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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

Art theft

Art theft is a major problem in much of Italy, and Naples is no exception. Paintings and statues of varying degrees of worth disappear all the time from small, unguarded churches, and pilferage is of great concern even at major archaeological sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are relatively well guarded. (I recall, however, a friend familiar with Mexican archaeology telling me once as we walked around Herculaneum how incredible it was to him that you could actually walk right into the buildings and touch everything. "They wouldn't let you near anything this valuable in Mexico.")  There's no telling where much of the stuff winds up—probably in the hands of private collectors elsewhere in the world. Sometimes the authorities get the material back, sometimes they don't. 

This morning's paper carried a story of what counts as a major "bust" in Naples. They have arrested a gentleman who had 21,000 objects of artistic or archaeological interest in his home in Campi Flegrei (the Flegrean Fields) outside the city. The gentleman in question has been very busy over the last few years scouring the area known as "Magna Grecia" —ancient Greek colonies on the southern Italian mainland. His collection—obviously meant for illicit sale to collectors elsewhere—ranges from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages and includes pottery, bronze items, and even fossils. 

Sometimes, you can be sitting on top of something of interest. In many of those cases it is best to let things lie and not say anything—at least, that is the opinion of those average citizens sitting on top of it. Because of the long and tortured history of the subsoil of Naples, most of the streets in the old historic Greco-Roman center of the city—although they lie accurately over the street grid of the old city—are, in some cases, as much as 40 feet above the ancient streets themselves. In the case of the actual, geographic center of the old city—the intersection of via dei Tribunali and via San Gregorio Armeno, where the modern churches of San Lorenzo and San Paolo Maggiore now stand—that area was buried by a massive mudslide in the sixth century. The excavated site of the Roman market place below San Lorenzo is the only major excavation in the old city. 

Thus, all of the buildings within a few squares blocks of that site have basements that would count as museums anywhere else in the world. Bits and pieces of ancient Greece and Rome are simply sticking out of the walls if you go down below the ground floors of any building in the area. Should the shopkeeper call the museum to come and get this piece of mosaic or that tile or vase? Maybe not. They might close down the shop and declare the poor man's business a national treasure. Even worse: they might form a committee to decide what to do. 

Aboveground ruins are another sticking point. There is a large remnant of a Roman amphitheater on the western hillside of Cape Posillipo. It is near the exit of an old Roman tunnel beneath that hill. The amphitheater is, however, on private property and may be visited only by appointment through various cultural or tourist organizations --two or three times a year. The owner's point of view is that if everyone in Naples opened their property to archaeological "culture vultures," then there would be no private property in Naples. Everything, it seems, is on top of something interesting. 

Christmas (3)--Tu scendi dalle stelle, music (2),

I haven't seen or heard the traditional Neapolitan Christmas musicians much this year, but then I have been avoiding the crowded areas of town where they are most likely to appear. They are buskers—street musicians—and there are always two of them, dressed as shepherds; one plays the Neapolitan bagpipe, called the zampogna and the other plays the ciaramella, a kind of folk oboe. 

It seems to me that they always play the same thing: a melancholy, minor carol called, in the original Neapolitan, Quanno Nascette Ninno, said to be by Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori (1696-1787) a famous Neapolitan cleric and founder of the Catholic order known as The Redemptorists, or the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. The order still resides in a strikingly picturesque monastery on a knoll on the slopes of Vesuvius (photo). The church there is named for the founder, proclaimed St. Alfonso in 1839. That carol is the basis for the best known Italian carol, Tu Scendi dalle Stelle, except that the newer, Italian version is in a major key. The Italian words are apparently by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). If known to an English-language audience at all, Tu Scendi dalle Stelle is known as From Starry Skies Descending. It still sounds to me as if the only thing the Pope did was happy up the original a bit by putting it in a major key. In an unrelated (I think) episode, this is the same Pope who proclained de' Liguori Doctor of the Church in 1871.

Italian translations of carols from other languages abound, but there is not the strong English and German tradition of the carol, nor is there anything like the mid-20th-century American secular Christmas song, ones such as Silver Bells, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and  White Christmas.  In any event, in a crowded bookshop this morning —while jousting for one of the few remaining copies of a book my wife wants for Christmas—I was treated to a horrible version of Oh, Holy Night, being pop-sung through the in-house audio system by some American singer whose name I do not know. 

De Filippo, Eduardo (1900-84) (2); Natale in Casa Cupiello

In the select group of artists whom Italians refer to by first name only  (Dante, Leonardo, Michelangelo) belongs the great Neapolitan actor and playwright Eduardo de Filippo (1900-1984). Eduardo wrote in Neapolitan dialect, which makes his works  less accessible than they merit, but also gave him the advantage of a rich, authentic voice to portray his favorite subjects, the real Neapolitans of the "quartieri" ever engaged in a mundane war of attrition to survive, all the more ferocious for its regularity. 

