With this engaging history, Lancaster, a professor of Italian, seeks to restore honor to Naples, which many Italians and prospective visitors see as a city of little more than pickpockets and pizza. As she stresses, for most of its history, Naples was a preeminent European city, a thriving home for music, philosophy, painting and science. Her book is organized into sections by epochs and ruling governments; at times, the compression of such a long history into this short space makes it hard to digest, but Lancaster stops often to recount captivating legends and anecdotes. She seems to have a quote from every writer or thinker who ever visited Naples or its surroundings (especially the nearby ruins of Pompeii), but her own expertise and love for the city holds the book together. She is extremely articulate about the city's musical history, which she credits as one of the traditions that kept Neapolitan culture alive over the years, from the popular tarantella to opera buffa (comedic opera) to modern singers like Pino Daniele. She also seamlessly incorporates many women's stories, whether they be queens, saints, activists or consorts. The years after Italian unification were brutal for Naples, which lost much of its prestige as well as thousands of people who emigrated north or to America. Though honest in describing these trials, Lancaster is hopeful about recent signs of recovery, and her vibrant portrait of the city's past will make readers join her in that optimism. Photos and maps.
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"Eschewing the extensive references of a scholarly monograph and aiming instead at a general reader, the author uses a varied palatte – art, music, literature, cuisine, popular cultural and cinema – to color the narrative of three thousand years… Lancaster evokes the drama of the city shadowed by Vesuvius, capturing sentiments long dear to foreigners and locals alike." – Sean Coco, Trinity College