© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com
Naples in English
|I am beginning to see that agriculture will not be perfect in a people until those who farm the land are the same ones who own the land.|
When I read that, I immediately think of revolutionaries and reformers from the middle of the 19th century. Yet, the words were written a bit earlier than that, and they come from a source that, perhaps, many non–Italians have not heard of: Vincenzo Cuoco, a Neapolitan historian who lived from 1770 to 1823.
Cuoco was caught up in the spirit and times of late 18th–century Europe: Enlightenment and Revolution. He was part of the Neapolitan Enlightenment and part of the revolution that gave birth to the Neapolitan Republic of 1799. The Bourbons overthrew the Republic after a few short months and punished Cuoco by confiscating his property and sentencing him to 20 years of exile. Then, when the French took over the Kingdom of Naples in 1806, he returned home and took an active part in the 10-year French rule in Naples. At the second return of the Bourbons in 1815, he was permitted to stay in Naples, where he died in 1823, clouded by mental illness. At least, the Bourbons had spared Cuoco's life in 1799, and he lived to write the works he is remembered for.
known one is Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799
(History of the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799). He published it anonymously
in 1801 and under his own name in 1806; it is the seminal work for those
interested in that episode of history and, though his view is not the
only one on why the revolution failed, Cuoco is the first to deal with
our revolution was a passive one, the only way for it to be successful
would have been to gain the opinion of the people. But the view
of the patriots was not the same as that of the people; they had
different ideas, different customs, and even two different languages.
The very same admiration for things foreign, which held back our
culture as a kingdom, formed the basis for our republic and was
the greatest obstacle to the establishment of liberty. The Neapolitan
nation was split in two, separated over two centuries into two
very different kinds of people. The educated classes were formed
on foreign models and possessed a culture quite different from
one that the nation needed, one that could come about only through
the development of our own faculties. Some had become French,
and some English; and those that stayed Neapolitan—most
of the people—stayed uneducated.
[From Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. The translation is mine.]
A lesser–known work—and the one the quote at the beginning of this log entry is taken from—is Platone in Italia (Plato in Italy), a bit of historical fiction in which Cuoco claims to be merely translating a manuscript written by Plato, himself. Of course, no one believed that, and Cuoco knew that no one believed that, but it gave him a vehicle for his ideas on just what was wrong with society and how it could be remedied.
Platone in Italia is a series of dialogues between Plato and his disciples set in Italy during Plato's lifetime—that is, approximately 400 b.c. Cuoco—speaking as Plato—reveals his fascination with the ancient pre-Roman peoples of Italy, especially the Etruscans and the Samnites, two cultures older than Greece and which—much more so than Greece—should serve as a model for modern Italy. Italy really had nothing to thank the Greeks for, since the Italic cultures were older than that of Classical Greece. Modern Italians (meaning in the early 19th century, when Cuoco was writing) had nothing to fear from the ideas of confederation (like the Etruscans) or a non-feudal system of land management—small farms owned and worked by the citizenry (like the Samnites). After all, none of this, says Plato/Cuoco, is new and revolutionary; it goes way back to our own Italic roots.
is actually amusing in that it has Plato sounding off on various occasions
about how backwards "we Greeks" really are compared to the older and
wiser peoples of Italy. Cuoco, of course, is throwing this in the face
of the cliché that Italy (meaning the Romans) became educated
only after they had conquered Greece and absorbed some wisdom. Platone
in Italia did very well for a number of years—perhaps in the
afterglow of the French Revolution—but it then drifted into obscurity.
I was reminded of all this when I passed the Vincenzo Cuoco Liceo the
other day. He might be happy to know that two centuries later, there
is a high school in Naples named for him.
Affectionately called the Il Reuccio"—the "little king" —by Neapolitans, Charles II (1661-1700), King of Spain, was the last ruler of the once mighty Spanish empire and, thus, is the last in the line of Spanish monarchs to rule Naples. He died without an heir and designated as his successor Phillip of Bourbon , Duke of Anjou, and nephew of the king of France. This effectively turned France and Spain into allies, a union potentially so strong that England, Holland, and the Holy Roman Empire of Leopold I formed a Grand Alliance to fight it. This set off the Wars of the Spanish Succession, which raged across Europe until 1713. The statue in the photo is at Piazza Monteoliveto, one block up from the main post office on Via Monteoliveto.
