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Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

April Fool's Day

Many glaciations ago, A Neanderthal Person with a corresponding sense of humor pasted prehistory's first "Please Club Me" sign to the back of an unsuspecting fellow missing–link, whom fun–loving passers–by then bludgeoned into gristle, a process that garnered boffo yuks from the cave crowd. "Whew! That silly chap certainly was some April Fool, n'est-ce pas?", they chortled, thus naming a month and starting a glorious tradition much loved by all those who have ever found their shoes nailed to the floor. 

Playing tricks on others goes way, way back. We get our word "jovial" from the great god Jove who is said to have been quite a jokester up there on the Big O. Looking to spice up the blandness of omnipotence, so to speak, he once confronted Vulcan and pointed to an imaginary spot on this lesser deity's toga, bidding him behold, for, yea, the raiment was soiled with ash from the Heavenly Forge. When the Fire God looked down, the Jovial One brought his index-finger up and flicked him one right in the old schnozzola! Verily, the welkins rangeth all over the placeth with the sound of celestial guffaws and congratulatory high–fiveing. Vulcan, on the other hand—a sorehead at best—erupted and destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. 

There is no evidence that any of this happened on April First, so–called "April Fools' " or "All–Fools' Day". In fact, there is no certainty why any of this takes place on April First, at all. There was the festival of Hilaria in ancient Rome (hot-footing sandals, getting locked in the vomitorium—that sort of thing, one supposes) and a similar Hindu festival called Holi. Both of these took place on or close to the Vernal Equinox. What better time to play tricks than a time of the year when Nature, herself, does the same? A more prosaic explanation is that when various cultures went over to calendars that moved the celebration of the New Year from the spring back to January first, news traveled so slowly that there were still plenty of people who sent New Year's greetings and gifts at the wrong time of the year and this degenerated into the sending of mock gifts to the "fools" who didn't even know when the year started. 

In Italy the April Fool is called "Pesce d'aprile" (April fish). This stems from the fact that an increase of young fish is noted at this time of year and the young fish are easily "hooked". Or at least that's the story, but I heard it on April Fool's Day, so who knows? Fortunately, April Fool's Day is not much of an Italian custom, much less one particular to Naples. There is a day for playing stupid practical jokes on people; that is at carnevale—Mardi gras. There is even a stupid bit of doggerel to cover it: "A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale" (At Mardi gras, all tricks are fair). That is when someone might spray you with shaving cream or throw an egg at you. But there don't seem to be any elaborate April Fool's pranks. For example, in some places back when people still drove buggies, and April Fool's Day happened to fall on a Sunday, a favorite prank was to skip the service and spend the time hitching horses up to the wrong carriages and then stand around and watch the fun when church let out. And the BBC once broadcast an April Fool's documentary purporting to show, among other things, the spaghetti "harvest" in Italy, including footage of peasants happily picking the strands of pasta directly from the trees. I don't recall any such elaborate trickery on April Fool's day around here. 

Duomo (Cathedral)

The Duomo, the cathedral of Naples, is dedicated to San Gennaro, Saint Januarius, the patron saint of the city. It was built at the end of the 13th century at the decree of Charles I of Angiò near the basilica of Santa Restituta (of which more, below), a sixth-century church that was incorporated into the Gothic architecture of the later cathedral, itself. The cathedral has been restored numerous times over the centuries. It was redone after the earthquake of 1788 and again in 1887. Its marble portals, however, are original. 

Inside, the cathedral is 100 meters long and in the form of a Latin Cross, with three naves, divided by sixteen pillars that form Gothic arches and incorporate 110 granite columns. The ceiling of the central nave is of wood and bears five paintings by various artists: the Annunciation, the Presentation at the Temple, the Visitation, the Nativity and the Epiphany. High on the Walls of the central nave and the transept are paintings of saints done by Luca Giordano and his school; at the base of the pillars are busts of the first 16 bishops of the city of Naples. 

Above the door of the main entrance are monuments to Charles I of Angiò (d. 1285) in the center; Charles Martel, King of Hungary (d. 1295) on the right; and his wife Clemenza of Hapsburg (d. 1295) on the left. These monuments are the work of Domenico Fontana; viceroy Enrico Guzman Count of Olivares ordered them built in 1599 because the original tombs of those nobles had been destroyed.The side chapels are all quite interesting, containing, as they do, a collection of funerary items, sculpture, frescoes and canvases that represent an exhaustive overview of figurative art from 1200 to 1700. 

In the nave, the fourth chapel is the Brancaccio chapel; just beyond that you enter into the oldest part of the Cathedral, the Santa Restituta basilica, one of the most interesting examples of paleo-Christian Naples. Originally, it was a church in its own right, built in the 6th century. Its present three aisles divided by 27 antique columns are what is left of the original church after it was incorporated into the body of the massive new cathedral in the 13th century. They say that Santa Restituta was a young African woman, who, because she was a Christian, was abandoned to the sea on a boat set ablaze. The fire, however, died out and she was miraculously able to put ashore on the island of Ischia. In the eighth century her remains were brought to the church in Naples that then took her name. 

Opposite the Gothic Santa Restituta is the Baroque chapel of San Gennaro del Tesoro, built between 1608 and 1637 to fulfill the vow made by the people of Naples on January 13, 1527, after a plague. The bust of Januarius is precious. It is of silver, done by French craftsmen and is a gift of Charles III of Angiò. It preserves part of the saint's skull as well as the vial of blood that is believed by the faithful to liquefy miraculously twice a year. This occurs in May and September, repeating the miracle that happened for the first time during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, when the remains of Januarius were moved to Naples from Pozzuoli, the site of his martyrdom on September 19, 305. The expectation by the populace of the yearly occurrence of the "Miracle of San Gennaro" remains one the most fascinating manifestations of faith in all of Christendom. 

