The man who lives in Maradona’s head: opening a window on the new Naples
At 10.37pm on 4 May the man who lives in Diego Maradona’s head threw open the window of his flat in the Spanish Quarter district in Naples for the first time in months, erupting in a cathartic scream as the city celebrated another moment in its rebirth.
Ciro Maiello, a 50-year-old pork butcher, moved to the apartment block featuring a giant mural of the Argentinian in 2006 and lived there through a period he called the “dark days [when] dozens of people were killed in these streets.” The mural was painted more than a decade earlier, in honour of the player who gave the city’s football team the most successful period in its history, including its first Serie A title win, and whose veneration by Neapolitans is comparable only to the adoration of its patron saint, Gennaro.
The shutters on his bathroom window correspond with the champion’s head and, out of respect, he kept it shut – until, that is, that night earlier this month when Napoli won their first Serie A title in 33 years. Tearful, the man opened his window and looked out upon a square crowded with hundreds of people, shouting with joy as delirious celebrations erupted across the city until the next morning.
“It was indescribable!” Ciro recalled. “This is not just a sporting victory. It’s the victory of an entire city that after decades in the dark is finally being reborn.”
Long derided by Italy’s northern powerhouses, today Naples is experiencing a golden age, with the football team’s victory the latest in a long line of achievements. Italy’s national statistics agency forecasts its gross domestic product in 2023 could reach an all-time record. The city has reclaimed its squares from car traffic and dozens of monuments recently restored to their former glory are attracting throngs of tourists. Arrivals at the airport were up 30% in the first three months of the year and many have queued to visit the Maradona mural, overlooking a square that has become a place of pilgrimage with photos of the Argentine player, T-shirts and an altar.
The Spanish Quarter mural was painted at the time of the second Napoli Serie A win in 1990 by local artist, Mario Filardi, who died in 2010. However, a few years after its creation, the artwork fell into decay, ruined by the elements as the square was submerged in rubbish.
“This mural is the symbol of Naples,” says author Roberto Saviano, who lives under police escort after being threatened by mobsters after publication of his bestseller, Gomorrah, and who lived for several years in the Spanish Quarter. “Like Naples, the mural was abandoned and faded, while a feud between Camorra clans was under way in the neighbourhood, which was poor and seedy.”
Until a few years ago, the area was targeted by thieves and off limits for tourists, and many of the shopkeepers gradually left.
“Then, suddenly, something incredible happened,” Saviano says. “Naples rose up, as the light was turned on in the city. We began to talk about the city’s problems and, by recounting its contradictions, Naples emerged from its isolation, with all its beauty. That’s why that mural is the symbol of the city. Because it too, faded and ruined, suddenly returned more beautiful than before.”
It is not all that has returned: the Galleria d’Italia was finally opened to visitors in summer 2022 after years of restoration works, displaying among a number of other splendid artworks Caravaggio’s last masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. The nearby ruins of Pompeii, which Unesco threatened to put on its list of world heritage sites in peril unless Italian authorities improved its preservation, has seen dozens of new discoveries and is now Italy’s second-most visited archaeological site, after the Colosseum in Rome.
The city of today, sitting along its spectacular namesake bay, is meanwhile the backdrop to HBO and Netflix adaptations of Elena Ferrante’s novels.
The revival of the mural began in 2016, when another artist from the neighbourhood, Salvatore Iodice, decided to restore it, entrusting the repainting of the face to Argentine street artist Francisco Bosoletti.
“One day a man showed up at the house,” says Ciro. “He said that he intended to repaint the mural and redo the face of Maradona, which would be made on my bathroom window. He told me I could open the window whenever I wanted. But we decided anyway to keep it almost always closed.”
When Maradona died on 25 November 2020 a long pilgrimage of fans transformed the square beneath into an open-air church dedicated to Santa Maradona. The mayor officially proclaimed a day of mourning, as thousands flocked to the Spanish Quarter’s mural.
“People began to call this ‘the sanctuary’, it became a place of worship,” Ciro says. “People started calling us because they thought this was Maradona’s museum.’’
Dozens of bars and restaurants have now reopened in the Spanish Quarter and many of the empty houses turned into B&Bs, making the flag and banner saturated neighbourhood both one of the main tourist spots in Naples and popular with students.
“The mafia is still strong in the area,” Saviano says. “But the presence of these businesses has made the neighbourhood safer.”
For Naples, the party will not be over till at least 4 June, when the Serie A championship will officially close and celebrations are expected to move to outlaying parts of the city such as Scampia, for years the largest drug dealing hotspot in Europe. Its degraded, sail-shaped tower blocks, the scene of bloody wars between mafia clans, were finally demolished in 2020 in another turning point.
The city still has a long way to go, however. Young people struggle to find jobs and the suburbs, and its citizens, remain poor.
“Behind the economic growth of Naples, behind tourism, there are still many problems,” says Giovanni Zoppoli, writer, a primary school teacher and one of the founders of the Mammut Territorial centre in Scampia, which seeks to fight urban decay through culture. “But change, albeit slow, can also be seen here in Scampia. In the same way the Camorra infiltrated the city, a silent force is taking hold in Naples. It is the strength of the people, who alone, without the help of the state, rolled up their sleeves and began to fight to improve the living conditions of their neighbourhoods. And this, perhaps, is the true rebirth of the city.”
If you ask the Neapolitans, some will say this too is a miracle by Maradona. Saints are believed to perform miracles after their death and certain fans say it can’t be a coincidence that, after the death of Maradona, Argentina won its first World Cup for 36 years and Napoli its first title for 33 years. The mural is revered by them as a sacred work, comparable to Leonardo’s The Last Supper or Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment.
Northern Italy had Juventus, Milan and star players such as Marco van Basten, as well as big companies such as Fiat and Ferrari. But Naples, had Maradona.
“Maradona represented the redemption of this city,” says Saviano. “With him, Neapolitans had something they felt proud of, something they were respected for.
“You see, Maradona marked a change. He showed the Neapolitans that big teams, like real problems in life, can be beaten. Maradona taught Naples that you can win.”