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Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

Cilento, National Park; monasteries (4)

Naples is the name of the city as well as of the larger administrative unit—the province—of which it is the capital. The province is, in turn, part of the yet larger unit—the region—of Campania. The province of Naples is not the largest in area in the Campania region, however. That distinction goes to the neighbouring province of Salerno to the south. 

The province of Salerno occupies about 3,000 square miles. About one-third of that area has been given over since 1991 to the Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park, an area of great natural beauty and extreme historic interest. The park is almost all mountains and starts just below Battipaglia, running down to Sapri on the coast at the end of the Campania region. The bulk of the park occupies the rugged terrain called "Cilento," a bulge on the coast that accommodates a section of the Apennine mountain range that has wandered over from the main line to drop off into the Tyrrhenian Sea. 

That spur of coast separates the Gulf of Salerno to the north from the Gulf of Policastro in the south. Although the mountains are not high by the absolute standards of the Alps  (Monte Cervati at 1900 meters—5700 feet—is the highest summit in the Cilento), the relative height is impressive, especially near the coast, where the immediate change in altitude is from sea-level to the 1200 meters (3600 feet) of Monte Bulgheria, a mountain that rises immediately from the coast above and behind the town of Scario.

monte BulgheriaIt is this section of the Cilento that provides some fascinating glimpses into the history of Christianity. If you stand in the little harbor of Scario, you look up at Monte Bulgheria (photo, right)—an archaic Italian spelling for "Bulgaria"—Bulgarian Mountain. It is in the middle of southern Italy but is so-called because the area was settled by refugee monks from the east over 1000 years ago. The great Iconoclast controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries drove a number of monks to escape the severe persecutions of Constantinople (indeed, the most severe of the "icon smashers" aimed to destroy monasticism, itself). The monasteries founded in the immediate area of Monte Bulgheria are Santa Maria di Pattano, San Giovanni Battista, San Marcurio di Roccagloriosa, Santa Maria di Centola, San Nazario di Cuccaro, Santa Maria di Grottaferrata in Rofrano, Santa Cecilia di Eremiti, San Cono di Camerota and San Pietro di Licusati. All of them were founded between 750 and 950 a.d. 

The southern Italian peninsula of the 700s and 800s was not a bad place for people looking to be left alone. There were long periods when sections of the south were under only the nominal control of a central authority. The Lombards had invaded Italy late in the late 500s. In 800, they were replaced by Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, but even that affected mostly central and northern Italy. In the 800s and 900s the south stayed Lombard. First, it was the large Duchy of Benevento; then, that splintered through civil war into smaller units, one of which was the Duchy of Salerno. All of this was then gobbled up in the 1000s by the Normans. Important for this brief discussion is that Lombards, Salernitans, Normans—whatever—were all devout followers of the western church. Yet, followers of the eastern Greek church were, to my knowledge, pretty much left alone to worship as they pleased, even after the schismatic movements from Constantinople, first by Photius in 867, and, finally, the schism in 1054 that officially separated Christianity into east and west. There was not then—nor has there ever been in southern Italy—any particular persecution of the Greek Orthodox religion by Roman Catholics. It is true, however, that, little by little over the centuries, these eastern religious orders in southern Italy became westernised and in many cases were simply absorbed into the mainstream of the western monastic tradition. 

Bruno, Giordano (1548-1600)
"This statue of Giordano Bruno stands in the square of that name in the town of his birth, Nola, near Naples."

Astronomy became a modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, largely through the efforts of Copernicus and Galileo. It is less remembered than it should be that the life's work of Nicolas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri, containing his observations that the Earth and all the planets revolved around the sun— though formulated thirty years earlier— was not published until the year of his death, 1543. Nick had a good head on his shoulders and that is precisely where he wanted to keep it. Thus, he knew better than to go rip-snorting through the streets of Unenlightenment Europe advising princes of The Church that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. Even a century later, a very old, tired and  beat up Galileo, understandably afraid of the torture that awaited him unless he knuckled under, recanted his blasphemous confirmation of Copernican heliocentricity.

Between Copernicus and Galileo in time, we find the fascinating figure of Giordano Bruno from Nola, near Naples. Unlike Copernicus, Bruno didn't believe in soft-pedaling what he believed to be the truth. He was flamboyant, vain and loud. He was also, most improbably, a monk for eleven years of his young adulthood at the Franciscan monastery in Naples before renouncing his vows in order to set off around Europe as a wandering teacher of philosophy. And unlike Galileo, he not only didn't fear torture and death, but his last words on the subject—literally his last words on the subject, (spoken to his tormentors just after they had sentenced him)—were defiant: "Perhaps you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it." 