Archaeological work done around the the Duomo since the 1960s has brought to light a number of Greek, Roman and medieval items of interest. Traces of four 'city blocks' have been found, formed by the intersecting upper and central decumani (the east-west streets of Greek Neapolis) and the stenopoi, or north-south cross-streets. A small temple has been uncovered on the ancient stenopoi corresponding to modern-day via Duomo. The blocks around the Cathedral were clearly incorporated into later Roman Imperial road-work within the city. With the coming of Christianity, a number of Christian churches started to appear in the area, but many of the smaller ones from before the turn of the millennium were torn down to make way for the Cathedral. 

San Lorenzo (archaeol. site)

The present-day Piazza San Gaetano is the site of the original agora  of the Greek city --the forum of the later Roman city of Naples. It was the heart of the ancient city. Today it is the site of the Church of San Lorenzo. 

Excavations beneath the Church and Monastery of San Lorenzo have brought to light a complex and layered archeological history. About half of the original Roman market  (photo on left) has been excavated and may be seen by entering through the marked portal next to the entrance to the church, itself, then passing through the courtyard and going down a flight of stairs. The site has been open for only about 7 years and is the result of 25 years of painstaking excavation. 

Also, as a result of the excavation, the great hall and three naves of a sixth century paleo-Christian church have been uncovered, and beneath the Sala Capitolare of the church a medieval structure has been found that apparently was one of the small "city halls" of the city. It was razed around the turn of the millennium and portions of it are built into the foundations of the newer church of San Lorenzo on top. It all rests on the original market place of the city from the fourth century before Christ. The market and streets were used as late as the fifth century AD, at which time they fell victim to a massive mud slide. The subsequent construction of the early Christian church on the site effectively closed them forever. 

The market place is the only large-scale Greco-Roman site excavated in the downtown area. The site and the surrounding area of the historic center of Naples are on the UNESCO World Heritage list; that is, it is a site that must be preserved, at all costs. 

Royal Palace

Overlooking the Bay of Naples is the long red southern facade of  the Royal  Palace. It is one of four palaces that the Bourbons of Naples used  during their rule of the Kingdom of Naples (1730-1860): one is in Caserta, another at Capodimonte overlooking Naples, and the third is in Portici on the slopes of Vesuvius. Those three were actually built by the Bourbons. This one, however, is somewhat older. The building was actually conceived by Ferdinando Ruiz de Castro, Count of Lemos, Spanish viceroy in Naples between 1599 and 1603, to be a fitting residence for King Phillip III of Spain, who was planning a visit to the city. The architect chosen was Domenico Fontana (1543-1607). The building was put up on the site of the older Spanish viceroyal residence. 

From the original version of 1600, the palace has undergone numerous architectural additions and changes, including some by Luigi Vanvitelli in the mid-1700s and then by Gaetano Genovese in 1838 after a fire had damaged much of the palace. The main entrance is on the west side of the building on Piazza Plebiscito, where the facade displays a mini-history lesson: statues of the rulers of the eight dynasties to rule Naples since the foundation of the Kingdom of Naples in the twelfth century. They are, from left to right: Roger the Norman, Frederick II of Swabia, Charles of Angiò, Alfonse of Aragon, Charles V, Charles III of Bourbon, Gioacchino Murat, and Victor Emanuel II. 

From the main entrance you can enter the palace grounds and visit most of the building. The central courtyard contains the bronze portals that were once part of the Maschio Angioino (or Castel Nuovo), and in the inner courtyard there is a cannonball embedded in one of the gates such that it could only have been fired from inside! Either that, or, the story goes, the gate was taken as booty by Charles VIII of France, whose ship was attacked on the way back to France by the Genoese. The gate was set up to ward off a cannonade and one of the balls got stuck. The gate was subsequently returned to Naples by the victorious Genoese and put back in place, cannonball and all. 

Today the palace and adjacent grounds house the San Carlo Theater, a museum, the National Library of Naples and a number of offices, including those of the regional tourist board. Also, the premises serve for various art shows and exhibits throughout the year. 

An irony connected with the Royal Palace is that Phillip III never got around to visiting the city and staying in the house built just for him. 

Hercules, Rock of (Rovigliano, island)

It is easily seen from shore and just as easily overlooked—this islet sticking out of the sea 500 yards from the mouth of the Sarno river at Torre Annunziata near Naples. Hercules, they say, upon his return from Spain where he had  captured the oxen of Geryon (one of his fabled 12 labours) stopped long enough in the bay of Naples to found the town of Herculaneum and to sculpt this little rock into the seascape simply by tossing it out there. In any event, Pliny the Elder (in book 32 of Historia Naturalis) called it Petra Herculis, The Rock of Hercules, and that is presumably the name the Romans knew it by. Its current name, "Rovigliano," is of uncertain origin. It derives either from a Roman family name (owners of the property at some point) or from the Italian term "robiglia," a common plant found in the area. 

The ruins that one sees are mixed, indeed. As far as I know, there is no real, physical evidence of the Greek temple to Hercules said to have been built on the island, although it would make perfect sense for there to have been such a temple. A bronze statue of Hercules is said to have been found on the island, as well, but if so, it is lost. The rock apparently served the Phonecians and Greeks as sort of a trading post in their dealings with the peoples who inhabited the interior of the Sarno Valley. There is some later Roman masonry in the ruins, specifically, the brickwork known as opus reticulatum, the masonry technique that used small pyramid shaped blocks of tufa set in a core of cement. The tufa blocks covered the surface, with the pointed end into the cement, so the square bases form a diagonal pattern that resembles a net—hence the name "reticulatum" (from the Latin rete, net). 