In 1931 Eduardo turned his talents to describing a few days in the life of the Cupiello family, set against the most venerable Neapolitan symbol of Christmas, the Presepe, the home-made table-top rendering of the Holy Family in the Manger. The three-act play Natale in Casa Cupiello  (Christmas at the Cupiello's) is the the story of the  determination of one man, Luca Cupiello, the father of the family, to build his Presepe. In the relatively short time since it was first staged, Casa Cupiello has become the traditional Christmas favorite among Neapolitans. 

First, there is the fact—crucial to understanding the inhabitants of Naples—that there is no let-up in the daily grind, even at Christmas.  The family Cupiello is beleaguered by squabbles, petty theft within the family, a married daughter running off with her lover, a mooching brother-in-law and a layabout bum of a son, none of whom can understand how an adult would still want to fool with something as childish as a Presepe, and all of whom conspire to sidetrack Luca from this symbolic reenactment of the Nativity. Yet while the Cupiello family threatens to unravel right before our eyes, Luca  builds his Presepe with the single-mindedness and faith implicit in  Christ's admonition to "be as simple children…to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." 

Eduardo's specialty is blending the tragic and comic. Donna Concetta, Luca's long-suffering wife, is seated alone at the living room table, desperate and alone in her knowledge that their daughter is about to leave her husband; at that moment the door from the kitchen opens and in come her husband, son and brother-in-law bearing their Christmas gifts to her. A few moments earlier they had been bickering and yammering like the Three Stooges over who was going to give her what gift; now they are The Three Wise Men, appearing suddenly and sublimely, surrounding Concetta and leaving her surrealistically suspended between tears and laughter and refocusing our attention on the things that really matter. 

And just as "Merry Christmas"/ "Bah-Humbug" runs through Dickens' A Christmas Carol  until  Scrooge is finally redeemed into wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, in Casa Cupiello there is a similar call and response between the father and his son, Nennillo: 

Father: "Do you like the Presepe".
Son: "No!"

At one point, Luca is frisking Nennillo's pockets for five missing lire. (Early on, it has been established that Nennillo, a spoiled brat, is light-fingered even to the point of filching and selling his uncle's shoes.) Luca finds the money but tries to blackmail his son into saying he likes the Presepe, after all. "No!" insists Nennillo, at which point Luca holds up the money for the entire family to see. As it turns out, Nennillo had, indeed, pilfered the money from his uncle—who had stolen it from Luca in the first place! 

It is the son's "no" that has to be changed, redeemed by play's end. Luca has finally built his Presepe, but has suffered a stroke and is obviously dying. His last question to his son is the same: "Do you like the Presepe?"  His son, moved by his  father's passion and by his own compassion, the most Christian of all qualities, says "yes" to his father and to the Presepe at the same time. 

Eduardo's stage directions have Luca  hearing the whispered "Yes" and then looking slowly off into the distance where he imagines a Presepe as great as the world itself, with real people rushing  to the side of the real Christ Child. Lost in his vision, he utters the final words of the play: 

"What a beautiful Presepe. How beautiful!"

The Neapolitan Presepe (1)     

This terracotta Navity scene is part of the display in
the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, Germany. It
was crafted by Giuseppe Sanmartino, the same artist
who sculpted the Veiled Christ in the Sansevero
Chapel in Naples. 

The Nativity scene, or Christmas Crib, (Presepe, in Italian) on permanent display at the museum of San Martino in Naples has been recently restored and is the finest example in the world of how the building of these tableaus had developed to a craft and an art by the 18th century in Naples. 

Unlike the Cross, which to Christians stands for redemption and salvation, or even the evergreen tree, which by its very nature symbolizes that which is unchanging, the presepe  really isn't a symbol—it "means" exactly what you see: the birth of Christ. It fulfills a deeply felt need even from the earliest times to tell and hear stories of the Holy Family, to recreate each year anew the eternal message of Christmas. 

Popular Christian tradition  says that St. Francis of Assisi started the custom of remembering Christmas through a tableau of Mary, Joseph and others around the manger crib of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem, but the tradition is certainly much older than that. Pilgrims to the grotto chapel of Bethlehem in the early centuries of Christianity spoke of decorative representations depicting the first Christmas, and as early as the seventh century, relics said to have been part of the manger in Bethlehem were transferred to Rome to the Domus Sancta  Dei Genetricis—the House of the Holy Mother of God . The Domus  came to be known as the Praesepe  (crib) and in modern Italian is presepe  or presepio . Long before St. Francis there were elaborate Latin Liturgical dramas with actors, dialogue and music. These productions were so theatrical that Pope Innocent III denounced them in 1207 on the grounds that they threatened the sanctity of ancient traditions. 