Giordano Bruno still fascinates us today. (Indeed, even James Joyce used to puzzle his friends by references to "the Nolan," and on occasion paid homage to this fellow heretic and believer in the magical power of words by using the pen-name "Gordon Brown"!) Bruno was caught, so to speak, between two ages in our civilization. He was a mystic, a devout man who brought with him from the past a belief in numerology, astrology and alchemy and even an interest in the revival of ancient Egyptian magic. He was, however, also a universal and tolerant man—one who wanted the universe to make sense, and, in that, he was a forerunner of the Age of Reason. He was, thus, ill at ease with the confining theology of his day, which proclaimed the Earth the center of all things. He believed in an infinite universe, a literal interpretation of the biblical "worlds upon worlds," a universe in which nothing is fixed, not even the stars, and where everything is relative, including time and motion, a universe in which we are but a tiny part of the great unknown and in which God becomes more of a universal mind, a substance inherent in all things, not a personal, external Prime Mover. Unorthodox views like this were to put him on a collision course with the Inquisition. 

In the early 1580s Bruno traveled to England where he lectured at Oxford and met the great men of English letters, perhaps, they say, even Shakespeare. Then, he left England and returned to France, Germany and back to Italy, where he thought he would be able to convince the Inquisition that he was no heretic and that his views were reasonable. He had, after all, time and again as a monk apologized for his doubts and, now, before the Inquisition, offered to defend his views. The Inquisition, of course, was not interested in debate; they wanted penitence, and Bruno would not give it to  them. He spent eight years in prison, being "examined and questioned".  On February 19, 1600, he was burned at the stake in the Piazza de' Fiori in Rome. 

Bruno was no Copernicus or Galileo in the scientific sense. His vision of the cosmos was not based on puzzling over the apparent retrograde orbit of planets or on observations through telescopes. His was more of a philosophical, aesthetic stance. In order to make sense, the universe had to be greater, infinitely greater, than his contemporaries imagined. Or, in his own words (from De la Causa, principio et uno): 

This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.

Murat, Gioacchino (1767-1815)

The shortest-lived dynasty to rule the Kingdom of Naples in its long history was the one installed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. It was the second time in less than a decade that the French had "liberated" Naples from the Bourbons. Earlier, in 1799, the forces of the revolutionary French Republic had set up and shored up the Pathenopean Republic in Naples; however, this sister republic to the south lasted a mere six months before the Bourbon rulers returned from Sicilian exile to restore their monarchy. 

In 1806, however, France was firmly in the hands of Napoleon, who, this time around, was taking no chances. He chased the King and Queen of Naples back to Sicily and installed his own brother, Joseph, as King of Naples. Two years later he moved Joseph over to the throne of Spain and installed as King of Naples his sister Carolina's husband, Joachim (Gioacchino, in Italian) Murat, a trusted military aide. Murat already had a reputation as a daring cavalry leader, having distinguished himself in support of the French Republic and, later, Napoleon's meteoric rise to power. Murat's role in the Egyptian campaign (1798-99) and then in the battles of Austerliz and Jena was heroic. His rule in Naples would last until 1815 and would produce sweeping political and social changes way out of proportion to the few brief years involved. 

The changes that took place in Naples under Murat more or less paralleled the changes in the rest of Europe brought about through the imposition of the so-called "Napoleonic Code," a legal system as monumental in human history as the codes of Hammurabi and Justinian, or the Magna Carta. In the Kigdom of Naples, the Napoleonic Code dismantled the 1000-year-old social structure of feudalism. It also instituted a civil service based on merit, one through which even modest citizens of the kingdom could advance. Those two items mark the beginning of an economic middle classtruly the end of one age and the beginning of another. (It is important to remember that in spite of Napoleon's ultimate defeat, these changes helped shape subsequent European history.) 

Murat also revamped the former Bourbon military academy, the Nunziatella, so as to make the military less alienated from the people. He encouraged citizens to avail themselves of military careers and rise through the ranks. He, the king, himself, was the prime example, having started life as the son of an inn-keeper. University reform and the beginnings of scientific facilities such as the observatory and the Botanical Gardens are all part of the innovations in Naples under Murat. Physically, the city acquired broad new roads such as via Posillipo and the boulevard leading from the National Museum out to Capodimonte. (The original name of that splendid thoroughfare was, fittingly, Corso Napoleone.) Additionally, the mammoth structure in what is now Piazza Plebescito, the Church of San Francesco di Paola, was begun under Murat. It was planned to be but the beginning of an enormous civic center, a forum. 

