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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

Municipio, Piazza

The importance in Naples of Piazza MunicipioCity Hall Square—goes back to the days of the Angevins, when the Maschio Angioino, the New Castle, was built. The castle and area around it thus became the symbol of authority. Besides the castle, a new Angevin harbor was built on the sea directly in front of the castle. Later, the Aragonese and then the Spanish expanded the fortifications, such that at its height, the castle housed the royal armory, foundry and the corps of the Royal Guards, essentially taking up most of the space of the present-day square. In the late 1800s, the urban renewal of Naples started to give shape to the area around the castle and began to transform it into the Piazza Municipio we see today. (This photo looks down on Piazza Municipio from the Maschio Angioino. The center of the square is cluttered with construction equipment for the new subway station.) 

Much of the transformation had to do with enlarging the port area and building new facilities for shipping. The final touch in that transformation didn’t come until  the construction of the new Maritime Passenger Terminal (photo, right) in 1939. It is of the same monolithic architecture as the main Post Office, also a product of architecture under Fascism. Large and imposing, they represent the last great building splurge in Naples until the very recent investment in skyscraper technology in the new Civic Center at the extreme east end of town.

The clearing of the area around the port during the 1890s affected Piazza Municipio and the entire east-west axis along the old port, doing away with many of the buildings from the 1700s and leaving intact only a few bits and pieces of the old city wall for reasons of historical interest (one of which is the nearby Church of the Incoronata on via Medina). The present day Municipio (City Hall) (seen, partially hidden, in the center of the top photo) at the north end of the square is called Palazzo San Giacomo because it incorporates an ex-monastery of that name built by the Spanish in the 1500s. (The adjacent church of the same name still functions as a church.) The Municipio, itself, dates back only to the early 19th century. It was an example of advanced architectural technology at the time, utilizing glass for an internal passageway that connected the square in front with the main street, via Toledo in the rear. That advantage was undone by the recent construction of the Bank of Napoli on via Toledo, effectively closing the passage. Thus, the entire square, from the port to the Municipio is spacious and grand, and it was from here that the urban renewal of Naples in the late 1800s started. 

Virtually all of the buildings, including the nearby Galleria Umberto represent the new idea at the turn-of-the-century of building shop and office space for the middle-class. From Piazza Municipio, then, the clearing continued to the east down to Piazza Bovio where the beginning of a new broad avenue, Corso Umberto, would be built. 

The current (2003) excavation and contruction in the middle of the square is for the "Municipio" stop of the new underground Metropolitana train line. It will connect to stops further east at Piazza della Borsa, then via Duomo, and, finally, the central train station at Piazza Garibaldi, essentially running parallel to and over the walls of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Neapolis. What is now Piazza Municipio was well outside those walls, but, nevertheless, the digging has uncovered some interesting archaeological finds, including the outer fortifications of the fortress, erected by the Spaniards in the 1500s. 

Evil eye, luck (good & bad) (3), malocchio

I came across this interesting item in the on-line version of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the section on Naples, there is a paragraph about folk-lore and, specifically, how Neapolitans ward of the "evil eye": 

...charms against the Evil Eye...were all derived from the survival of ancient classical legends... These may be divided into three classes: first, the sprig of rue in silver, with sundry emblems attached to it, all of which refer to the worship of Diana, whose shrine at Capua was of considerable importance; secondly, the serpent charms, which formed part of the worship of Aesculapius, and were no doubt derived largely from the ancient eastern ophiolatry; and lastly charms derived from the legends of the Sirens...The sea-horse and the Siren alone are commonly found as charms...

I had never heard any of that. There are a few terms used for "evil eye," "bad luck," etc. in Italian, in general, and in southern Italy, in particular. Simple "bad luck" is sfortuna, which is about the same as "misfortune" in English; there is no implication of it having been caused. The "evil eye," however—malocchio, in Italian—is much different. That is misfortune "cast" on you by a malevolent person with that particular ability. Indeed, one of the common Neapolitan terms for that kind of bad luck is jettatura, which comes from the Italian verb "gettare," meaning "throw" or "cast". Another common word in both Italian and Neapolitan for "witchcraft" is fattura, from the root "make," or "do". (Fattura, fittingly, is also the name for the receipted invoice you have to give someone if you sell them something, so you can't get out of paying a tax on your profit. Witchcraft, bad luck, taxes. I rest my case.) 

In any event, the most common way to ward off the Evil Eye, or bad luck caused by a spell, is by making the "sign of the horns"—le corna—(see here), that is, extending the index and little fingers of the hand and waggling your hand towards the ground. You can also buy a lucky charm in the shape of a single curved horn. There are two explanations for the use of the horns as a good luck charm: one says that it comes from the defensive posture of animals: head lowered, horns ready to use; the other—more likely—is that it has to do with the sexual vigor implied in the symbol of the male animal. Phallic symbols are also commonly seen throughout the Greek and Roman world as good luck charms. That explanation seems more likely to me, since another common way for men in Naples to ward off bad luck is to touch their genitals. (Touching someone else's genitals, on the other hand, generally causes more bad luck.) Depending on the threshold of superstition on a given day in Naples, then, you can get some interesting body language going on in public and broad daylight on any street in the city. 

I was not familiar with rue—or any other plant—as a charm against the Evil Eye. I asked a friend about this and she immediately cited a verse to me: 

"Aglio, fravaglie, fatture ca nun quaglie...,"  a dialect verse meaning "Garlic and animal innards keep away bad luck." Then, all the vampire books and movies with which I afflicted my childhood came back to me and I remembered about garlic. There is a whole class of plants that are used medicinally and—in folklore—to cast spells and ward them off. Rue (ruta graveolens) is one of them. In some sources, it is the famous "moly plant" used by Ulysses in The Odyssey (book 10, lines 304-6) to protect himself and his men from the spell of the Circe. Yet, I have not seen sprigs of rue for sale on the streets of Naples in the way that you find little horn amulets. 

