Retracing the Steps of Lila and Elena in Naples
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

A walking tour visits the places where two fictional characters come of age in rubble-strewn Naples after World War II.

visiting Naples

Visiting a novel's setting can take you to places you'd never otherwise see. Which is how I found myself on a Sunday afternoon in Naples' Rione Luzzatti neighborhood, a working-class enclave, a few kilometers east of the city center, of stolid four-story apartment buildings set around courtyards. Though never named in Elena Ferrante's international bestseller, My Brilliant Friend, Rione Luzzatti is the place where the two protagonists, Lila and Elena, grow up in Italy.

My Brilliant Friend was made into a miniseries by HBO and Italian production companies that debuted in November of 2018. The novel is about much more than the beginning of a lifelong friendship between two girls—it's about their shared love of learning, how they manage to defy rigid social strictures, and how, in some ways, they escape the male–dominated lives prescribed for them. A subsequent series based on the second of Ferrante's four Neapolitan novels, The Story of a New Name, is in production and should air on HBO at some point.

The self-contained Rione Luzzatti of the 1950s, when the girls are growing up, is a hardscrabble place that most residents rarely left. Some had never seen downtown Naples or been to the sea, just a couple of kilometers away. World War II had left Naples in ruins—the city was heavily bombed, and more than 20,000 of its inhabitants were killed. In the 1950s, a vanquished Italy was still rebuilding; rubble was everywhere. Families struggled to earn enough to put food on the table, pay school fees, and buy cloth to sew outfits for their kids.

Rione Luzzatti today

Rione Luzzatti of the 21st Century

I was curious to see what the neighborhood looked like now, more than six decades later. I had one free day between assignments in Rome and in Ischia, an island about an hour's ferry ride from Naples that serves as a setting for some scenes in My Brilliant Friend.

Simona Mandato Before the trip I went online and found Simona Mandato. She offers daylong tours of Naples, tracing the footsteps of the fictional Lila and Elena from their childhood home to the city center. Simona assured me we could see Rione Luzzatti, which on her blog she calls "the real Naples, maybe more than other healthier neighborhoods in the town today. ... People still preserve the Neapolitan art to survive and to laugh despite everything!"

I met Simona at the Garibaldi train station in April 2018, a few months before the miniseries debuted, and we made our way to Rione Luzzatti. With her bright eyes and easy smile, I quickly saw that Simona would be a vivacious and engaging guide. A native Neapolitan, Simona started guiding in "my hometown just out of the love I had for it. Fifteen years ago, Naples was dirty, full of traffic, and every building was in bad condition. I was eager to show people Naples' beauty and historic importance behind the rubbish, but no one wanted to come. Now (that it's cleaner), everyone wants to visit, and people come a second and third time as well. It is a great joy for me when they really understand the city's inner beauty."

Bounded by railroad tracks to the south and east and by a highway to the north, Rione Luzzatti feels sealed off from the cosmopolitan allure of the city center. The glowering Mount Vesuvius, whose eruption almost 2,000 years ago buried the city of Pompeii, is just a few kilometers to the east. Rione Luzzatti's austere apartment buildings, Simona told me, were built in the 1930s, "during a fascist time in a fascist style."

Simona MandatoCompared to the bustling neighborhood depicted in Ferrante's novels, Rione Luzzatti seemed tranquil. I saw a few children running around kicking a soccer ball; maybe the others were inside watching TV or playing video games, a far cry from the raggedy, homemade dolls that entertained Elena and Lila.

The book and HBO series portray Rione Luzzatti as a place where neighbors know everything about one another's lives, for better and worse, and where women call to adjacent windows to gossip with friends or shout across the courtyard to summon their children. I didn't see much of that, but people still hang laundry on lines outside their windows and occasionally holler to friends or family in the street below.

In the Steps of Lila and Elena

Simona took me to the Church of the Sacred Family, a decorous building with a tall wooden door, that was destroyed in the war and rebuilt. In large letters at the top of its fa├žade the church has the Latin inscription, "TU ES CUSTOS DOMUS DOMINAE MEAE." ("You are the guardian of the Lord's house.") In My Brilliant Friend, it's where a funeral degenerates into a brawl.

We visited the library where the precocious Lila, who taught herself how to read before first grade, devours books. To take home more volumes, Lila obtains library cards for her parents and brother so she can check out books in their names. While the library is nondescript, it fueled the imaginations of young girls like Lila, for whom buying a book was an extravagant investment. Lila and Elena owned just one book, Little Women, which they'd bought together and read over and over, dreaming of becoming writers.

Simona and I followed the stradone (boulevard) out to Via Gianturco where a dark tunnel that goes under the railroad tracks provides an outlet from Rione Luzzatti. In one scene the girls cut school and walk through the foreboding passageway in hopes of reaching the sea. For preteens who'd rarely gone anywhere on their own, it's an epic and frightening adventure.

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