What most fascinates about Murat, however, is not the social change he wrought in Naples, substantial though that may be. It was his political ambition. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the main actors in what is termed the Risorgimentothe movement to unify ItalyMazzini, Cavour, Garibaldi, were still a generation in the future. The first rumblings of the Risorgimento were already being heard, however. The famous patriotic phrase of Italian patriots in the 19th century, "We shall not be free until we are one," was borrowed from Vincenzo Cuoco, a Neapolitan writer and social philosopher very active during Murat's reign. Additionally, secret societies such as the Carbonari first took hold in Italy in the south at the time of Murat; their avowed aim was constitutional government and eventual unification of Italy. Interestingly, Murat encouraged these groups, for he saw himself as the fulfillment of their visionhe would be the unifier and King of Italy! 

Portrait of Murat and his queen, Carolina (Royal Palace, anon.)
As grandiose as such ambitions were, they were piddling next to those of his brother-in-law's, who was worried about continents and not mere nations. Thus, Murat found himself back at Napoleon's side, serving as valiantly as ever in the Russian campaign of 1812. Concerned about his own Kingdom in Naples, however, Murat returned in early 1813 and in spite of Napoleon's crumbling foretunesor maybe because of themdecided to make his own move for posterity. He publicly distanced himself from the Emperor and moved north in Italy, taking over the Papal States and Tuscany, unifying a large portion of the peninsula on his own. All this required signing a treaty with Austria, Napoleon's archenemy, a deed which earned him the label of "betrayer" from the man who had put him in power in the first place. 

Murat's move was premature. Napoleon's defeat and exile to Elba meant the restoration of the old European monarchies, and Murat was forced to cede his newly acquired territory. He was not done, however. Napoleon's bold return from exile gave Murat another chance. In March of 1815 he allied himself once again with Bonaparte, agreeing to march north and hold a defensive line against the Austrians to keep them from attacking France through northern Italy. There is no way of knowing how Napoleon might have fared if Murat had simply followed orders. Instead, he attacked the Austrians and lost a major battle at Tolentino. 

In the six weeks between his own defeat on the battlefield and Napoleon's ultimate defeat at Waterloo, Murat left the Kingdom of Naples in the face of advancing Austrian troops. Murat's last proclamation to the people of the Kingdom of Naples appears in the Giornale delle Due Sicilie (Journal of the Two Sicilies) on May 18, 1815. He writes from San Leucio, near Caserta. He warns against fearmongers and says, "The enemy is still distant...but I shall never expose you to the terrors of warfare within our capital [the city of Naples]." Then, in what amounts to a farewell, says, "If destiny must strike, let it strike only me." With that, he was gone. The newspaper appears a few days later on May 23, 1815. The lead article is a proclamation from Ferdinand IV, welcoming himself back to his kingdom and promising love and benevolence.  It is written from Palermo, Sicily, where he had weathered, for the second time in 10 years, the storm of exile. He assumed the title of Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies (as opposed to Ferdinand IV, King of Naples). His wife, Queen Caroline, had died in Austria in 1814. Ferdinand married again. He died in 1825, having ruled Napleswith a few interruptionssince 1759. 

Murat went to Paris where Napoleon refused to see him. After Waterloo, Murat's fate was sealed. His kingdom was back in the hands of the Bourbons and there was nothing he could do about it. Yet, he still wasn't through. This quixotic would–be king of a united Italy refused benevolent offers to be put out to pasture and live out his days in peace. Instead, he took a handful of men and landed at Pizzo on the coast of Calibria, no doubt imagining himself rallying the local military forces and then marching north to retake his kingdom. Instead, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. His appeals to Ferdinand, the restored King of Naples, that you just didn't shoot fellow kings, fell on deaf ears.

On October 18, 1815, Gioacchino Murat, in a last typical display of bravado, refused the blindfold and commanded his own execution. A second-hand account of the episode is found in the The Nooks and By-Ways of Italyby Craufurd Tait Ramage, which went through a single edition in 1868. (There exists a scholarly edition, published in 1965 and 1987 as Ramage in South Italy and edited by Edith Clay, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago.)

[ Click here to read an excerpt  from that source.] 

A statue of Murat was erected in the 1880s as one of the eight that line the west facade of the Royal Palace in Naples. 

Rossini, Gioacchino

Biddy-bump, biddy-bump, biddy-bump-bump-bump!

Rossini's residence in Naples was in the Barbaja villa (photo, below), across from the main cable-car station on via Toledo (via Roma). Domenico Barbaja (1778-1841), the owner of the building, was the foremost impresario in the Naples of the day. He got Rossini to come to Naples in the first place and also managed the rebuilding of San Carlo after it burned in 1816.

If you saw that awkwardly-rendered musical pun at the top of this entry and said, "Hey, I know that...," then you are living proof of the omnipresence of Gioacchino Rossini’s music, even in the lives of those who wouldn’t know an overture if one bit them on the bassoon. It is strange, indeed, that we should be surrounded by the music of one whom we have never quite taken seriously. 

