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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

This tiny isle, Gaiola, is but a few yards from shore, just east of Cape Posillipo. It is the site of an ancient navigators' shrine to Venus as well as near the site of the few Roman ruins of  "the sorcerer's house"  where the poet Virgil, also renowned as a magician, is said to have taught. In this picture, it is watched by a small statue of St. Francis. 

Gaiola has two small neighbor islets. The modern house on it is abandoned and, at last notice, the isle and house were up for sale—with no takers! Over the centuries, Gaiola has developed a reputation of being haunted and there are many rumors about the misfortunes —including violent death— that befall those who inhabit it. These rumors, obviously, were not started by real estate agents.

Greek Orthodox Church

In 330 a.d. a Christian convert built a Christian city to replace the old and pagan Rome. His —Constantine the Great's— faith would soon be proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. The bad news would be that he had inadvertently made it possible for that Empire to be divided in two, sundering its church right along with it. 

There were organizational problems among early Christians. Should the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch and Constantinople all have equal authority? Or should Rome dominate, based on its imperial political status and the special history of the Roman church —that is, its founding by the apostle Peter? This squabble was joined by divisive theological ones: debates on the nature of God, Christ and  the Trinity. 

When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Western church bided its time with organizational matters. The lack of imperial authority actually led to a strengthening of the Roman church, since it took over a number of civic functions it might never have had to, if there had remained in place a true imperial bureaucracy in the West. 

On the other hand, Constantinople viewed itself as the natural continuation of Empire. The emperor was "High Priest and King," God's emissary on earth and the head of the Church. He could not owe allegiance to anyone else, much less a bishop of the Western church. In the years between 500 and 800,  Constantinople became by default a Greek State: the Byzantine Empire. Latin ceased to be the official language of government and was replaced by Greek, accentuating the religious differences and accelerating the separation of the Greek and Roman Churches. 

The reestablishment of a Western Empire by Charlemagne in 800 meant that there were two strong competing Christian empires. In the two centuries that followed, while having to relinquish Asia Minor and the Middle East to the surge of Islam, the East remained powerful, spreading to carry Orthodox (meaning "Right Faith") Christianity to Russia. The Western Empire carried its faith to the north and to the British Isles. In spite of seven ecumenical conferences held over the centuries to resolve theological differences, the two churches finally excommunicated each other in 1054. This was called the great Schism and effectively destroyed the integrity of the Christian Church. 

At present the Orthodox Eastern Church has approximately 150 million followers, and is the second largest Christian denomination in the world. It is composed of 15 self-governing churches worldwide, such as, among others, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Cyprus Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. 

Greeks and Naples have always had a special relationship. First, of course, the city was founded by the Greeks. But even later, when Naples and Greece, itself, were part of the Roman Empire, Greek remained a widely spoken language in Naples. When the West fell to the Goths, Naples fell with it, but was quickly retaken by the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine power surged and ebbed in Southern Italy in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, but Greek influence in Naples remained strong. Even after Charlemagne refounded the Western Empire, southern Italy was not part of it. In spite of the growing hostility between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, there were Eastern Churches and monasteries all over the south, Naples included. After the Schism, Orthodox rites were still commonly held in and around Naples, and there was even a Greek monastery in use here until the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century. Visitors to the Naples Cathedral will still find a double baptistery inside, one for Roman Catholic rites and the other for Greek rites. Also, for reasons obscured by time, a benediction by a Greek Orthodox priest is considered particularly auspicious by otherwise quite Roman Catholic Neapolitans. It is, according to popular custom, one of the ways in which the so-called malocchio, the 'evil eye,' can be warded off. 

The Greek Orthodox Church in Naples is on Via S. Tommaso Aquino in the downtown area.  It was founded as the  "Confraternity of Greeks Resident in the City of Naples" almost immediately after the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century by Greek refugees from that event. 

In 1518, a Byzantine prince, Tommaso Assanios Paleologos, paid for the construction of the chapel. The text of the Greek rites were defined in 1760 by a decree of the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The status of the church, as defined by the Bourbons, was accepted by the new Italian State after the unification of Italy in the 19th century. 

The members of the confraternity vote by secret ballot on how to distribute income from offerings and the few properties that the Church owns in Naples. Monies are used for philanthropic and educational purposes, as well as to pay those who work for the church. Such income has helped to create an elementary school for Greek children as well as children of mixed marriages. There is also an auditorium for social gatherings. 

The church, itself, is small and intensely spiritual. The silver icons have an overpowering presence and are close enough to touch —indeed, they are meant to be touched. Personally, I first noticed the music. Byzantine chants  are related at some point in a higher dimension to their Gregorian cousins in the Western church, but a thousand words detailing untempered minor scales, mysterious quarter-tones and the Eastern passion for the ornamental quiver in the voice would do as little justice to the music of Byzantium as my other words have done to the religion. You will have to go hear and see for yourselves. 

Plebiscito, Piazza; Naples Prefecture; San Francesco di Paola

Piazza Plebiscito is the largest square in Naples. It is bounded on the east by the Royal Palace and on the west by the church of San Francesco di Paola (photo, left) with its impressive  colonnades extending to both sides. In the first years of the 19th century, the King of Naples was Gioacchino Murat (Napoleon's brother-in-law). He started to build, as a bit of imperial splendour, a Romanesque forum in the square. When Napoleon was finally dispatched, the Bourbons were restored to the throne of Naples. Ferdinand I continued the construction but was so grateful at having his kingdom back that  he made the finished product into church you see today. He dedicated it to San Francesco di Paola, who had stayed in a monastary on this site in the 16th century.  The church is  reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. The façade is fronted by a portico resting on six columns and two Ionic pillars. Inside, the church is circular with two side chapels. The dome is 53 metres high. 