The building seen behind the statue in the photo is of extreme interest. It is part of what was once one of the largest monasteries in Italy and is, perhaps, the least written about of all such religious structures in Naples. Construction started in 1411 and over the centuries devopled into a mini-city inhabited by members of the Monteolivetan order. The complex was largely broken up in the wake of the suppression of monasteries in Napoleonic Europe in the early 1800s and has undergone subsequent subdivision. The part in view behind the statue in the photo is currently a large barracks for the Carabinieri, the uniformed Italian national police force. (The dark building attached to the left of the barracks is the Church of Monteoliveto --still a church.) The entire complex stretched further downhill to the south for 150 yards to the main cloister of the monastery. That part of the complex is closed but was left intact and actually incorporated into the main Naples post office when that building was put up in the 1930s (photo at right). In effect, the entire modern city block surrounds the old monastery.
see here for an item on the modern use
of old monasteries.
we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going
at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and
began with their singing.'Come here,' they sang, 'renowned Ulysses,
honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one
ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness
of our song—and he who listens will go on his way not only
charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid
upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything
that is going to happen over the whole world.'
sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them
further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me
free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes
bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing
of the Sirens' voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears
and unbound me.
—The Odyssey (trans. Samuel Butler)
most of my generation, I got my classical education from the venerable
Classic Comics. I grew up thinking that most of that ancient Greek stuff
happened—well, over in Greece somewhere. Little did I know that
the episode of the Sirens took place in these waters. There are tiny
rocks sticking up out of the water on the Amalfi side of the Sorrentine
peninsla named for those very Sirens that tempted Ulysses. One of the
Sirens, Parthenope, threw herself into the sea out of despair over what
she believed to be her lack of allure, and her body washed up on the
coast a few miles away at the spot where mythology says the city
of Neapolis (Naples) was founded. Actually, that would be the city of
Parthenope, which then became Neapolis; indeed, modern Neaplotans still
refer to themselves commonly as "Parthenopeans".
found what I understand is the only piece of ancient sculpture in Naples
depicting the siren, Parthenope. It is a small bust, and is located
on the premises of the Municipio, the City Hall. It was recovered from
the site of the original Greek acropolis of the city of Neapolis, on
the height across from today's Piazza Cavour. That location is not currently
an active archaeological site, and it has been covered with centuries
of construction, most recently various departments of the University
of Naples Medical School. On the historic map of the city (click here) you would start at #37 and walk up the hill
(towards the top of the map).
My theological qualifications are ridiculously peccable, so when I say I couldn't find a Patron Saint for those who perform Maintenance and Upkeep, I may, indeed, have missed him or her. There is Expeditus (also known as Elpidus), the saint against procrastination and for expeditious or prompt solutions. Also, Saint Barbara and Saint Thomas the Apostle (better remembered as "doubting") are both listed as saints for construction workers. All of these are close to what I am looking for…but…
One of the most maddening things about Naples is that they build beautiful things and then let them fall apart. Some years ago, they city decided to redo the square in front of the San Paolo soccer stadium, Piazzale Tecchio. They turned it from a squalid clot of traffic and noise into a vast pedestrian zone, replete with banks of brick bleacher-type seats for students from the adjacent university buildings and a large area surfaced with natural, rough-hewn wooden planks. All that plus the new trees gave the students and passers–by a pleasant place to sit outside in a busy city and enjoy their lunch and maybe a fine day.
I passed by that spot yesterday and the wooden surface is rotted and warped, and there are weeds growing up between the cracks (photo). Years of weathering and no maintenance will do that. As a result, the entire area is closed and cordoned off by that orange plastic web fencing that they string around construction sites to keep lollygaggers away. That, too, has been pushed down and trampled underfoot in places by pedestrians trying get across the square along the narrow walkway that has been left open. Bare, rusted spikes that held the fence in place stick up along the route. It's a pit.