I recall a list of the world’s most popular classical composers, rated by number of performances in concert halls around the world over the last century. As might be expected, Beethoven is in first place. No one is in second place and fading fast. Beethoven deserves it, of course. If you take Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein, and roll them all up into one very very large musician, you get Beethoven. It is impossible, for example, to play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to death —although many have tried. That’s how good it is. 

On the other hand, one notch or so down the list, at the level of mere mortal composers who are only great,  Rossini, too, gets a good workout, especially if you count all the bits and fragments of stray Rossini that wind up as background music on radio, TV and  film sound tracks. He wrote mostly operas, but  concert-goers  generally get their Rossini in  orchestral format, since  overtures to operas are often played as stand-alone symphonic works. Even total musical morons can get theirs if they’re not careful, just by watching, say, that magnificent Bugs Bunny cartoon where our wascally fwiend conducts a fine, if somewhat truncated, version of the opening aria —the silliest piece of great music ever written— of Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, (the lyrics read, approximately, "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro")  until the Hollywood Bowl collapses. And if you have really and truly never heard Biddy-bump, biddy-bump, biddy-bump-bump-bump!— from the overture to the opera William Tell—you should check your birth certificate; it’s a fake—you don’t exist. 

Rossini was born in Pesaro in central Italy in 1792, the year Mozart died. It would thus be poetic justice if he were remembered as some sort of a link between the perfect classicism of Mozart and the passionate Romanticism of the early 1800s —in short, if he had been Beethoven. That would have been difficult, however, because Beethoven was already Beethoven at the time. Rossini comes down to us, then, as a composer born a few decades too late. He said of himself that he ‘was born to write Comic Opera,’ referring to the school of Neapolitan farce that was the rage of Europe from 1750 to 1800. He, himself, is remembered as the last in the line of such composers, the one who wrote the greatest of all such works, The  Barber of Seville. It was unfortunate for Rossini that he wrote at a time when Europe was no longer interested in musical comedy. People wanted passion and thunder—volcanoes of music. That was something Rossini could not give them. Beethoven, of course, could and did. 

Yet, Rossini is one of the five composers who have defined Italian opera over the last 200 years in terms of quality and quantity of their work, their popularity and their critical acclaim. Working backwards chronologically, these composers are: Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini. Puccini is the undisputed master of the late Romantic Italian opera, a composer with an uncanny flair for couching tragedy in beautiful  melody. Then, Verdi’s career overarches almost the entire history of 19th-century Italian nationalism, and his music is inextricably bound up with the struggle to create a unified nation during that period; he was a patriot as well as a musician. Donizetti and Bellini, contemporaries, mark the beginnings of Italian lyric romanticism in music: love, passion, heroism, all to the sounds of beautiful melody—now the trademark of Italian opera. Then comes Rossini, the last great Italian composer of the 1700s— which is strange to say, since he lived until 1867. Indeed, he was called the "grand old man of Italian music" by Verdi, whom everyone else called the "grand old man of Italian music." 

Rossini was a child prodigy, performing at the age of 12 as a pianist and soprano singer. In 1815, at the age of 23, he was appointed "house composer" and musical director of the San Carlo theater in Naples. He served in Naples for seven years, during which time he composed some of his best–remembered works. One of these was The Barber of Seville. The scandal surrounding the opening of that work is well-known. An opera by that name already existed in the repertoire of Neapolitan comic opera, and it was extremely popular. Rossini decided to write another one, thus incurring the wrath of Neapolitan fans of Giovanni Paisiello, the composer of the original. Said boors showed up at the premiere in Rome and disrupted the performance; they say that even members of the cast conspired to make the premiere a flop, which it was—an utter and total flop, getting catcalls and walk-outs all evening and leaving Rossini almost suicidally depressed by evening’s end. 

A caricature of the day has fun with the exuberance of Rossini's music.
The fact that Rossini did not take failure lightly may have been at the heart of his decision at the ripe old age of 37 in 1829 to stop composing opera altogether. His last opera, William Tell, starts with the overture that "everyone remembers". It is perhaps the most overplayed piece of music in the entire classical repertoire. Indeed, at least in the United States, where the overture was for years the theme music of the popular radio and TV western series, The Lone Ranger, it is said that the only ones who can hear the music and not think of horses and Cheerios (the sponsor) are  intellectuals —and they're  lying. Yet, in spite of that, it remains  a magnificently stirring piece of music and still has the power to move. Rossini wrote William Tell as somewhat of an answer to critics who told him that the age of the comic opera was over and that he should start generating a little true fire. William Tell is, thus, Rossini at his most passionate. It was the most Romantic, stirring, and deliberately 19th-century piece of music he could wring out of his 18th-century soul. It didn’t flop, but it wasn’t a smash hit, either. 

