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Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

Haunted houses

Speaking of places in Naples—yesterday's reference to Gaiola—that are said to be haunted, there are at least two so-called "haunted houses" in the city, buildings where terrible things are known to have happened, and, no doubt, other terrible things that are said to have happened never did but probably will if you get too close. 

One is at  via Tasso 615 (photo, left), at the very top of the hill (about 500 feet above sea-level) where that road then swings left out to the long drive along the Posillipo ridge or turns right for the main road into the Vomero section of Naples. According to a sign near the high metal scroll gate, the building is called the Corte dei Leoni ("Court of the Lions"). The villa is about as set–off as it could be in an overbuilt city; that is, though one side of the villa is across the street from the standard markets and cracker-box buildings of the 1950s, the other side is right at the top of a steep slope with nothing in the way to obstruct a spectacular view of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples. 

The Corte dei Leoni is not typical architecture for Naples. It is a three-story, irregular but roughly rectangular pseudo-Renaissance building. It has the arched windows with prominent keystones and columns on either side, and a pale-red brick façade with enough protruding bricks to give it a softened ashlar effect. Placed high up on the façade in various places are a few graven symbols. Two that stand out are on either side of a large window. They appear to be some version or other of the winged caduceus, the staff carried in Roman mythology by Mercury. The wings are there, to be sure, but on top of each staff is a stylized horse's—or dragon's—head. They face inward and "look at" each other across the arch of the window. 

The roof, in Renaissance fashion, slopes gently down to all sides. As the villa is actually built on a slope, that part of the building that faces the sea has an additional story using the extra space provided by the rapid change in elevation from the front of the property to the back. There is dark or stained glass in most of the windows. On the seaward side, there is a remarkable spiral stairway that winds the height of the building; it is on the inside, but encased in glass and very visible from the outside. The entire property is protected from the street by a high iron fence webbed with ivy, such that it is impossible to look into the grounds. There is a stone plaque embedded in the façade that reads 1922 in Roman numerals, but the stone is weathered enough to look much older than that. On the sea-side there is also a balcony. The whole effect is Renaissance, yes, but so foreboding that if Juliet, herself, were to walk out on that balcony and call down to me, "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" I would leave. 

The only other information provided by a small notice board near the gate is that the premises are available for wedding receptions, banquetsthat sort of thing. I don't think they get many takers, because everyone in Naples "knows" it is haunted. I have been unable to trace the source of the superstition. The one terrible thing that has happened there in my memory was just a few years ago. A woman was walking by the house early on a Sunday morning. Except for her, the street was apparently deserted, for there were no eye–witnesses. The scene, itself, provided the details: there is a large tree on the grounds and, as she walked by, a high branch hanging over the fence and above the street chose that moment to snap and fall, striking the woman in the head and killing her. That sent "I-told-you-so" headlines shivvering across the newspapers for a few day. 

The other "haunted" building is the Palazzo of the Prince of Sansevero located at Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.  (You can read about that building by clicking here  and about the Prince of Sansevero, renowned as a sorcerer, by clicking here.) 

Gestures, hand (3); luck (good & bad) (2)

I once spilled wine on a woman seated next to me at a dinner in Naples. I apologized—and she laughed and thanked me! I later found out that spilling wine on people is said to bring good fortune. I subsequently went on a major campaign to spill as much wine as possible on as many beautiful women as possible, all the while wondering why I was never really “getting lucky”. It turns out that the good luck accrues to the spill-EE, not the spill-ER. Tricky business, this luck stuff.

Predicting your fortune from wine—or oenomancy, as it is known to real winos—has a long history. Even way back in the caves, you know, you spilled a little vino on your loin cloth and, hey, don't worry about it— "spilling wine brings good luck," they would say. Maybe a little symbolism in there: grapes, liquid, harvest, fertility. Besides, homo sapiens fermantatis had good reason to spill wine. He was drunk. I don't understand it, but I respect it. I mean, if you can paint those beautiful bison on limestone walls at Lascaux, you were obviously assembled correctly. 

In Naples, there is also a well–known gesture to keep bad luck away: the sign of the "corna"—the horns, made with the extended index and little finger and waggling that sign towards the ground (as if you were rooting for the U. of Texas upside–down). This will ward off the Evil Eye. Also, touching the hump of a male hunchback is good luck. Now, if you tell me all that, I may not agree with what you say, but until the going gets rough I'll defend your right to say it. It has just that plausible mixture of the Primeval and the Light vs Dark—what my fruit vendor has termed "the Manichaean dichotomy, the Antinomial on the brink of the abyss." (This could be what has been wrong with his nectarines, lately, too). But it might be true. And as Pascal wagered (roughly, but really): "Gee, you never can tell, so you might as well believe." Is that gutsy, or what? Thus Spake Zaramilquetoast. 

