Prison experience is never easy for anyone, especially if that prison is a dank, English prison of the late 1800s and above all if the “guest” is a decadent dandy, an intellectual, a poet with a restless soul, a refined and eccentric esthete. In other words, if the prisoner is Oscar Wilde... When he was freed from prison, which European city, if not Naples, could have reconciled the author of The Portrait of Dorian Gray with beauty?
Wilde was convinced that in the magic city of Parthenope he would be able to put the horrific experience at Reading, the prison where he had been imprisoned for two years charged with “illegal practices”, behind him. The most famous artists of the time were attracted to Naples, not only for the sun and the sweetness of the Gulf but also for its Greco-Roman remains and the lively climate of Belle Epoque. In fact, in the XIX century the city was one of the most advanced cultural centers in Europe, a modern capital, tolerant of every lifestyle, in short Naples was gay-friendly.
It is not just an “épater le bourgeois” with lashing aphorisms, the sin cult and an eccentric and dissolute lifestyle. His ruinous trial for sodomy and his long detention in prison branded him as a criminal in the collective imagination of the right-thinking people of the time. So, Wilde chooses to travel under a false name and in Naples he went under the name of Sebastian Melmoth. It was a naive trick or perhaps an ill-concealed divism, because the famous Irish playwright certainly does not go unnoticed. Although Naples abounded with eccentric foreigners, seeing him while walking in the sun on the promenade of via Caracciolo in his trademark dark daubes, with a pearl pinned to his satin tie, the ebony stick crowned by an ivory bulldog, and the huge amethyst in style episcopal that he wore on his gloved ring finger was just like saying: “Hey people, it's me Oscar Wilde!”
The attempt to hide had done nothing but stoke the Neapolitan press, determined to reveal the rumors about the presence of the great artist in the city. Matilde Serao from the columns of “Il Mattino” wrote an article entitled “Is he or isn’t he” in which she compared the coming of the writer to a calamity: «Someone announced that Oscar Wilde was in Naples, the decadent Englishman who made many news about his repugnant trial… What? Oscar Wilde in Naples? But the presence of the British esthete among us would be a calamity ... we would have very close to the most unbearable annoyer that the contemporary chronicles inflicted on the patient public».
Not caring about Serao's moralizing judgment, the infamous couple frequented the most fashionable places in the city, luxury hotels, trendy restaurants, Caffè Gambrinus, and the literary environments of the city. Wilde loved the Neapolitan tailoring manufacture, so during his memorable stays at the Grand Hotel Parker’s, the perfect backdrop and salon to the cultural elite he received the most famous tailors of the city to be measured for the exquisite suits that he designed himself and then he showed off on his Neapolitan promenades. Wilde took Italian lessons three times a week whilst looking for someone who could translate his works.
It often happens that the lives of writers metamorphosise into a script created by themselves: the ping pong between luxury and misery, pleasure and suffering always characterized Wilde’s existence. So even his Neapolitan sojourn turned into drama. All his money was squandered and in an atmosphere of mutual intolerance and recrimination and furious quarrels, Bosie left. A penniless Wilde, survived between infamous pensions and mineral chambers near the port and spiralled into abandonment and degradation. An ending already written in his poem of resignation, The Ballad of Reading prison: “yet every man kills what he loves”.