Serpent charms and ophiolatry (serpent worship) are equally hard to find in Naples. It occurs to me that some of the amulets I see in street stalls—charms that I have always taken to be single horns—are, in fact, curved and, if not coiled, at least "wiggly". Maybe it was originally meant to be a snake. The only Naples myth I know about snakes has to do with how Virgil is said to have used his magical powers to drive away a great serpent that lived beneath the hill of the city. (See here for a relevant entry.) I am also aware of the split in our mythology between the benevolent and malevolent attributes of snakes. Contrasting the evil seducer/serpent in the book of Genesis, we have in other contexts the benevolent presence of twin serpents on the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession, and, further to the east, in Indian mythology, the cobra that protects Buddha by spreading its hood over him. 

I have seen the sea-horse and siren symbols a lot in Naples, but I didn't know that they were good luck charms—nor did any of the people I spoke to. As they say in the ivory towers of academe: more research is needed. 

Gesù Nuovo, church & square; Santa Chiara, church (1)

Piazza del Gesù Nuovo may be considered the bridge between the ancient Greco-Roman city of Neapolis and the city of the Spanish vicerealm that was to expand to the west in the 1500s under the direction of the Viceroy Don Pedro di Toledo. Under the earlier Angevin rule, there had been a western gate to the city at Piazza del Gesù that the Spanish simply moved over to Largo Mercatello (modern-day Piazza Dante), when they built the grand avenue now known as via Toledo (or via Roma). 

The square, Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, contains some remarkable structures. First, there is the thirteenth-century Gothic church/convent  of Santa Chiara, marked most obviously by the belfry (photo, left) that stands within the grounds at the end of the square. The convent was built between 1310 and 1328 at the behest of  the wife of King Robert of Anjou. It still retains the citadel-like walls setting it apart from the outside world, walls that contained a vast religious community—and today contain a more modest one—made up of the Convent of the Poor Clares and, beside it, a monastery of Grey Friars, both dominated by the stark architecture of the church itself. The complex was expanded along Baroque lines in the 1700s. It was almost entirely destroyed by bombing in WW II and was restored to its original Gothic form, retaining only a few reminders of the Baroque. King’s Robert’s tomb is within the church, and bears the epitaph by Petrarch: Cernite Robertum regem virtute refertum, reminding the people to “consider Robert a King rich in virtue”. 


The lovely monastic courtyard in the rear of the church is the result of a renovation done by D.A. Vaccaro in the 1730s, apparently at the request of Maria Amalia di Sassonia, wife of Charles III of Bourbon, King of Naples. The colorful and delicate majolica tilework is characteristic of the school of Neapolitan ceramic from that period and was crafted by Donato Massa and his son, Giuseppe.

The most striking building in the square—other than the church of Santa Chiara—is the fifteenth century residence built for Robert Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno. It is now the Church of Gesù Nuovo (photo, left) and has given its name to the entire square. (It is one of those churches in Naples that started out as something else. The word "new" in the name of the church is to distinguish it from the church of Gesù Vecchio (old) about a half-mile away.) The unusual façade is called "ashlar" in architectural terminology and is one of the few examples of this characteristic 15th-century façade in Naples.The building was finished in 1470 and was  somewhat of a symbol of the baron's increasing power and favor within the court of Ferrante of Aragon, ruler of the Kingdom of Naples at the time. The baron died shortly thereafter and the building passed to his son, Antonello. 

Young Tony, however, quickly became enmeshed in conspiracy against the throne and was forced to flee the city of Naples and hole up in a fortress near Salerno. He was captured and exiled to Senigallia  (no, not Senegal—it's a town on the Adriatic). His property was confiscated. He eventually got the property back from the Spanish throne when they took over the kingdom. The large residence then passed to his son, Ferrante. In 1547, Ferrante incurred the wrath of the Spanish viceroy, Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, and fled the kingdom, dying in Avignon, France, in 1568. His property was put up for sale and the residence was bought by Nicolò Grimaldi in 1584 who, in turn, sold it to the Jesuit order. It was transformed into a church, leaving the original façade intact, and was consecrated in 1601. The church passed to a Fransiscan order when the Jesuits were expelled from Naples in 1767. The Jesuits got the church back in 1821. 

The highly ornamental interior of the church belies its solemn exterior. The spectacular frescos on the ceiling of the central nave are by Belisario Corenzio and Paolo de Matteis. Also, the church has on display The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (1725) one of the most noteworthy works by Francesco Solimena, the great painter of the Neapolitan Baroque. 

The building, because of its checkered history, first as a residence, then as a church—what with people getting exiled, dying, etc. etc.—used to have somewhat the reputation of being under an evil spell. Some students of the supernatural have enjoyed attributing this malevolent presence to the esoteric properties of the stones in the unusual façade. 

Literally "topping off’ the square is the Spire of the Immaculate Virgin, erected in 1750 with funds collected through public subscription sponsored by Jesuit Father Francesco Pepe. The spire replaced an earlier equestrian statue erected in 1705 on the occasion of a visit to Naples by Philip V of Spain. When the Spanish left the city and were replaced by the Austrians, that statue was destroyed by the populace. 

Some of the finest sculptors of the 1700s worked on the spire ones sees today: among others, Francesco Pagani and Matteo Bottiglieri. Depicted on the spire, among other scenes, are the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple; The Birth of the Virgin Mary; and The Annunciation. The spire, itself, represents the presence of the Jesuit Order in the city. Its rich ornamentation is considered the epitome of Neapolitan Baroque sculpture. 



Amalfi (1)

Amalfi. In 337 a.d., Roman patricians on their way to Constantinople were shipwrecked along so stunningly beautiful a coast that they understandably decided to stay marooned and let war and empire pass them by. Centuries hence, the 19th century Italian writer, Renato Fucini, would say: "When the inhabitants of Amalfi get to heaven on Judgment Day, it will be just like any other day for them." 