The stadium is adjacent, also, to the east end of the mammoth Mostra d'Oltremare—the Overseas Fair Grounds—an area about one mile long by several hundred yards wide. It was opened in the late 1930s and was part of the Fascist-era splurge of construction in Naples. It had thousands of Mediterranean pine trees, a zoo, buildings for expositions, and—the crown jewel—the arena flegrea, an outdoor theater, the backdrop of which was a colourful mosaic. The wings led from both sides to access paths around to the production area where props were stored. Through the 1950s, summer productions of Aida were an annual event. The most spectacular feature at the Mostra was a suspension cable-car that led from the fair grounds up and over the trees to a point on the Posillipo ridge hundreds of yards distant and 300 feet above sea-level to overlook the entire bay of Pozzuoli to the west.
The zoo is still there, as are many of the trees, but the fountain has not fountained in years, nor has the theater been used in decades. Many of the buildings have fallen to ruin, and if you wander into the still ample wooded sections, you can see what is left of buildings jutting out or toppled over. In many cases, newer and very ugly buildings have been put up over the years in that formless quick–and–dirty prefabricated slab style of the 50s and 60s. The grounds are still used to host yearly events such as book and computer fairs, and some university buildings are also on the premises. The cable lift to Posillipo has, of course, not run since the 1950s.
two possibilities, both of which have to do with my search for the right
saint: one, either the saint does not exist and, thus, those people
charged with keeping things looking spiffy and fine have no need to
curry favor with the gods; or, two, the saint does exist and those same
people figure they don't have to worry about it because the saint has
it covered. This is a Thomistic dilemma, indeed, and I tremble before
As early as the Republic of Rome and then during the first centuries of Empire, the coastal area of the Bay of Naples was the site of a number of aristocratic residences. One of the best-loved places to put your aristocratic villa in those days was on the seaside slope of the great hill of Posillipo at the western end of the bay. The name Posillipo —Greek for "the place where unhappiness ends" expresses the sense of serenity which Imperial Romans must have derived from this lovely promontory. Recent excavations along the seaside in the area of the small island of Gaiola and the nearby coastal area of Marechiaro have uncovered numerous traces of Roman habitation, including the ruins of a theatre built to accommodate some 2,000 spectators, and an odeion, a theater for musical performances.
A most singular bit of construction, however, is the spectacular Seiano Grotte, an 800-meter tunnel through the Posillipo hill itself, from the western area of modern Bagnoli through to the sea. It was apparently a private tunnel and allowed easy access to the spectacular clifftop estate of Vedius Pollio. The tunnel was probably built by Lucius Cocceus Auctus, the same engineer responsible for the Gallery of Peace, a tunnel and important part of the fortifications of the Roman Imperial Port in Baia.) Auctus also built the major tunnel that the Romans used to get to Naples from the West. (Today, that tunnel parallels and is between the two modern traffic tunnels that go from Mergellina through the hill to Fuorigrotta. It was in common use until the completion of the two recent tunnels, one in the 1880s and the other in the 1920s.) The Seiano Grotto is high and spacious; it was ventilated by three air ducts opening on the sea. It fell into disuse over the centuries, but was later reopened by the Bourbons in 1841. Bourbon restoration was extensive and provides interesting comparison to the original Roman masonry evident in many places. The Bagnoli entrance (shown in the photo) has recently been restored and, on occasion, the tunnel and grounds of the Vedius Pollio estate may be visited.
see this entry on Posillipo.)
Looking at the entry for the smorfia, I am still not quite sure what numbers to play in the lottery this week. I had an ominous dream the other night and when I try to get some help from the neigborhood stable of oneirocritics in my morning coffee-bar as to what numbers my dream adds up to—that is, what symbols (such as "Vesuvius") correspond to what numbers in the Neapolitan bible for such things, la smorfia—they get nervous and touch certain parts of the body, which action is said to ward off bad luck, the evil eye, and all the rest.
I dreamt that Vesuvius erupted. Now, I have had the normal run-of-the-mill dreams of interest to headshrinkers, I suppose, but I have never had any prophetic dreams. I have read about them, of course, and put them in that part of my brain-closet where I keep crop circles, aliens, and Atlantis.
