The “Mayor” of Piazza Bellini

Several years ago, we were back in Naples and looking forward to taking up the life we made here two years previously. Naples didn’t appear much changed, but then you couldn’t really expect that it would have been.   In Naples things are very much beneath the surface. Nothing that was ever there has ever really gone away, only been built over. Layer over layer, this city is more eternal then Rome. The past remains and is part of everyday life. During our previous stay in Naples we had lived down the street from Piazza Bellini, so that is where we headed on the first day of our return.

Piazza Bellini
Piazza Bellini
17th Century Church in Piazza Bellini
17th Century Church in Piazza Bellini

Piazza Bellini is a gathering place for students. It is the Bohemian hot spot. In the four or five cafes that line the back of the square, music students sit composing on their computers; the young people have a coffee while connected to wifi at the internet café; across the street from the square, motorini wiggle around slower moving cars. People meet. Deals are made.

Not quite in the middle of the piazza, closer to Restaurant Bellini (a famous restaurant, established just after WWII and named after the piazza) than to the center, is a small excavated area surrounded by a fence. Below the surface of the piazza, the ruins of the original Greek walls dating to around 700 BC have been partially exposed. The Greeks were the first to colonize this area, naming the city Parthenope, for the siren who drowned herself in the Bay of Naples after she had been rejected by Ulysses. Later the city was renamed Neapolis, which evolved into Napoli – and in English, Naples.

We are told that we can recognize these walls as Greek because they contain no mortar; mortar was employed by the Romans. It is hard to tell what the original scope of the walls might have been. They look as though they might have been niches for guards. There are formations that seem to have been small windows. They don’t seem to be standing very high. Could they be the tops of walls that have been surrounded by earth over the centuries? These remnants of walls of tightly fitted stone are of little interest to the crowds that move through the piazza. The ancient walls are covered with moss and frequently littered with cast off bottles or old clothing. Just in front of the excavation are piles of the infamous Neapolitan garbage. We observe, however, that is not always the same garbage day after day. Somehow garbage is removed and new garbage is dumped

Greek Ruins in Piazza BelliniGreek Ruins in Piazza Bellini

The Greeks were the first to colonize this area, but they constituted the second wave of inhabitants. They displaced the indigenous people and were in turn displaced by the Romans around 300 BC. Just beyond the piazza, lies Via dei Tribunali, one of the original Roman streets in Naples. Walking in Naples is walking through time.

Via dei Tribunali (from Roman times)
Via dei Tribunali (from Roman times)

Two years previously, when we lived on Via Costantinopoli near Piazza Bellini and every now and then we would have a cappuccino or espresso at Café Fiorillo and chat with the owner Vincenzo who ran the café along with his son Roberto and grandchildren. Vincenzo knew some English and we knew some Italian, so between us we managed some pleasant conversation. Here we also became acquainted with Pluto who lived at Café Fiorillo.

Vicncenzo

Vincenzo (left) and Roberto in Café Fiorillo

Roberto at Exterior of Café Fiorillo

Cafe FiorilliWe first noticed Pluto when were passing by on our way through an ancient gate on Via Port Alba. He was sixteen years old and he carried himself with great dignity. He was white with brown dots and must have been beautiful when he was a puppy. He belonged to Roberto.

Via Port Alba
Via Port Alba (with an old city Gate)

Pluto was standing beside the table of an elderly gentleman who was enjoying his cappuccino and cornetto, the Italian version of a croissant at Café Fiorillo. Pluto and the gentleman were engaged in a staring contest; but it wasn’t a fair contest, as the dog was too much of a match for the man. Pluto had decided he would like some cornetto too, so he stood looking at it hopefully, waging his tail ever so gently, his light brown muzzle only slightly resting against the edge of the table. His eyes were bright, his expression hopeful. Very soon, the gentleman broke off the crispy end and held it out to Pluto who lay down and ate it slowly, for he was very old himself.

Pluto was in the habit of conning food from the patrons of Café Fiorillo but would decline to eat it if it was not to his liking.   Then he would make his way up Via Costantinopoli to the newest restaurant in Naples, La Stanza del Gusto. This restaurant is not so much like the traditional Neapolitan eating places, but one that would not be out of place in the most upscale neighborhood of New York, one that serves wonderfully tasty cheeses and upscale versions of typical southern Italian cuisine. The owner, Mario, knew Pluto and his mendacious ways. He did not ever offer Pluto anything to eat, so Pluto would make his way slowly and carefully across the street to Piazza Bellini where he could scrounge in the Greek ruins.

Mario at La Stanza del Gusto
Mario, the owner,  at La Stanza del Gusto

Our first day back in Naples this particular March, we went to Café Fiorillo. Vincenzo remembered us, of course. Americans in Naples are always noticeable – by sight and by sound. We are the ones who are looking about either in awe of the works of art that stand on the street as if they had nothing better to do, or in suspicion that they are going to be accosted and robbed imminently. (We do not anticipate the latter, but are guilty of the former type of tourist gazing.) Americans are also the ones who struggle to twist our tongues around the pure Italian vowels in order to make ourselves understood. Our Italian is getting better and we had a nice long chat about the events of the past two years. Unfortunately, we did not see Pluto; he died last November. He was almost eighteen years old and was hit be a car while crossing Via Costantinopoli on his way to Piazza Bellini. We asked for a photo, but Roberto didn’t have one.

Pluto had always crossed Via Costantinopoli slowly and carefully to avoid traffic. He did not so much dodge the motorini (motorbikes), as make sure the drivers saw him and stopped to let him pass. In his old age he trembled as he walked. Once in the pizza, the old dog would sniff the periphery of the excavation for any tidbits he might like to eat. Then he would lie down in the sunlight, close by the ruins. If a stray dog approached and Pluto would challenge him, rising shakily and growling softly. Apparently, this is a drama that had been played often. The young stray seemed to feel some respect for the ancient dog standing before him. He did not growl in return, but lowered his head and wags his tail. Then the stray moved on, well aware that Pluto was the Mayor of Piazza Bellini. For us he always will be!

[This is one of the newsletters we sent to friends during our sojourn in Naples.  It has been edited and included in Ciao, Napoli: a Scrapbook of Wandering in Naples.]

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