For centuries thereafter—in the turmoil following the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire—Amalfi remained one of the small coastal enclaves ruled nominally by the Byzantine Empire. Finally, in 839, Amalfi was conquered by the Duchy of Benevento, itself a Longobard holdout against Byzantium. Benevento was badly in need of a port, and though there is little documentation of that period, the fact that Benevento bothered to take Amalfi at all may mean that the place had already developed into a port of some importance. 

Upon the death of the Duke, Amalfi freed itself from Benevento and went into business for itself. In 957, the head of Amalfi took the title of Duke, putting himself on an equal level with other rulers of the area. Little by little, the Amalfi fleet expanded and spread throughout the Mediterranean. Many places throughout the Mediterranean still have small churches to Saint Andrew, patron saint of Amalfi—churches built by Amalfi seafarers centuries ago. They established a strong presence in Antioch, and especially Constantinople, where they were the single greatest group of merchants in the commerce between East and West, taking an active political and economic role in the life of the Byzantine Empire.  In Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century, there was an "Amalfi Quarter," replete with schools and stores. And in Jerusalem the Amalfitans founded the Order of the Knights, which later became the famous Order of Malta. 

The height of the Maritime Republic of Amalfi came at about the turn of the millennium, when Amalfi was a great exporter of wood and iron, and importer of spices, carpets, silk, and perfumes from the Orient, goods that found a market in the Papal States to the north and all the cities in the south of Italy. The cathedral of Amalfi (photo, left) is from that period. It was built in 1066 and still has the portals imported from Constantinople (also see here). Like the other maritime republics, Amalfi even coined its own money, the Tarì. Also, Amalfi was where the first Maritime Code, the so-called tavole amalfitane, was formulated, a code that regulated maritime trade in the Mediterranean from the 1000s to the 1500s and that served as a  model for future maritime law. Here, they say, too, is where Flavio Gioia invented the compass—or at least improved upon the device borrowed from the Arabs. 

The fortune of Amalfi changed dramatically for the worse in the 1100s. Three things happened. First, the powerful Normans, who would eventually take over all of southern Italy to found the Kingdom of Naples, took the city in 1131. With that, Amalfitan independence ceased. Second, the town was sacked by the maritime competition, Pisa, in 1135 and again  in 1137. Third, Amalfi failed to participate in the first Crusade, leading further to its decline, and to the rise of competing maritime republics in the north of Italy. Somewhat later, in 1343, a powerful earthquake destroyed the port of Amalfi, administering a belated coup de grace to the once proud maritime power. 

If you visit Amalfi today, you can still see the ruins of what was the largest naval shipyard in medieval Europe. As well, you can visit a restored and functioning paper mill, recalling the days when the Amalfitans took the art of paper-making from the Arabs and made it their own, turning out precious paper products for export throughout the Mediterranean.  The tradition of nostalgic paper-making continues to this day, and you can buy characteristic replicas of historic Amalfi letter paper, cards, maps, etc. Also, the area—like much of southern Italy—is marked by the presence of Saracen towers, built to guard against incursions by the Arabs and, later, the Turks. Worthy of attention in Amalfi is the Civic Museum, which has the only remaining copy of the Amalfi Maritime Code, mentioned above. 

The current accessibility of Amalfi by vehicular traffic is due to the road-building enthusiasm of Ferdinand II of Bourbon, King of Naples, in the mid-nineteenth century, who opened a road all along the Sorrentine peninsula and over to the Amalfi coast. (Also see here.) 

Russo, Vincenzo

It is not widely known that there was an active Neapolitan offshoot of the French Enlightenment just as dedicated as mid–18th–century French intellectuals to discussions of the Rights of Man (and even the Rights of Woman), the decadence of monarchies, and democracy and republicanism as societal goals worth striving for—and even worth having a revolution for. The French Revolution is amply documented. The Neapolitan Revolution of 1799 is not well documented—at least in English—but there is some material in these pages: 

  • The Bourbons, part 1
  • Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel
  • Cardinal Ruffo

  • Two prominent figures connected with the Neapolitan Enlightenment are discussed elsewhere on this website: Gaetano Filangieri  and Vincenzo Cuoco . Another such person worth mentioning is Vincenzo Russo. 

    Russo was born on June 16, 1770 in Palma Campania, a small town about halfway between Naples and Avellino. His father, Nicola, was a lawyer. His mother was Mariangela Visciano from  San Paolo Belsito. At the age of eight, he began attending the seminary in Nola, and at 13 he went to Naples with his brother Joseph to start his studies of the law. There he became a member of a Masonic lodge and was attracted to the new ideas of reform and democracy, in particular the ideals that would drive the French Revolution. He started to attend secret meetings of the "Republican clubs," so-called in imitation of those in France. These societies in Naples of that period typically immersed themselves in the works of their fellow Neapolitans, Gaetano Filangieri and Mario Pagano* [see note, below], as well as the writings of the likes of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Locke. 

    When the French fleet came to Naples in 1792 to try to gain diplomatic recognition from the Bourbons of the French Republic, Russo was one of those who took part in meetings with admiral Latouche Treville. Yet, with the Bourbon monarchy running scared before potential French revolutionary contagion in Naples, Russo was one of a number of local "republicans" accused of conspiracy against the monarchy in 1792.  Some were actually executed, but he was let off. Later, in 1797, under the similar circumstances of what was apparently an active Jacobin conspiracy within the kingdom, he was forced to flee the kingdom. 