On the north side of the square is the Naples Prefecture (photo, right). It is on the site of the old Convent of the Holy Spirit built in the early 1300s. The clearing away of the monastery was part of the general campaign by the French during the Napoleonic decade under Murat in Naples (1806-1815) to, one, supress monastic orders and, two, rebuild the space in front of the Royal Palace. This building was started in 1810, suspended when the Bourbons returned to the throne of Naples in 1815, and then continued, following the original plans. It is a "twin" of Palazzo Salerno, the building facing it from directly across the square. That building houses the Regional Military Command and, in spite of the identical appearance, is older; it was built in 1775 by the Bourbons to house a batallion of military cadets. Palazzo Salerno, however, was then  redone to look like the newer one in the photo as part of the French and then Bourbon plan to rebuild the square. Actually, the Prefecture is better known to most because it is adjacent to the Gambrinus cafe, a favorite haunt of poets and musicians during the late 1800s and early 1900s and, today, a favorite tourist attraction.

Until quite recently, the square had been allowed to fall victim to an urban decay of sorts; i.e. it had turned into one gigantic parking lot. As part of the general plan to make the city more enjoyable for residents and visitors alike, Piazza Plebiscito was cleared and restored by the city government in the early 1990s. It is now one of the big tourist attractions in the city, a good place to stroll and get your bearings. The square hosts various celebrations during the year, from rock concerts to annual New Year's Eve festivities. It is also the site of periodic displays of "installation art". The name of the square honors the 1860 plebiscite that ratified the unification of Italy. 

Mortella, la (1); William Walton

Set foot in La Mortella, the gardens of the late English composer, William Walton, located on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, and you will know what  Francis Bacon meant when he said: "God Almighty first planted a garden. And, indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures." 

The composer and his wife, Susana, settled on Ischia in the early 1950s. There, one of the great musical spirits of our age set about to continue his life's work. His wife set about her own life's work, as she says, of building "a garden for an artist." It was to be a place of serenity, something to offset the turmoil within the composer, a place that would invite him to look not just out at the garden, but within himself. That is a tall order, indeed, when you start with a rocky, waterless gully covered with a bit of evergreen holm oak and some dying chestnut trees. 

The transformation from scrubby rock quarry to enchanting blend of rock garden and tropical rain forest was planned by the distinguished landscape architect, Russell Page, and begun in 1956. His designs evolved through 1983, but the work is still going on under the "green fingers" of Lady Walton, for whom "…gardens reflect our dreams and aspirations… they are our fantasies." In that spirit, over the years, La Mortella, has been magically transformed — but, delightfully, not tamed. You will not find the obedient and trimmed vegetation of, say, a Japanese garden. La Mortella looks more like a forest ruled over by a totally benevolent but mischievous goddess who simply can't be bothered to pick up after herself! 

Of course, the art of true helter-skelter is to plan it carefully. Thus, the paths curve at all the right places, and the terraces offer evershifting perspectives; when viewed from where Walton, himself, must have paused from his work to look out, fountains are arched by trees, and this puzzle of vegetation suddenly solves itself and fits together. 

At La Mortella you find everything from the extravagant pot-bellied Chorisia speciosa tree from Argentina (where they, appropriately, call it "the drunkard") to purple-pink geraniums from Madeira; ferns from the Canary islands and dwarf rosemary from the gardens of the University of Jerusalem; honey-suckles from South Africa, the soft green-yellow petals of California tulip trees, water lilies, jasmine, orchids, bright green Thalia and —as you ascend—even the lotus, set off meditatively alone in its own pond at the highest point of La Mortella.  Water has been brought in, not just to nourish the gardens, but to provide for the Alhambra-like presence of fountains and pools, the sounds of which remind us that even here in the presence of the composed music of man, nature has its own music. 

All that, however, is just half the story. La Mortella exists as part of the William Walton Foundation, dedicated in 1989 as a centre of the performing arts, a place for young composers and artists to study and perform, with "special reference" to the music of William Walton. (The composer passed away in 1983.) Here you will find not only the Waltons' home, but rehearsal rooms, as well. Each year, auditions are held to select participants in a master class, a month-long session of rehearsals culminating in performances open to the public. 

At La Mortella  there is also a museum, where you can browse among memorabilia from Walton's life as a composer, as well as watch a film on his life and work. And there is a tea-shop, where you can sit and simply look out over the gardens—and if that is all you do, it's still reason enough to go. 

Spanish Quarter

The main shopping thoroughfare in modern Naples is via Roma, a name thatmany Neapolitans reject in favor of the original name, via Toledo, named for Don Pedro di Toledo, the Spanish viceroy of Naples from 1532 to 1553. He was one of the most notable in a long line of representatives of the Spanish throne who ruled Naples between 1500 and 1700. Don Pedro is the viceroy who began the great Spanish reshaping of Naples, changes that extended into every aspect of life in the city, from the building of new living quarters to the enlarging of  port facilities and shoring up of city fortifications. The Spanish renovation of Naples was precisely that—a renewal, one that cast Medieval and Renaissance Naples in a modern sixteenth-century mold, which would then carry the city directly into the age of the Baroque. 