This is where St. Francis comes in. He got permission from Innocent to set up a presepe in 1223 in the town of Greccio in order to celebrate Christmas in his own way —simply. Thomas of Celano, a biographer of St. Francis tells how "Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem, and that wonderful night seemed like the fullest day to both man and beast for the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery." There was no music, no liturgical drama—just the Crib, and Francis preaching and restoring simplicity and tenderness to the tale of the birth of the Saviour.

During the Renaissance, religious plays returned, but they were no longer Latin Liturgical dramas. They were now transformed by local customs and language;  once again—almost as if to reject the simplicity of the Miracle— the manger was incorporated into elaborate Nativity Plays  with stage managers,  sets designed by prominent artists, ever greater numbers of actors and increasingly ambitious plots involving fire-belching devils and legions of angels and shepherds. All this was staged, of course, in church. Productions of this nature were clearly out of place, not the least reason for which was that various incendiary special effects actually burned down a number of churches. Again  the plays disappeared—this time for good. But the tradition of the Christmas Crib, itself, from that time to this, has remained. 

There are as many different kinds of Cribs as there are places where Christmas is celebrated. Some of them use life-size figures and some even real animals and people to recreate the stable in Bethlehem; in some areas, shepherds bring gifts of cloth from Flanders or grapes from Burgundy; in Tuscany the shepherds and their dogs have names and they bring wood and cheeses and chestnuts; there are mechanical clockwork cribs from Dresden and ones that school children craft from simple cardboard and paper-maché; there are Chinese cribs and ones sculpted elegantly out of ebony in the Congo; they have been modeled in rustic clay and elegant porcelain; they have been ornate tableaus in Baroque churches and simple two-dimensional cut-outs propped up on suburban lawns. 

The tradition of the presepe in Naples is special. By the eighteenth century the city is said to have had 400 such displays  in its churches and many more in private homes, as well. The King supervised the building of his own presepe and the whole court was kept busy in the days leading up to Christmas. (Tradition requires that the scene be built up over time, little by little, until on Christmas Eve, the Christ Child is put in the manger as the very last element of the display.) Even the royal presepe, however, could not have compared to the one to be seen at the museum of San Martino. The thousands of figures in the main presepe and secondary display cases are all original, having been gathered from those made by "figurari," craftsmen of that period who specialized in such Nativity scenes. They introduced the use of bodies of cloth wound on wire, with feet, hands and head exquisitely modeled and painted. 

The Manger, itself, is at the center and is overarched by a host of angels suspended from the ceiling. The three Wise Men, accompanied by an incredible entourage, have proceeded to the site of the Birth through a typically local countryside, one peopled by shepherds and musicians, salesmen displaying their goods, minstrels playing and guests eating and drinking at an inn where every variety of macaroni and fish, meat, sausages, fruits and wines from the Neapolitan countryside are on display. There is exquisite detail on all the faces of all the figures; the construction of even the tiny musical instruments is accurate; and even the faces of the animals are painstakingly curious or grave or sleepy.

Away from the museum, a walk along many of the side streets in Naples in December, particularly via San Gregorio Armenio in the historic center of town [also see the map of the Historic Center], will show you that in spite of  the increasing presence of  northern customs such as Christmas Trees and Santa Claus, the tradition of the presepe is still very much alive.  Shops  set out their countless figures and models of the Holy Family, shepherds, musicians, Wise Men, angels, oxen and all the others. These days, of course, you will also find figures that are new and mass-produced, but the older second-hand figures are special. At one time or another they were all in someone else's presepe just as they are now in yours.Thus do they continue their passage through this long tradition, and thus do Neapolitans continue their popular elaboration on the original, their  affirmation of the universality of Christmas—a way to "renew the mystery", to be present in Bethlehem. 


Marotta, Giuseppe (1), Fruit of Christmas, The

While the birth of Christ means much the same to Christians all over the world, the faithful everywhere blend Christmas with their own peculiar characteristics. To see what this  means in Naples, one has to go beyond the traditional nativity tableau, the presepe; and  beyond the benevolent old crone, the befana, who brings gifts on the eve of the twelfth day of Christmas; and beyond the plaintive wailing of the traditional Neapolitan Christmas musical instruments, the zampogna (bagpipe) and ciaramella (folk oboe). 

Music, however, may give us a clue as to just what we are looking for. Much Neapolitan folk music shifts strangely between major and minor, thus lending to a single melody both joy and melancholy. It is as if the music, itself, had mixed emotions about life. A number of Neapolitan authors  have written about this tragic-comic ambivalence, this sorrow in the midst of joy, and they express it most poignantly when they write about Christmas. 

The play Natale in Casa Cupiello (Christmas at the Cupiello's, see above) by the great Neapolitan playwright, Eduardo de Filippo is about a man obsessed with building his presepe. As one silly and outrageous domestic crisis after another whirls on around him, it is his symbolic reenactment of the Nativity that refocuses the love which inheres in his family on the values that matter. He dies at the end, but his presepe has done what it was supposed to, and his last vision in this life is that of the entire world  as a gigantic nativity scene, a stage for universal love. 