But the one thing that tells me just how lucky I am and am ever going to remain if I keep living on my street is this: If you step in dog-poop, Neapolitans will tell you, "Don't worry. It brings good luck." That's right—Stepping…in…feces…brings… good… luck! (I know this is delicate, so you may wish to go read something about the history of the Khmer Rouge.) 

I've heard of Easy Street, the Street of Dreams, and The Street Where You Live, but if this morsel of folk wisdom is true, then in terms of the ability to confer happiness, all of these thoroughfares are squalid back-alleys and blighted dead-ends compared to My Street. If stepping in the Sirius Stuff is lucky, then My Street is an eight–lane toll–free Expressway to human felicity. 

The Voo–doo Doo–doo Institute for Demographic Studies has shown that residents of My Street have a higher income, live three–and–one–half years longer than the national average, and are very noisy. Research, however, has not shed any light on the origins of the belief that any of this has to do with you know what. Sceptics, of course, claim that attributing good fortune to conditions over which one has no control is understandable, a kind of safety valve for the psyche, a de-stressing little smile in the face of the great Existential Maw which sooner or later devours us all. This, of course, is ludicrous and maybe even wrong. It's the doggie-doo that does it. 

Some time ago, the City Parenting Persons put a Curb Your Dog sand-box down at the corner on My Street. Man's Best Friend, of course, wouldn't go near it. Nosiree, Spot. You stop leaving little patties of good luck—those pulchritudinous tugboat-sized fortune cookies—in the right places and pretty soon you're  getting kicked around and blamed for broken legs and missed lottery numbers. No way. I may be a damned dog, but I ain't that dumb. 

Carnevale (1)

Today is Mardi Gras. I was made aware of that yesterday when I noticed a couple of very young children parading around in pirate costumes in the middle of Piazza Plebiscito yesterday. It is strange that in a city that has taken to foreign celebrations such as Halloween, they don't go in much for a traditional Catholic holiday, here. (There are, however, smaller towns near Naples that have traditional festivities for carnevale, such as Avellino and Capua.) 

The only two cities in Italy with extravagant Rio–or New Orleans–like activities for carnevale are Viareggio—on the western coast of Italy as you move up the Ligurian coast past Livorno (quaintly known in English as "Leghorn") on the way to Genoa—and, of course, Venice. The only festival of that nature in Naples, I think, is the Festival of Piedigrotta on Sept. 8 and 9. I say is, though used to be would be more like it. I don't recall ever seeing anything more than a perfunctory fireworks display, a far cry from the mile-long parade of floats, bands and outlandish bedizenment wending its way along the seaside public gardens to the Church of Piedigrotta years—decades—ago. The city keeps promising to revive it. Who knows. So, today, there were a few city-sponsored festivities around town, but nothing much. 

My single experience with the Carnival of Venice (besides listening to Rafael Mendez' splendid trumpet solo on the piece of the same name!) was a number of years ago. It was freezing and there was much too much over–amplified music pumped into the crowd by crazed DJs from a local Rock station. A friend wanted to go and visit the tomb of Igor Stravinsky located on the cemetery island of San Michele in the lagoon. There, while he was moping over the tomb of the maestro, I walked around and found a remarkable inscription on a tomb from 1888, which said, in essence, this: 

Rest in Peace, my Little Boy

We wished for you intensely, my beloved Nina and I. We had no son, but you were born lifeless, and your dear mother died, as well, giving birth to you, leaving me with five tender little girls.

I remember being struck by the enormity of it: this poor women had died trying to make up for her "failures" in producing nothing but girls. Her husband just had to have a son. 

It also reminded me of when I got married and moved to Naples. A young woman from a small town near Naples found out I was newly wed and said to me, "auguri e figli maschi"—"best wishes and male children". She was sincere, but it was one of those phrases that is well-rehearsed through practice, the traditional thing to say to newly-weds. Today, it has an olden ring to it, or at least it embodies the values of small southern towns, one of which values is (or was) the large family—preferably with a lot of strong male hands for farming. Having said that, it seems to me that whenever I pass through one of those places, I see an awful lot of women out working in the fields, or balancing heavy bundles on their heads as they walk along the roadside, or leading animals to pasture, so I'm not sure what all those strong male hands actually do. Maybe they're for wielding the traditional lupara—shotgun—though, again, I imagine women can be pretty good at that, too. 

Young, Lamont (2)

Lamont Young's "castle" is going to be restored. It is a quaint piece of Victorian Gothic architecture set on the cliff of Pizzofalcone, the original cliff of Naples that overlooks the Castel dell'Ovo and the small harbor of Santa Lucia. When it was built in the early years of the 20th–century, it really did overlook all that; however, subsequent construction along the seaside road over the course of the rest of the century has led to the pitiful sight of a "castle" from which there is with no view at all except of the splendid backs of the 4–and–5–star hotels now directly in front ofand considerably higher thanthe cliff. 

