2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com
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.
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
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.
thinks of Mark Twain's grand paragraph from The Innocents Abroad:
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.
MT's complete passage about Naples from
The Innocents Abroad.]
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
my newsletter. Maybe I'm missing something.
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:
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..."
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.)
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
... 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..."
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.
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:
"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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
(1), San Gregorio Armeno (2)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(Fonseca Pimentel, Eleonora)
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.
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.
is a separate entry on the life of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. Click
memento mori; "skulls" (1)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
2004 version of Art at Piazza Plebiscito, see here.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.