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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

Pompeii (1)

The National Archaeological Museum is planning a major exhibit for January on the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 a.d. that destroyed Pompeii. Unexpectedly, they will have something new for the exhibit --the skeletal remains, uncovered the other day, of a slave. 

Archaeologists from the Japan Institute of Paleological Studies in Kyoto were working in the area of the presumed location of an ancient gate that led out from the city of Pompeii in the direction of Capua. The exact location is uncertain and has been the object of archaeological speculation for some time. 

In the course of digging around, the team came across the remains of a male skeleton with a metal ring on the leg, showing where he had been chained at the calf. It was a common Roman punishment to keep unruly slaves chained at night so they couldn't flee. The skull shows evidence of having been crushed. Presumably, then, he was not suffocated by noxious fumes or overwhelmed by the flow of volcanic debris; he was probably struck by a heavier projectile thrown up by the eruption. The eruption occurred just after dawn. Still chained in place, he couldn't run. 

Here, one thinks of Mark Twain's grand paragraph from The Innocents Abroad

But perhaps the most poetical thing Pompeii has yielded to modern research, was that grand figure of a Roman soldier, clad in complete armor; who, true to his duty, true to his proud name of a soldier of Rome, and full of the stern courage which had given to that name its glory, stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer.

[Read MT's complete passage about Naples from The Innocents Abroad.]

Courage is a function of choice, and, certainly, the soldier so described was courageous -- heroically so. Our recently-found slave, of course, had no choice. Yet, there is no way to know how he behaved at the end, even chained as he was. "Unruliness" --especially in a slave-- is not necessarily a defect of character. There was a second skeleton --that of a woman-- found close by. Who knows if or how he might have tried to shelter her? Or she him. 

Astronomy (1)

I tried to see the Leonid meteor showers a couple of weeks ago from my balcony. It was raining. And yesterday morning I got up quite early because of the spectacular sight promised me by the astronomy newsletter I subscribe to: 

There's quite a sight in the southeastern sky before and during dawn! The waning crescent moon is closely paired with the brilliant "morning star," Venus, while faint Mars joins in to make it a triplet. The blue-white star Regulus is a little to their upper right. Arcturus is far off to their upper left. The best views will be an hour or more before sunrise.

There was also going to be "earthshine," also known,poetically, as "ashen light"—when, close to the new moon, the reflected light of Earth is reflected onto the moon, enabling the whole lunar disk, even the part normally dark, to become visible and you see "the old moon in the new moon's arms" (that's pretty poetic for a Facts on File Dictionary of Astronomy!). 

Anyway, it was cloudy and I missed the whole show. Most of the time, however, I have quite a  view to the southeast—the whole Sorrentine peninsula is a silhouette. I often think that if I could live 5,000 years—10,000, max—in my house and watch the yearly procession of the sun as it moves from left to right, dawnstep by dawnstep, and then back—why, I could reinvent astronomy! I have part of it figured out already. In the summer, the sun rises behind Vesuvius. That makes sense. Vesuvius is a volcano. That gives the sun heat and causes summer. As the sun moves further out away from the volcano towards Sorrento, it gets cooler. 

Gotta check my newsletter. Maybe I'm missing something. 

Soccer (2)

Those who have listened to sporting events on radio know just how good announcers are at letting you know what's going on down on the field. In soccer: 

"...Rossi takes the pass ... dribbles across midfield... long cross into Bernardi ... in the center ... 20 meters out.....past a defender... 15 meters out.... into the penalty area.... he loses it to Symien ... Symienkie... the Polish defender .... long boot back upfield .... headed back by Renaldo ... foul on Renaldo for pushing off on Stakov ... ridiculous... he didn't touch him! ...oh well... ball back in play at midfield..."