Via Toledo begun in the late 1530s, was the centerpiece of one  of the most impressive projects undertaken by Don Pedro: the construction of an entirely new  popular quarter of the city, today called, simply, The Spanish Quarter—or, by many Neapolitans, the Casbah(!), thus recalling the Moorish influence in the history of the builders. The main street, via Toledo (bounding the Spanish Quarter at the bottom of the above map) was laid out to lead north from what is now the  square in front of the Royal Palace. In the 1530s there was not yet a Royal Palace, but the square itself was adjacent to the large complex that included the Maschio Angioino and the living quarters of the Viceroy; thus, it was a logical place to start a new main road. Via Toledo ran along the line of an earlier city wall and was actually intended to supplant that fortification, literally breaking the confines of the medieval city and extending it up the slope of the hill of San Martino, a natural barrier. Via Toledo then continued on to Largo Mercatello, later, under the Bourbons, to be known as Foro Carolina, and today as Piazza Dante

The Spanish Quarter thus starts at the beginning of via Toledo and consists of dozens of  symmetrical square blocks, with the east-west streets running up the slope of San Martino. There are about a dozen of these streets between the Palace and the section of Naples called Montesanto. They lead up the slope from via Toledo and are then crossed by a number of secondary parallel streets, each one at a progressively higher level on the slope. The effect is of a chessboard of perfect little squares built on the side of a hill. A great number of stairways are built into the east-west streets to help the pedestrian climb the slope. 

The Spanish built a number of villas and residences on the spacious sites fronting the new via Toledo. Many of these buildings are still standing and recognizable even through centuries of overlaid architecture. The Spanish expansion also included  the area on the other side of via Toledo and running north towards Piazza Dante. Thus, one finds the Church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli on the east side of via Toledo on what is now Piazza Municipio. The entire area of the Spanish Quarter in the first few years of its existence was, indeed, a "Spanish Quarter," for it was in these houses that many of the 6,000 Spanish soldiers quartered in Naples in the mid-sixteenth century found accommodations before moving into a central barracks in the 1650s. 

The area behind the main street still contains some Baroque churches from the late 1500s and early 1600s. The most famous of these is the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione a Montecalvario, from the year 1589. This church was also the site of an orphanage sponsored by the congregation and which was in operation until the end of the 1800s. The church was rebuilt in the 1720s and has a central space with side chapels and a dome. 

The residences in the Spanish Quarter are four and five stories high, quite an accomplishment for 1600. (Even as late as the 1870s, Mark Twain commented on the “tall buildings of Naples”.) The blocks were an enormous departure from the winding clutter of medieval cities and are, perhaps, the first example of modern urban planning in Europe. "Urban planning" should, realistically, not be understood here in the benevolent twentieth-century sense of providing the poor with a decent place to live, however. [For a separate item on urban planning in Naples at the beginning of the 20th century, click here.] An age of absolute monarchy was concerned less with such things than it was with its own physical security. 

Here, one does well to recall Lewis Mumford’s remark that  the clearing away of the small winding medieval streets of Paris by Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century  did away with the last physical barrier which protected the common citizen from the power of the absolute state. Such was the case in Naples: a long rebellious nest of medieval clutter into which the King’s soldiers ventured at considerable risk was made somewhat more manageable by the introduction of broad straight roads that were easy to patrol. The centuries have by-passed that concept somewhat, for it is now the Spanish Quarter, itself, that has acquired a foreboding reputation as a section of Naples where a stranger does not  enter without some concern. 

[See her for another item on Spanish buildings in Naples.]


I don't know that this is the world's greatest pasta shop, but I like it. Pasta comes as spaghetti, macaroni, fettuccini, tagliatelle, penne, rigate, vermicelli, capellini, anelli, spirali, fusilli, maltagliatti, et noodle cetera —and those are just some of the common, generic Italian noodles in the present tense. Neapolitan conjugations include—but are not limited to (as pasta-loving legal fleagles like to say) —ziti and paccheri.) They come in red, green, white, and even the off-brown of (ugh!) whole-wheat health-food pasta. Also, they are stubby, skinny, straight, wavy, cork-screwy, and shaped like a torus, also known as an "anchor ring" (or "donut" to non-mathematicians). Attempts to create a stable double-torus noodle have thus far been unsuccessful. (See Dente, Al. "Getting a Handle on a Trivial Tubular Neighborhood" in the Journal of Pasta and Topology.) I think this shop has all of them. 

If all that is just "noodles" to you, then maybe you don't deserve this information. But if you are familar with the bizarre very-pre-surrealist works of Giuseppe Arcimboldi (1527 -1593), who specialized in painting human figures out of edibles, you will be pleased to know that his spirit is alive and well in Naples. Mr. Noodle Head (photo) and other similar renditions of the human head are to be found in a fascinating pasta shop on via Benedetto Croce, a few yards after entering the old city from the direction of Santa Chiara (approximately,where #6 is on the map of the historic center.) 

Christianity, early; San Pietro ad Aram

PaleoGreek for "ancient"means different things in different contexts. When used in the term "paleo-Christian" in this part of Italy, it generally refers to Christian relics and sites dating back to well before the year 1000. Naples has a number of these to offer, though, as is the case with many ancient things, they have been covered over by the handiwork of later centuries. 

To begin with, the catacombs of San Gennaro, on the way up to Capodimonte, are the most extensive and interesting examples of early Christian cemeteries to be found in Italy south of Rome. Also, a number of churches in Naples that now seem 'merely' medieval have their origins in the middle of the first millennium well before the beginning of the great age of church building. For example, the church and vast monastic complex known as San Gregorio Armeno located on the street of the same name goes back to the eighth century when refugees from the iconoclast controversies shaking Byzantine Christendom in the east fled to Italy, in this case bringing with them to Naples the remains of their patron, Gregory of Armenia.

(The photo, left, shows the entrance to
San Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa, a small Byzantine church that housed the Basilian monastic order. It is now incorporated into the massive church of San Domenico Maggiore, but was built centuries earlier.)

Another relic of early Christianity is hidden within the Church of San Paolo Maggiore on via dei Tribunali, one of the three original east-west thoroughfares of the Greek city of Neapolis. The modern church stands above a spectacular stairway, and, in the form you see today, was built at the end of the sixteenth century. However, it was erected on the ruins of a preexisting eighth-century church built to celebrate a Neapolitan sea victory over Saracen invaders. That church, by the way, was built on the site of --and even incorporated part of the structure of—a Greek temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. Also, the Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina on vico Donnaregina is on the site of an ancient monastic complex dating back to the eighth century. 

