Back in November, a high-profile election had taken place in Naples. The contest had been for the position of mayor and was fought between Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito and former topless model, and a grey-haired Communist Party apparatchik by the name of Antonio Bassolino. Mussolini was a provocative character, fiery and defensive. Bassolino, at the time, came across as shy and unsure of himself. Had I been given a vote back then, I would certainly have voted for Mussolini, a fact which, once again, set me on a collision course with my colleagues. “She’s the granddaughter of one of history’s most evil monsters!” they would yell at me in disbelief. But I could see no reason why this was any worse than professing yourself a communist and brandishing the symbol of the hammer and sickle, under which bloodthirsty monsters far more evil than Benito had orchestrated massacres and genocides, to which the bien-pensants of the present day prefer to turn a blind eye.
It has always annoyed me how those on the extreme left have got away with a slap on the wrist for the same crimes that have led to the vilification of the entire right wing. It also got on my nerves that, whereas Alessandra Mussolini was always described in the type of liberal-lefty press, read by many of the English teaching fraternity, as “extreme”, “anarchic” or “rabid”, the name of Bassolino was hardly ever seen without the qualifications “cultivated”, “dynamic” or, even worse, “enlightened”.
But whatever I thought about it, it was Bassolino who won the election with 56% of the vote on the second ballot. The fuss died down and everyone settled down to their daily business once more. That spring, however, something remarkable began to happen in Naples. With a view to the G7 conference to be held in the city in July, something of a clean-up began. I started to notice sculptures that I had never seen before, so encrusted in filth had they been. Disused fountains that had, up until that point, been used by the people of the city as rubbish receptacles, started to spout water once more, after who knows how many decades. Medieval gates and fine palaces were given face-lifts. Cautiously at first, and then in an ever-more substantial flow, tourists began to return to the city, attracted by all the television coverage that Naples was enjoying in preparation for the conference.
Suddenly, two million Neapolitans rediscovered what it means to be proud of your city. There was an authentic wave of enthusiasm which even I, personal political convictions aside, found impossible to resist. How much of this could be attributed to Bassolino himself, and how much to the 55 billion lire that had been invested in the city for the conference was not clear. But there was no doubt at all that the man was capable. Although he had played no part in organising the G7 conference, he lapped up the credit and bathed in the limelight. His goal, he stated repeatedly, was to use this golden opportunity to make Naples liveable again. Naples was to become a normal city where legality prevailed. Public order, cleanliness and hygiene were to be restored, corruption stamped out. The city was going to be a European model. And we all believed him. After all, these were no mere words; it all seemed to be happening before our very eyes.
Piazza Plebiscito was cleared of cars, repaved, and became the symbol of the city’s rebirth. Plans were made to clear the rusting hulks of abandoned factories from the area of Bagnoli, once one of Europe’s most beautiful bathing areas and utterly ruined by a misguided, if not criminal policy of attempting to shift industrial establishments down from the north and set them up right here. Within a decade, Bagnoli was to be restored to her former glory. The Villa Comunale, where I had spent a melancholy afternoon on my arrival in the city, was cleared of litter and its statues scrubbed of graffiti.
And Bassolino himself proved to be charismatic and confident, a strong character who understood the man on the street and who could generate popular consensus. Adept at by-passing the clunking administrative machinery and hair-splitting bureaucracy, he was the first mayor in generations who managed to force through and implement concrete policies. And the Neapolitans loved him for it.
When the G7 itself took place in July, the Neapolitans could hardly believe the honour that had been bestowed upon their city. There was Boris Yeltsin eating ice cream; Bill Clinton stuffing pizza into his face. Famous people! Not just local heroes! There was the crème-de-la-crème of the western world’s political elite lined up outside Egg Castle. I wondered whether they had had as much trouble discovering the treasures within as I had done.
A genuine personality cult developed around the figure of Bassolino. His image adorned posters, postcards and T-shirts in the form of “Super-Bassolino”, decked out in Superman’s traditional garb. And the Bassolino effect lasted for several years. In 1997, he was re-elected with an unheard-of 73% on the first ballot. But it was during his second junta that things started to slip away and Naples, just as she so often does, failed to build on the piece of luck that had been handed to her on a silver plate. Bassolino began to lose his common touch and, in November 1998, when he became Minister of Labour in the national government, as well as Mayor of Naples, he was forced to spend most of his week in Rome, delegating his duties to less competent individuals, and returning at weekends to do the job part time. To the Neapolitans, he had abandoned the city and the “Super-Bassolino” T-shirts, once as popular among Neapolitan youth as those of Che Guevara, gradually disappeared. In the year 2000, he was seen by the left as the only candidate who could pull off a victory in the regional elections and he was asked to stand. He resigned as mayor before the end of his mandate and was elected President of the Region, a role in which he was considerably less effective than he was as Mayor of Naples.
After several years under the mayorship of Bassolino’s successor, the listless and ineffectual Rosa Russo Iervolino, the optimism, sense of direction and enthusiasm of the Bassolinio period had all but gone. Crime was sky-rocketing and the tourists, again, began to desert. Bassolino’s reforms were starting to look like window-dressing, which gave the people of Naples a fleeting sense of pride, but did nothing to combat the underlying social issues that would have laid the foundations of lasting change. I was filled with great sadness when I thought what Naples might have become, had the momentum been maintained. For back in the summer of 1994, even to a cynic like me, Naples seemed a go-getting, happening place to be. And I was very happy not to have thrown in the towel back in February.