It's generally an efficient and steady--almost breathless-- stream of patter with very little "dead" air-time. You can almost see it. That's the point, obviously --if you can't see the field, you want to know what's going on, and there are still radio-trained sportscasters who are good at telling you. Unfortunately, younger announcers, who have grown into their professions as TV broadcasters, are short on the gift of gab. So what, you say? You have the TV screen?  Not necessarily. Naples home-games are blacked out, but a local TV station holds a TV panel discussion during the game. The current debates are all about what's wrong with the team -- they can't win any games! (Naples tied Palermo at home, the other day. Another disaster.)

Every few minutes, the panel stops raging and ruminating long enough to switch to the stadium for an update. Since they are not permitted to broadcast any of the actual game, you see no field, no players -- just pan shots of the fans --  and then shots of  two announcers giving their blow-by-blow: 

"...oh ... look at that.... that was close .....oops....c'mon!... hey, you know, I remember a game in 1998 where ... say, Mario, look at those fans over there... they seem to be setting fire to the stadium... well, back to the studio..."

You not only cannot almost see it; you can't even almost hear it! You are watching others watch the game! In such situations, throwing a chair through a TV screen is no longer the satisfying experience it once was. 

Driving (1)

My friend, Richard, is taking driving lessons. He is learning to drive in Naples. That is like taking basic training at Stalingrad. He tells me that they officially frown on little niceties of defensive driving such as casting a quick glance over your shoulder before changing lanes: 

"Hey! What was that?" 
"You took your eyes off the road." 
"I wanted to make sure there was no one in that lane." 
"That's why you have a mirror." 
"But there's a 'blind spot'." 
(pause) "Do that on the road test and they'll fail you. Just signal and turn." 

In a way, they have legitimized the "Neapolitan right of way" -- whoever is in front can do what he wants: turn, stop, go backwards. It's your job to avoid him. Richard -- a member of the generation that grew up on automatic transmissions-- is now concentrating on changing gears, a necessary skill on those few occasions in Naples traffic when you get up to 7 miles an hour. He made a few pounds of piping-hot, freshly-ground gears yesterday, I understand. He stalled 3 times. I am happy he is not learning how to fly. 

Averno, Lake

Lake Averno just up the coast from Naples near Pozzuoli is so bound up with our Western mythology and history that is difficult to think of it as the focus of a court battle. What is to become of this major arena of Greek mythology, also one of the training lakes for the Roman western fleet and, then, the entrance to the underworld for Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy


Seen here are the Roman ruins of the 
so-called Temple of Apollo. It is accessible by the footpath that runs the perimeter of the lake. The entire area is part of the Campi Flegrei  --the Flegrean (Fiery) Fields. 

  The stench connected with the mythological fires and the very real sulfur fumes in the vicinity shed some popular etymological light on a few items:  the name "Averno," itself, may come from "Aorno", from Greek, meaning "without birds" (they avoid the fumes). Thus, "Averno" gives us the related word, "infernal" and even "inferior," as in "the bottom part of," meaning, here, the entrance to the underworld. 

After 10 years of litigation, a local court may be on the verge of deciding if and how the entire area is to be protected from encroaching and illegal overbuilding and turned into the protected national treasure it deserves to be. 

In the middle of the 1300s, the Angevin rulers of Naples gave the lake to the Monastery of Santa Chiara. Then, in 1798 the Bourbon ruler of Naples, Ferdinand IV, transferred that ownership to Juliano Pollio—a doctor—apparently as a reward for medical services. The lake remained in the Pollio family until 1991, when the legal machinery geared up to expropriate the property as a national treasure. The decision on just how expropriation should take place —in other words, who gets compensated for what?— has turned into a 10-year rigmarole. The final decision is, according to Neapolitan papers, now pending. 

"All hope abandon ye who enter here,"—who knows if that sign is still up over the entrance to the Inferno at Lake Averno? Maybe they have moved it to the Naples court that is trying decide all this. 