There is another tale, similarly touching, and typically Neapolitan in its rendering of the light-hearted and the mournful at the same time. It is called, simply, La Mostra (The Display). It is one of an exquisite collection of tales about Naples by Giuseppe Marotta, called L'Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples) in which the precious metal is a metaphor of those moments that give value to all of our lives, but, perhaps, particularly to the lives of the troubled. [The quoted material, below, is my translation.] 

 "Christmas in Naples," says the author,  "is the longest holiday of the year."  The nights before Christmas, he says, start in late November… 

"…with the first shutters banging in the wind, and beneath the moist moon of the warm night breezes there suddenly slips in that cold glass-like chill, stripping clean the stars and mountains… The true clear air, kept young by the wind at God's bidding, the empty spaces between the stars spreading wide to receive the prayers from the streets below or to permit the passage of the comet of Annunciation… and the braciere , that tiny coal-fired brass fireplace with a smooth soft rim to rest your feet on, full of glowing embers to make you pensive."

 La Mostra  is about the fruit vendor Aniello Scala and his wife Concetta. Aniello is a gaunt man, frail and sick from the consumption that has beset him for years. Once, he was actually dying, but just as the last rites were to be administered he suddenly sat up, "declared that he was in no hurry and asked for a plate of stringbeans and tomato"! He then married young Concetta and from that time to this he has been obsessed with his yearly ritual of building a magnificent display of Christmas fruit! 

"…the explosive red apples… the blonde figs streaked with white, sensuous and ripe …the display knew no limits, it just poured out of the shop and kept going, winding up wherever it wound up. It was like an amphitheater  with its rows of figs, pomegranates, oranges, its podium of melon, prickly pear cactus and pineapple, the imperial tribune of tangerines, berries and apples. Or perhaps it was a temple, a great altar of medlar and pear, the naves of chestnut and columns of fig and grape, unto which sacred offerings of dates and bananas are brought.… Day after day he would unload baskets in his shop, then work on the essential nucleus of the display, the tentacles of which would eventually branch out and meander over the threshold and out into the alleyway…"

He is as obsessive about it as Cupiello is about the presepe in Eduardo's story. His fruit is full of —is—life, the new Christian life of faith as well as the sweet freshness of life which he knows no longer dwells within his own body, and perhaps even the life which he is about to 'give' to—and for—his wife in a very unusual fashion. 

"It was what he lived for and it had sustained him even in those moments when they had lost their four children with tragic regularity…"

Here, then, is the tragedy, in the midst of an overblown comic description of mounds of fruit spilling out the doors: the loss of their children. Now the tragedy spools out: 

"Concetta loved don Aniello. You couldn't put up with those tiny sounds of body joints cracking in a sick husband in a marriage bed (and sounding like knuckles knocking on a wooden coffin) without loving him. She loved his irrevocable will to live; it was his most human and yet masculine quality. She continued to love him for that until the moment the white cart came once again and bore away their fourth child. Then she started acting strangely: she refused to mourn, she cut out a picture of a tabby cat and kept it under her pillow, she took off her wedding ring and put it beneath her statue of Sant'Antonio, and grew silent…

"But she helped him prepare the lights and the coal braciere… When the alley was asleep, Don Aniello sent his wife to bed, lit the lamps and chose a strategic place from which he could keep his eye on the furthermost basket. Then he settled in to hold vigil over his creation…"

The almost surreal weave of fruit and lost children is tied in to the final… what… tragedy? Maybe. Maybe not. 

"Don Aniello felt the sharp cold and thought that perhaps his wife had kicked off her covers in her sleep. Should he check? Instead, he drifted back into thoughts of his lost children. The braciere gave off a long sweet warmth like that of a loved one's cheek. It was made for father and children to huddle around, to draw close and whisper. How old would they be by now?  he asked himself. Then, suddenly and without putting his shoes back on, he got up. In the alleyway the moon was bright and silent. As barefoot as the moon and just as ghostlike, this best of all fruit vendors went to assure himself that donna Concetta was indeed covered… his suspicions were confirmed: the other person, whoever he was, saved himself by going out the window into the courtyard. Don Aniello didn't stay long, but rested a while on the edge of the bed gathering strength to leave."

This normally comic Neapolitan leitmotif of the cuckold husband is sudden and totally unexpected here, as is the compassionate treatment it receives, for  Aniello knows his wife's tragedy. 

"That's the reason you took off your wedding ring. Don't be afraid. I know what you need and you know that I know. A child that will stay. One that will live...

