NAPLES–Author Elena Ferrante’s complicated characters have introduced a whole new generation of readers–and tour guides—to the troubled streets of the southern Italian city of Naples. But the best-selling author, whose real identity is unknown, isn’t the first writer to use this captivating, crime-ridden city as a backdrop. Nor is she the first to disguise her true identity.
Writers from Oscar Wilde to Ernest Hemingway have spent time here, soaking up the decadent delights and Neapolitan charm. Most of them left their mark at the infamous Caffè Gambrinus, which sits on the edge of the city’s Plebiscito square. Pictures of the famous line the walls, many having enjoyed a morning cappuccino and sfogliatella pastry or afternoon aperitivo in the spacious drawing rooms or on the sun-kissed outdoor patio. The waiters are versed in where they sat, what they liked and, in the case of Wilde, where he saw his ghost.
Wilde, whose works include The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, came to Naples in 1897 after serving a sentence in Reading prison for “crimes against morality” which, at the time, included homosexuality. In Naples, he lived under a false name with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The two lived in relative peace in Naples, having only once been refused lodging in Capri, where they were outed by holidaying British snobs who said they would leave if the two men stayed.
The two were cash-strapped after Wilde’s wife cut off his money supply in England, but moved into a luxury hotel near Castel dell’Ovo and ran up an exorbitant bill that they could only pay after Wilde wrote an opera libretto to pay it off. Once they paid their bill, they moved into Villa Giudice on the Posilippo Hill with sweeping views over the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius and Capri, and paid their rent one year in advance.
Even though living under assumed names, Wilde and Douglas were well known in the city’s clubs. They famously lured sailors and soldiers to their lair—according to legend, one night the bellman said that with all the men in uniform in Wilde’s suite, he wondered who was guarding the city. But they remained pressured by their families at home until Douglas was forced to return alone in early 1897 when his family cut off his money.
Wilde then moved to a hotel on the Via Santa Lucia above the Gran Caffè del Plebiscito, which, like the Gambrinus, still displays some of his memorabilia inside. Eventually he was also forced to leave the city because of the lack of funds, compounded by a lack of English translators to help him with his writing. He left Naples for Paris about a year after he arrived, and died poor and destitute.
It is well known that Ernest Hemingway spent time in northern Italy, where he worked as an ambulance driver during World War I, but he also took great inspiration from Naples and its environs, especially the Cilento coast south of Naples.
Hemingway stayed in this part of southern Italy at a hotel in Acciaroli at around the turn of the 1950s, and is believed to have been inspired by the area to write The Old Man and the Sea, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1953. It was there he felt a closeness to the old fishermen and became obsessed with the legend of Virgil’s Aeneas, whose first mate Palinurus gave his life to save the crew during a storm off Cape Palinuro, where Hemingway spent time. According to legend, because Palinurus was never properly laid to rest, his soul haunted the cape for centuries.
But for all who lived and wandered this city, it was perhaps the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who best described the true spirit of this city that captures so many. In his Journey to Italy of 1816, he described how he traveled in total anonymity in Naples. “Today I have the crazy joy, dedicating all my time to these incomparable beauties,” he wrote of the Neapolitans. “Naples is a paradise. Everyone lives in a kind of drunkenness and oblivion of themselves. The same happens to me.”