Yet, it was vivid. I had missed a bus for some reason and was running towards home. I looked up and the volcano was off in the distance, the profile very clear—more or less as I would see it from where I live, both cones, Somma and Vesuvius, with the saddle-like depression between them. Then, Vesuvius, the one on the right, started smoking. Someone said, "Vesuvius is erupting!" and then the main eruption started—not a slow, effusive eruption, but a cataclysmic explosion just like the films I have seen of Mount St. Helens and Pinatubo, where the entire top of the mountain explodes and then disappears behind the smoke.
the dream to a couple of acquaintances and they were reluctant to comment.
I think I may have trod on some unspoken rule that forbids talking about
such things. You never can tell. I am not sure if there is a time-limit
on the dream-lottery connection. This may take some research.
I remember the town of Bagnoli as the degraded site of a steel mill, a blight on the potentially beautiful Bay of Pozzuoli. The industrial plant, of course, was ugly and dirty, and whatever recreational use the waters might have served was rendered academic by the presence of a huge industrial pier.
As I have noted in the log entry for Bagnoli, there is underway an enormously ambitious project to revive the area. The steel mill is already gone, and an impressive Science City exposition ground is, at least partially, already open on the premises. The latest wrinkle in bringing Bagnoli back to life is more ambitious than I could have ever imagined: The America's Cup! —the boat race. (Not knowing anything about boats and sailing except what I remember from Captain Blood, I am not even sure if "race" is the proper term. I should be keelhauled, I know. Avast. Belay that.)
The Swiss team, Alinghi, won the recent 31st edition of the America's Cup in New Zealand and is now searching around the Mediterranean for a site to hold the 32nd competition in 2007, when they will be called upon to defend the Cup. There are two Alinghi representatives now in Naples to scout Bagnoli as a possible site, and there is intense politicking going on at City Hall to get the race.
Mallorca is also mentioned as a candidate. The Neapolitan papers, as
might be expected, tout all the advantages of Bagnoli, from wind conditions
to water depth to the availability of a vast tract of "virgin area"
to develop into facilities to accommodate the 18 craft that will participate.
I have seen the area, and—while there is nothing "virgin" about
it (I shall spare you the lame jokes about "restorative surgery")—much
of it is again available to be redeveloped. If selected, could they
do it four years? I don't think so.
The Castel dell'Ovo (the Egg Castle) is what you first notice as you stroll along the seaside Villa Comunale, the Communal Gardens, in Naples. It is a fortress built on the small island of Megaride, just off the Santa Lucia section of the city. Here, legend has it, is where the siren Parthenope washed ashore after throwing herself into the sea when her song failed to bewitch Ulysses.
Less mythologically, here is where the Greeks from Cuma to the north first settled the bay of Naples in the fifth century bc. Centuries later, the island became the home of the last Roman emperor, exiled here in 476 A.D. after the empire was overrun by the Goths.
[Various sources say that the young, last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was banished to the "castle of Lucullus" in Campania by Odoacer, whom Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, called "...that successful barbarian..." . Gibbon also says, however, that " When the Vandals became formidable to the seacoast, the Lucullan villa, on the promontory of Misenum, gradually assumed the strength and appellation of a strong castle, the obscure retreat of the last emperor of the West." That is almost certainly a mistake. There were imperial villas on the promontory of Misenum, but the great villa of Lucullus (from which we derive the expression, "To live in Lucullan splendor") was indeed on the island of Megaride, where the Castel dell'Ovo now stands. The ex-last-emperor was then apparently instrumental in founding a monastery on the island. There are no reliable accounts of his last years or even of when he died.]
The fortress that you now see dates back "only" about a thousand years and is essentially the result of Norman and Angevin construction done in the Middle Ages.It was then that the strange legend arose that a thousand years earlier, the poet Virgil had hidden an egg in the castle, the fate of which would parallel the fate of Naples, itself. As long as the egg remained intact, the city would be spared destruction. Thus the unusual name, the Castel dell'Ovo, or "Egg Castle".
The egg, of course, is in many contexts --from pre-Christian ones to Augustine's commentary on Luke to Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and even to the popular use of the "Easter egg"-- a symbol of life, resurrection and hope. Thus, the broken egg stands for spiritual death, and, thus, at least once in the Middle Ages, a Neapolitan monarch had to go out and assure the people that the egg had not broken. It was intact --and Naples was safe.