Christmas (1), San Gregorio Armeno (2)

I don't remember if, last year, there was one-way pedestrian traffic in the historic center of town near and on via San Gregorio Armeno. I do remember being pushed by a horde of people in a direction I didn't want to go, but I chalked that up to the staunch nonconformist in me—the different drummer, the road less travelled by-- all that. 

This year—with the Christmas push almost upon us-- the city is thinking of imposing just such a restriction. If you look at the map of the historic center of the city (click here), the area of concern is along via San Biagio dei Librai (known as "Spaccanapoli"—the street that "splits Naples") and the parallel street, via Tribunali. They are connected by a north-south street, via San Gregorio Armeno (unnamed on the map, but where numbers 27, 28, and 29 are located). It is the "Christmas street," the site of the many shops and stalls that sell material for building the presepe, the manger display, the most typical of all Neapolitan Christmas customs. 

Within the next few days, it will start becoming virtually impossible to walk near via San Gregorio Armeno. There is an unbelievable mass of people, tourists as well as locals out trying to do some shopping. Thus, says the city, we need one-way walking on the lower road moving east, then left and up San Gregorio Armeno and then left again and one-way west and back out of the center. We should also have, says the city, traffic wardens enforcing this. This is almost certainly unenforceable, but I don't want to find out. 

Copyright (3)

SIAE is the Italian acronym for Società italiania di autori e editori, the Italian Society of Authors and Editors. Although the Italian pronunciation of this combination of letters is amusingly close to "C.I.A.", it is actually the organization that takes care of paying royalties on literature, songs and theatrical works.  The Naples branch is very active; the offices are located on via San Tommaso d'Aquino, and the premises have always been a treasure trove of, among other items, all published Neapolitan theater over the last 80 years; that is, a library, of sorts, where the actual first copies of plays are stored—the versions that  authors are required to file for copyright in order to be able to collect subsequent royalties. The so-called "Neapolitan Repertoire" for the last 80 years includes virtually all of the works of famous Neapolitan dialect playwrights such as Eduardo de Filippo, for example. 

For many years, the entire collection was well taken care of by a local lawyer, Caro Capiola. His interest in making sure that authors got paid for their efforts was personal, in that he was married to an aspiring playwright. Capriloa was tireless in his efforts to protect the rights of those who wrote for the theater in Naples. This included dealing with crafty theater managers who would often try to get out of paying royalties to the author, because the author had just been paid as a performer in his or her own piece. (There were—and still are—a number of theatrical troupes in Naples—the de Filippo family, for one—where the authors perform in their own works.) That would be paying "twice for the same thing" said the impressarios. Not so, said Capiola—and he was right. 

In any event, all of this is now in the past tense, since the entire Neapolitan collection— some 8,000 original copies of various thearical works written for the theater in Naples—have been transferred to the main premises of SIAE in Rome. The works still exist, of course, but the originals are no longer in Naples. The local daily was a bit nostalgic about that. It's all in the name of efficiency and centralization, paradox notwithstanding. 

"Eleonora" (Fonseca Pimentel, Eleonora)

They are making a film about Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the tragic heroine of the  short-lived Neapolitan Republic, which overthrew the Bourbon monarchy in 1799. The life of Eleonora has always attracted scholarly attention, including that of Benedetto Croce, who wrote a monograph about her in 1887. More recently, in 1999, as part of general 200th-anniversary observance of the failed Republic, Neapolitan composer and musicologist, Roberto de Simone, composed an oratorio, "Eleonora, " for the San Carlo Theater in Naples. More popular attention includes at least two novels: Cara Eleonora [Dear Eleonora], by Maria Antonietta Mocciocchi and Il resto di niente [The rest of nothing] by Enzio Striano (photo, left). The latter is the basis for the screenplay of the film currently under production in Naples as well as providing the title for the film, itself. 