The best-known example of a paleo-Christian church in Naples, of course, is in the Duomo, the cathedral of Naples, itself. Incorporated in the cathedral is the Santa Restituta basilica, which used to be 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 the main body of the massive cathedral was built around it, so to speak, 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, which then took her name. 

Still on via Duomo and not far from the Cathedral is the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Its proximity to the Duomo may account for the neglect that this house of worship has suffered over the centuries. San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in the city; indeed, it is truly “paleo-,” one of those churches built in the early centuries of Christianity in Italy and that disappeared or were covered over by newer buildings in the great age of cathedral building after the turn of the millennium. 

You enter the church from a small square on the north side of the building, take a few steps and, at first, get the impression that you are in just another 17th–century Neapolitan church. Yet, when you turn, you see that your few steps have taken you through a primitive apse of unadorned masonry (photo), the small columns and vaulted dome of which are obviously much older than the rest of the building. Indeed, they are—by a thousand years. The original San Giorgio Maggiore is from about the year 600 a.d. and all that is left of it is that tiny bit that is so easy to overlook as you go inside. 

The present large church is from the 1600s when the decision was made to raze the older building, incorporating a small token of it into the newer church. Then, much of that newer building was subsequently demolished during the urban renewal of Naples in the late 1800s when via Duomo—the major road outside the church—was widened. 

One of the most fascinating examples of early Christianity in Naples is, however, one which for some reason doesn't get a lot of press or tourist attention. Yet, if what tradition says about this church is true, then it is most certainly the site of the earliest instance of Christian worship in Naplesor, for that matter, one of the earliest anywhere. Hidden away off of Corso Umberto near Piazza Garibaldi is the Church of San Pietro ad Aram. "Pietro," of course, refers to the apostle Peter, the "rock" upon whom Christ said He would found His church. "Aram" is the biblical name for parts of Mesopotamia and Syria. The word is still found today in reference to the Aramaic language of that region. Neapolitan tradition (and the plaque on the outside of the church [photo]) says that Peter left Antioch on his way to Rome nine years after the death of Christ. He stopped in Naples and held a worship service on a rudimentary make-shift altar. Twenty centuries later, beneath the countless changes wrought during all those fleeting human ages that we flatter with such names as Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc., that altaragain, according to traditionis still there. 

Is it true? I haven't the slightest idea, but 2,000 years doesn't seem like such a long time to me any more. After all, I can reach over and touch bits and pieces of stone walls and buildings near my house that were put in place 500 years before that. Traditions, however, do have other functions than simply being true; they serve as a means to bring religious and social values into focus, and they help us appreciate our past and evaluate what we believe. In those terms, true or not, the tradition surrounding San Pietro ad Aram is a worthy one. 

Croce, Benedetto (2)

           Villa Tritone in Sorrento
croce houseWhen I heard the story the first time, it seemed too good to be true. Someone mentioned to me Raleigh Trevelyan's book Rome'44, The Battle for the Eternal City, in which —according to my second-hand sourcethere is mention of a daring commando raid up a seaside cliff in Sorrento to save the anti-regime historian and philosopher, Benedetto Croce, from the clutches of the nefarious Germans in WW2.  Said Nazis were going to take Croce hostage and force him to eulogize the philosopher of the regime, Giovanni Gentile, who had just been assassinated. The raid was carried out by a paramilitary force that included the son of Axel Munthe, a long-time Capri resident, author, and builder of the mansion that bears his name on the island.

As with most second-hand tellings of third-hand readings from those who know someone who read the book, the story was a mish-mash, and without having consulted Trevelyan's book, I am quite willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that that is not quite what he said. 

The most obvious mess is the connection to Gentile. The relationship between Croce and Gentile is (1) beyond the scope of this brief entry and (2) beyond my own poor powers of historical deconstruction. I do know that they founded a journal together in the 1920s but then went their separate ways when Gentile drafted the "Declaration of Fascist Intellectuals". Croce was an anti-Fascist and spent most of the 1930s and WW2 being hounded by regime goons. As far as this episode is concerned, Gentile was murdered in 1944 and Croce's flight from Sorrento took place in September of 1943. So, that part of it is out, but the real story isn't half-bad, either. 

Crose deals with the episode in question in a small volume that I have finally had a chance to consult. It is entitled Quando l'Italia era tagiata in due: estratti di un diario (When Italy was cut in two: Extracts from a Diary) and contains daily entries from July 1943 through June 1944. The book (published by Laterza in Bari in 1948) is strangely out of print but was recently reprinted as a photographic copy in a limited edition by Mario Pane, the owner of Villa Tritone in Sorrento, the cliff-top mansion where Croce was living when the episode occurred. Croce had left his residence, the Palazzo Filomarino della Rocca in the historic center of town, and gone to Sorrento to get away from the Allied air-raids of Naples. He moved into the Villa Tritone, a splendid building set on a cliff in Sorento, overlooking the sea (see photo, above). He was—as he had been in Naples—watched by the authorities, but house arrest in the Villa Tritone does beat a bare-bones prison cell. 

He originally published these diary excerpts in his Quaderni della Critica in 1946 and 1947 "to correct misconceptions already starting to appear" in the popular press about what had happened in Italy during that period when "only the south" was in the hands of a true Italian government; that is, the Germans were still in control in the north and had even founded their puppet Italian Fascist Republic of Salò. 

In his entry for August 5, 1943, Croce sadly notes the "horrible destruction" of the venerable Church of Santa Chiara, directly across the street from his home. On September 3, he notes the Anglo-American invasion of Calabria from Sicily. 