    He took refuge in Switzerland where he took up the study of medicine. He moved to Milan and then Rome and was in that city when the Roman Republic was declared in February of 1798. He wrote for the Monitore di Roma. He took a radical and anticlerical line. When Ferdinand IV of Naples decided to march north and liberate the Roman Republic, Russo enlisted as a doctor in a company of Neapolitan exiles serving in the French army. The Bourbon army was routed in the field and fled back to Naples, pursued by the French, which episode eventually led to the flight of the royal family to Sicily and the proclamation of the Neapolitan Republic in January 1799. At that point, Russo became active in the government of the Republic and was appointed elector for the Volturno region. On Feb. 10, because of his exceptional skill as a speaker, he was put in charge of the ministry of public instruction for the new republic, charged with explaining the actions of the government to the average citizen and with encouraging political discussion. 

    He was put in charge of organizing resistance in Calabria to Ruffo's royalist Army of the Holy Faith that eventually overthrew the Republic, and he was in the front line at the Republic's "last stand", the battle of the Ponte della Maddalena, just outside of Naples. The battle and the war went against the Republic, and Russo was wounded and taken prisoner. He was put on trial with 1000 other Republicans and charged with being a zealous member of the Republican government (which he was) and with besmirching the name of his monarch (certainly true). He was sentenced to death and was hanged on the November 19, 1799 in Piazza Mercato. His last words were: "I die free and for the Republic."

    During Russo's exile in Switzerland, he had started to write Pensieri Politici (Political Thoughts), the work for which he is remembered. It was eventually published in 1798 and is an expression of Russo's egalitarian interpretation of the values of the French Enlightenment. There are 45 short chapters, each bearing succinct titles such as "Revolution," "The Law," "Religion," "Education,"—in short, Russo's view on how society should be constructed. It is Rousseauvian in that he believed in an ideal and simple human condition, free from the corruption of wealth and social class. The ideal society would be egalitarian and populated by educated small farmers all working for the common good. Private property would not exist and money would eventually be unnecessary. He affirmed the necessity of achieving such economic and social transformation through revolution, revolution being an instrument of education as well as one of social change. 

    He was called a "Neapolitan Saint-Just" by some of his contemporary detractors—this in reference to Antoine Louis Leon de Richebourg de Saint-Just (1767—1794), the pitiless and tyrannical "angel of death" of the French Revolution and friend of Robespierre, who apparently enjoyed sentencing people to the guillotine. Such a comparison is not warranted in the case of Vincenzo Russo. Neither he nor the Neapolitan Republic was bloodthirsty. There were no loppings-off of royalist heads in the six or seven months of life enjoyed by the Republic. Russo was, however, argumentative and uncompromising in his dedication to revolutionary ideals such as doing away with feudal land rights. He no doubt irritated a lot of people. He was not a hypocrite, and often gave his salary back to the state, encouraging others who could afford it to do the same. That probably irritated some people, as well. As noted, he went to the battlefield when it counted, and, with the likes of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, he was one of the many bright lights of the Republic—collectively, the flower of Neapolitan culture—executed for their efforts. 

    [*Mario Pagano was some 20 years older than Russo and by the time of the French Revolution already a noted jurist and legal scholar in Naples. He was a supporter of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799 and was instrumental in the drafting of the constitution. He had also been an active defender of those accused of conspiracy against the monarchy in the early 1790s. He, too, was executed when the Republic fell.]

    Easter Monday (Pasquetta)

    And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus…and they talked together of these things which had happened…[and] Jesus himself drew near and went with them… (Luke 24:13-15)

    The Monday after Easter is called "Monday of the Angel," in Italian, but, more commonly, "Pasquetta"—a diminutive of "Pasqua"—Easter. It commemorates the meeting (recounted in the Bible, above) of the risen Christ with his disciples in Emmaus, a village near Jerusalem, on the Monday after the Resurrection. To recall the disciples' walk from Jerusalem out to the nearby village, it is still customary in many parts of Italy for people—especially young people—to go on an outing. 

    This custom easily makes Pasquetta the most hectic, bustling day of the year in Naples. Last–minute Christmas shopping, Mardi Gras celebrations, New Year's Eve, rowdy bands of football hooligans—all of that is nothing compared to the Monday after Easter. Every single teenager who is upright and breathing puts on a knapsack packed with food and sets out to go somewhere—anywhere. But not alone. They travel in packs, herds, swarms, or whatever the appropriate collective noun is for a carefree mob out for a picnic in celebration of a religious event they no longer remember anything about. 

    The Biblical verses tell us that Emmaus was about "threescore furlongs" from Jerusalem. If the translators of the King James Bible and I are using the same single AA-cell-driven calculator, that rounds off to about 7½ miles. It goes without saying that Neapolitan teenagers of today are not about to walk 7½ miles to commemorate anything, but they will take the train. The local narrow-gauge iron horse that runs from Naples to Sorrento is called the Circumvesuviana. It makes almost 30 stops on the way out; many of these stations are on the slopes of Vesuvius in what is the most-densely populated area in Europe. All of these kids populate densely onto that train on Pasquetta and go somewhere. I have been on the train on Pasquetta and actually had kids come over and sit on me! They will also take the boat. I have been on the ferry to Capri on Pasquetta. We were packed to the gunwales with teenagers, each of whom carried his or her own weight in obnoxious very loud portable music toys—and I say that without even knowing where the gunwales of a ship are located. 

    All that may be in keeping with something I've just read about Easter Monday—that early Christians celebrated the days immediately following Easter by telling jokes and playing pranks. I had never heard that before, and I am not sure how much better off I am now that I know it. In any event, the disciples did not enjoy such modern amenities as portable CD players and cell-phones beeping in 20 different keys at the same times. One wonders how they passed the time on their walk. The best thing to do on Easter Monday in Naples is stay home. 

    San Domenico Maggiore, Piazza

    One of the most interesting squares in the city of Naples is Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. The square is on "Spaccanapoli" (named via Benedetto Croce at this particular section of its considerable length) the street that "splits" the historic center of Naples and that was one of the three main east-west streets of the original Greek city of Neapolis. 