Piazza Bellini is on via Costantinopoli, appropriately
a few yards from the music conservatory,
San Pietro a Maiella. The square is a point where many historical threads
of the city come together as they do in so many places in Naples. Bellini was one of the founders of Italian lyric
opera. He was born in Sicily in 1801, but came to study and compose
in Naples in 1819. The statue, the work of Alfonso Bazzico, shows the
composer above allegorical representations of Norma, Giulietta,
Amina and Elvira, four heroines of his operas. (At least those
smaller pieces of sculpture used to be there. Recently the city
decided to remove them, possibly to protect them from vandalism. There
is no word as to when, if ever, they are to be returned.)
is adjacent to a section (photo on right, below) of the original west
wall of the Greek city of Neapolis, the massive blocks still lying where
they were put in place four centuries before Christ. The wall ran the
length of what is now via Costantinopoli, and, presumably, if
you could tear up that street and tear down all the nearby buildings
and dig down a few meters, you would find the whole wall, portals and
all —in addition to making modern residents very unhappy.
The square is also at the point along via Costantinopoli where the Spanish chose to breach the original walls of the city in the first “modern” expansion of Naples, in the fifteenth century, putting in place the gate right across the street that now leads to Port’Alba and Piazza Dante. There are two prominent buildings in Piazza Bellini. The first is Palazzo Conca, on the composer’s left (not shown here), built in 1488 and long considered one of Naples’ major repositories of period furnishings and works of art, belonging, as it did during its long history, to two of the city’s most important families, the Concas and, later, the Orsinis.
Directly across from the composer is the Palazzo Firrao (photo on left), also known as Palazzo Bisignano, built in the 1500s. The Baroque façade of the building is due to the facelift given the building in the 1600s by the greatest Neapolitan architect of the age, Cosimo Fanzago, whose other works in the city include the arched courtyard within the monastery of San Martino and the chapel in the Royal Palace.
The façade is ornamental in the extreme and is listed in a 1718 catalogue as one of the "most conspicuous" in the city. Among other things, the façade presents an array of statues of seven kings of Spain, ranging from the 15th century to Charles II (1661-1700).
the square is a gathering place and watering hole for whatever passes
as a ‘Bohemian’ element these days. It is, as noted, right
next door to the music conservatory—and
right down the street from the Royal Art Academy on via Costantinopoli.
Music shops, coffee houses and art galleries abound, and there is an
open-air antique fair on Sundays. (Also, see
I had been holed up at the Piazza Garibaldi stop beneath the main railway station in Naples waiting for the Metropolitana for quite some time. Still no train. The passengers—or, better, the ticketholders who aspired to passengerhood—reacted variously. Some shuffled helplessly like bored cattle. Others looked like zombies playing hopscotch, stiffly lumbering up and down the platform, their eyes vacantly reflecting the long dark perspective of the empty tunnels. Many of them looked used to this ritual. They looked tough. They looked like Donner Party Survivors. I moved away from them, down to the farthest end of the platform. If The Night of the Living Dead Metro Riders broke out, I would escape into the tunnel itself. (I made a mental note to avoid the fate of those poor souls who had perished in the Great Late Train Riots of The Week Before when they had become enmeshed in the cobwebs that crisscrossed the tracks.)
I saw that I had moved right below the mechanical notice board. It had letters that flip into place to indicate the destination of the next train. I watched as the letters for my direction clicked over and spelled out, 'P–O–Z–Z–U–O–L–I'. That was where I was going, so, in spite of whatever other character defects it may have had, this was a good sign, though perhaps a mite optimistic, for time continued to pass, time during which, I feel sure, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter made significant progress across the surface of that kingly sphere, but also a period during which our Metro station remained as unsullied and pristine, as gloriously trainless as the Garden of Eden.
My central nervous system was now so bored that it threatened to start answering weird ads in personal columns on its own just for a little action, so I shifted over a bit and casually, unsuspectingly, looked up at the other side of the board, the side that would indicate the destination of trains going the opposite way. It, too, had tiny individual slots for letters, but they were rightfully blank, since there was only one more stop in that direction to the end of the line, Gianturco, which was, however, closed for repairs. A strange thing then happened, something that made my skin crawl. The sight of my skin slithering towards them from the far end of the platform was so repulsive to the other passengers that now they moved further away from me. Above me on the board, concealed from them, but clear to me, the blank letter spaces had whirred to life and where there should have been nothing, no destination at all, letters had slowly flip–flopped into place and now read: 'NBLKFOPSJON'.