On September 8, Croce mentions the official surrender of Italy to the Allied Forces in the south. [At that point, the new Italian head-of-state Pietro Badoglio went on the radio to tell the citizenry that "the battle continues"—against the Germans and Italian Fascists. Italy was thus plunged into a civil war.] The Germans, of course, did not simply pick up and move north; they fought a very bitter campaign back up the boot of Italy. Three days after the armistice of September 8, the Germans entered and occupied Naples, which Croce mentions in his diary for that day. Croce mentions on September 12 the spectacular rescue of Mussolini from his prison on Gran Sasso in the mountains of the Abruzzi by a glider-borne team of German commandos under Otto Skorzeny. 

Through all of this, Croce's notes betray no great concern for his personal safety. He ploughed ahead with his considerable intellectual output, working on, say, the poetry of Dante at virtually the same time as the Allies were blowing the bridge at Seiano, a few miles further in on the Sorrentine peninsula. On September 13, Croce writes for the first time that he has received anonymous notes threatening himself and his family, also living at Villa Tritone. On the next day, he reports that there is confusion in Sorrento—no German troops, no Anglo-American forces, but a lot of die-hard Fascists roaming the streets. His advisors tell him that he has to leave immediately. Germans—who can still come over the hills from Salerno—or home-grown Fascists in Sorrento might like nothing better than to take him hostage and use him for propaganda purposes. Croce writes, "I said that there were practical and moral reasons why I couldn't leave. I didn't want a flight on my part to incite panic among the populace." On the other hand, he notes with distaste the uses to which his name might be put by a regime that he has detested for so many years. 

Then, suddenly, the next day's entry, September 15, is written on Capri. Croce recounts the events of the previous evening, when a floating mine was found in the waters below the Villa. Forces intent on taking him and his family hostage may be setting the stage. The retreating Germans really may come to take him, the way they have already taken other prominent Italian civilians in Salerno as they retreated. He has to go—now.  Croce relents and agrees to be taken to Capri—firmly in Allied hands—in a motorboat that has come from that island. He leaves at nine in the evening with three of his daughters as well as with a police commissioner from Capri and an English officer, both of whom have come from the island to rescue him. Croce leaves his wife and one daughter behind to gather up the few things they will need later. He reports the next day that the boat sent back to Sorrento from Capri to pick up his wife and daughter has turned back because of the rumor that the Germans have already invaded the villa and taken the rest of his family. That rumor turns out to be false and on September 17, the same boat, with the same police commissioner, this time accompanied by a "Major Munthe (the son of Axel Munthe)" returns successfully and picks up his wife and daughter. 

The next day, he is questioned by an English officer for names of "dangerous persons and Fascists" left in Sorrento. He says he is not about to start doing what he has refused to do for so many years—collaborate. Through the whole episode, Croce is deeply saddened—and it comes through even in his low-key prose—that his nation is cut in two and he clearly does not want to fuel the fires of acrimony and vendetta by naming names. 

Later in the week, he writes, the Italian Fascist and German radio stations state that "Croce and others, who have tried the patience of the regime, will be severely punished." At that, the Allies broadcast the news that Croce is safe on Capri. So, there was no great derring-do or cliff-climbing—unnecessary since Villa Tritone has its own stairs down to a private boat landing—but nevertheless, it's a very human drama. 

San Ferdinando (church)
The everchanging nomenclature of Neapolitan streets and squares now calls it Piazza Trieste e Trento, but the square at the Royal Palace end of via Roma used to be Piazza San Ferdinando, a name that still defines that entire area of the city. The area takes its name from the Church of San Ferdinando, adjacent to the Galleria Umberto and directly in front of the large fountain in the center of the square. It is often the first church that visitors to Naples see when they walk up past the San Carlo opera to have a look at Piazza Plebiscito

The plans for the church were drawn up in 1622 by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), and the church was opened in 1665 after some years of interrupted construction. It was originally dedicated to St. Francis Xavier (San Francesco Saverio, in Italian) friend of St. Ignatius Loyola and one of the members of the first company of Jesuits. The interior of the church still displays numerous works of art depicting the life and missionary activities of St. Francis Xavier, including a by today's ecumenical standards—"politically incorrect" painting of The Triumph of Religion over Heresy through St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St.Francis Borgia and the three Japanese martyrs, while Mohammed is cast down with the Koran. Some prominent works have gone missing over the centuries, including a painting by Salvator Rosa, or have been moved to other premises (such as a painting by Luca Giordano that is now at the Capodimonte Museum). The church was rededicated to San Ferdinando when the Jesuits were expelled from Naples in 1767. The façade of the church has recently undergone restoration. 

Madre del Buon Consiglio

Perched on the hillside leading up to the Capodimonte Palace and very visible from various quarters of Naples is the church, Madre del Buon Consiglio. Interestingly, it is not nearly as old as it looks. It was built in the years between 1920 and 1960 in imitation of St. Peter's in the Vatican. It houses a number of works of art rescued from closed, damaged, or abandoned houses of worship in the city. There is also a path leading down to the catacombs of Naples. Legend has already attached itself to the church: the earthquake of 1980 toppled the head of the statue of the Madonna from the top of the church to the ground, where it crashed and lay inexplicably undamaged. 

Basile, Giambattista (1575-1632) and The Tale of Tales

European nation states are now so well grounded in their respective national languages that we often overlook what a vibrant history many non-standard languages —"dialects"— have. Perhaps the recent (1976) granting of linguistic autonomy in Spain to three minority languages —Galician, Catalonian, and Basque— is a sign of some sort of backlash in Europe against overbearing language hegemony, or, at least, a recognition of the importance of smaller languages in the lives of people. It is, at least, an excellent example of how to defuse an issue often touted as potentially explosive—the rights of linguistic minorities. 