The castle was one of three or four such buildings put up by Young along the same unusual lines, highly criticized at the time as being not in keeping with the traditions of Neapolitan architecture. One of Young's other castle-like Victorian Gothic structures in another part of town even features an artificial crack (photo) high up on one of the towers, meant to simulate great age or, perhaps, a lightning strike. All of these buildings would be at home on the covers of gloomy novels about moors, fog and frail heroines. 

The buildings are, however, charming, and the one on Pizzofalcone is now going to get one–and–a–half–million euros to undo the damage down by arson a few years ago; in addition, part of the grounds will be converted to a museum/exposition room that will inform visitors about this fascinating Neapolitan with the very English name. Here they will learn about Young's plan for the total rebuilding of the city (including the construction of an underground train line!) in the 1890s (a plan that lost out to the Risanamento—the gutting of large sections of the city). 

[See here for more on the life and work of Lamont Young.]


This ornate porcellan drawing room was designed by Giuseppe and Stefano Gricci and Luigi Restile. It was completed in 1757 within the Royal Palace at Portici. It was transferred to the National Galleries at Capodimonte in 1866. There is a separate item on Capodimonte here.

porcellain salon imageI remember sailin across the Bay of Naples many years ago and noticing a broad swath of green on the south slope of Vesuvius. This wooded area spread inland almost from the sea to a spot a good distance up the slope and was separated at the midpoint by a building so large that some of the details of the architecture stood out even to an observer out at sea. The greenery lay isolated in the midst of what is now the most densely populated area in western Europe, surrounded on both sides by chaotic urban sprawl. 

Subsequently I learned that the property was the old Bourbon Royal Palace and grounds at Portici, built in the 1730s and 40s at the behest of Charles III, recently arrived from Spain to run the newly independent Kingdom of Naples. It is one of four Bourbon Palaces, all from roughly the same period. The other three are the Royal Palace in downtown Naples, the Palace on the Capodimonte hill, and the great Palace in Caserta, the so-called "Versailles of Italy". In the course of more than two centuries, the Palace at Portici has served, obviously, as a royal residence, but also as an archaeological museum for artefacts from nearby Pompei and Herculaneum. Also, in 1839, it had the distinction of being one terminus of Italy's first railway, a track that started in town and wended its way out to Portici largely for the purposes of making it easier for the royal family to "get away from it all". 

For most of the 20th–century, the premises housed the Agricultural Department of the University of Naples, which accounts for the abundance of the greenery I noticed from a distance. There is a wide variety of vegetation on the grounds, much of it from elsewhere in the world, all neatly labelled and available for study. The Palace, itself, is remarkable. I was there in the 1980s when they tore up some of the flooring to inspect the integrity of the large tree-trunks that served as beams that cross-braced the entire building and held the floors in place. After two centuries, they were still solid and very little of the structure had to be reinforced. (Given the denuded look of the area after centuries of chopping down trees, I found it hard to believe—and I still find it hard to believe—that those tree trunks originally came from around here, but that's what they tell me.) 

There is now a plan to move the Agricultural Department out of the Palace to another facility nearby and to convert the Palace to a museum focusing on the archaeological and geological features of the area, which are considerable: Pompei, Herculaneum, and Mt. Vesuvius. The university will still have access to some of the building for classes and, of course, will continue to use the large garden—a forest, really. The 20 million euros allocated for the restoration will go into removing the signs of decades of use by the university, including chemical traces from laboratories; then, the trappings and furnishings of the original 18th–century building will be restored. The project is expected to take three years. 

Troisi, Massimo

I suppose it is futile—but understandable—to speculate how the career might have turned out of one who died much too young. The Neapolitan papers this week spent some time doing that, true, but, generally, just paid heartfelt tribute to Massimo Troisi, from San Giorgio (near Naples), who died in 1994 but who, this week, would have turned 50. 

Troisi made his first film, in 1981, Ricominciamo da tre (a pun on the expression Ricominciamo da zero—Let's Begin at Zero (the beginning)—thus, Let's Start at Three, and his last film, shortly before his death, Il Postino (The Postman—probably his best-known film abroad). Perhaps only Roberto Benigni, among recent Italian comics, strikes you the same way Troisi does—as having that quality of comic genius worthy of mentioning in the same breath as the great Totò. (Benigni and Troisi appear in one film together, in 1984: Non ci resta che piangere (There's nothing left to do but cry) where they are transported in time back to the 1400s and even meet Leonardo da Vinci and give him some pointers.) 