The main bulk of the ruin comes from the fact that a Benedictine monastery arose on the property at an uncertain date in the Middle Ages. As late as the Angevin period in Naples (the 1300s), it was still a very active and well-known monastery. By the mid–1500s, however, the church had abandoned the property in the face of ever more destructive incursions by Saracen pirates. Then, in 1570, the Spanish rulers of Naples converted the rock to one of the many "Saracen Towers"— well–placed and well–fortified military installations that served to protect the coastal waters throughout the entire southern half of the Italian peninsula for many centuries. From extant descriptions of the fort when it was finished, it was much more than a simple "tower"; it was a three-tiered "mini-castle," of sorts, taking complete advantage of the considerable monastery structures that already existed on the grounds. As a fort, then, Rovigliano remained important even as late as the Bourbon period and the Napoleonic wars. At the unification of Italy (1860) it was retired from military use and since that time has passed from one private owner to another. 

health care; Aquinas, Thomas

Maybe it's natural for a nation of hypochondriacs to have one of the world's best health-care systems. Who says Italy is a nation of hypochondriacs? I do. Who says that Italy has one of the world's best  health-care systems? The World Health Organization (WHO), that's who. 

My Neapolitan friends—all of whom are delightful hypochondriacs and for whom "dolce" in la dolce vita really means spending hours in the pharmacy looking for new potions and elixirs—all grumble about doctors and general health services here. I mean, you show up at the ER, your body ravaged by the ebola virus (that has cleverly disguised itself as a hangnail), and they will actually make you wait till they pry what's left of some malingering kid off his motorcycle. 

None of them believe me when I quote the World Health Report 2000—Health systems: Improving Performance issued by the World Health Organization in 2001: 

The World Health Organization has carried out the first ever analysis of the world's health systems. Using five performance indicators to measure health systems in 191 member states, it finds that France provides the best overall health care, followed by Italy...

The criteria include: the overall level of health of the population; health inequalities within the population; how well people of varying economic status find that they are served by the health system; and the distribution of the health system's financial burden within the population. Italy is in second-place in the world. 

At the moment, my own particular body is being ravaged by some sort of infection of the upper respiratory tract. The doctor came over to the house and listened, thumped and poked for a while, and then prescribed some medicine. My outrage that I would have to arrange to pick up the pills, myself, was somewhat abated by the bill for the house call cum snake oil: a big, fat, round nothing. 

Back to hypochondria. While he was at the house, the doctor got a call on his cell-phone. His side of the conversation was this: "Signora, I'm sure it's not that at all… yes…yes…I know…I read it, too, but there have been no reported cases in Europe."  The woman had a cough, and Neapolitan scare headlines are just made for people like that. "Deadly Respiratory Disease Sweeping the World! We're all doomed!" would be one of the calmer headlines for a local newspaper this week. The reference is to the recent outbreak of what is called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that has apparently broken out in parts of China. 

Because of my unselfish and benevolent sensitivity to the feelings of others, I actually passed on a chance to go and hear some good music at a local jazz club the other night. The club is on Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, just a few feet from the spot where, in 1273, the altar crucifix was heard by three witnesses to speak to Thomas Aquinas after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, complimenting him on a job well done. That, alone, might have encouraged me to go—and I was feeling well enough—but I didn't sound well; I still had that hard cough that sounds as if demons are cracking walnuts in your chest—it gets people's attention. I could see myself enjoying the music and coughing every now and then for the benefit of those around me and watching them head for the door and the nearest all-night pharmacy when I told them that this band wasn't nearly as good as the one I had just heard in Hong Kong. 

Ferdinand II, King "Bomba"


Ferdinand II, (1810-1859), King of Naples, was nicknamed "bomba" (bomb) as a  result of his bombardment of Messina during the political unrest in 1848. By most accounts, the slaughter and destruction of property was excessiveperhaps not entirely unexpected from one who was the last absolute monarch in Europe and one who resisted calls for constitutional government to the very end. He died in 1859 and left the few months of existence remaining to The Kingdom of Naples, before its forcible incorporation into a united Italy, in the hands of his son, Francis II. (The son was already known, affectionately, by the Neapolitan diminutive, "Franceschiello" and, less affectionately, as  "Bombalino"Little Bomb). 

Ferdinand II was the son of Francis I and grandson of the long-reigning Ferdinand IV of Naples (also known as Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of Two Siciliesin case you were having difficulties figuring out how a IV could come before a II!). "Bomba" ascended the throne in 1830 and had, at first, the reputation of a progressive monarch. He was responsible for much of the great industrial progress in southern Italy, such as the inauguration of the first Italian railway (from Naples to Portici in 1839) and promoting the significant commercial and military shipyards at Castellammare.  He was, however, totally allergic to the ideas of a united Italy and political reform that drove the Risorgimento, the move to unify the Italian peninsula and, above all else,  the idea that defined what it meant to be "Italian" in the 19th century. 