The language of Naples—officially, of course—is Italian. It's what newscasters speak, it's the language of the print media and it's what kids learn in school. It is the national language of Italy because of its glorious literary tradition going back to the language of Dante and Boccaccio in 1300. It is the official language of Naples because southern Italy was made part of the rest of Italy by a series of wars in the 19th century, generally called "The Wars of Unification" in history books.  The spoken language of most of  the people in Naples, however, is the Neapolitan dialect, that southern brand of Latin vernacular with as long a history as the northern Tuscan vernacular upon which the national language is based. 

[For a separate item on the Neapolitan language]

In the group of southern Italian literary figures since the Middle Ages who have expressed themselves in their native, southern language, one of the most important is Giambattista Basile, the author of Il Pentamerone or Li Cunto de li Cunti (The Tale of Tales), known in English as, simply, The Pentameron. It is the first published collection of European fairy tales. It is  a frame-story like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron; that is, the telling of tales is presented within the framework of a group of people passing the time by sharing stories. Basile's Pentamerone tells fifty tales over five nights, all of them in Neapolitan. The most famous of the tales is Zezolla, also known as  "The Cat Cinderella," apparently the first published version of the famous fairy-tale, better known to English-language readers in a translation of the later French version by Perault. 

Basile was born in Naples and lived and wrote there. He also traveled to and wrote in Venice and Mantua, but always returned to Naples, where he was the court poet for various families of the nobility, including that of Stigliano Carafa. By 1620 he was among the most respected Neapolitan writers, known for both madrigals and odes in Italian as well as poetry in Neapolitan. 

A German-language edition of The Pentameron
book coverIt is, however, for The Pentameron that he is remembered. It is a valuable source for those who today study such things as comparative folk-tales in an attempt to pin down themes that crop up almost universally across cultures. At the time of Basile's death in 1632, no such lofty ambitions engaged most people, least of all Basile's sister, who put the collection of fairy tales on the back shelf somewhere while she tried to get her brother's other works in Italian some posthumous attention. Fortunately, that back shelf was on the premises of a local book-shop, the proprietor of which had a great love for literature in the vernacular; within a couple of years, the first few Neapolitan tales were published and by 1644 a complete version was published. 

The Pentameron was relatively late in finding a broader audience through translation, almost certainly because of the linguistic difficulties of the original version. Translators often worked from fragmentary French versions done in the 1700s. Complete versions in German and English did not appear until the early 1800s. Interestingly, a complete translation with scholarly notes in Italian (the original Neapolitan is hopelessly foreign to those in northern Italy) did not appear until 1920s when Benedetto Croce turned his attention to it. "The Cat Cinderella" tale in The Pentameron has gained more recent acclaim through the efforts of Neapolitan musicologist, Roberto De Simone, whose staged version of the tale has appeared throughout Europe in various languages. 

One might ask, Why would a poet who wrote odes and madrigals in Italian be fascinated enough by dialect fairy-tales to devote so much of his life to collecting them and writing them down? Not that everything needs to be explained, but at least one version says that Basile was more than a little uncomfortable with the opulence of the Baroque. He worked at the noble courts of Naples in the early 1600s —a time and place when the rich were very rich and the poor very poor. He had the reputation of being  a modest person who went out of his way to be honest and to avoid displays of whatever wealth he possessed. Maybe, too, he was just fascinated by tales in which simplicity is a virtue, ones in which good is rewarded and evil punished. Or, maybe, he just liked a good story, like the rest of us: 

There was in that land an enchanted Prince so attracted by Nella's beauty that he  married her in secret. And in order that they might see one another without arousing the suspicion of her wicked mother, the Prince crafted a crystal passage from the royal palace directly to Nella's abode, although it was many miles distant. Then he gave her a magic powder saying, "Whenever you wish to see me,  throw a little of this powder into the fire, and I will come to you instantly through this passage, as quick as a bird, along the crystal road to gaze upon this face of silver.

—from "The Three Sisters" in The Pentameron by Giambattista Basile

That's hard to beat. 

Odessa (ship)

This ship docked at the port of Naples had become somewhat of a landmark, but it was becoming rustier and less seaworthy with each passing month and year that it sat there. The Odessa was built in 1970-74 in Newcastle, UK. She was 136 meters long, did 19 knots and carried 550 passengers and 265 crew. The Odessa was once the proud flagship of the Soviet cruise fleet, and, indeed, I remember it coming into Naples on a number of occasions in the 1980s. At the time, Soviet tourists were an oddity in Naples. One time I went down to the port to meet Viktor, a trombone-player friend of mine on tour with the then Leningrad (now, St. Petersburg) Philharmonic. He walked up smiling and wearing a watch on each wrist. He had been waylaid by a dockside vendor, but he seemed content—and I'm sure the vendor was. (I heard later that both watches gave up the ghost halfway through the second movement of Shostakovitch's 5th symphony later that evening.) Anyway, Viktor had arrived on the good ship Odessa

Then, time passed, and suddenly—or so it seemed—the Odessa was just there all the time in the port.  A few weeks ago, I ferried out of the port on my way to Sorrento, looked over at the usual place and she was gone. As it turned out, the ship had stayed for seven years; I had just lost track of the time. 

When the Soviet Union broke up, 200 ships were taken over by the Black Sea Shipping Company (BLASCO) operating out of the port of Odessa in the Ukraine. By the spring of 1995, Blasco owed 300 million dollars to its creditors and was so far in debt that 24 of the company's ships were seized in ports around the world. At the demand of a German creditor, the Odessa was "arrested" (the term used in Admiralty law) on a cruise at Capri. There were 360 passengers on board at the time. They disembarked in Naples, and the ship was forbidden to set sail. (In such cases, port authorities carrying out the "arrest," physically board the ship and place a lock and chain around the wheel and post a warrant.) 