Troisi already generates the same type of "Do you remember that episode…?"–stories that characterize conversations about all great comics. (Do you remember that scene of Laurel and Hardy moving the piano up the long flight of steps? Of course you do.) There are scores of those about Totò and, by now, a lot of them about Troisi. Yes, I remember that scene where Troisi plays the wrong Mary (!), not the mother of Jesus, but another Mary in "a city of Galilee named Nazareth" whose daily routine gets interrupted by an inept Herald Angel who keeps barging onto the stage with "Hearken! Mary…the Lord is with thee…thou shalt conceive…" Troisi spends the skit trying to convince the angel that he has come to the wrong house and the wrong Mary. Joseph's wife is over on the next street. There is not the least sense of irreverence in the performance, either, and I am sure the Pope thinks it's a riot! 

Troisi's language was that of Naples, with virtually no attempt to modify his difficult native dialect to a more standard Italian for the benefit of those who might have difficulty understanding him—audiences in northern Italy, for example. With Totò, Troisi is a living language lesson and one more reason why almost all Italians now like to think they speak a little Neapolitan. 


A Donkey Serenade
Being a Recounting of Marvelous and Intrepid Adventures on Remotest Ischia.

We all have shreds of strangeness scattered through our lives, giving a special  dreamlike quality to the most fortunate of our memories. One of mine was discovering Antonio Gaudi, the magical Catalonian architect, whose cathedral stands in Barcelona—a psychedelic stalagmite of parabolas, saddle-like curves and weird geometries from another dimension dripping down like wet sand through the fingers of a playful giant. 

I added another tatter a few weeks ago on Ischia. I had just finished ploughing through an imposing German tome on the island. It was full of footnotes and umlauts. In fact, you are almost reading about the late Stone Age, the Bronze Age, Pithecusa (the original Greek name for the island) and how the Greeks found in Ischia's Mt. Epomeo another Olympus, another safe hiding place for their Gods. Then came the Romans, the Paleochristians, the Aragonese and the Saracens. So, be glad I found Viola, a lovely brown donkey mare, who took me up the slopes of Epomeo, where the spirit of Gaudi dwells. 

After making the long storm-tossed crossing from Neapolis and quelling a native uprising at my hotel, I betook me to the quaint outpost of Fontana, the most convenient "base camp" from whence to begin the climb up the 800-meter high mountain. It was then that I saw Viola—beautiful brown eyes, long lashes, even longer ears, and a mane stroked by, alas, who knows how many coarse hands. She was standing in the main square in Fontana, reluctantly looking for passengers. She looked like Rocinante hoping against hope that Don Quixote had wandered away and would never come back. 

"Oh, a donkey," I exclaimed, a veritable Julian Huxley finally seeing his way through to some great biological truth. 

"You are, indeed, most perceptive, bwana-sahib," croaked the wizened Chargé du Donkeé. He genuflected in the traditional fashion of his ancestors, touching first his forehead, then his heart, then my wallet. "She will take you right to the top for a mere trifle." 

"Hmmm, that's not even a pittance a pound. Not bad. But, am I not too stout—all solid muscle, of course—but a bit too hefty for this delicate steed?" 

"Not to worry, O wise one, for it is written that this is the life they are born to." 

Viola, naturally, had heard this Bible-thumping, fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 1:26 many times before and she was not amused. But, with that floppy-lipped snort that donkeys emit when they dream of their great stallion cousins flashing like Pegasus free and unshod across Arabian dunes, she acquiesced. I climbed aboard and we went straight up, first on a paved road and then the last two-hundred yards or so along a precise trail, partially hewn out of the rock, but mostly just plain worn down by the methodical sculpting of countless plodding hooves. 

The summit of Epomeo is a castle carved out of rock. There is no building; all the chambers in the one-time home to an order of Franciscan monks are in  the rock. Again, Gaudi's giant friend must have poked his fingers into the lava when it was still warm and pliant, yet firm enough to hold impressions which an age later would become the chapel, dining hall and cells for the monastery of San Nicola. 

If you go when there is a mist blowing up the slopes, the jagged rock that forms a watchtower on the summit tears at the stream of whiteness swirling by. It sticks up like a cockeyed crown on a ghostly head calling you into a fairy-tale, and if you are in the fanciful mood that accepts fairy-tales, then that will be your "strange" moment, the one you remember. 