    In the center of the square is an obelisk topped by a statue of San Domenico di Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order, erected after the plague of 1656. The original designer of the spire was the great Neapolitan architect, Cosimo Fanzago, among whose other works is the San Martino monastery on the hill overlooking the city. Construction on the spire was started immediately after the plague epidemic of 1656 but was suspended in 1680 when the spire had reached about half the height one sees today. It was finished in 1737 under Charles III, the first Bourbon monarch of Naples. 

    san dom highThe most prominent building on the square is, of course, the Church of San Domenico Maggiore (photo on left) . The church one sees today incorporates a smaller, original church built on this site in the tenth century, San Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa, a Byzantine church that housed the Basilian monastic order. The original entrance is still visible to the left in the square at the top of an outside stairway (seen in the next photo, below). After the Schism between Rome and Constantinople, that church became a Benedictine monastery in 1116 and then passed to the Dominican order in 1221. Charles II of Anjou began the extensive rebuilding that produced the Church of San Domenico Maggiore. The work was done between 1283 and 1324, but the church has undergone extensive modifications over the centuries, including one in 1670 that recast the structure in the style of the Baroque. In the 19th century, however, the church was restored to its original Gothic design. 

    Among the many artistic points of interest in the basilica is the frescoed ceiling by Francesco Solimena (1707), one of the most prominent of Neapolitan Baroque painters. The church also holds the tombs of a number of Aragonese princes from the fifteenth century. Other prominent figures repose here, as well: for example, Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, head of the loyalist Army of the Santa Fede, which brought down the Parthenopean Republic in 1799. 

    The monastery annexed to the church has been the home of prominent names in the history of religion and philosophy. It was the original seat of the University of Naples, where Thomas Aquinas, a former monk at San Domenico Maggiore, returned to teach theology in 1272. As well, the philosopher monk, Giordano Bruno, lived here before setting off on his wanderings as an itinerant teacher.The side of San Domenico Maggiore on the square is actually the front of the church, meaning that if you go in that entrance you come up next to the altar, itself. The main entrance, from the back, opens onto a courtyard within the monastery, itself, and is generally not open. 

    The present-day form of the square took shape between the 15th and 19th centuries, starting with work done by the Aragonese, who transformed it into one of the most important centers in the city. Bounding the square are a number of prominent buildings in the medieval and, later, Spanish history of the city. 

    Next to the stairway on the left as you face the church is Palazzo Balzo, now called Palazzo Petrucci (photo on right). Its origins are in the early 14th century as a residence of nobility connected with the move of the Angevin dynasty from Sicily to Naples. It passed into the hands of Petrucci in the mid-1400s. Petrucci enjoyed the favor of Ferrante, the Aragonese ruler of Naples, until he joined the so-called "Barons' revolt" of 1485. He was executed by decapitation. The building has changed hands many times since then, and the only real remnant of the 14th century seems to be the main portal. 

    On the other side of the square is the Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero (photo on left), built in the middle of the 16th century. The Palazzo was built in the second half of the 1500s at the behest of Paolo di Sangro. The simple facade was embellished in 1621 and is the one we see today. Over the ornate portals is the crest of the Sangro di Severo family. The most famous of the family is Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero (1710-71), whose scientific and technological research earned him an excommunication and reputation for sorcery. 

    The building is one of those in Naples said to be haunted! In 1590, prince Carlo Gesualdo, famous composer of madrigals, killed his wife, Maria d’Avalos, and her young lover, don Fabrizio Carafa. They say that Gesualdo then killed his own tiny son because of a resemblance, real or imagined, to his wife's lover. After the murders, Gesualdo went on to compose some of the most beautiful and innovative pieces in the madrigal repertoire. He married a second time and died in Naples in 1614. Tradition says that the ghost of his murdered wife still walks the halls of the building. 

    The famous chapel of Sansevero is off the square in back of the Palazzo, itself, and is more properly named the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà, or Pietatella. It dates back to 1590 when the Sansevero family had a private chapel built in what were then the gardens of the nearby family residence, the Palazzo Sansevero. Definitive form was given to the chapel by Raimondo di Sangro, famous Prince of Sansevero, whose patronage added the frescos and sculpture, which would turn the chapel into a harmonious and integral manifestation of religious faith of the eighteenth century. Unique and world famous, of course, is the statue of the Veiled Christ (photo on left), sculpted by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. 

    The Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero is flanked by Palazzo Corigliano (photo on right), the building on the corner of Spaccanapoli. Palazzo Corigliano got its name in the 1700s from its most famous tenant, Duke Augustino di Corigliano, but is much older than that. Construction started on Palazzo Corigliano in 1506,at the very beginning of the Spanish viceroyship in Naples. Sources from the 1600s and 1700s refer to it as one of the first truly modern buildings in the city. Originally, the building had two stories, but a third was added in the 1700s by the owner, Agostino Saluzzo. Almost all of the sculpture and decorative murals within Palazzo Corigliano stem from the 1730s. Spectacular and representative as they are of the period, they are considered virtually in a class by themselves in Naples. Quite recently, after extensive renovation, Palazzo Coriglno has served to house some departments of the Orientale University of Naples. 

    The square is closed on the south side by the Palazzo Casacalenda, an 18th century building erected on the site of an ancient Greek temple, remnants of which can be seen within the courtyard. 


    We had a bottle of good wine some time ago right down on the water's edge of Lake Averno, the place of the fabled descent into the Inferno (from the name "Averno," by the way). Our host told us that his vineyard and a few others down along the slopes of the lake and in a few other places in Italy produced unusual wine for this day and age in Europe; this is because they enjoy the same soil characteristics (having to do with nearby volcanoes and other subterranean goings-on). 