The war of attrition between the creditors and the skeleton crew left on board, commanded by Captain Vladimir Lobanov, began. The Captain retained a sense of humor throughout the affair, at one point telling reporters that the crew was doing much better "now that all the rats have starved to death". Most of the crew left, but the nine crew members who stayed had a claim against the vessel and decided to tough it out in the hopes of some day not having to return home totally penniless from the ordeal. As in the cases of some of the Odessa's  sister ships in ports around the world, the plight of the crew attracted the sympathy and solidarity of port workers, who took them food. In 1999, one of the crew died in his cabin of a heart attack. 

I now read that the Odessa was auctioned off in April of 2002 for 1,250,000 euros, 500,000 euros of which was designated for the eight surviving crew members. I read that the Odessa is again in its home port on the Black Sea undergoing refitting for another try at the cruise game. 

Castles, old

(This ruin is high above the town of Pimonte at the beginning of the Sorrentine peninsula.)

Just another old castle? Well, yes and no. Yes, the area around Napleslike much of Europeis dotted with ruins of medieval castles, some of which have been fixed up for you to see, but most of which are in various states of disrepair. The latter are the kind you are likely to dismiss as "just another castle" as you whiz by them on modern highways. No, on the other hand, if you realize that at the time they were built, these castles served specific purposes and were manifestations of long and complicated historical processes: the fall of  Rome, the struggle between Byzantium and the West for control of Italy, the birth of the Holy Roman Empire, the beginnings of feudalism, etc. 

Thus, stepping back and taking a closer look at some of these structures near Naplesthose restored as well as those in ruinsgives some insight into a period often glossed over as the "Middle Ages." The gloss covers chivalry, chicanery, knights, codpieces, maidens and castles, but often skips the events that have shaped modern Europe. 

There are a number of such castles as you drive east out of Naples on the autostrada approaching the Sorrentine peninsula and again on the peninsular road itself. First, on the left as you approach the Salerno-Sorrento junction is the castle of Lettere. The castle and the town of Lettere are perched at 400 meters on the western slope of the Lattari mountain range, the backbone of the Sorrentine peninsula that then joins the main Apennine range further east. The turrets and ramparts of the old castle are still quite discernible from the road. It is not exactly a falling-down ruin; i.e. at least the outer shell is still intact. However, the castle cannot be entered easilyor entirely safely, for that matter. The interior is overgrown and pretty much in shambles. It looks restorable, however, and they talk about that  all the time, since it is, at least potentially, a tourist  attraction. It was built in the 9th century on the site of an older Roman fort on that strategic height, a fortress that at times hosted no less than Roman dictator Sulla as well as later emperors. (There has been scaffolding on the outer walls for a number of months, so maybe a restored castle is in the offing.) 

This print by 18th-century artist, J.L. Phillipe Coignet, shows Vesuvius as seen from the ruins of the old Castellammare ("Castle on the sea").

Moving out onto the peninsula, you pass through two tunnels and then down the road onto the coast. On that road is a fine and solid,  new-looking castle on your right as you drive out.  It is in such good shapeclearly lived inthat it belies its age. This is the castle of Castellammare di Stabia; that is, the castle that the city of Castellammare ("Castle on the Sea") was named for. It is at the base of the ridge below Monte Faito. The modern town below the castle sits on Greek, Etruscan, Samnite and Roman ruins, the Romans being the ones who gave the name Stabia to the site. The castle has been rebuilt many times over the centuries, the last time in 1956 to make it habitable. It is first mentioned in the 1000s as having been built at the behest of the Duke of Salerno (of which more, below). Also, not visible at all from the road, but there nonetheless, are a few smaller structures well up on the hillside, such as the castle of Pino at 500 meters above sea level. It is accessible from the road that passes over the mountain from Castellammare to Agerola. And there are other smaller ruins scattered along the western side of the Lattari range. 

Many of these castles have a common link. In 774 Charlemagne entered Rome, and, in so doing,  took over Lombard holdings in northern Italy and, as well, established his authority over the new Vatican States of central Italy.  Thus ended the 200-year Lombard kingdom that had ruled most of Italy since shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire. Then, in 800 Charlemagne had himself crowned with the very crown of the Lombard kings, proclaiming the end of one kingdom and the beginning of another, the Holy Roman Empire. 

This description leaves out an important item, one that is crucial to understanding the next 1000 years of Italian history: Charlemagne didn't get the job done. He failed in his Justinian-like quest to reunite Italy. Charlemagne spent much of the late 700s fighting Saxons and Moors elsewhere, but in Italy he was content to leave the southern half of the peninsula still solidly in the hands of the Lombards. Left to its own devices, southern Italy became the large Lombard Duchy of Benevento. It was not a monolithic political unit, but the Lombards had always been loose-knit in Italy, anyway, governing as more of a confederation than a single state. Starting in the early 800s, then, from south of Rome all the way down the peninsula, and centering on the town of Benevento, the Lombards continued to hold sway in the south. Thus began the division of Italy into north and south, a division that would not be healed until 1860. 

The castles mentioned in this article came into being directly because of events in the mid-800s. The Duchy of Benevento underwent a civil war in the 830s. The war was ended by a treaty in 839 that established a separate Duchy of Salerno. This left the  Sorrentine peninsula and the area above the Sarno valley in a volatile state.  Three duchies were now contiguous: the independent Duchy of Naples, the still vast (in spite of the civil war) Duchy of Benevento, and the new Duchy of Salerno. They all came together in these mountains. Salerno, to keep her neighbors honest, started building forts on the western slopes to keep both Naples and Benevento at bay. Both the castle of Lettere and the one at Castellammare are from that period, as are the smaller ones mentioned above. 