See, also: 
Naples Under the Bourbons & the Coming of Garibaldi

Four Days of Naples; D'Acquisto, S. (monuments); scugnizzo (2)

In a city full of baroque and neo-classical statuary, two rather unusual works of sculpture stand out. One is at the west end of the Villa Comunale in the center of Piazza della Repubblica near the Mergellina section of town. It is the memorial to the so-called "4 Giornate di Napoli" (Four Days of Naples), a popular uprising in  September 1943 against German forces occupying Naples. The revolt involved Neapolitan "scugnizzi" (street kids), engaged in harrying tactics against the hard-pressed Wehrmacht, the German army, already in disarray in the face of the Anglo-American invasion at Salerno. It is part of Neapolitan lore that such armed civilian resistance helped drive the Germans from the city. The monument consists of sculpted monoliths raised on a platform; each slab contains intense detail of humans involved in war. 

Also, there is a large metal-wrought memorial on via Toledo (via Roma) at Piazza Carità, at the north end of the so-called  "Spanish Quarter". It is dedicated to the memory of Salvatore D'Acquisto, a 23-year-old Carabiniere heroically involved in an incident in September, 1943. 

One German soldier was killed and two were seriously injured when a grenade exploded in a crate of abandoned munitions they were inspecting. The German commander was convinced, however, that his men had been killed by a booby trap set by the Italian resistance. He went to the nearby Carabiniere station of Torrimpietra near Torre di Palidoro and demanded of the young officer-in-charge, D'Acquisto, that he find those responsible. D'Acquisto argued in vain that the incident had been accidental, at which point the German commander rounded  up 22 Italian civilians to execute in reprisal for the "ambush". At that point, D'Acquisto lied and took personal responsibility for the incident. He was summarily executed by firing squad, thereby sacrificing his life for and saving the lives of the civilian hostages.



The Royal Palace at Capodimonte was started in 1738 during the reign of Charles III of Bourbon. Eventually it would be one of the four such palaces used by the Bourbons during their rule of the Kingdom of Naples. (The others are: the Palace at Caserta, another on the slopes of Vesuvius in Portici near Herculaneum, and, of course, the Royal Palace in the heart of the city, itself.) The palace and grounds at Capodimonte were spread over 200 acres of farmland, converting the land from agricultural use into a vast hunting reserve for the royal family. 

The palace itself was not completed until 1838. In the interim, of course, the Napoleonic wars had taken place, one result of which was that the King of Naples, Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother), had a magnificent new boulevard, Corso Napoleone, built in order to facilitate passage from the palace to the city. The Bonapartes left the scene, and their sworn enemies, the Bourbons, returned to find a brand-new avenue waiting for them. Today that thoroughfare bears the name, Santa Teresa degli Scalzi

In order to provide the proper ecology for prey they wished to hunt, the Bourbons turned the grounds into a botanical marvel, introducing a vast number of different plants and trees. Part of the grounds were even turned into a well-husbanded ‘English Garden’ in the 1820s. Much of the grounds, however, was kept in a wild and natural state until the middle of the nineteenth century when broad footpaths were laid, radiating out from the palace, itself, such as to give the grounds more the effect of a garden for strolling rather than hunting. Over the years, a number of secondary buildings were constructed, some of them self-perpetuating in the sense that they provided agricultural services to maintain the grounds, themselves. The grounds also housed the Royal Porcelain Works of the Bourbons. The nearby church is the Church of San Gennaro, ordered built by Charles III to be the house of worship for the workers involved in the construction and maintenance of  palace and grounds. 

Today, the palace houses a number of significant displays, among which are the Historical Apartment, the Armory, the Porcelain Room, and, of course, the items in the collection of the National Art Gallery, a collection based on one originally belonging to the Farnese family and bequeathed to the Bourbons in 1731. The current collection is rich, indeed, and includes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Botticelli. 

Tasso, Torquato

Torquato Tasso, Sorrento's most famous son, was not in the town on June 13, 1558, the date  of a particularly vicious sacking of Sorrento by Saracen  pirates, one that killed thousands  of persons, and saw many more  carried away into slavery. He was fourteen years old at the time and had already moved away to Rome. [For a related item on the so-called "Saracen Towers," click here.] 

The raid, however, was a pivotal inspiration for his masterpiece Gerusalemme liberata, still considered  one of the great epic poems in Italian and at the time viewed as the great Epic of Christendom, recalling, as it did,  the First Crusade with its stirring opening: 

Canto l'arme pietose, e 'l capitano/ Che il gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo—

("I sing the pious arms, and the captain who freed the great sepulcher of Christ.") 

Christians at the time of Tasso were still almost within living memory of the fall of the  thousand-year old Christian Empire of  Byzantium, and  Gerusalemme filled a great need for rousing reminders of past glories. Tasso was compared to Homer, Vergil and Dante, and though such comparisions today seem somewhat too enthusiastic, the work fit the spirit of the times perfectly and was the most popular piece of Italian literature for years. Nevertheless, Tasso's life was a turbulent one, for even his masterpiece, in spite of  popular acclaim, was severely criticised by The Inquisition. This disturbed him, as did the relative failure of virtually all of his other works. Tasso has become a metaphor of the disturbed misunderstood genius. He made virtually no money at all from Gerusalemme liberata, and he wandered incessantly, selling his stray poems. Also, he suffered bouts of depression and madness, even being locked  away for a while. 

From a distance, then, the cliffs and mountains of Sorrento are proverbially tranquil, yet, they are also a facade, behind which is a violent history and  the  life of one such as Tasso, who  died in 1595  after a  life  of disappointment and hardship as much as  one of acclaim. 


Sorrento is sublime. What follows is Sorrento, the ridiculous. What happened to me shouldn't happen to a dog, except that it did, and he didn't seem to mindor, really, even be aware that anything untoward had happened at all. 