Rossini lived the last half of his life in France and never wrote another opera. He composed some sacred music, most prominent of which is the Stabat Mater. He lived far into the 19th century, yet was viewed as a composer firmly rooted in the music of the distant past. He did not have the mysterious and revolutionary passions of Beethoven, or even the simple flair for a beautiful melody, like his countrymen Bellini or Donizetti. By the calendar, he was a contemporary of the two giants of 19th century Romantic opera, Verdi and Wagner; yet, compared to them musically, he was truly a time traveler—and if he could not get back to the past, he did the next best thing: he quit composing opera and let the world of music go forward without him. 

Rossini, however—this person "born to write Comic Opera," and whose music seems so light-weight to our ears—was esteemed by his contemporaries. Verdi’s famous Requiem was originally conceived by Verdi to be a joint effort by himself and other Italian composers to honor Rossini on his death in 1867.  The work went unfinished at the time and was reworked by Verdi and ultimately performed as a requiem mass for the author Alessandro Manzoni in 1875. Rossini, thus, never got the honor which he was due. In a sense, he is still waiting. 

De Crescenzo, Luciano

Without calling up a lot of publishers to make sure, I'm guessing, but I'd say that the most popular living Neapolitan author is Luciano De Crescenzo. He was born in 1928 in Naples, got a degree in engineering and went to work for IBM in Rome. Just shy of his 50th birthday, he decided to write a book about Naples, Così Parlò Bellavistaaccurately rendered in the English translation ten years later (since it is a pun on Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra) as Thus Spake Bellavista. The introduction contains a one-sentence summary of De Crescenzo's philosophy: "Naples isn't simply a city; it is a part of the human spirit that I know I can find in everyone, whether or not they are Neapolitan". On the dust-jacket of one of his bookswhere the editor tells you about the authorDe Crescenzo sneaks in a few lines in the third person: "He didn't do well at IBM because he was always late...Those who don't like him call him a 'humorist'." 

When that first book came out in 1977, he appeared as a guest on a popular Italian talk-show. He was (and is) eminently likeable and unassuming, and his new career took off. Since then he has written about 20 more books. He has sold almost 20 million books in 25 different countries and 19 languages.  Almost all of them are light-hearted looks at the human condition, including "histories" or "stories" (the Italian word is the same) of Greek philosophy, in the course of which he tells us that the famous "Seven Sages" consisted of 22 different people. He tacks on his friend,  Peppino Russo, at the end of the list. De Crecenzo's style is readable in a way that most Italian writingeven modern popular Italian literatureis not. It is entirely conversational in the same way that, say, Mark Twain is. In other words, you get the impression that you are listening to a very intelligent person talking about some serious matters that would have interested you all along if they hadn't been styled in concrete all these years by other writers. "Who are we?" he asks. "Where do we come from? Where are we going?" and then, "And what have we gained or lost by being born one sex and not the other?" (This from his book, Women Are Different.) 

De Crescenzo, besides writing books, has now collaborated on screenplays and appeared in films, himselfwhere he is a total natural. I saw him the other night in Lina Wertmueller's brilliant 1990 film version of Eduardo De Filippo's 1959 play, Sabato, Domenica, Lunedì. The film stars Sophia Loren as Rosa Priore, the family matriarch who sets out on Saturday to buy the makings for the ritual ragùher magic ragout known in all Pozzuolithe big Sunday stew for the entire family. That opening scene is hilarious. Loren orders her usual ingredients in a machine-gun monologue that attracts first the attention of the other 10 women in the butcher shop, then their friendly advice on how to make a real ragù, and then, through a Laurel-and-Hardy-type escalation, come the know-it-all suggestions, more suggestions to "mind your own business," general verbal abuse, and, finally, physical violence. This is all watched by two cops on the sidewalk, one of whom sums up the situation: "They're making ragù.

The rest of the play centers on the misplaced jealousy on the part of husband, Peppino, played by Eduardo's son, Luca. This jealousy is directed at the supposed alienator of his wife's affections, professor Ianniello, played by De Crescenzo. Peppino vents his false accusations at the Sunday dinner table, devasting eveyone, especially his wife. Monday is taken up with resolution and reconciliation. 

It is Eduardo's fusing of Checkov and Strindberg: the failure to communicate plus the battle of the sexes. Since the film is an adaptation of the play, there is liberty with the dialogue, including the professor's (De Crescenzo's) good-hearted shrugging off of the accusation, explaining to the husband how we all get caught sometimes at either the "Apollonian or Dionysian extreme"the realm of calm intelligence or that of raging emotion. Peppino just got caught at the Dionysian end, that's all. That's the way Neapolitans are. That's the way everyone is. That sentiment is 100% De Crescenzo: "Naples isn't simply a city; it is a part of the human spirit that I know I can find in everyone, whether or not they are Neapolitan." 