"He went back downstairs… He was caught for a moment in the light that shone on the impeccable banks of fruit. Here a tower of violet apples, there a parapet of rusty apples, the same sad colour of Don Aniello Scala's thoughts at the moment. It was a magnificent Christmas display, one that people would talk about for a long time to come… But one cannot ask more from one poor fragment of a lung than it can give. Don Aniello rests his feet on the braciere. He nods and drifts off —if that's what it is. In the magical nights before Christmas in Naples everything is possible. The best part of Don Aniello Scala knows where it must go and goes. His memorable display of fruit leaves the shop and follows him."

One might accept this tale with fatalist resignation to the fact that in the midst of joy there must be sorrow, and in the midst of life, death—even at Christmas. On the other hand, it takes only the slightest shift in perspective to welcome it, as do Neapolitans, as a proclamation of the message that in sorrow there is still joy, and in death, life—especially at Christmas. 

Zampogna (Neapolitan Bagpipes)

To some, its reedy and strident discords are a rallying cry heard o'er the din of even the fiercest battle. To others, it sounds like hell—quite literally, for according to popular legend hereabouts, it is the instrument closest to the devil's heart, if one may at all attribute such a goody-goody organ to the Big Bad One. It is the instrument  played at secret times and secret places during the "tregenda magica", the Witches' Sabbath. To yet others, undoubtedly those with no ear for tradition or the supernatural, it is the sweetest music this side of an aerobics class for asthmatic mynah birds. 

"It" in English is the bagpipe; in German, the Dudelsack, in Italian, the cornamusa, and in Neapolitan it is called the zampogna. Its construction has stayed basically the same over thousands of years and in various cultures: it is characterized by an air-bladder filled either by a bellows held under the player's arm or, more commonly, directly by the player blowing into it. The air-bag serves as a constant reservoir of air, avoiding any interruption of the tone by the player's having to take a breath. The air then streams out through a main reed-pipe called a "chanter" that has fingering holes enabling a melody to be played, and also through at least two other secondary reed-pipes which play  single accompanying drone notes. The pipes normally have double-reeds, giving the instrument its uniquely nasal sound. 

Whatever the sound of bagpipes may mean in other cultures, in Naples the zampogna  and its companion, the ciaramella  (a double-reed oboe-like instrument), mean Christmas. For centuries it has been the custom for shepherds to come in from the countryside at Christmastide and wander the streets of the city playing seasonal music, often going from house to house and being invited in to play. Times change and over the last few decades Christmas has been dulled by a certain commercial anesthesia, a tinsel hype that bids us to hurry because there are only two-hundred and twelve shopping days left. The Neapolitan version of this is that instead of playing for the "novena", the traditional preparatory period of nine days before Christmas, the zampogna and ciaramella  seem to show up a little earlier each year, turning the season into just another excuse for busking. Some years they are out so early that they look like lost druids looking for a midsummer's festival. 

But, yet, just as the songs of carolers on a snowy evening mean something to me, the zampogna  and  ciaramella mean the same thing  to a Neapolitan—a beauteous mixture of home, warmth, family and love, and, like beauty, it is very difficult to describe, but when it happens, you know. The circumstances have to be just right: walking alone on a crisp December evening, caught up in a moment of childhood melancholy, when the cutting sound of the zampogna  sweeps over you like a flash of light and  you see the two pastoral figures playing music in the streets, these shepherds that  Christian tradition links so intimately to the birth of the Saviour; that one transcendent simple instant becomes timeless and it is Christmas, for the shepherds are standing there as if they had just stepped away from the side of the Child for a moment to go and spread the good tidings. 

Bourbons (10), royalty (2); Savoy (2); That's Amore

It’s Christmas Eve. In Naples, most people have a traditional meal very late in the evening, often almost at midnight and running over into Christmas Day, itself. I will go to relatives’ and eat something, I suppose, though not what tradition requires – that is, eel. I am not going anywhere near something that looks that much like a snake. Yes, I know it’s a fish, but it’s a fish like a penguin is a bird – kind of, but in an unconvincing sort of way.  The eel reminds me of a parody of the worst pseudo-Neapolitan song I know (well, it’s the only pseudo-Neapolitan song I know): That’s Amore *. I owe the caricature lyrics (better than the real ones) to a scuba-diver I met once. Sung to the real melody, they start: 

“What’s that thing in the reef 
with the big, shiny teeth? 
That’s a Moray! 
Put your hand in the crack 
And you won’t get it back, 
That’s a Moray!” 

(So much for today’s zoology lesson. So you were expecting Charles Darwin?) 

[*For the sake of completeness and because I am tired of people thinking that Dean Martin composed the song, the lyrics to "That's Amore" are by Jack Brooks (1912-71) and the music is by Harry Warren (1893-1981). The song was composed for the film, The Caddy (Paramount, 1953) starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. That's where Dino comes in. He sang it. Also see Neapolitan Song.]