Only those who are not dog owners—as I am not—are in a position to know the truth about the little darlings. There are things that dog ownerssuch as my dear friends in Sorrentonever learn. For example, when they tell you, "Oh, he understands everything you say," they really believe that nonsense. Now, in spite of the debate over the language abilities of certain other mammals, most dogs—and especially my friend's dog, Phaideaux (not his real name)—haven't got the language centers in the brain known as Broca's area and Wernicke's area. In fact, they have no areas at all, and in super fact, in the case of my friend's dog, no brain at all—maybe just a doggie dendrite or two dangling around at the top of the spine that causes tail and tongue to go into warp drive at the merest hint of life's two greatest pleasures, food and elimination. The latter will, for purposes of this genteel discussion, be referred to as  "going walkies". In short, Phaideax wouldn't know a verb if one started conjugating itself in public. 

Oh, Phai knows when it's time for "walkies," all right. The mere sight of his leash in a human paw is a signal to go orbital. First, however, comes the overture to orbital, generally termed "barking". These are not pwayful widdle woofs, mind you—this is "Dogzilla Triumphant," a great staccato carnivore of sound ripping chunks out of your central nervous system. Then come the gymnastics: running around in circles, then back and forth over the sofa a few times, and finally an impressive series of vertical leaps calculated to sway that judge on the end who has been giving the best scores all day to that German Shepherd. Impressive, indeed, if one is in the mood for true hot-dogs. 

But I wasn't. I just agreed to dog-sit. I got the long list of instructions regarding feeding time, "walkies" time, etc. etc. Well, actually, not etc. etc., for as I said, Phaideaux does just two things.  For you Aristotelians who wish a more formal statement in the terms of symbolic logic (remembering, of course, that hypothetical and disjunctive premises may combine to yield a categorical conclusion): Let Phai represent that class of dogs and only those dogs who do nothing but eat and go "walkies"; thus if p then r, and if q then r, but either p or q; therefore…hold on…it occurs to me that I don't know what I'm talking about. That's ok, that stinking mutt knows enough about Aristotle for the both of us.) 

Anyway, on the morning of the disaster I am still in chargetop dog, as it were. I wield absolute power over this mutt.  When I say jump, he jumps. Of course, even if I don't say jump, he jumps, but that is neither here nor there, although, possibly, it may be somewhere else. 

Now, however, the dog thickens. Somehow, in the course of a few days, Phai has taught himself to go "over the wall". There is a gate across the stairway leading to the wide open spaces. It is of the kind that foils even intelligent human children. Even four-year old Leonardo da Vinci was stymied by one just like it. Not Phai. He approaches the gate, where he usually stops and gives a kind of forlorn doggie sigh before heading back in for a rematch with the supper dish. This time, however, he nudges the gate hard enough against the restraining strap to create a small gap between wall and gate and is off like Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. (I later notice that in my friend's video tape collection, that film is no longer in the proper alphabetical order. I told you the dog was stupid.) Anyway, I finally chase him down in the lovely public gardens of Sorrento, where he is introducing a park bench to the joys of symbolic logic. 

Later in the day, after he is back in stir—with his video privileges revoked for the duration—I keep an eye on him. Again, he doggie-saunters out into the hall, heading for the gate. I, however, have now reinforced same so that no creature without opposable thumbs could possibly bust outta dis joint. So, why do I follow him out into the hall, forgetting to block the only door of the flat open—just letting it idle there for a few seconds in the breeze before it slams shut behind me?! 

Good question. Here I am, smarted out of my house by a bastardino, as they say in Italian—roughly translatable as "mutt" and more precisely as "little bastard". I am caught in a real life shaggy dog story—in my underwearand the keys are inside. (The flat, not my underwear.) Cleverly, I have left spare keys with a friend who has just left town for the day. 

There is no real ending to this. I spend the next nine hours wrapped in a towel sheepishly grinning while I try to convince neighbors that I am normal. Phaideaux grins doggedly, for he is trapped outside with me. This is serious down time for him, since his food dish is inside. But he makes the best of it. After all, 9 hours is only 1 hour and 18 minutes in dog-years. 

megaliths (dolmen)

They look as if they were dropped in place by a race of giants. As a matter of fact, folklore still refers to them in many parts of Europe as 'tombs of the giants'. Indeed, there are otherwise rational persons (because they refuse to believe in giants) who will look you in the eye and tell you that alien creatures with advanced technology must have levitated these things into place from orbiting spacecraft. They are 'megaliths'—from the Greek, meaning 'large stones'. The most famous group of megaliths is Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain in southern England, but hundreds of other, smaller, sites exist in Europe from central Sweden down through Spain, France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands. They are found, as well, throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Depending on the site, their construction has been dated back to anywhere between five and two thousand years b.c. Many of the ones in Europe are closer to the earlier date and are the oldest examples of European architecture. Their builders are covered by the term "protohistoric," meaning "just before recorded history". We know very little about them except that they spent an inordinate amount of time pushing very heavy stones into place. 

There are basically two kinds of megaliths: dolmen and menhir. Both words are from Breton, a Celtic language spoken in an area of northern France where a great many of them have been found. Dolmen means "table stone" and menhir "tall stone". Thus, dolmen refers to a chambered construction, generally a flat table stone supported on three sides by upright slabs, with the fourth side open as an entrance to the chamber. In some cases there may also be a covered corridor leading into the chamber through the open side. The smaller stone slabs arrayed on either side of the entrance define the corridor leading to the main chamber. Originally, dolmens served as tombs, either for individuals or groups, and both chamber and entrance were covered over with cairns or earth. 