Astronomy (2), Mars

Sea-level astronomy is hampered by general atmospheric haze andespecially in or near a big city such as Napleslight pollution. Having said that, I am still tempted to run up to the new store on Vomero, where they sell digital cameras, computers, digital cameras, computers, and digital cameras and computers. I think I saw a small telescope on a shelf a few weeks ago. I can't miss this chance to see Mars as itin the words of the great astronomer, Percival Lowell"blazes forth against the dark background of space with a splendor that outshines Sirius and rivals the giant Jupiter himself." Mars is at "perihelic opposition" and has not been this close to Earth for 50,000 years. I recall working on a particularly good drawing of a bison for the Lascaux Municipal Museum at the time. 

I thought I might be able to get something Neapolitan out of MarsMarte, in Italian. Maybe a good Neapolitan noodlesay, martellini. ("Man, that's some fine plate of martellini! Think I might get the recipe?") If only…if only. Alas, martellino means "little hammer". It is also a regional name of the bird called, scientifically, the cisticola juncidis, the Fan-tailed Warbler. At least, I think that's the English name, and if you had a fan-tail, wouldn't you warble? I rest my case. I thought, too, that perhaps Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) the astronomer who started us looking for "canals" on Mars, might have been from Naples, but, no, he had to come from Savigliano, not far from Cuneo, a town way up there west of Genoa. Cuneo has a folk-reputation for turning out slow-witted people, of whom Schiaparelli was definitely not one. 

In any event, most serious star-gazing in these parts operates out of the observatory in the Apennines near Castelgrande, well east of Salerno. It is one of the most important observatories in Europe and is run by the Naples observatory. The Naples observatory, itself, is located on the Capodimonte hill and has its roots in theif not infinite, at least benevolently despoticwisdom of Charles III of Bourbon; he endowed a Chair of Navigation and Astronomy at the University of Naples in 1735. Actual construction of an observatory, however, had to wait a while. During the French decade in Naples, Murat approved the plan, and construction was started in 1812. The observatory was completed after the Bourbon restoration and conducted its first measurements in 1820. 

The Naples observatory has a 40 cm main telescope that, on occasion, is open to the public. There is also a good library and museum of astronomical artifacts. I see that on September 2 they will have a "Mars Party." They will have missed the close encounter by a few days. (Gods of War may come and Gods of War may go, but August vacation runs through the 31st.) Nevertheless, it will still be a good glance through the telescope. 

The Naples obervatory has a website at 


Ruffo, Fabrizio;  Pathenopean Republic (2)

Almost totally unnoticed amid the clutter of modern buildings near the port, this cross was set in place in 1799 to commemorate the reconquest of the Kingdom of Naples by Ruffo's Army of the Holy Faith.

cross near portCardinal Fabrizio Ruffo (1744—1827) figures prominently in the history surrounding the short-lived Neapolitan (or Parthenopean) Republic of 1799; he was the one who formed and led the loyalist Army of the Holy Faith in its campaign to retake the kingdom of Naples from the forces of the Revolution. 

He was born at San Lucido in Calabria in 1744, son of Litterio Ruffo, duke of Baranello. He was educated by his uncle, the cardinal Thomas Ruffo, as a result of which he gained the favor of Giovanni Angelo Braschi di Cesera, who in 1775 became Pope Pius VI. Ruffo became a member of the papal civil and financial service and was created a cardinal in 1791, though he had never been a priest.  He then went to Naples where he was named administrator of the royal domain of Caserta. When  the French troops advanced on Naples in in December 1798, Ruffo fled to Palermo with the royal family. 

He was chosen to head a royalist movement in Calabria with the goal of advancing north on Naples and overthrowing the revolutionary government. He landed at La Cortona on February 8, 1799 and began to raise the "Army of the Holy Faith," organizing for his cause the aid of well-known Calabrian bandits such as Fra Diavolo and Nicola Gualtieri, known as "Panedigrano". It is impossible to find an impartial statement about the conduct of Ruffo's army as it marched north. On the one hand, he is described as somewhat of a Robin Hood, out to free his kingdom from the French. On the other hand, he is said to have done very little to prevent his bandit army from killing and pillaging as they went. Supporters point to Republican atrocities, as well.  Perhaps all that can be said is that neither side was particularly interested in taking prisoners. Whatever the case, by June, Ruffo's army had advanced to the city of Naples. When the French army occupying the city in support of the Republic withdrew to the north, the revolution was doomed. 

Ruffo helped broker the surrender of the city to his forces, guaranteeing safe passage to those members of the Republican government who wanted to sail for France. He was more interested in reconciliation than revenge. In a letter to Admiral Nelson, dated April 30, 1799, he wrote: 

"If we show that we want only to put on trial and to punish ... we close the path to conciliation... Is clemency perhaps a fault? No, some will say—but it is dangerous. I don't believe that, and with some caution I believe it preferable to punishment." 