It was only there for a few seconds and I was the only one to see it, but I am now convinced that Someone or Something somewhere, for reasons that may never be known, had given me a brief glimpse into The Other Side. For those few short seconds, I, alone, on this planet knew the answer to The Question: Where the Hell is My Damned Train?! It was in NBLKFOPSJON. Everyone's unarrived train is in NBLKFOPSJON! Now it is clear—that is the only place they could ever be! Surely you don't think there is room for all the missing trains in Naples to be hiding out down at the end of the line, maybe catching a quick beer and a smoke or listening to the ball scores, while you cool your heels. They are clearly somewhere else. NBLKFOPSJON is a—call it a 'station,' if you will, since our language has no real term for places like this—that lies beyond the end of the line. Perhaps it is a station in a universe parallel to our own, or maybe—I haven't quite got all the details worked out, yet—it is out near those isles of gloom, at the mere mention of which even the bravest mariners in Viking sagas tremble and reach for the glühwein—abodes with names like Fyrlswørth, Llygymmkin, and, yes, Nblkfopsjon.
sure what good this knowledge does me. It is almost masonically arcane—indeed,
there must be others out there who "know," and it has occured to me
that maybe we should have some way of making ourselves known to one
another—secret handclasps or something. Occasionally I test this
out by quite audibly ordering a metro ticket for "Nblkfopsjon" and then
quickly checking around me in the line for reactions. I thought I saw
a gleam of "knowledge" in the eyes of a young woman the other evening,
but when I ran over and tried what I thought was a pretty good secret
handclasp on her, she hit me in the nose. So, what have I learned? Maybe
this: don't fall asleep on the train.
The National Archaeological Museum is located at the corner of via Foria and via Costantinopoli. That point was also the northwest corner of the original Greek wall of the city of Neapolis, remains of which can be seen further down via Costantinopoli at Piazza Bellini. It is a fitting site for one of the most complete collections of Greek and Roman antiquities in the world, and one of the few places where they can be viewed side by side just a few yards from precisiely that outside world where they, indeed, existed side by side for centuries.
Charles III of Bourbon founded the museum in the 1750s. He used a building erected in 1585, one that had served as a cavalry barracks and later, from 1616 to 1777, as the seat of the University of Naples. Expansion of the premises continued in the latter half of the eighteenth century under the supervision of Ferdinando Fuga and Pompeo Schianterelli. A final project drawn up in 1790 to complete the structure was never completed.
houses impressive collections from Pompei and Herculaneum; there are
exhibits from other archaeological sites throughout southern Italy,
including some from early non-Roman Italic peoples
of the area, such as the Samnites. More
recent additions include the Farnese collection and the Borgia collection
of Egyptian antiquities, this latter giving the visitor the bonus of
studying the very real commercial and social ties that the ancient
Greek city had with its own forerunner, Egypt.
Other collections contain items that in many other museums would be
considered much more than 'miscellaneous', such as the 'Tazza Farnese,'
one of the largest cameos in the world, crafted in Alexandria in 150
BC and that came into the possession of Lorenzo the Magnificent a millennium-and-a-half
towards the "other end" of Capri-- Monte Solaro and Anacapri.
Capri is like that. I have been looking at her profile daily for many years from across the bay in Naples. "Her," because many claim to see the head of a woman in the profile of Monte Solaro. Her hair is flowing down to rest on the waters and her face is raised heavenward as she stares off into space, perhaps playing her own games with the clouds drifting overhead. Sometimes I see her, sometimes I don't. Perhaps it is good that she is not always there at my beck and call.
But, whether or not I manage to catch that glimpse of her, whenever I need a long walk and peace and quiet, she—the island—is always there. Strange, you say, to think of Capri in terms of solitude? Is this not the Isle of Pleasure, boasting centuries of tales and descriptions of lurid Hedonism? And even if you aren't a sinner, is there not an almost obligatory hustle and bustle forced upon the visitor? How do you find the peace and quiet.
