The Basso Setting of Napoli!

By Publications Manager Dan Rubin

Napoli! takes place in a Neapolitan basso, which literally means the "lows." These windowless, street-level, studio apartments have historically been home to the city's underclass. They are cramped, and their occupants have no privacy from passersby, who can peer through the open door, the only point of both ventilation and light. In 1884, a British journalist described the dwellings as follows:

Imagine a doorway of a cave where on entering you must descend. Not a ray of light penetrates into it except by the one aperture you have passed through; and there, between four black battered walls and upon a layer of filth mixed with putrid straw, two, three, and four families vegetate together. The best side of the cave, namely that through which humidity filtrates the least, is occupied by a rack and manger to which animals of various kinds are tied; a horse it may be or an ass, a calf, or a pig. On the opposite, a heap of boards and rags represent the beds. . . . Multiply it by thousands. Remember that a hundred thousand beings at least have no other shelter; that they only live on fruit and vegetables, on snails and onions; without even changing their rags once in a year; without water except such as flows in a dense impure rivulet winding though those lanes.

A model of the Napoli! set by scenic designer Erik Flatmo
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is impossible to find photographs of the interiors of bassi apartments. Napoli! scenic designer Erik Flatmo found himself watching numerous Italian movies from the World War II era to understand what, for example, light switches looked like then. He also quickly realized it would be necessary to compromise: much of the cultural identity of Naples is formed by what happens on its streets—and, yet, Napoli! takes place inside. So, to the "cave" Flatmo added two windows looking out onto the Spanish Quarter street.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of Napoli! in our Words on Plays
click here to purchase a copy.
For tickets to Napoli! visit

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