    Such locations remained immune to the devastating winepest that spread though European vineyards in the late 1800s. The disease was the result of the Phylloxera aphid, which wiped out many European vineyards. As it turned out, the roots of American vines were immune to Phylloxera, so European wine makers grafted their vines onto American roots to make them less vulnerable to the disease. That saved the European wine industry. But down on Lake Averno, we had some good grape that had never had to be revived. The gentleman showed us a vine that he claims is 250 years old. It is a solid, almost tree-trunk-like affair as it comes out of the ground and is the mother vine for the entire vineyard. I don't know if "mother vine" is legitimate terminology. The Italian word is vitigno, which they distinguish from the smaller, secondary vine—vite—that runs through the vineyard and actually sprouts grapes. There seem to be two words for "vineyard," as well: vigna and vigneto. I don't think there is a difference. 

    I had not set out to learn anything about Phylloxera. I started out looking for strange names of wines, and, as usual, wandered away into a thicket of miscellany. The most unusual name for a wine that I have ever heard actually belongs to a German wine. It is called Croever Nacktarsch, which is usually translated euphemistically as "bare bottom," but the term in German is as vulgar as anyone who can read English might imagine it to be. Croev is a town on the Middle Moselle between Zell and Traben Trarbach in Germany. The label of the wine shows a small boy being spanked on his bare behind by the inn-keeper, who has just caught the lad down in the cellar doing some pre-pubescent wine tasting. 

    My vote for the most amusing name for an Italian wine goes to Est! Est! Est! —Latin for "This is it! This is it! This is it!" It seems that in the year 1111, Henry V of England was on his way to Rome to be crowned by the Pope. In his entourage was one Giovanni Deuc, a lover of fine wine. Near Montefiascone (not far from Lake Bolsena, near Orvieto, in central Italy), Giovanni sent his servant, Martin, ahead to scout the potential for bibbing. The instructions were, "When you find the good stuff, scrawl 'Est!' on the door of the tavern, so I know where to stop." Marty was so impressed with one vintage that he waxed redundantly enthusiastic and emblazoned "Est! Est! Est!" on the door.  Giovanni apparently drank himself to death right on the spot. He left money to the town of Montefiascone to commemorate his fatal binge: every year, a bottle of Est! Est! Est! is poured on his tomb, where there is still the legible inscription: "From too much Est!, here lies my lord, Giovanni Deuc." I hope that's a true story; anyone who would make that up must have been drinking. 

    In the Naples area, the most interesting name for a wine is Lachryma Christi (Tears of Christ). It is produced on the fertile slopes of Vesuvius, and the wine is so named because it is here, they say, that Lucifer was cast out of heaven, causing Christ to weep. The funniest name for a local wine comes from Ischia, where they drink Pere 'e palummo, dialect for "Foot of the dove," so called because the ruby-red color of the stems of the vine recalls the coloring of that particular bird's foot. A likely story? Maybe. 

    Dante, Piazza

    Piazza Dante is a bit of welcome wide-open space in a city notoriously lacking in elbow room. It was closed for a few years while they built the new Metropolitana underground train station. Now that that is finished, it was well worth the wait for two reasons: one, it's a place to sit down or stroll around a bit in the middle of a busy city, and, two, the square is now conveniently connected to the Vomero section of town a few miles away and 600 feet higher in elevation. 

    This square, named for one of the greatest names in world literature, is dominated by a 19th-century statue of the poet, sculpted by Tito Angelini. Long ago the square was called Largo del Mercatello—simply, Market Square—and, then, in 1765 was rechristened "Foro Carolina," after the wife of the King of Naples. At that time, the original square was greatly modified by Luigi Vanvitelli. The ornate semicircular arrangement of columns and statues was originally intended to depict the virtues of Charles III, the first Bourbon king of Naples; the niche in the center was to have been dedicated to the monarch. It now, however, marks the entrance to a boarding-school named for Victor Emanuel II. Piazza Dante was the site of the Cafe Diodato, a gathering place of actors at the end of the 19th century, who, during the summer months would perform on a stage set up amid the tables. 

    Facing the great semicircular building, one sees Port'Alba on the left. Port'Alba was an old city gate, moved in the 17th century by the Spanish viceroy Duke d'Alba Antonio Alvarez de Toledo, and incorporated into the restructured Foro Carolina. On the right is the Church of San Michele, and across from the square is the Church of San Domenico Soriano with its adjacent convent, now housing the municipal registry office. 

    Poor Dante was moved 100 meters away in order to accommodate the construction of the new station, but now he is back center-stage and sand-blasted clean as a whistle. 

    Geology (2), volcanoes (2)

    Somehow I admire people who live in volcanoes or at least on the slopes of volcanoes, even when they're extinct (the volcanoes, not the people). Yesterday we had lunch in a delightful restaurant on the inside slope of a crater, out in Baia, just past the bay of Pozzuoli. It is at the end of the Campi Flegrei—the "Fiery Fields"—in parts, a still active and bubbling collection of thermal baths and sulfur fumaroles, but for the most part a welter of extinct craters some millions of years old. (The famous Pozzuoli caldera, however, is only 35,000 years old, and the nearby "Monte Nuovo"—New Mountain—really is new, as mountains go; it surfaced in the 1500s. 

    The restaurant was a three-level affair clinging to the slope (photo), making up in vertical space what it lacked in horizontal. From the terrace, you could look across and see other optimists clinging to their bit of slope across the way. You could look down and see a farmhouse at the bottom. It was set in a nice stand of trees, and there was a small vineyard down there, as well. 