That and the sunrise, because sadly for the monks but happily for you, this mountain retreat is now an inn. You can ride or walk up in the evening and stay in one of the cells.  (It's not as bleak as it sounds; each cell has a balcony with a breathtaking view, the beds are clean, and when you run out of gruel, you can go to the restaurant). From the watchtower and various points around the summit, there is a stunning view straight out over the island and the gulf to Vesuvius and the Sorrentine Peninsula. Here, it is pardonable to believe in the illusory astronomy that the Earth is the center of all things, as the sun paces the passage of eternity, slowly shifting, sunrise by  sunrise, inexorably along the rim of the mountains and back again. On Ischia, "to watch the dawn from Epomeo" is a metaphor of splendour—to be up there in monastic stillness watching the sun perform its timeless rites and to feel that you are the first ever to behold the transformation of night into day. 

"Neptune" fountain

I have difficulty believing that they are going to move "Neptune" again. I was down there today looking at it, and in my non-expert opinion of where fountains belong and how they fit in and why they should not be disassembled, moved and put back together every few years, it looks fine. True, they pinched off one traffic lane a bit in order to install the fountain, but they opened up the pedestrian area around the immediate area, and have put in benches and a tourist information bulletin board. The fountain is now on via Medina, adjacent to Piazza Municipio. 

There are very few pieces of sculpture that have traveled as much as this one. This fountain started out down by the Arsenal --at the port-- when it was built in the 1500s. It was built on the order of Enrico de Guzman, the Spanish viceroy at the time and was situated so that it faced his residence. The design is by Giovanni da Nola; Neptune (the centerpiece) and the two satyrs are by Pietro Bernini. 

In 1629, it was moved up to Largo Palazzo, now called Piazza Plebiscito on the order of the viceroy, Alvarez de Toledo. Then, in 1634, it was moved down to the sea at Santa Lucia after being touched up by Cosima Fanzago. There, it was in such danger of being exposed to artillery fire that it was moved up to via Medina, more or less where it is today. In 1647 it was repaired after being damaged in the uprisings of that year; bits and pieces taken away as souvenirs to Spain by the viceroy also had to be redone. In 1659, it was moved again, this time to Calata San Marco, about two blocks from its current location. In 1700 it was moved back to via Medina to be nearer to the main road leading down to the port. At that time, sea horses and tritons were added to the statue. In 1898 it was moved to Piazza Borsa (the Stock Exchange) and, thus, was located at the beginning of Corso Umberto, the broad boulevard leading to the main train station. That square is currently the site of construction for the new Naples Metro underground train line, so in 2001 the statue was moved back to via Medina where it was in 1640. 

The statue's current location is described as "temporary," and it is to be returned to Piazza Borsa when they finish the metro station in that square. I hope they leave it where it is. 

Carnevale (2)

I see in the papers that 55.000  people have showed up in Venice for the beginning of carnevale, a celebration that will run through next Tuesday, Mardi Gras. 

How can this be?—I ask myself. Did I not identify last Tuesday, Febraury 18, as Mardi Gras on the basis of seeing two young children parading around in pirate costumes? Indeed. There must be some mistake. Perhaps I was thinking in a different calendar. The Coptic Christian calendar, perhaps? That might be a way out, I think. I don't know, however, that there are many Copts in Naples. On the other hand, I do often walk by a small private club called the "Circolo Mare Rosso" (The Red Sea Club). Beneath that inscription is the equivalent name, written in a very strange alphabet that seems to be full of pitchforks and dyslexic versions of the letter J. Yes! That must be Coptic, the end-stage of ancient Egyptian, and now the liturgical language of a strong minority of Christians in Egypt, an overwhelmingly Moslem nation. I have somehow—just by walking by the place—picked up on their early celebration of the week before the beginning of Lent. I rush down to check it out. Oops. The sign proves to be in the Amharic language, written in what is called Ethiopian script, a derivation of the old Arabic alphabet. It really looks nothing like the Coptic script, I have to admit. 

Hmmm. Maybe I was thinking in the Neapolitan Revolutionary calendar, from way back in 1799 when  Neapolitan revolutionaries redid the entire calendar after the fashion of Revolutionary France: January was called "Rainy". I think February was called "Foggy". I am not sure of that one, but the potential for confusion with the Seven Dwarfs is obvious and certainly could have been no source of strength to the Republic. Besides, they were anti-clerical, so I don't suppose reactionary Christian holidays were even recognized in the calendar. That, too, is out. 

It can't be the Greek Orthodox calendar, because I don't know anything about that one, except that  it uses the Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar to calculate Easter, and, after dividing the vernal equinox by pi, they are bound to be a week or two off, just like me. I may just have to step up and forthrightly take responsibility for myself and blame my miscalculation all on those little Revolutionary Orthodox Coptic kids running around Piazza Plebiscito last week. 

[In spite of all that, the Greek Orthodox faith has an interesting history in Naples. Click here.] 

