ny foreigner who lives in Italy will soon notice how many streets and piazzas here are named after important dates in Italian history. Initially, these dates make little sense to an outsider, but after visiting enough Italian cities you get to know the biggies – March 17, 1861 was when Vittorio Emmanuele II was named the kind of a united Italy; November 4, 1917 marked the end of World War I; and so on. Yet there was one historically named piazza in Naples that continued to stump me even after months of living and traveling in Italy: Piazza Quattro Giornate, or “Piazza (of) The Four Days.”
I’d never seen a similarly named piazza anywhere else. And, being that Piazza Quattro Giornate is home to the metro stop nearest to my apartment, I figured I should investigate what its name meant.
What I discovered was an episode in Neapolitan history that arguably embodies the spirit and tenacity of its people more than any other.
Le Quattro Giornate di Napoli, or “The Four Days of Naples,” was the four-day period when Neapolitan citizens rebelled against Nazi German occupiers during World War II. Between Sept. 27 and Sept. 30, 1943, small bands of Neapolitan men attacked Nazi soldiers in the streets, setting their tanks aflame. At the end of the four days the Germans fled the city, causing as much additional destruction as possible on their way out.
As various Neapolitans have proudly told me, it took the Allied forces more than three months to liberate Sicily, but Naples’ citizens liberated their city in four days. (Granted, the Allies were fast approaching from Salerno, which surely contributed to the rebellion’s success. And the island of Sicily is a bit bigger than the city of Naples.)
Still, the uprising is rightfully a source of Neapolitan pride, one that I believe can only be fully appreciated if one considers the wasteland that Neapolitans were living in at the time of the rebellion.
Historians agree that Naples was the Italian city hit hardest by bombings during World War II. Bombs were dropped on the city 105 times between 1940 and 1943, destroying its transit system, its electrical network, and most of its telephone lines. Citizens fled to the city’s underground network of cisterns and tunnels to seek shelter from the air raids.
In just one day — August 4, 1943 — British and American bombers swept over the city and killed 3,000 people. Allies subsequently focused their efforts on landing south of Naples in Salerno, at which point the Germans moved into Naples and began ordering Neapolitan citizens into forced labor.
That’s when the Neapolitans said, “Enough.” They rebelled, forcing out the Germans in The Four Days, but afterward they continued to endure bombings from Nazi forces during the Allied occupation of the city.
Pieces of Neapolitans’ lives during the war era can still be seen in the many recesses of the city’s underground, where beds, toilets, children’s toys and rigged lighting equipment mark where thousands of people sought refuge from the bombs.
For me, I still consider Naples’ recovery from World War II a work in progress, hampered by the grip of organized crime in the post-war years and a major earthquake in 1980. Once in a while I still see buildings that appear as if they were just recently bombed in the war or rattled by the earthquake, blocked off as if they are still awaiting restoration.
Perhaps for this reason, Northern Italians sometimes talk about Neapolitans’ zest for life in a manner bordering on patronizing, as if you’d have to be especially good-natured to survive living here and not constantly long for the luxuries of the north. They turn up their noses at austere post-war buildings on the city’s outskirts, and the occasional patch of peeling paint in the city center.
Yet I sometimes question whether any Italian city that was bombed as heavily as Naples would have recovered much better. After all, this is not Germany, France or Japan; it is Italy, and corruption and bureaucracy are problems nationwide, not just in the South.
What I don’t question is whether or not things are getting better — they are. The same spirit and sense of outrage that characterized Neapolitans’ actions during World War II be seen today in Naples’ political climate, notably in the citizen’s refusal to put up with even minor pileups of trash. Last year, 65 percent of Naples’ citizens elected a prosecutor with a history of going after organized crime as their new mayor, rejecting a candidate from then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo del Liberta’ party in the process.
It’s a good sign. Today, as in the Four Days of Naples in 1943, there is a point where the people of Naples just say, “Enough.”
It’s that spirit and sense of conviction that I think about every time I get on the metro at Quattro Giornate. It’s what gives me faith that one day, the city’s last remaining battle scars will heal.