Re-Turning Neapolitan: At Home with Maria Laura Chiacchio
Neapolitan born art historian Maria Laura Chiacchio left her city years ago when she won a scholarship to study art history and museum studies at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. After sixteen intense months, Maria Laura returned to Naples to finish her Ph.D (dottorato in Italian) at La Seconda Universita di Napoli. Her specialty is museum communication, and Maria Laura is intensely interested in how the presentation of art’s placement, architecture, interpretation, etc affects its meaning and value. As well, she has a broad understanding of Italian and Neapolitan art history. After her brief affair with Paris (to which she returns regularly), Maria Laura has re-wedded herself to her original love, Naples.
In between leading itineraries for Context:Naples, we caught up with Maria Laura at her flat in the heart of the city, and, while sipping coffee on her terrace, discussed Naples, love, and art.
Context:Naples: After living in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, what brought you back to Naples?
Maria Laura Chiacchio: I think I came back because I am desperately in love with my hometown.
CN: But didn’t you love Paris as well?
MC: Yes. Both cities are beautiful have a seducing power. But they each have a different kind of beauty, a different kind of seduction. They are each like beautiful women.
CN: How has the city changed since you left. What does it offer today to young scholars like you and to visitors?
MC: Naples is changing all the time, especially right now. We’re in a moment of dynamic change. It began in the 90s when there was a movement to re-evaluate the city and its cultural heritage. There have been many changes in the museums, in terms of how collections are managed and promoted. Still, we suffer from many structural problems. For example, universities don’t take an active part in managing cultural heritage and tourism. In Italy generally academia is sleepy and only focused on itself. But I feel like we are moving in the right direction here in Naples.
CN: But it’s true that there’s a challenge to bringing visitors to the city. Naples is widely seen as dangerous and forbidding, especially by foreigners. And the city suffers from this prejudice and misjudgment. What can be done to change this feeling?
MC: Some prejudices are true, some are not. It is true that Naples can be a harsh city. But if you are smart and discreet, you will be fine.
For me, culture is key. There is so much to see here, so much art and life. But it’s not just important to promote this to visitors. We need to start with ourselves. We need to make Neapolitans more aware of the value of the city and to teach kids that it is better to serve than to fool.
CN: Better to serve than to fool?
MC: Yeah. It is better to open a business catered for tourists rather picking the pockets of the tourist.
CN: Oh, I see.
MC: For the traveler, Naples is also a tough place to visit because history of Naples is long and complex. If you wish to meet the real Naples you must look for it. The city’s history and beauty don’t come served on a silver plate. This is different from Rome, which has a well-organized tourism industry. It’s very easy to visit Rome, even if you don’t speak the language.
CN: These issues and questions form the backbone of your scholarly work.
MC: Yes, certainly. I am keenly interested in how the city interacts with the public. In many ways, this is why I cam back to Naples.
CN: In what sense?
MC: Well, I had desire to use and put in practice all the things I had learned in Paris. Napoli needs and deserves this kind of attention and expertise much more than a place like Paris.
CN: Do you have a method? Can the approaches used in Paris work here as well?
MC: Museums and cultural sites in the rest of the western world are a great example to us. The U.S., France, Canada all are twenty years ahead of us when it comes to managing art and cultural heritage. In those countries, more funds are directed toward culture, and there are larger investments in art. Museums are stimulating forces in the societies. They are more open towards the viewer. In Naples, unfortunately, our museums can be difficult to penetrate.
CN: But you’re trying to change this?
MC: Yes. But it hasn’t been easy. At first, I tried meeting with the directors of our institutions and the schools, and I tried consulting with them on how we could evolve to be more like Paris or New York. But they were very reluctant and skeptical toward my proposals and ideas. So, then I decided to work alone. Leading itineraries, actually, is a very effective method. On an itinerary I am engaged directly with my clients and the city, and I can gauge the interaction between the two. I always learn something about how visitors see Naples during these experiences. And, I hope, I plant a love for the city in my clients as well.
CN: Are you all alone in this fight, or is there a wider movement afoot?
MC: [laughs] No, I am definitely not the lone warrior. I work with a cultural association called Artenope, which sponsors exhibitions of contemporary artwork and didactic events. There have also been political changes. Naples has been experiencing a Renaissance, in terms of exhibitions, shows, theater, and people coming from all over to visit the city. And there’s political will. [President of the Campania Region Antonio] Bassolino has been promoting Campania and Naples very well. So it is not just young people. Everyone wants to make this city successful. Because, like me, at heart they are in love with Naples.
CN: What kind of advice do you have for travelers coming to Naples?
MC: Definitely spend time in the historic center of Naples. It is a historical palimpsest, with layer upon layer of history and meaning. It is exciting to learn how to read this and how to interpret it. Also, the views of the sea, the landscape, and the city that you have from the [neighborhood of the] Posillipo. Where else do you find something like this?
CN: What plans for the future?
MC: Intensity. An intense life for me and for my city. No more stillness; but continuous growth. It’s a movement, a process.