Irene Caselli is a multimedia journalist reporting for international outlets including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. After a decade in Latin America, working for the BBC in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina, she is now based in her home country, Italy.
Residents of Rione Luzzatti never expected it to become a tourist destination. Then Elena Ferrante set her bestselling novels there.
New street art celebrating Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels has just been unveiled in Rione Luzzatti, the area of Naples where the bestselling books are understood to be set. Eduardo Castaldo, the photographer for My Brilliant Friend—the TV series based on the first novel, which has been renewed for a second season—created a mural around the entrance of a public library with images and silhouettes of the show’s characters.
The mural is the first in a series, funded by the Campania region, which will roll out between now and May. It’s a sign of the “Ferrante effect” now being felt in this formerly low-profile neighborhood.
Rione Luzzatti is a working-class area east of central Naples, somewhat isolated from the rest of the city. It was built during the Fascist period and its four-story apartment buildings are typical of that era’s architecture, as are the broad roads that surround the housing blocks. In 1929, Naples’s first soccer stadium was built in the Rione, but it was destroyed by Allied bombings during World War II.
Although the area is never named in the novels, there is little doubt that it is Rione Luzzatti that Ferrante describes. “I picked up the books without knowing anything. But I immediately understood that it was set in the Rione,” said Ylenia Rettino, an architect who attended elementary school in the neighborhood and now lives in Florence. “It was the tunnel that gave it away for me. … The TV series only confirmed my initial hunch.” (In the first book in Ferrante’s quartet, best friends Lila and Elena walk through the tunnel to try to reach the seaside; it marks the boundary between their world and the rest of the city.) My Brilliant Friend was not actually filmed in the neighborhood, but on a large set constructed in Caserta, north of Naples.
The murals are “a way to give something back to the Rione,” Castaldo told CityLab. “Instead of doing gigantic murals, I like the idea of doing a lot of small ones, to recreate the presence of characters from the books, the series, and from everybody’s imagination. When installations are too big, you have to stand back to take pictures. With these small ones, you have to enter the [neighborhood]. This way, you may get to know the place, and bring some money in, too.”
Ferrante’s books did not become a sensation in Italy as they did in the United States. “In 2015, I would tentatively ask at the café or at the pastry shop whether people had heard of the books. And most hadn’t,” said Sophia Seymour, a British writer based in Naples who runs tours of the Rione. But that changed with the TV series. The state broadcaster Rai aired it in November and December to an audience of 7 million, and many Rione residents watched.
“We suddenly became famous,” joked Rossella Amato, a retired former teacher at the local elementary school. “Only Elena Ferrante could make the area famous. Nobody would have ever come for a tour this way before.” The international tour company City Sightseeing has even launched a Ferrante-themed tour of Naples; its familiar red double-decker buses go through Rione Luzzatti and then onto other parts of the city.
Apart from the elementary and middle schools, the church, and a small square surrounded by plane trees, the neighborhood has few attractions for visitors, although members of the growing Chinese community recently opened a small shopping mall on a vacant lot. “We all know each other here. It is still safe—an old-school neighborhood,” said Maurizio Pagano, a writer born and bred in Rione Luzzatti, who now conducts tours of the area and co-wrote a book about its history, The World of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. “There may be some Solaras here, but this is no criminal hotspot,” Pagano said. (Solara is the last name of the all-powerful owners of the pastry shop in Ferrante’s fiction.)
Some residents don’t want to be associated with the criminality of the Solaras or the poverty and domestic violence of the fictional Cerullo family. “We were all decent people,” said Generoso Tarantino, a retired nurse who was born and raised in the Rione. “If I could speak to Ferrante, I would ask her why she made up so many things.”
Other areas of Naples have experienced gentrification in recent years. The Spanish Quarter, which was once considered off-limits, is now full of AirBnBs and tourists stroll the alleyways. Rents have gone up in the Old Town.
While Ferrante’s books and the TV show have put Rione Luzzatti on the map, so far, they have not brought significant change. There aren’t trinket shops selling Ferrante posters and refrigerator magnets, Seymour noted. However, at the mural’s unveiling on January 28, the president of the Campania region, Vincenzo De Luca, announced an investment of €2 million to open a health center in the Rione.
A local councilor named Carmine Meloro has started a petition for the second season of the series to be filmed in the neighborhood to help the economy. But even some locals are skeptical.
“My daughter is a lawyer, and she has told me that the last place where she would have an office is here,” said Tarantino, the retired nurse. “I don’t think things will change much. There is nothing here. How can people invest in the area? Maybe they can buy a coffee, that is all.”