With thick plumes of smoke obscuring the crater of Mount Vesuvius and pitching ash onto the villages below, the fires ravaging Naples’ notorious volcano last week were a sombre reminder of the vulnerability of Italy’s third largest city.
Climactic conditions have been ripe for fires – Italy is facing a heatwave, and there’s been no significant rainfall in Naples since February. The nearby Amalfi Coast has also been hit with a series of brush fires, but the image of Mount Vesuvius in flames understandably captured rather more attention.
Thanks to efforts from the authorities, the fires have now been put out. But not only did they draw inevitable comparisons to the deadly volcanic eruption in 79AD that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum; they reminded the world of Naples’s darker side – and a reputation that the city has long been trying to discard. Because it’s believed they were started deliberately.
Naples has long been a much maligned city, painted by those in other parts of Italy – as well as abroad – as a lawless place that’s best avoided. Even the name conjures up images of pickpockets, muggings, piles of uncollected rubbish and mafia killings. Tourists flying into Naples International Airport tend to head straight to the Amalfi Coast or the islands rather than venture into town; Sorrento is often the preferred choice for the stepping-off point to Pompeii. Naples has art, culture, world-famous food and immense charm – it should be overrun by visitors. The fact that it isn’t is down to that reputation.
In recent years, the city has made huge strides in changing its image. Luigi de Magistris, who’s been mayor since 2011, has been widely applauded for his efforts to turn the city around. Naples’ reputation abroad has become much more appealing – even Elena Ferrante’s books have provided a new perspective to the city.
But now the spectre of arson has reminded the world of its less salubrious sides.