The paper this morning features yesterday’s meeting in the Vatican between the Pope and the ex-royal family of Italy—Victor Emanuel of Savoy, his wife, Marina Doria, and their son, Emanuel Filiberto. It is the first time they have returned to Italy since the monarchy was abolished by referendum 56 years ago. (Technically, of course, the Vatican is a separate state, but they had to land in Rome to get there.) The constitutional provision that forbade any member of the immediate Savoy royal family from ever again entering Italy has been overcome, and the ex-king announced that he would very much like to visit Naples, perhaps as early as February. I don’t anticipate tens of thousands of peasants tossing their pitchforks and three-cornered hats into the air and voicing “Long live the King!” because, as far as I know, Neapolitan peasants didn’t wear three-cornered hats, although the gentry may have done so. When the referendum that abolished the monarchy and established the Italian Republic was held in 1946, it is significant that, though the nation, as a whole, was split virtually 50-50, Naples voted for the king, 10-1. Maybe he wants to say “Thank you”. 

The paper points out that there will likely be an innocuous counter-demonstration at that time sponsored by a local historical group called The “Neo-Bourbon Society”. The Bourbons, of course, were the last rulers of The Kingdom of The Two Sicilies –roughly, southern Italy—before that kingdom was defeated in 1860 and united to the rest of Italy, ruled by the House of Savoy. The Neo-Bourbons pretty much blame all social ills in southern Italy in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century on the Savoys. 

Charity (2), Christmas (4)

This small "soup kitchen" near the church of Santa Chiara is one of the many in Naples that is always open.
Various agencies and people in Naples collaborated yesterday to make the traditional Christmas Eve meal a reality for many who would otherwise have simply spent the day the way they spend most days—alone. The Naples Chamber of Commerce laid on a feast on the premises of the Principe di Napoli Gallery, across the street from the National Museum. Professional cooks prepared meals for 900 people—the homeless, the needy, or, simply, the lonely. It was quite a spread, too. No plastic cups and forks—real plates, glass and silverware, all served on a number of well-set tables in the Gallery. 

Elsewhere, the main train station at Piazza Garibaldi served its yearly Christmas meal to the needy in a building adjacent to the station, called, simply, "Track 10". That term has already become proverbial at Christmas in Naples for those in need near the station: "Track 10 is open this year." That's good news. A secondary train station in Fuorigrotta some miles away from the center of town did the same thing. One restaurant owner in Mergellina rented a bus and drove around picking up people who obviously had nowhere to go; when  the bus was full, he took them all back to his restaurant and fed them. Episodes of public and private charity like that were repeated in various guises throughout the city yesterday. 

Santa Maria La Nova, monasteries (3)

The original monastery and home of the Franciscan order that inhabits the church of Santa Maria La Nova was where the present-day Castel Nuovo, or Maschio Angioino, stands. In 1279 the order ceded that property to Charles of Anjou for his new royal palace and, in return, got the new site for their church. Thus the name “Nova” (new) for this house of worship with the elegant Renaissance façade. The original ‘new’ church, then, was built in the late 1200s. That original Angevin building was removed in 1596 to make way for a new structure planned and built by Giovan Cola di Franco. It is the church you see today as you start into the old center of town via a small side-street off of via Monteoliveto across from the east side of the main post office. The main altar is from 1633 and was designed by Cosimo Fanzago.

The most spectacular work of art within the church –indeed, one of the most spectacular in the entire city-- is the magnificent 46-panel gilded fresco on the ceiling (photo). The fresco dates back to 1600 and is the collective work of a number of artists, including Luca Giordano.  Various magnifying mirrors are set up at ground level within the church  to enable visitors to view the ceiling more easily. The church, itself, is an integral part of the whole monastic complex, much of which now houses municipal office space. 

Santa Maria la Nova was closed in 1980 due to damage caused by the earthquake in that year; it was reopened in 1992 for a few years, at which time visitors had the opportunity to view the splendid magnificent interior of the church. It was closed in 1997 for repairs to the building and, in particular, to restore the ceiling fresco. It will reopen on Jan. 4 with an orchestral and choir concert that will be taped for later broadcast by the Italian national television network. 

This will mark the beginning of what everyone hopes will be a prosperous future for the building and adjacent monastery. The church will no longer be a house of worship. “There are enough churches in this area to handle the demand,” says Father Giuseppe Reale of the resident Franciscan order. Santa Maria La Nova will be transformed into a Center for Sacred Music; the acoustics are already known to be outstanding, and the church organs are fine instruments and have been restored. Most interesting –this is where the “prosperous” part comes in—is the plan to turn part of the monastery, itself, into a four-star hotel! This will be the second such Franciscan venture into the hotel business in Naples. The San Francesco del Monte hotel on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, overlooking the whole city of Naples and with a direct view of Mt. Vesuvius and the Sorrentine peninsula, has been open for a few months and seems to be doing well. The Santa Maria La Nova hotel with “monastic style” furnishings (for those who wish to engage in some 4-star meditation) with easy access to the auditorium of the Center for Sacred Music) should be open in 2003. 

