so uphill to the archaeological museum – not steep, but the sun is punishing and I’m carrying luggage. By the time I arrive, I’m dripping with sweat. I fall into conversation with three middle-aged Americans in the entrance hall – I’d hazard a guess at Florida, given their accents. They’re straight off a cruise ship for the day. They think I ran to the museum, but I assure them it was just my brisk pace. We all walk like this in London, I want to say, all the while growing acutely aware of the small paunch developing after three days in Naples, and three in Palermo previous to that.

On the way out of the museum I have an awkward exchange with the cloakroom attendant. He seems confused that I want to collect my bag, we enter into an excruciating stasis. I raise my voice slightly – I must learn to be calmer, I think, though I know I never will. His eyes follow me out. It’s only on leaving that I realise cloakroom guy is the same man I’ve passed each night as he reclines in a pink plastic chair at the bottom of the steps leading up to Via Nuova Santa Maria Ognibene in the Spanish Quarter, where I’m staying. Perhaps he was trying to place me during that elongated pause, or perhaps he was saying, “Look, why do you bound up those stairs when you see me? I am no threat to you. I, like you, have a keen interest in antiquity.”

I descend into Museo station, past bronze casts of the horses heads and muscle-bound heroes that can be found in the museum, and black and white photographs of Campania – the Italian region that holds Naples and all its beautiful and burdensome spoils. I jump on Line 1 heading towards Salvator Rosa, buoyed by macchiato and a dose of ancient history. On arrival, Natalino Zullo’s alien figures look set to burst from the glass encasing them while Enzo Cucchi’s scarlet red curtain hints at the theatre of public transport, or perhaps the ballet. Perino and Vele’s “The Subway is Safer” places four rust-coloured Fiats in the middle of a walkway, stressing their inconvenience to the environment we use and need.

Back I go, eye on the clock now, towards my final destination. I make a pre-stop at Universita and download myself into Karim Rashid’s brain, a synaptic transmission pinging between his vocabulary wall and a stroke-worthy steel neurological sculpture. The fuchsia and acid green crackle with energy and widen the capillaries like Naples itself. I arrive at Garibaldi. The final hit: Dominique Perrault’s mirrored escalators which stimulate the only thought it’s possible for a 1982 baby to have here: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. I catch sight of the paunch again in my myriad reflections, but God have I eaten: bucatini with sardines, fennel and saffron in Palermo and a serotonin wave akin to falling in love; gelato with the consistency of chocolate mousse in Naples that felt like being fucked slowly and with expertise; raw grouper, strutting down my tongue in a light citrus jacket.

I enter the station bookshop to see a copy of Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover” waiting to be plucked and manhandled. I’ve never read Sontag. The back cover speaks of period romance, which surprises me from what I know of her, with Vesuvius spewing acrid-looking watercolour smoke on the front. It centres on the affair between Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, and is set largely in Naples. This city is mine, I think; I do not wish to read of significant historical figures being privy to it. I opt for Jonathan Franzen instead, although it feels too zeitgeisty, I am not zeitgeisty.


Photograph by Creative Commons

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