Mercato, Piazza (1); City walls;
Carmine church and castle; Porta Capuana

If by "city walls" you mean the ancient Greek or Roman ones that surrounded Neapolis, there is nothing left of those above ground in modern Naples. There are, however, some fragments that have been excavated and left open for viewing; the most prominent one is the section of the Greek wall visible at Piazza Bellini. The rest has disappeared under—in some cases—natural catastrophe, such as mudslides (a prominent one occurred in the sixth century), or was simply torn down or built over in the typically palimpsest approach to urban planning that has characterized Naples in its long history. 

The medieval walls are a different story. Starting with the Angevins in the 14th–century and continuing well into the Spanish and even Bourbon periods in Naples, the protective wall around Naples was constantly under some phase of construction and renewal. It is in the late 19th– and early 20th–century, during the great Risanamentothe urban renewal—of the city, that that changed. Massive portions of the medieval walls were torn down; yet, some were left standing as historical markers, and segments of the wall were simply incorporated into modern buildings. 

The most obvious historical marker is the part of wall and the pillars at what used to be the south-east corner of the city wall across from Piazza Mercato and the Church of the Carmine (see below). There is not much left of this castle, and the ruins you see here are often referred to simply as "part of the old wall down by the port". In reality, this is what remains of the Castello del Carmine, now on the main road that runs east along the industrial port of Naples.  It was built by the Angevin ruler, Charles III of Durazzo, in the 1380s. It was a true fortress and at the center of battles during the Angevin and subsequent Aragonese period. It was expanded, as well, under the Spanish in the 1560s. It was also one of the strongholds of conspirators during Masaniello's revolt, which led to a very short-lived (5 days!) first "Neapolitan Republic" in 1647. It played a strategic role, as well, in later military campaigns, namely the Neapolitan revolution of 1799 and the Bourbon resistance to the army of Garibaldi in 1860. The pillars seen in the photo are all that remain of the Carmine Gate, one of the main entrances into the city along the south wall in the late Middle Ages. The structure was demolished in the early 20th century to make room for road expansion along the port. 

Directly across the street is Church of Santa Maria del Carmine (photo, left) at one end of Piazza Mercato (Market Square), one of the most historic sites in Naples. The church itself was founded in the 12th century by Carmelite monks driven from the Holy Land in the Crusades. The historic name of Piazza Mercato is Piazza Moricino. It was the site in 1268 of the execution of Corradino, the last Hohenstaufen pretender to the throne of the kingdom of Naple, at the hands of Charles I of Anjou, thus beginning the important Angevin reign of the kingdom. In 1647 the square was also the site of battles between rebels and royal troops during Masaniello's Revolt, and in 1799 the scene of the mass execution of leaders of the Neapolitan Republic. 

If you walk north into the city from that point along what used to be the line of the eastern wall of the medieval city, you will probably get lost, but—after some judicious zigging and zagging—you will eventually come to Porta Capuana and Castel Capuano (photo, right) takes its name from the fact that it was at the point in the city walls where the road led out to the city of Capua. The castle is at the end of via dei Tribunali and today houses the Naples Hall of Justice. It was built in the twelfth century by William I, the son of Roger the Norman, the first monarch of the Kingdom of Naples. It was expanded by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Swabia and became one of his royal palaces. Under the Spanish viceroyship of Don Pedro de Toledo in the sixteenth century, it became the Hall of Justice, the basements of which served as a prison. Over the entrance to the castle you still see the crest of the Emperor Charles V, who visited Naples in 1535. The castle has undergone many restorations, one as recent as 1860, and thus no longer retains a great deal of its original appearance.

Porta Capuana (photo, left), in  spite of the name, is not the ancient gateway to the decumanus maximus, the main east-west road that once led out of Roman Naples to Capua. When the city was extended eastwards, the construction of the new Aragonese city walls meant relocating  the original gate, which had been closer to the castle. The present gate was built in 1484. It is still there and you can drive or walk through and around it. 

The most interesting examples of how the medieval walls have simply been incorporated into more modern buildings occur if you keep moving along that same line of the eastern wall to the point where it turned left to run along the northern side of medieval Naples, along what is now via Foria. At that corner is an enormous building now housing municipal office space but with the inscription Caserma [barracks] Garibaldi still prominent on the façade. That ex-barracks was the medieval monastery of San Giovanni a Carbonara, which, itself, was built using the corner formed by the meeting of the eastern and northern walls of the city as two sides of the monastery and then building the rest behind that barrier. 