Il resto di niente is directed by a Neapolitan, Antonietta De Lillo, who bought the rights to the book in 1997, planning the film to coincide with the anniversary of the Republic. Various production difficulties have drawn that out, but the film should be ready for release by the middle of 2003. The cast is mostly Neapolitan and the filming, itself, is done locally, with much effort going into avoiding the visual anachronisms of Naples 2000 versus Naples 1800. Some of the shooting is along the coast at Licola, north of Naples, where "unspoiled" shots of the bay and  the island of Ischia in the background are still possible. The scene of the execution of Eleonora, for example -- an event that really took place at Piazza Mercato near the Church of the Carmine -- is shot on the premises of the largely abandoned Hospice for the Poor, parts of which, today,  look as they did in the early 1800s. The role of Eleonora is played by Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros, perhaps some sort of tribute to the Portuguese descent of Eleonora, herself. 

[There is a separate entry on the life of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. Click here.]

Art, modern (1); memento mori; "skulls" (1)

The large and spacious square between the main façade of the Royal Palace and the Church of San Francesco di Paola is Piazza del Plebiscito. It is ideally suited for outdoor concerts, street musicians, jugglers, and large groups of tourists to shuffle nervously as they are efficiently herded from statue to statue by stray dogs. 

The square also lends itself to modern sculpture of the kind that art critics call "installation art" and the rest of us rustic dullards call, "What in the world is that supposed to be?!"  Generally speaking, installation art requires some—well,installation—something in the way of  mounting, draping, hanging, digging or soldering. The displays, themselves, may include ("...but are not limited to...," as lawyers so craftily hedge) metal, wood, plastic, rubber, and assorted minerals, fabrics and liquids.

And so, in past years, Piazza del Plebiscito has seen a gigantic mountain of salt dotted with pieces of machinery, apparently a metaphor of whatever it is that salt represents confronted with whatever it is that machinery represents—maybe life beset by technology. (Hmmmm, not such a "rustic dullard" now, huh?!) Then, one year, there was a large wooden replica of an ancient lighthouse that used to guard the harbor of Naples. Last year, there was a gigantic replica of the Angevin Fortress made entirely of soft-drink cans (photo). These exhibits go up in early December and are left in place for the Christmas holidays, at which time they are "uninstalled". Most of them are environmentally friendly enough to be dismantled easily or, in some case, vacuumed up. 

[Also,  see here.]

In 2003, they tore up the paving stones in the square. According to the paper, no one in the city administration recalls giving the go-ahead for any of this digging, but  the latest piece of ephemeral sculpture was duly installed. It is a work by German sculptor and film maker, Rebecca Horn. Her history includes mechanical and body-extension sculpture as well as installation art on the premises of an insane asylum in Vienna. Austria. Her work is often controversial.

The work consisted of a number of bronze skulls implanted in the pavement (photo). The work, thus, is Horn's tribute to—or variation on—the well-known Neapolitan "cult of death" (so-called by some) that centers on the vast collection of human skulls on the premises of the Fontanelle cemetery in Naples. The work is "site specific," a sub-genre of installation art, in that it makes sense only within the context of the place where it is exhibited—in this case, Naples. 

The Fontanelle cemetery is carved out of the tufaceous hillside in the Materdei section of Naples. The vast chambers on the premises served for centuries as a charnel house for paupers. At the end of the 19th century, Father Gaetano Barbati had the chaotically buried skeletal remains disinterred and catalogued. They then remained on the surface, stored in makeshift crypts, in boxes and on wooden racks. From that moment, a spontaneous cult of affection for, and devotion to, the remains of these unnamed dead developed in Naples. Defenders of the cult pointed out that they were paying respect to those who had had none in life, who had been too poor even to have a proper burial. Though the practice has largely disappeared, devotees used to pay visits to the skulls, clean them—"adopt" them, in a way, even giving the skulls back their "living" names (revealed to the caretakers in dreams). Yes, all that. 