(The hotel business is another episode in the collective—but diverse—destinies of the ex-monasteries of Naples. See here.) 

Archaeology (2)

From the entry on "Geology of the Bay of Naples"  (click here for the entire article):

Interestingly and very recently (late 2001), archaeology around Vesuvius near the town of Nola has shed light on the fate of a so-called “Bronze Age Pompeii”. In about 1800 b.c. roughly about the same time as Hammurabi was formulating his exemplary Code in far-off Babylona little village on the slopes of the volcano was buried by an eruption. The site is already recognized as one of the world's best-preserved  prehistoric villages, found only because someone decided to build a supermarket with an underground parking structure. Thus far, no human remains have been uncovered, indicating that the inhabitants had enough time to avoid the fate of the some 2,000 victims of the Pompeii eruption.

That is still making news. The papers yesterday carried an item on the archaeological dig in Nola, where yet another 4,000-year old structure has been been uncovered—a 50-foot-long structure containing some vases and cooking utensils. It was possibly a communal gathering place for villagers. Archaeologists have by now determined that this "Bronze Age Pompeii" was large enough to have buildings laid out in groups—not necessarily blocks, but at least according to some plan that indicates significant social structure. Giuseppe Vecchio, the archaeologist in charge of the site, also adds, "Where there is a village, there has to be a cemetery, a necropolis, and we'll find that sooner or later." That would be a significant find. There is apparently a lot more to be uncovered in the area. Much of what has already been brought to light is now protected by modern metal and plastic coverings—good, perhaps, but maybe not as good as the lava that has served quite well for four millennia. 


In Naples, some firecrackers have innocent enough sounding names—“Minerva,” for example. Others—perhaps in the quest for nomenclature that will attract the young male—try names such as “Maradona,” after the great Argentine soccer star who played for Naples for many years. Then there are the ominous ones—last year, one bore the moniker, “Big Brother” (certainly more for the popular TV show of that name than as a nod to George Orwell) and another, “Osama Bin Laden”. The fact that that one sold well was less of an ideological statement than a tribute to its being everything a juvenile fireworks nut could ask for —loud, highly explosive, and very dangerous. 

Every year at this time in Naples, a general cautionary alarm goes out to the public: Don’t use illegal fireworks this New Year’s. And every year, Naples seems to lead Italy in the race to see how many people are injured—or killed—by shoddily homemade firecrackers. Calling them “crackers,” of course, is dishonest; they don’t “crack”, they blow up—sometimes in the hands of a kid who placed a bit too much confidence in a fuse that was supposed to give him 10 seconds to get away—at least that’s what the dealer told him. 

Neapolitan fireworks from 1819
The Italian Environmental League reports that in the last two New Year’s celebrations in Naples, 4 have died and 275 have been injured; 30 have been arrested and 40 tons of illegal fireworks confiscated. Yet, starting a few days ago, the illegal streetside stands that sell these things have cropped up in the usual places; the Sanità, the Forcella, and the Mercato Pendino sections of town. It is no problem all to pick up the high-powered wherewithal that will let you give the New Year a hand—finger by finger. 

There are 36 legitimate manufacturers of fireworks in and around Naples, and this is the time of year that counts for them. Some of them, too, have had trouble with the authorities for selling prohibited fireworks—meaning, too explosive. They have other problems, as well: Yesterday in Orta di Atella near Caserta a ferocious explosion shook the night when a car packed with fireworks exploded, leaving shredded metal and charred body parts over hundreds of square yards. The three victims were thieves who had just broken into a lightly—or non-guarded legal fireworks factory and made off with their haul. Maybe one of them lit up a cigarette as they sped away; maybe one of them slid across the seat too fast and set off a slight discharge of static electricity. Who knows. 

Indeed, if you live near someone who makes this stuff and stores it at home all year, waiting for New Year’s, you may never know about it until a house down the street explodes. Or if you live upstairs from that person, you may simply never know about it. Never. 

Befana, Christmas (5), Epiphany

This morning I noticed in the small coffee bar near my house that what I would have always considered “Christmas stockings” have just been put up as decorations. Then, I remembered that in these parts—indeed, in most of Italy—gift-giving time is far from over. 

Long before Santa Claus, reindeer, fir trees, and snow started showing up on the unlikely slopes of Vesuvius, the traditional bringer of holiday gifts was the Befana, an old woman who brings gifts to good children (or lumps of coal to bad ones) on the evening before Epiphany, January 6. "Epiphany" is from Greek and it means “to manifest” or “to show”. January 6 is the twelfth day after Christmas (I think that is the one with Pipers Piping or Drummers Drumming, but I don’t really remember) and is the day on which Christians commemorate the manifestation of Christ, the Savior. It is when the Magi appeared and brought gifts. Depending on the legend, an old woman —either searching for her child (one of the “first–born” murdered by Herod) or having been invited to accompany the Magi—also appeared. Her name, in Italian—Befana—is a corruption of the word “Epiphany”. 