    The residents are not in any actual danger because the craters really are extinct. On the other hand, on the eastern side of the city of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and is now described as "quiescent". I think that term describes a condition somewhat more threatening than "dormant". I know that the Vesuvius Observatory updates their webpage on a daily basis, reminding you of the number of "seismic events yesterday," for example. Most of the "events" are not noticed by human senses, but sensors indicate a significant amount of activity. They say there is a "plug" building up about 6 miles below the crater. The real optimists are the ones who built on that slope right after the eruption half a century ago and who continue to build and lead their lives with complete, fatalistic disdain for what the future might hold. Last year, the collective communities around Vesuvius considered it important to have a practice evacuation of the area. They chose, as I recall, 500 volunteers and said "Go!". The make-believe refugees from a make-believe eruption then followed the planned evacuation routes to safety. It went well. Evacuating almost a million people in the real thing would be a different matter, I'm afraid. Perhaps the only point for true optimism is that Vesuvius is one of the best monitored volcanoes in the world. It is unlikely that there would be no warning at all of an impending eruption. 

    [Click here for a separate item on the "Geology of the Bay of Naples".] 

    Monuments in May

    This weekend will mark the beginning of the "Monuments in May" festivities in Naples. It's a month-long bath of culture, an attempt to open everything in the city that can be opened—all the museums, churches, and archaeological sites. The larger ones are usually open all year round, but in May the city makes an extra effort to put the city's considerable cultural wealth on display for tourists. 

    Many of the sites are separated into "itineraries," broken down by centuries, with maps and markers indicating that this or that church is part of the "17th–century route," for example. The ancient archaeological sites outside the city, such as Herculaneum and Pompeii, of course, need no introduction; lesser known ones, such as Oplontis (near Pompeii) and the excavated Roman market below the church of San Lorenzo at the crossroads of the historic center of the Naples, itself, can expect tourist traffic much heavier than usual. Unusual sites—the Bourbon Poorhouse, for example—what was to be a self-contained and self-sustaining institution for the indigent in the 17th and 18th centuries, and is today a five-story, 300-meter-long white elephant dozing in the sun at Piazza Carlo III—will also be open. This is the month you can get in to walk through the ancient Seiano tunnel beneath Posillipo from the Bagnoli entrance all the way through and up onto some wealthy gentleman's private property on the Posillipo side, which features the ruins of a Greek amphitheater that, 2,000 years ago, belonged to Vedius Pollio, a wealthy Roman gentleman in his own right. 

    The papers are already complaining about the confusion. A reporter from Il Mattino claims he stood in beautiful wide-open Piazza Plebiscito in front of the Royal Palace for one hour and counted 119 motor-scooters racing across and around the square, nominally a pedestrian zone. The front page featured a photo of one young thug, reared up on the back wheel of his bike and doing a "wheelie" across the square. Not a cop in sight, said the paper. Piano wire stretched at neck level might help make up for the city's lack of commitment to make Naples more visitable. The reporter didn't say that; that's just a friendly suggestion. 


    On a wall in the Cave of Les Trois Ariège in France there is a stone-age drawing of a sorcerer wearing a mask. From his time to ours, from him to our own children modestly disguised for Halloween, or revelers made up for carnevale, there is an unbroken chain of masks. Made of every and anything from mud to gold, they have served to frighten, delight, beg, accompany the dead, cast out demons, and conceal lovers and executioners. From Greek drama to Balinese trance-dancers to modern psychodrama in which actors wear masks of their own faces, in every culture and in all of history, there have been masks. 

    The mask took on new meaning at the end of the 16th century in Italy, when there arose a form of theatre known as the Commedia dell'Arte. The actors were skilled in the representation of well-defined characters, characters who appeared and reappeared, bearing the same name, wearing the same mask and costume, speaking the same language and, thus, establishing themselves as distinct character types, stereotypes of various regions througout Italy. For example, the stereotypical mask of Bologna is the pseudo-intellectual windbag, Dr. Balanzone, and Venice gives us the greedy and conniving underling, Arlecchino. 

    One of the best-known Italian masks is the one that represents Naples, Pulcinella.  He is generally presented as a hunchback (remember that male hunchbacks are considered lucky in Naples!); he is dressed in a large, white smock and soft white hat, and wears a black half-mask characterized by a hook-nose. His character type is that of the jolly bungler, always poor and hungry, yet always able to get by,  singing songs and playing the mandolin. In his stereotypical ineptness, however, there always remains the touch of the true court jester, the "fool," who delights in snubbing his nose at the powers that be, without their ever really catching on to how much wisdom is hidden behind the mask. 

    It is that anti–establishment part of Pulcinella's personality, the total disrespect of authority that seems to be not so hidden in much modern-day Neapolitan behavior. That's the reason—say some—that Neapolitans drive they way they do. The state put that traffic light on the corner, telling you when to go and when to stop. A free citizen is almost honor–bound to ignore it. 

    San Martino, Sant'Elmo

    Seen from the sea, the most visible structures in Naples are the museum of San Martino and the fortress of Sant' Elmo, located on the Vomero hill at the highest point in the city. The museum used to be a monastery that was finished and inaugurated under the rule of Queen Giovanna I in 1368.  It was dedicated to St. Martin, bishop of Tours. During the first half of the sixteenth century, propelled by the energies of the Counterreformation, it was expanded. Later, in 1623, it was further expanded and became, under the direction of architect Cosimo Fanzago, the quintessentially Baroque structure one sees today. Fanzago was responsible also for the small cemetery in the courtyard; a cemetery ornamented by rows of skulls, a typical Counterreformation memento mori—a reminder of mortality. 

    Under the French, the monastery was closed in 1806 and was abandoned by the religious order. Today, the museum houses a museum with a fine display of Spanish and Bourbon era artifacts, as well as a recently restored presepe, or Nativity scene, a display made up of thousands of finely wrought eighteenth-century Christmas figures. It is the finest display of its kind in the world. (Click here for more about the presepe.