As you walk west along via Foria, keeping an eye on the dense row of buildings that now stand where the wall used to be, the most obvious thing is that modern office and apartment buildings are not only much higher than the original wall, but that—in the case of one high school— as high as the original height of the Greek city, itself. The city sloped dramatically upwards in that direction. Piazza Cavour and the Archaeological Museum (down at the far end of the wall before it turned to form another corner and run back towards the sea) are below the highest point in the city, where the Greeks put their acropolis. That height is no longer evident because of the modern buildings in front of the ancient cliff. However, many of the buildings along via Foria have used part of the medieval wall at their base. Why waste a good 100 feet of solid wall?  Put in a few windows and doors, and you've got yourself the first few floors of one side of a building. The San Gennaro Gate (photo, left), of course, is in that section of wall and is not only still open, but is still a main pedestrian path in and out of the old city. 

The medieval western wall of the city—which, itself, followed the line of the ancient Roman wall— was simply knocked down by the Spanish in the 1500s when they decided to expand the city beyond the ancient confines and move up the hill towards the Sant' Elmo Fortress. The long straight road, via Toledo, laid by the Spanish in that period is well outside the ancient city. The Spanish moved Port'Alba, originally one of the main gates in the medieval western wall of the city, a few hundred yards to the west (where it remains today), such that it opened onto the new Spanish section of the city. By that time, the old west wall no longer served any defensive purpose and much of it went the way of all old walls in Naples—torn down, ploughed under, built over, and, in some cases, reincarnated as parts of newer buildings. 


Yes, this photo really was taken at Capodichino airport in Naples shortly after the Germans left the city in 1943. Photo courtesy of Herman Chanowitz.
WW2 wreckage at Capo

I remember when Naples Capodichino airport looked like an airfield in documentaries about WW2  —maybe even WW1: windsocks on the runway and strange little people in goggles and flying scarves running around mowing the airstrip and hand-cranking Fokker triplanes. Well, maybe not all that, but there were no newfangled accordion tubes that snuggled up to the side of the planes for easy on–and–offloading of contented passengers. There were no contented passengers. There were no busses, either; you walked out onto the tarmac to your plane. Sometimes they got your bags out there before you left; sometimes they didn't. Indeed, it was a throwback to those glorious early days of aviation. They still spelled it "aeroplane," as I recall. 

Since the reinvention of mass tourism in the Bay of Naples, that has changed. The sign now says "Naples International Airport" and the place deserves the appellation. The passenger terminal was more than simply expanded; it was rebuilt. It is new, spacious, and comfortable with all the bars, shops and other creature comforts that one expects while one waits. There is also ample parking, one of the few places in Naples to enjoy that comfort so necessary to 21st–century creatures. 

The problem now is that no amount of expansion of the facilities (photo) can handle the projected traffic. The paper this morning writes of the grand plan to open up the military airport in nearby Grazzanise (about 35 miles from Naples near Capua) to passenger traffic. It was tried once, out of necessity, some 15 years ago when the Capodichino airport was partially closed for modifications. The plan, if it goes forward—and that depends on complicated negotiations between the Italian air force and various civilian agencies that have an interest in air traffic in and out of Naples—is to route charter tourist traffic through the new facility as early as this summer. Since much tourist traffic is directed not to the city of Naples, itself, but to other areas of the Bay such as Sorrento and the islands of Ischia and Capri, and since the Grazzanise airport is near the A-1 autostada that runs into the city, the plan might entail nothing more inconvenient than a slightly longer bus ride for passengers, no matter what their destination. 

Me, I have a Fokker to crank. 

Pizza (1)

Sign claims to mark the home of the first Margherita Pizza
I once had a "Taco Pizza" in Honolulu. If pizza were human language, a discussion would now follow on Grimm's Law, how pizza changes over time, creolization of pizza, dialects of pizza, and very, very irregular verbs. Fortunately, it's just pizza. The greatest recent innovation in pizza in Naples, recently, is the cyber-pizza. Yes, you can actually walk into a pizzeria down at Santa Lucia and have a pizza con funghi (mushrooms) while you check your email and browse. 

Speaking of which, I did come across this: 

Lévi-Strauss explores the semiotic properties of culinary practices as a model for social ideology [to] express complex transformations of social category systems. His remarks about attitudes to mushrooms suggest the importance of historical experience for the retention of symbolic associations between edible forms and cosmological concepts.

"Culinary Semiotics" in Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. 1986. 

I immediately think when I read this that this Lévi-Strauss is one pretty "sharp cookie" (I am, as you see, no slouch at food symbolism, myself). I mean, besides inventing Blue Jeans and composing the Blue Danube Waltz, he still has time to "get his licks in" (touché!) in the food column of his local encyclopedia of semiotics. His insight about mushrooms, alone, is worth its weight in—well, mushrooms. 

Mushrooms. Think. You are putting on your pizza something that is not animal, vegetable or mineral. They are alive, yes, but so was the thing that burst out of that guy's chest in Alien. Mushrooms are mycetes, fungi, and "they are classified as something else!" (That's just they way my dictionary puts it, too—italics, exclamation mark and all. It even has 'jitter' lines around the phrase, like those old horror-movie posters, to make you think that the words, themselves, are slowly moving towards you, stalking you—but why talk about celery at a time like this? The dictionary then adds: "Believe us, you don't want to know any more.") 