Although dolmens clearly had a funerary purpose and, hence, probably played a significant part in religious rituals and other ceremonies of the Neolithic peoples who built them, there is much less unanimity of opinion on the function of free–standing menhirs, such as the circle at Stonehenge or those on the Orcadi islands of Scotland. They may have served as boundary markers, clan identification, or as ceremonial sites. Some of them, Stonehenge, for example, are astronomically exact, and probably functioned in ceremonial capacity at certain times of the year, such as at the solstice or equinox. Some menhirs might even have been phallic symbols connected to fertility rites. Both menhirs and dolmens have been found decorated with various spirals or zig–zag designs. Wooden versions of these monuments existed, as well, but, obviously, these have been much more vulnerable to the ravages of time than their stone cousins 

Speculation on who built the megalith monuments of Europe—and why—has varied over the last few centuries. Scholarly research, employing modern dating methods, have put to rest a number of earlier theories, such as that they started on Crete in the third millennium b.c. and spread out from there. Many monuments along the Atlantic coast of France are, in fact, older than similar ones on Crete. In the 17th century there was also a short–lived theory that was quite ready to hold that the Romans built them as they spread across Europe a mere two thousand years ago, or that Celtic druids had built them as sacrificial altars. These ideas are clearly mistaken. 

There has also been some discussion over whether the megaliths originated with a single Neolithic people or arose spontaneously at the hands of different tribes at various times and places. Earlier archaeology even spoke of an age of "the coming of the megalith builders," as if a single people, obsessed with the idea of erecting monuments to itself, had spread across Europe and then faded into the obscurity of preliterate history. That idea is not widely held today, however. The tendency now is to think that the megaliths are a product of the so–called "Neolithic Revolution". This term refers to the period during which hunting and gathering cultures slowly changed over to more stable societies based on agriculture and animal husbandry. 

This change started in the Middle East in the 9th millennium b.c. and spread westward into Europe by the 6th millennium b.c. Giving up a nomadic way of life meant that villages could be built, places where entire generations of inhabitants would come of age and pass away—and where there is passing away there has always been —much earlier than even these Neolithic peoples—a human tendency to mark that passage. Thus, the monuments were probably put in place over quite a wide span of time by various peoples who perhaps had no idea that other tribes were doing the same thing a thousand miles distant. 

The presence of the megaliths has fascinated us, true, but has also attracted the hostility of the Christian religion over the last two thousand years. They were often seen as holdovers from paganism, and, as such, a number of them were destroyed. In many cases, however, they were Christianized, that is, crosses were inscribed on them, so they might serve as Christian altars. 

They have been built in our own times, too, but not in Europe. Inhabitants of Madagascar have been seen to erect dolmens and menhirs by the oldest 'hydraulic' technology in the world—human sweat. So much for the claim that megaliths could not have been moved without the aid of extraterrestrial technology. 

The heel of the boot of Italy—that is, Apulia—is rich in megaliths, particularly dolmens: Giovinazzo, Santa Sabina near Brindisi, Altamura, and Minerrini di Lecce near Otranto are a few of the many sites. Perhaps the best preserved and most easily accessible dolmen in the south of Italy is in an orchard just off the autostrada to Bari, a few minutes' walk from the rest stop/filling station named Dolmen di Biscieglie [see photo, above]. It's on the northbound side, so if you stop on the way down to Bari you will have to walk under the autostrada and come up on the other side. Walk out the back of the rest-stop and follow the signs. A small park has recently been built around it and the site itself is marked by a small plaque to "our unknown forebears". It is a lonely, potentially eerie, site and if you are given to searching for affinity with the ages, this is a good place to sit and think about a few dozen villagers four or five thousand years ago who built this tomb for their dead and then went back to their daily routine and puzzled over the mysteries of life and death just the way we do today. 

Serao, Maltilde (1); Vergil (4)

Today I set out to learn about Matilde Serao, a prominent Neapolitan journalist and writer from the early 1900s in Naples. That is about all I knew—that, and the fact that I still had an unopened copy of her Leggende Napoletane (Neapolitan Legends) lying in wait for me. As with most of these expeditions of mine to find out stuff, I got distracted very easily—but that's half the fun. 

The biographical material is straightforward. She was born in 1856 in Patrasso in Greece, where her Neapolitan father, Francesco, a journalist, had taken refuge during the Bourbon reprisals in Naples following the political turmoil of 1848. Her mother, Paolina Bonelly, was Greek. The family returned to Naples when the Bourbon dynasty ended and the Kingdom of Naples became part of the larger state of Italy. Serao graduated from high school in 1874 and got her first job as a telegraph operator at the post-office. She wrote some early novels of little consequence. She married the Neapolitan journalist Edoardo Scarfoglio in 1885, with whom she would eventually have four children. Together, they founded three newspapers, one of which was Il Mattino (still the largest Neapolitan daily). She died in 1927. 

Serao is best-remembered as being the type of chronicler of Neapolitan life that Grazia Deledda and Giovanni Verga were for Sardinia and Sicily, respectively. She was an intense and accurate observer of the kaleidoscopic mosaic that was Naples at the turn of the century—from the hard-pressed underclass to the more affluent Neapolitan petite bourgeoisie, all of whose lives were bent out of joint by the grand confusion of the Risanamento, the 30-year project to rebuild the city, as well as by the problems of a newly-unified Italy and the lingering and bitter split between North and South. [More on Serao and the Risanamento at here.] Besides her newspaper work, she published 40 books. Historian and critic, Benedetto Croce said that she had an "imagination that is limpid and alive"; Carducci called her the greatest woman writer in Italy; and D'Annunzio dedicated a novel to her. She was also said to be on the Nobel committee's short list for the literature prize, an award that ultimately went to her contemporary from Sardinia, Grazia Deledda. 