"Natural Arch" on Capri
Walk. It's amazing how long it took me to realize that. I was staring at Capri from a short distance offshore and I remember seeing for the hundredth and yet the first time the houses that dot the isle. I then realized that I had no idea how all the people who live in those houses get about when, except on a few principle roads, there is virtually no motorized traffic at all. I set off to find out, and I discovered an extensive network of trails, spun like a web over the island.
walked up from the Marina Grande to the top of Monte Solaro
in the midst of the tourist season and had the entire trail
to myself. I've hiked up to the Saracen Tower on Mount Barbarossa and
practiced the trombone, much to the amusement of the wildlife. I've
wandered down from the top of Monte Solaro to the small observatory
and to the church that commands the heights overlooking the town of
Capri, itself. I've hiked down the steps from Villa Fersen to
the sea and had a secluded bath in the sea, again at the height of summer
with not a soul in sight. Up to the villa of infamous Tiberius, down
to the Natural Arch, over to the red bunker that Malaparte called "home,"
down the via Krupp, and simply nowhere in particular along the
trails around Anacapri—the variations are endless.
Greek historian and geographer,
Strabo (63 BC – 24 AD), wrote that the stretch of Italian coast
from Cape Miseno to Sorrento—the Gulf of Naples—seemed a
single city, so strewn was it with luxurious villas and suburbs of the
main city of Naples. The eastern end of the bay, before the land swings
out to form the Sorrentine peninsula, is of course known today as the
site of two towns that met their doom in the great eruption of Vesuvius
in 79 a.d., Pompeii and Heculaneum.
There is a third, lesser–known, and little–excavated town: Oplontis. It lies beneath the modern–day town of Torre Annunziata, such a short distance from Pompeii that it was almost certainly a suburb of that larger town and—according to recent archaeological thinking—probably the port for Pompeii, so close is it to the sea.
large, significant excavation at Oplontis is the "Villa of Poppaea,"
referring to Poppaea Sabina, Nero's second wife. That is at least a
possible conclusion from an amphora fragment bearing the name "Secundus,"
one of Poppaea's servants. In any event, it was almost certainly an
imperial residence, opulently equipped as it was with a 60 x 15-meter
swimming pool, a large number of rooms, intervening gardens and courtyards,
and murals on the walls that are still splendid. Some of the extant
murals are beautiful examples of the so-called "second Pompeian style,"
depicting artificial architecture on the walls—painted windows
opened onto painted sea or landscape or ontopainted rows of columns
that fade away from the viewer through the use of perspective, all to
give the illusion of space. It was, no doubt, one of the villas that
impressed Strabo so much.
"peacock mural" from Oplontis. It is remarkable for the use of pseudo-perspective
in the columns and the trompe-l'oeil
effect of the bird's tail.
The existence of such a regal residence is, in fact, noted in the Tabula Peuteringiana, a medieval copy of a Roman road map. The villa and whatever other structures made up the small town of Oplontis were buried in the great eruption, however, and it wasn't until the 1500s that the Spanish rulers of the Kingdom of Naples came across the ruins of the villa while building an aqueduct. And it was not until the mid-1700s that further excavation was undertaken in the same wave of archaeological interest that spurred Charles III and then his son, Ferdinand IV, to lay bare such antiquities as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Yet, Oplontis remained—and remains—relatively unknown; the swimming pool wasn't uncovered until the 1970s and the site, itself, was not open to public visits until the early 1980s. The excavation is not complete and never will be, since Oplontis, like Herculaneum, sits beneath a modern town. To get into the site, you walk down a ramp until you are at ground level, 79 a.d. (about 30 feet below the modern streets and buildings that surround Oplontis).
the most striking thing about Oplontis is what you don't find—human
remains. And there are no lava molds of people huddled together in death,
as there are at Pompeii. The Villa Poppaea was deserted when Vesuvius
erupted. In the wake of an earthquake that damaged the town and villa
severely in the decade before the great eruption, people had moved away
so reconstruction could take place. Presumably, the residents were elsewhere,
making typical complaints about how it took the Egyptians less time
to build the pyramids than it does for us Romans to put a few bricks
back in place, when real disaster struck.