Mushrooms live in the dark, reproduce by spores and are spitting images (yuk!) of those things that toads sit on, and if you, with a brain the size of a bowling ball, can't tell the difference, what makes you think toads can? Furthermore, some languages, such as Italian and German, use the same word for "mushroom" as they do for whatever that gunk is that grows between your toes in the condition known as "athlete's foot". Think about that "symbolic association between edible forms and cosmological concepts" the next time you order pizza con funghi. Or, as we food–semiotics say: "How do you like them apples?!" 

I know a Neapolitan woman who, for ideological reasons, refuses to eat any other pizza but the "Margherita". It seems that that pizza was named in the last century in Naples for the first queen of united Italy, Margherita of Savoy (1851-1926), wife of Umberto I. When the royal family was in Naples, they stayed, of course, at the ex-Bourbon Royal Palace. (Why waste a good palace just because it belonged to a previous dynasty?) A few blocks away from the palace, just off of Via Toledo (also known as via Roma) is a ristorante cum pizzeria  named Brandi (photo above), one of the most historical of such establishments in Naples. Among the many items of interest on the walls, next to all the pictures of the rich, fat and famous who have eaten there, is the story of how their chef concocted the first pizza Margherita for Her Royal Highness and took it over to the palace, himself. (What was he going to say—"We don't deliver." ?) The colors of the makings—green (basil), white (mozzarella) and red (tomato)—stood for the national colors of the new nation. (Right, whenever the flag was paraded by, every pizza in Naples rose. It was the yeast they could do.) The socio-political ramifications are, indeed, getting deeper and deeper here. Why, for example, does one even put "Basil" on a pizza? After all, he was a Greek prelate who lived from 330 to 379 a.d. and who was the Bishop of Caesarea. 

Or mozzarella? Something which comes from the udder of a buffalo?! Now, except for that admittedly touching film about buffaloes that dance with wolves, or whatever, what are the other associations you have for "buffalo"? See what I mean?—"Buffalo Gals," "buffalo breath" and "buffalo chips". I am too young to remember exactly–or even approximately–what "Buffalo Gals" were (except that they apparently liked to "dance by the light of the moon") but I do have, modestly, a passing familiarity with the breath and the chips, and I say, "No, thank you."

And tomato? Now that you have worked yourselves into a semiotic feeding frenzy, you are no doubt asking yourselves why the archaic slang of detective fiction refers to a beautiful woman as a "swell tomato", as in "Geez, boss, dat sure wuz some swell tomato you wuz wit'," when it should be clear even to those with marginal IQ's that the adjectival participle of "swell" is "swollen". Ergo: "Geez, boss, dat sure wuz some swollen tomato you wuz wit'." I did, however, see a "tomato" once with a "pair of gazoombas that would stop your heart". The only reference I have been able to find to "gazoomba" is in my English-Quechua dictionary. It is an ancient Incan word for "mushroom". 

Coppola, Villaggio

And then there were five. I am talking about the infamous "Towers" along the Flegrean coast, a long stretch of potentially beautiful beach at Castel Volturno, just up the coast from Naples. Officially, the towers were known as the Villaggio Coppola, built by the Fontana Blu Corporation, owned by the Coppola bothers. 

The entire complex included eight 15-story apartment houses (the "Towers"), adjacent hotels, restaurants, a small boat harbor—an entire small city and, collectively, one of the ugliest examples of illegal, "wildcat" construction in Italy. Having said that, it is worth noting that they were built largely to house members of the US military. That particular need is no longer served since the US Navy now has its own satellite city in nearby Gricignano—built on property owned by the Coppolas. (Perhaps there is a book waiting to be written about the relationship of the US government to the Brothers Coppola.) The towers, they say, were an example of what you could get away with a few decades ago with large envelopes of cash. ("Oh, what's that over there?" you would say, pointing into the distance. Then, while the building commissioner was distracted and staring off into space for two or three years, you—with no building permit—put up your "ecomonsters," as the press calls them.) 

Over the years, I have driven up past that stretch of coastline and have grown accustomed to glancing over and seeing that row of ugly monolithic dominoes on the beach—"Pukehenge," we used to call it. The were horribly visible from a distance and perhaps even from low orbit. Yesterday, I looked over and did a happy double-take. There was one missing. They had blown it to smithereens while I wasn't looking. Today the newspaper reports that at 3 pm another explosion will devour two more of them. That will leave five, and they are scheduled for demolition in April.  It's almost worth the drive to watch.