I already knew that the Roman poet, Virgil, was said to be a magician. He is connected with the "egg" in "Egg Castle" as well as with at least one of the old Roman tunnels in Naples. [Also, see the entry on Virgil.] Perhaps that is why I was attracted to the section in Serao's Neapolitan Legends that is called "Virgil, the Wizard". Serao chronicles the many wonders connected with the poet in Naples. For one, in those days Naples was afflicted with a plague of flies; Virgil made a fly from gold, breathed life into it, and sent it on its way. Every real fly it then came into contact with died, and the plague ended. Virgil also used his powers to dry up the swamps; he caused the west-wind, Favonianus, to change direction to help the local vegetation thrive; and he drove away a giant reptile that lived beneath the hill of Naples. Once, when sickness threatened the horses in the region, Virgil caused a large bronze horse to be cast; he infused it with his magical powers, and any horse that would then walk around the statue three times was cured. And so forth—there are a dozen or so other legends all connected with Virgil and all brought to life in Serao's delightful book. (See this entry for a more recent incarnation of the same legend.) 

The most accessible of her works to a wider audience (because it exists in English translation) to explore the life of Naples at the turn-of-the-century is certainly Il Paese di Cuccagna, published in 1891 and, in English, in 1902, as The Land of Cockayne. It is a humorous account of the Neapolitan obsession with winning the national lottery. 

This is where I got sidetracked. I did not know the Italian expression "cuccagna". Even worse, I did not know the English term "Cockayne". They—and similar expressions in French and Spanish—mean, roughly, "an imaginary land of plenty". It was used as early as 1305 in English and is possibly cognate of  "cake" or "cook", thus a place where good things to eat just drop into your mouth. 

That sounded like the "Land of Milk and Honey" to me. Indeed, I had forgotten about that one. It is in the book of Exodus 3:8: "And I am come down... to bring them...unto a land flowing with milk and honey." Why, Land  o' Goshen! I said to myself. Yes, Goshen is another Cockayne and is mentioned in Genesis 45:10 as the fertile land allotted to the Israelites in Egypt, a place in which there was light during the plague of darkness and, thus, figuratively, a land of light or plenty. 

There is even a painting, The Land of Cockayne, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 –1569) in which the most prominent figure is a well-fed and well-drunk man snoozing it off under a table. His cod-flap is open. 

There is also an expression "lubberland," a place where one is free to be a "lubber"—an idle lout. I had never heard the expression except in pirate movies ("Avast there, ye scurvy landlubbers!") Finally, it all reminded me of the hobo ballad "The Big Rock Candy Mountain", various portions of which I hazily remember as 

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains 
There's a land that's fair and bright 
Where the handouts grow on bushes 
And you sleep out ev'ry night.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains 
You never change your socks 
And little streams of alcohol 
Come a-tricklin' down the rocks.

(There's another verse in here, and then…)

Oh, the buzzin' of the bees in the cigarette trees 
'Round the soda water fountain
Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings 
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

And I really got sidetracked when I learned that the African volcano Oldoinyo Lengai is known as a real-life Big Rock Candy Mountain, because, unlike other volcanoes, it doesn't spout forth red-hot lava, but black lava, as liquid as fresh roofing tar and not really much hotter. It is Earth's only volcano erupting a carbonate lava instead of a silicate one. Carbonates are a group of minerals that, 99 percent of the time, form in the ocean, coming gently out of solution like sugar crystals in old syrup. Thus, it is a volcano spitting out sweet stuff just ripe for the tasting—if your taste runs to fresh roofing tar, I suppose. 

Don't forget the Land of the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey and Tennyson. Eating the fruit of the lotus makes you lazy, idle and good for nothing. 

My head hurts. 

Greek language (in Italy)

Olden forms of Greek are still spoken in some villages in the circled areas.
One of the most fascinating things about southern Italy, linguistically, is that there are still villages in Calabria where olden dialects of Greek are spoken. This, you might say, is almost to be expected. After all, the influence of ancient Greece in southern Italy is evident. The area was part of ancient Magna Grecia. It makes sense, then, that there might be a linguistic heritage left over, even over such a long period of time—although if you think about it, there are absolutely no places left in Italy where they still speak any other pre–Roman language, not Oscan, the language of the Samnites, or even the language of the once mighty Etruscans. In any case, the first temptation, indeed, is to explain relics of the Greek language here by saying that they are left over from the days when Greek sailors settled and built in Sicily, at Cuma and Neapolis. 

The problem is not quite that simple. There are a number of theories that try to account for the origins of the Greek currently spoken in the south of the Italian peninsula, a language that is Greek, yes, but not easily or directly traceable to the language of ancient Greece. Here are some of the theories, which divide into Early Arrival (EA) and Late Arrival (LA), the latter having a number of variations: 

(1) EA. They are, indeed, descendants of the settlers of Magna Grecia. Supporters of this theory explain the differences between ancient Greek and the Calabrian dialects by pointing out the enormous Latin influence of the Roman Empire for so many centuries. Also, languages change anyway, even with no outside influence. Isolation discourages change, true, but even if the Greeks of yore had crawled into caves in Calabria and closed the rocks behind them for two thousand years, their language would still have changed somewhat over that period. 