Quoted in Il Risorgimento Napoletano (1799-1860) Pironti, Lucio. Collana Ricciardiana II. Libreria Lucio Pironto. Naples. 1993.] 

Clemency was not to be, and Ruffo was then genuinely outraged when his guarantee was violated by the King of Naples, Ferdinand (certainly at the behest of Queen Caroline), who had the refugees removed from ships in the harbor, returned to prison, and put on trial. Ruffo, himself, was part of the tribunal that was now to sit in judgment on the revolutionaries. He was so inclined to be forgiving and lenient that the King removed him from the tribunal. 

[You may read more about the Neapolitan Republic and events surrounding its demise by clicking  on Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel and on The Bourbons (1).]

The French, under Napoleon, retook the Kingdom of Naples in 1806 and stayed until Napoleon's ultimate defeat almost 10 years later. Interestingly, Ruffo stayed in Naples during the French decade. He apparently lived calmly and undisturbed by the French, who might have had reason to act otherwise toward their former enemy. When the Bourbons were again restored to the throne of Naples, Ruffo  took a ministerial post in the government and again became a confidante of the same King, Ferdinand IV (now known as Ferdinand I)  whom he had aided so many years earlier. Ruffo died in 1827 in Naples. 

Giordano, Luca (and the church of Santa Brigida)

The church of Santa Brigida started out in the early 1600s to be a home, a shelter for young women (called a "conservatory" in those days). It evolved into a church named for the Swedish Saint, Brigida, said to have visited Naples in the days of Joan I (the mid-1300s). 

There are two remarkable things about the church. The first is that it is still standing. It is on via Santa Brigida, the rest of the length of which constitutes the entire east flank of the mammoth Galleria Umberto. A number of buildings were razed in the late 1880s when the Gallery was put up, but Santa Brigida was spared. They simply built the new gallery around and over the smaller church, causing some damage to it but essentially managing to save a piece of history. History and art, that isfor the art in the church is the second remarkable thing about Santa Brigida and, no doubt, what saved it from the wrecking crews. The church contains a number of works by—and also the tomb of—Luca Giordano (1632—1705), the great painter of the Neapolitan Baroque. 

Giordano was, by most accounts, a child prodigy pushed along by his father, also a painter. Giordano spent his formative years acquiring a reputation for great speed and the uncanny abilty to copy the works of masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo. As a result, he picked up amusing nicknames such as "Hurry-up Luca", "Lightning" and "Proteus". He worked throughout Italy for commission, including anonymous ones that had him painting those ornate borders of mirrors and pieces of crystal. In 1687 he was invited to Spain by Charles II of Spain (known as "The Little King" in Neapolitan lore), the last king of the once mighty Spanish Empire. In 1687, of course, Naples was part of that empire and was ruled from Madrid by a viceroy. 

Giordano returned to Naples in 1700, having become a very popular and very wealthy painter in Spain. He spent the last five years of life helping struggling artists in Naples. He was well liked and, artistically, he is still highly regarded. He left many works throughout Italy and in Spain, but a great number are in Naples. Besides the ones in Santa Brigida, his Christ Expelling the Money Changers from the Temple is in the church of the Girolamini (across the street from the Naples cathedral) and the monastery (now museum) of San Martino has some frescoes, including The Triumph of Judith.

Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden of Naples is another of the "green lungs" in the citythose welcome, large patches of vegetation that help the city breathe in the midst of asphalt and traffic. (Others are the Villa Comunale, the Floridiana, and the Vineyard of San Martino. ) The Garden in Naples takes up about 30 acres and is located on via Foria, adjacent to the gigantic old Albergo dei Poveri, the poorhouse, and is part of the University of Naples Department of Natural Science. It is one of the many scientific and educational facilities instituted under French rule in Naples (1806-15). (Another was the observatory.) The Garden opened in 1810 and had a single director for the next 50 years. 

At present the Garden displays on the premises around 25,000 samples of vegetation, covering about 10,000 plant species. Although open to the public, the Orto Botanico is not, strictly speaking, a public park. It is really an educational facility for the university and local high schools and is separate from the agricultural department of the University of Naples (on the grounds of the old Royal Palace in Portici). The Garden is also actively engaged in the preservation of some endangered plant species. There is also an ethnobotany section of the Garden where plants are studied that are potentially useful, medicinally, to humans. Besides smaller structures on the premises, there are two larger ones: the 17th-century "castle," recently restored, and the 5.000 sq. meter Merola Greenhouse. The castle contains lecture and display rooms, and houses the ethnobotany section as well as the fascinating section on paleobotany, displaying the evolution of plant life throughout the history of our planet. 