Without question, there is something much more peaceful and spiritual about January 6 than December 25. That is, no doubt, due to the commercial glitter of modern Christmas celebrations. At least in Naples, there is no such pitch as “only 15 more shopping days till Befana”. Not yet, anyway. So, the little stockings go up for the gifts, and the children wait. 

And this from Richard Crashaw (1612–1649): 

“May the great time in you still greater be, while all the year is your Epiphany.”

Metropolitana (3)

Naples certainly doesn’t lack ambitious engineering plans. The decades-long (and still going on) new metropolitana—subway—is the classic case. Little by little, that is winding its way towards completion, and the sections that are already in service have made getting around the city much easier. 

Getting into and out of the city is another problem. There are two secondary narrow–gauge railway lines that serve the city. One is called the Circumvesuviana; it starts near the central train station and has an extensive network of stations and track to the west through the communities on the slopes of Vesuvius—the most densely populated area in Europe—and on out to the Sorrentine peninsula. The other one is called the Circumflegrea—also known as the Cumana; it, too, starts in the center of town and, as the name suggests, goes west to serve the outlying areas in the Campi Flegrei and beyond, all the way to end of the Gulf of Naples, itself, near Cuma.

The latest big engineering plan involves the Cumana. As it stands now, in order to get to the first station, Soccavo, outside the city to the west, the Cumana goes through a long (2 miles) and very deep tunnel that bores beneath the entire hill of Naples that the “Vomero” section of the city rests on. Many decades ago, the Vomero was remote enough to be a vacation spot for the well–heeled; to rest up a bit in the “countryside,” you went up to Vomero. Now, of course, that part of town is as busy and congested as anywhere else in the metropolitan area; indeed, the new subway line was started in order to connect Vomero with the main downtown area. 

The plan in question calls for putting in another station on the Cumana line between the downtown end–of–the-line and what is now the first stop, Soccavo. That station will lie directly below the massive Vomero hill. Then they will sink a passenger elevator from the center of Vomero 100 meters down through the hill to the new station. It will be—claims the report in the paper—the deepest subway station in the world. The plan calls for connecting—by conveyor walkways for passengers—the new station with the nearby Cilea station of the new metropolitana. The theory, then, is that with a single change at that juncture, you will be able to start your trip anywhere out to the west of the city and wind up on the new subway line with its 20–some stations. 

All this ambition sounds like a script for Invasion of the Mole People, and I am reminded of the Spanish move in the 17th–century to prohibit anymore digging, quarrying, and burrowing beneath the city out of fear of cave–ins, which were, even then, a problem. Engineers, of course, tell us that modern methods and materials of construction will actually make the subsoil safer. 

Geology (1); Stromboli; volcanoes (1)

This sign warns visitors to the island of the dangers of the active volcano.
The papers this morning lead with news of pre–New Year’s fireworks of an unexpected kind: the volcano on the island of Stromboli erupted yesterday, dislodging a considerable piece of mountain into the sea. That, in turn, caused a 60-foot wall of seawater to backwash onto the island, flooding homes, destroying boats and small harbor facilities, but injuring only 3 persons. There were no deaths. 

Stromboli is the northernmost of the Aeolian Islands, a group of some seven islands north of Sicily. Some of the other islands also have active volcanoes, including the appropriately named isle of Vulcano. The volcano on Stromboli is nicknamed, simply, Iddu—Him—by residents of the island and last erupted 17 years ago. The wave that rose and struck part of the island as a result of yesterday’s eruption and landslide at first was called a tsunami. Geologists were quick to point out this morning, however—for those interested in the fine points of describing that wall of water about to wash them out to sea—that, technically, a tsunami is a wave generated by submarine earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. This was just a lot of water. 

The Aeolians are tightly grouped, and the eruption provided a spectacular show for the residents of the next island to the south, Panarea. The islands are a popular tourist target for Neapolitans; the faster hydrofoils make the run from Naples in about 3 hours. Tourists are now, of course, on the way off the islands until such time as things get back to normal, whatever “normal” might mean in a place where an island is named Vulcano. 

Mt. Etna, of course, right next door on the island of Sicily has been dominating their news recently. It is currently erupting in its usual slow and effusive fashion—nothing devastating, just layering up more and more lava to mark the passage of the millennia, the way some volcanoes do. Vesuvius—with its own nickname of ‘a muntagna (the mountain)—here in Naples bides its time. That comes up frequently in casual conversation—perhaps less casual today. 

[There is relevant information in the entry on The Geology of the Bay of Naples .]