(2) LA-i. In the last century, an Italian scholar, Morosi, based on his examination of the dialects spoken in Calabria, concluded that these people originally got here between the year 900 A.D. and the end of the 1100s. It has, however, not been possible to settle the dispute between EA and LA solely by examining the dialects, themselves. Other evidence must be considered. In Byzantine writings, for example, there are two references made to settlements in Italy during this period. The first is to the reconstruction and settling of the city of Gallipopoli during the reign of Basil I at the end of the 9th century, and the second is a statement that Basil settled in Longobardia 3,000 former slaves from the Peloponnesius. 

(3) LA-ii. The presence of Greek speakers in Italy might be due to the influence of the mighty Byzantine Empire under Justinian. From the middle of the 7th to the middle of the 8th century, of the 13 Popes in Rome, eleven of them were Greeks. Justinian made it a point to fill the position with Greek speakers because he felt they would better carry out the policies of Constantinople on the Italian peninsula. Also, there was a vast combination of Greek administrative officials, ecclesiastics, eastern merchants, and pilgrims from Greece and Syria, all of whom contributed to what some historians  have termed an "oriental elite" in Rome. 

Thus, the line goes, Rome, itself, was very Byzantine Greek by the 7th century. But, the counterargument goes, Latin and Roman tradition was still strong, and just how pervasive could the influence of a so-called 'oriental elite' have been in the outlying areas of the southern part of the peninsula? One would not expect Byzantine clerics and bureaucrats to move into the southern mountains and start families.  It is possible, however, that when the Lombards—the last Germanic tribe to sweep down over the peninsula—displaced the Byzantines, Greek–speaking refugees from central Italy fled south to settle in Calabria. 

(4) LA-iii. It all has nothing to do with ancient or Byzantine Greeks. They are here because there was an influx of a considerable number of Greek-speaking elements from the East as a result of Arab conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries. The key word here is 'considerable'. Who knows? Although these invasions of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire probably pushed some Greek speakers west, there is no documentation of a mass migration, so this is somewhat of a speculation on what might have been possible. 

A variation on this is that when the city Alexandria capitulated to the Arabs in 642, a considerable part of the Greek population left. Some of them may have reached the west. There are two pieces of evidence for this:

—The frescoes in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome consist of five layers; the iconography in the second one is not only Greek, but specifically of the Alexandrian school. Thus, the logic runs, it could only have been painted by Alexandrian priests. 

—Also, there are Greek liturgical manuscripts extant in Italy; iconography and manuscripts are evidence of Greek influence from a specific period. (They are not, however, evidence of the mass migration which must have been necessary in order to produce entire Greek speaking enclaves on the Italian peninsula.) 

It is also true that during the Arab conquest of Syria and Palestine that many Greeks abandoned their homes. It is not clear, however, where they went. However, thousands of displaced Greeks who were living in North Africa at the time of the Arab conquest, might have had no recourse but to flee across the sea to Sicily and the southern Italian mainland. 

(5) Late Arrival-iv (This one looks like a winner in the opinion of your humble scribe):  Bulgars, Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkan peninsula before, during and after the reign of Justinian (i.e., for virtually the entire 6th century). This produced a series of fearful convulsions, any number of which would have been enough to send thousands fleeing across the seas. This is confirmed by the Chronicle of Monemvasia, a document written at the end of the tenth century, and which draws on an earlier source, written shortly after the events occurred. It has been called an 'unimpeachable source' of description of the Avar and Slav penetration of Greece and the subsequent dispersion of the Greeks  around the year 600. To wit:

In another invasion they (the Avars) subjugated all of Thessaly and Greece… they made also an incursion into Peloponesus, conquered it by war, driving out the noble and Hellenic nations. Those among the Greeks who succeeded in escaping… dispersed themselves here and there. The city of Patras emigrated to the territory of Rhegium in Calabria … some sailed to the island of Sicily and they are still there in a place called Demena, call themselves Demenitae instead of Lacedaemonitae and preserve their own Laconia dialect. * 

This is evidence of an immigration to Sicily and southern Italy toward the end of the sixth century, not from the eastern provinces of the Byzantine  Empire, but from Greece itself. As the Slavs occupied virtually all the western part of the Peloponnesus, the population who managed to flee could find no nearer haven than Sicily or Italy. 

[I have drawn much of the above  information from,"On the Question of Hellenization of Sicily and Southern Italy during the Middle Age"'  by Peter Charanis, in The American Historical Review, No. 52, 1946. * The cited material of the next-to-last paragraph is from that source. For more on the Greek community in Naples, click here.  For an entry on the diffusion of Magna Grecia, click here.]

Catacombs (1)

   Inside the upper catacomb of St. Januarius

The Catacombs of San Gennaro (St. Januarius) are the most important paleo-Christian ruins in Italy south of Rome. They are situated on the slope leading up to Capodimonte. In early Christian days, there were actually three cemeteries, dedicated, respectively, to San Gaudioso, San Severo and San Gennaro. The three grew together and are now known collectively as the Catacombs of San Gennaro. The catacombs are different from their Roman counterparts in that they have much more spacious passageways along two levels. The lower level is the oldest, going back to the 3rd-4th century and may actually be the site of an earlier pre-Christian cemetery later ceded to the new sect. It apparently became an important religious burial site only after the entombment there of Bishop Agrippino.  The second level was the one expanded so as to encompass the other two adjacent cemeteries. The site was consecrated to Gennaro (Januarius) in the fifth century on the occasion of the entombment of his earthly remains there. The remains were later removed to the Cathedral of Naples, where they are still housed. Until the eleventh century the catacombs were the burial site of Neapolitan bishops. Between the 13th and 18th century, however, they were the victim of severe looting. Restoration of the catacombs was made possible only after the transfer of skeletal remains to another cemetery.