In the church of Purgatorio del Arco
The display of skulls gives the whole thing a resemblance to the memento mori. This Latin phrase means "Remember you must die". As a noun, it thus means "a reminder of death". Historically, it recalls the slaves whose job it was in ancient Rome to ride in the chariot beside the conquering hero and whisper that single killjoy phrase ("Remember you must die") in his ear, just to keep Hero from believing his own press releases. In a Christian context, the "memento mori" plays a significant part in Neapolitan iconography. It is seen as a reminder to live the kind of life that will be judged worthy when that time comes. The courtyard of the museum of San Matino (an ex-monastery) displays carvings of skulls prominently, and a few churches in Naples  have depictions of them on the façades or within, most notably, the Church of Purgatorio del Arco on via Tribunale.  (Also see here.)

fontanella cryptAs grisly as it may seem to outsiders, the Fontanelle cemetery (photo, right) is less a reminder of death than it is a popular manifestation of the desire to show affection for those who had so little of it in life. The point, then, of the work of art in Piazza Plebiscito dedicated to that bit of Neapolitan history is perhaps to connect the city a bit to its past, to its unusual—even bizarre—traditions, especially at this time of year.  Some have welcomed the display, sight unseen, as a way to force one to shake off, even for a moment, the great mid-December haze of globalized Christmas kitsch. After all, what better way to remember the birth of the Savior than with Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" as he stands with his reindeer in the traditional Neapolitan manger scene, the presepe, with the Holy Family, the Three Wise Men, and the Redeemed Grinch, all of whom are watching the colorized version of It's a Wonderful Life on a new broadband palm computer? (Sigh. I've seen that one. The movie, too.) 

]For the 2004 version of Art at Piazza Plebiscito, see here.]

Driving (2)

Small cars are not such a bad idea in Naples. They are easier to drive around the narrow streets and certainly easier to park. You still see, on occasion, a magnificently restored, old FIAT 500, early versions of which were nicknamed the "Topolino" ["Little Mouse"—also the Italian name for the Disney character, Mickey Mouse.] It was produced from 1936 to 1955 and had an engine size of 569 cc., smaller than most modern motorcycles. It had two doors and four seats. (Of course, that never stopped a family of 6 from a pleasant weekend outing, and there is an entire generation of love-lore dedicated to passion unleashed in even such a confined space! ) It was the mainstay of  family driving during the so-called "economic miracle" in Italy in the 1950s. It was replaced by a slightly larger version, the FIAT 600. 

Today, the small car of choice seems to be the new Smart (photo), made by Mercedes and Swatch (that's right, the watch company!). It has two doors and only 2 seats, looks fashionably glossy and modular, somewhat like a robot head detached from its owner. It has a 6-speed manual transmission, but with no clutch pedal; you just pop the gearshift in and out. Sleek technology. The price is also sleek—more like Mercedes than Swatch, I am told, so they are not as popular as they could be. 

Recently, I have noticed a new hazard in Neapolitan traffic. They are called mini-cars; they are generally open in jeep-like fashion, having no passenger compartment at all—just a couple of seats, thus giving them the unstreamlined look of a  Go-Cart or power lawn-mower. They have an engine size just below the limit for a driving license; that is, you can be a minor, have no license, and roar around the city in one of these things. 

Modes of  recreational transportation go in and out style in Naples. For a while, in-line skates—Roller Blades—were faddish, but they have now gone into eclipse. People are waiting for something new. I have not yet seen anyone on a Segway Human Transporter, Dean Kamen's marvelous stand-up, single-person, gyroscopically-controlled, battery-powered and environmentally-clean gizmo (if that is the correct term). I suspect that the price is the problem. For three-thousand dollars  you can buy at least of couple of noisy and dirty power mowers to drive around in—on, really. 

Every once in while, I read a prediction of a practical one-person dirigible. I look at the Bay of Naples on a nice day and see the maniacs out there on their Jet Skis making life loud and miserable for everyone else, and I envision the sky above the city aswarm with one-man blimps—ramming one another and dropping like flies. That's the part I like.