The castles did their job until the coming of the Normans in the 11th century. Coming up the boot from their newly-founded Kingdom of Sicily, they fused Southern Italy into a single unit, beginning the modern Kingdom of Naples that would last until 1860. The various castles that had helped cement in place the fragmentation of the south into smaller units passed into the hands of feudal landlordsthe dukes and baronswho then ruled their smaller fiefdoms while pledging loyalty to the king of Naples. Many of the structures were of strategic, military importance well past the "age of castles". They served into the 16th and even 17th century and were important in protecting the coastal areas of Naples from marauding bands of Saracens, Moslem pirates who plagued southern Italy for many centuries. 

Pontano Chapel

The Pontano Chapel is the small grey building at the western end of Via Tribunali in the historic center of the city (#37 on the map of the historic center).  The perfect classic Roman design is attributed to Giocondo da Verona and was built in 1492 by Giovanni Pontano  to be a family chapel. 

Pontano (1426-1503) was the most celebrated Neapolitan humanist of the day, a friend of the sovereign of Naples, Alphonso the Magnanimous, and, indeed, tutor of the king's sons. He was important as a diplomat for the Aragonese in Naples, but his claim upon history is as a poet and scholar. Pontano is often referred to as the last great poet in the Latin language.  He founded in Naples what was called "The Academy" a meeting place for the erudite.  The Academy was influential among men of letters not only in the Kingdom of Naples, but elsewhere in Italy. Subsequently it became known as the Pontanian Academy, and its influence lasted well beyond the lifetime of the founder. 

Belfry, oldest

Adjacent to that chapel is the church of S. Maria Maggiore della Pietrasanta. It was built in 533 and is one of the paleo-Christian churches in Naples. Its origins involve one of the weirdest tales of ancient Naples. In 533, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Bishop Pomponius of Naples and commanded him to chase away a swine possessed of the devil that had been frightening citizens of the area. He did and then built and consecrated this church on the site of an earlier temple dedicated to Diana. The church was considered one of the most impressive examples of early Christian architecture. The relatively  modern appearance of the church is due to the reconstruction of 1653.The remarkable red-brick belfry (photo, right) on the grounds is the oldest free-standing tower of its kind in Naples. It was part of the original church complex, though built later (c. 900 a.d.). The base of the tower (upper photo) incorporates earlier Roman bits and pieces as contruction material, some of which are said to be part of the earlier temple.


San Gennaro (1)

'Ha fatto il miracolo?'  'Did he perform the miracle?'

Statue of S. Gennaro at the entrance to the port of Naples

Neapolitans have asked themselves that question any number of times throughout their history. A few days after Giuseppe Garibaldi entered Naples (thus ending the 800-year history of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and creating modern Italy in the process), San Gennaro (St. Januarius), the patron saint of the city, indeed, performed the wonder right on schedule. Solid remnants of the martyred saint's blood, contained in a vial in the Cathedral of Naples, miraculously and mysteriously liquefied on September 19, 1860, and, thus conferred, according to popular belief, divine benediction on Garibaldi's victory. 

On the other hand, there is a story they tell from the days of the Neapolitan (or Parthenopean) Republic, the sister Republic of revolutionary France, and one that lasted a mere five months in 1799. On the first Sunday in May, the other time when the miracle is said to occur, it didn't. This provoked the French commander—desperate to win popular support for his troops occupying the city— into the interesting move of threatening to kill the Archbishop of Naples if the sign from Heaven were not forthcoming. A short while later it came forth, thus lending, at least in the mind of the French general— and notwithstanding skeptical popular charges of pseudo-divine hanky-panky—  credence to his claim that God was on the side of the Revolution.

(Interestingly, this led to the temporary displacement of Gennaro as the patron saint of Naples in the hearts of loyalist Neapolitans. There are a number of paintings showing St. Anthony at the head of the army of the Holy Faith, the Sanfedisti, as they enter the city to retake it from revolutionaries in 1799. The illustration on the right shows "the princes returning to Naples" under the watchful protection of St. Anthony and not San Gennaro.)

San Gennaro was the Bishop of Benevento and was beheaded at Pozzuoli in 304 during Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. They had to chop his head off, the story goes, because when they had thrown him to the lions once before, the animals had refused to attack him and had simply crouched in submission at his feet. His remains were taken to Napoli to be conserved. The "miracle of San Gennaro," then, refers to the liquification of the clotted blood of the saint. It is said to happen two times a year at the Duomo (Cathedral) of Naples and at the Church of San Gennaro at Solfatara in Pozzuoli, virtually on the spot where he was killed. September 19 is the anniversary of his martyrdom. It is, thus, the saint's name-day, as well, and Gennaro is the most common name given to male babies born in Naples. Besides September 19 and the first Sunday in May, some sources say the miracle may also occur on December 16, in commeration of a violent explosion of Vesuvius, which spared the city in the 1600s. 

The granting or withholding of the miracle by the saint is, in the minds of many believers, intimately connected with the fortunes of the city--a prediction, perhaps, of traumatic occurences such as war, pestilence and natural calamity, or even something not so earthshaking, such as whether or not Napoli will win the football championship. It might also be a general notice of solidarity or disapproval from on high, as in the cases noted above. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church, which can, if it desires, make a pronouncement, on the validity of claims of miraculous occurences, is one of neutrality. Of course, in this our 21st-century Age of Skepticism, one expects to find skeptics, even among otherwise faithful, practicing Roman Catholic Neapolitans. But just as Christian scriptures remind us that we do "not live by bread alone," there are those who would remind us that the same goes for a people and a city; they couldn't have survived as long as they have without a little help. If you are out and around on one of the dates when "it" is supposed to happen, keep an eye on the reactions of those around you. Notice how even the skeptics cannot conceal their relief upon hearing that "San Gennaro ha fatto il miracolo!"

[If you want to read Mark Twain's less benevolent view of the miracle of San Gennaro, click here.]