    Sant’ Elmo is the name of both the hill and the fortress adjacent to the museum. The name is from an old church, Sant’ Erasmo, that name being shortened to "Ermo" and, finally, "Elmo".* The fortress was first started in 1329 under Robert of Anjou and completed in 1343, the year of his death. The strategic importance of the fortress was clear, and  the Spanish viceroy, Don Pedro de Toledo, had it rebuilt between 1537 and 1546. It was partially destroyed in 1587 when a lightning strike caused the ammuntion dump to explode, killing 150 men in the process. During the revolution of 1647, so-called “Masaniello’s Revolt,” the Spanish viceroy took refuge in the fortress to escape the revolutionaries. The people stormed the fortress but failed to take it. 

    Sant’Elmo was a dramatic symbol of the short, turbulent period of the Parthenopean Republic, the local version of the French Republic. The fortress was taken by the populace in 1799 and the Republic was proclaimed. A few months later, the revolutionaries were forced to capitulate to Royalist forces under Cardinal Ruffo. For a short period, Sant’Elmo had been a bastion of freedom against Bourbon absolutism; now it proved to be the prison and place of execution for a number of the Republic’s supporters. 

    [*I gratefully acknowledge some etymological information I have received from Libero Scinicariello of Cleveland, Ohio: "... just a few miles up the road in Gaeta, Erasmo is the patron saint and the namesake for the Duomo.  In local dialect, Erasmo evolved into Raimo, and the church is referred to as Santu Raimo."]

    Customs, new & old; San Gennaro (3), Mark Twain

    In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain ridicules the miracle of San Gennaro (click here to read the entire excerpt) —that is, the miraculous liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro—as  "…one of the wretchedest of all the religious impostures one can find in Italy". One of the two days on which that miracle is believed to occur is coming up: the first Sunday in May. I don't pass judgment on miracles or others' belief in such. If I did, I would find a real job somewhere as a Miracle Judgment Passer or something like that. 

    Twain also mentions another, rather curious, custom that I have enquired about but been unable to shed any light on. He says:

    And here, also, they used to have a grand procession, of priests, citizens, soldiers, sailors, and the high dignitaries of the City Government, once a year, to shave the head of a made up Madonna – a stuffed and painted image, like a milliner’s dummy—whose hair miraculously grew and restored itself every twelve months. They still kept up this shaving procession as late as four or five years ago. 

    That would make it about 1865. I have asked, and no one seems to know anything about it. Maybe they made up the story to feed his cynicism. Customs come and go, so I suppose it is quite possible that that one really did exist and simply fell by the wayside. There are also recent customs that probably seem ancient to young children, but the origins of which are within living memory.  Another entry mentions the "Wishing Tree," a Christmas tree set up in the center of the Galleria Umberto in December; you scrawl your wish for the coming year on a slip of paper and stick it on one of the branches. The custom of Christmas trees didn't find its way into this part of Italy until after WW2, so that would be an example of a recent custom. It is also an interesting example of combining something new—the tree—with something old—the votive slips of paper, which can show up at almost any religious shrine in Naples and even on some non-Christian statuary, such as the statue of the Nile God in the historic center of the city. 

    This morning I noticed that someone is trying to invent a new custom. I was down at the Gambrinus Café off of Piazza Plebiscito, and I noticed a picture of Mt. Vesuvius on the wall. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Below the picture, however, was a written invitation to "make your wish to Vesuvius" and to deposit the slip in the box provided on the table next to the picture. Making a wish to Vesuvius? That is unheard of, I believe, until invented by the proprietor of the café as some sort of a commercial gimmick. I have never heard of any custom that involves invoking the great god of the volcano (or some such Polynesia-like deity) in Naples. As far as I know, they don't sacrifice goats or virgins up there, either, both of which are in short supply in the area, anyway. Maybe in a few years, it will be a custom. Like old proverbs—someone has to come up with these things. 

    Salas, Esteban;  music (5)

    One of the most unusual references to Neapolitan music that I have ever come across was in a  music catalogue; there was a short blurb for a CD of music by Esteban Salas, "a composer of the Cuban-Neapolitan Baroque". That, of course, piqued my interest. Who could have ever imagined such a thing as a Cuban-Neapolitan Baroque connection? (Actually, with a bit of reflection, it isn't at all bizarre: Cuba and Naples were both part of the same Spanish Empire.) I sent away for the item and am very happy that I did so. It is called Esteban Salas, Cuban Baroque Music of the XVIII Century and is a recording from 1995, a collection of the composer's Christmas carols performed by the Exaudi Choir of Cuba. The music is beautiful—so delightful and effortlessly innocent that it just seems to sing itself. It is one of the unfortunate quirks of history that Salas is obscure today. 

    Esteban Salas y Castro was born in Havana on Christmas Day in 1725 and died in Santiago de Cuba in 1803. He parents were natives of the Canary Islands and, thus, musicologists list Salas as one of the first important native composers of the New World. He started the study of music at age 11 and by the end of his long career had composed hundreds of liturgical pieces. He also taught philosophy and theology. 

    The Neapolitan connection, mentioned above, comes from the fact that Cuba—the "Pearl Beyond the Sea"—and the Kingdom of Naples were both part of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish ruled Naples as a vicerealm from 1500 to 1700 and are responsible for establishing the important music conservatories in Naples in the mid-1500s. It is logical that the Spanish exported their culture to the rest of the empire, as well—a music school in Havana, for example. (Now that I pursue this line of thought, perhaps they established such schools even in the Philippines. That is something I shall have to find out). 

    This, then, from the liner notes of the CD:

    …We know nothing of his masters, nor how he acquired all the refinements of his art. It is possible that a certain Cayetano Pagueras of Barcelona, a seafarer but also a good musician and singer, had passed on to Salas the astonishing technique apparent throughout his compositions. In 1750 he had sailed from Spain to Cuba…He may have furnished Salas with scores…accessible to musicians in Spain at that period: those by Porpora, Paisiello, Alessandro Scarlatti and other 18th century Neapolitan masters (for Naples then belonged to Spain), notably those by Francesco Durante, the harmonies and styles of which are present in those of Salas…