The Sassi of Matera

Palimpsests were medieval documents that—in order to conserve precious paper—were erased and then reused a number of times. The erasures were not perfect and the older writings often showed through, building up, layer by layer, a kind of ghostly record of all that had gone before. 

In a sense, most of Southern Italy could be called an archaeological palimpsest. The region of Basilicata (or Lucania) is a case in point. There are still remnants of the ditch villages of pre-European peoples from 8,000 years ago. On top of this there are signs of early Indo-European peoples such as the Oenotrians and the early Greeks of Magna Grecia who displaced them in the 8th century, b.c. This is mixed with signs of Italic tribes such as the Lucanians, Oscans, and Samnites —all absorbed by the civilization which was ultimately to leave its own indelible imprint across three continents: the Romans. Then came the Lombards, Byzantine Greeks, the Normans, the Angevin French, the great Spanish realm of Charles V, (on whose empire "the sun never set"), and so forth down to our own day when the area was taken up into a united Italy. 

Matera is one of the two provinces of Basilicata; the capital city of the province is also named Matera. The old part of this city of 50,000 inhabitants is known the world over for its ancient urban complex, the Sassi. Of all the kinds of dwellings we humans have built over the ages—our huts, shanties, castles, hovels—nothing quite arrests the attention as the sassi of Matera. Built on—into, really—both sides of a gigantic limestone outcropping overlooking a deep ravine, the sassi  (meaning, simply, "stones") are a labyrinth of cave–dwellings. The caves, themselves, were lived in without interruption from the Neolithic (about 10 thousand years ago) until the 1960s and are thus likely to be the oldest continually inhabited human settlement in Italy. 

The sassi came into their own between the 8th and 13th centuries, a.d., when the caves became a refuge for groups of monks persecuted in the Iconoclast controversy that shook the Byzantine Empire. In Matera, these refugees were isolated and safe in a no-man's land between waning Byzantine power further south and unstable Lombard influence to the north. The monks moved into the caves and built halls, sanctuaries and chapels. Later, many of the cave dwellings were taken over by peasants as homes for themselves and quarters for their animals. Over the last millennium, houses have organically  grown out of the original fissures and caves (photo, above); steps, roofs and balconies have been added and everything is arrayed in an irregular jumble, layer upon jagged layer, roof to wall, balcony to doorstep, all so helter-skelter that the overall impression is that of a beehive built by bees who don't like following orders. 

On a more sombre note, writer Carlo Levi, upon seeing the sassi for the first time, said he was reminded of his childhood visions of what Dante's Inferno must have looked like: the descending layers spiralling down into darkness and who knows what awful perdition—and when the sassi were still inhabited, the thousands of candles glimmering in the small windows at night might indeed have looked like fires burning in hell. Levi's infernal vision notwithstanding, others have seen quite the opposite in Matera. The strange combination of age and agelessness about Matera lends it a Biblical quality, and here is where, in 1964, director Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed his life of Christ, The Gospel According to Matthew (and where, more recently, Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ.)

The entire complex is perhaps the most outstanding example anywhere in the world of spontaneous rural architecture, yet the problems of great numbers of people living at such close quarters were enormous. There have been utopian claims that the 20,000 inhabitants living in the sassi at mid–20th–century were a unique example of peasants, landowners, shepherds, craftsmen, merchants and laborers living in social harmony. The modern Italian state did not see things quite that way. It saw  an infant mortality rate of 43% (!) and a medieval folk magic that treated ills by sprinkling the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken on the victim. 

Laws were passed during the 1950s to alleviate the overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions. This meant moving most of the people out. New quarters were built in the town of Matera, itself, and the sassi have now essentially become empty shells, except for a small and strictly limited number of inhabitants. The area has become—as well it should—an object of tourist interest, and this has led to an ongoing project to keep the houses, churches, villas, the small squares and long flights of stairs of the sassi from deteriorating. Indeed, the sassi have recently been added to the United Nations World Heritage list of cultural artifacts worth preserving at all cost. 

Aside from the houses, themselves, there are in the area a great number of ancient cave churches displaying Orthodox as well as Catholic ornamentation within. Time and vandals have ravaged them to a certain extent, but  some  original Greek icons on cave walls are still clearly visible and venerable. Even traces of prehistoric habitation can be found within some of the caves. 

If you want to actually buy one of the sassi dwellings and restore it, you can do that, too, and get a 50% subsidy from the state! On the other hand, if you just want to visit for a day, it's only a few hours south of Naples on a fast autostrada. 

I have recently (April, 2004) had a kind letter from Elizabeth Jennings of Matera, who tells me that "...A goodly portion of the Sassi are now restored and the area is a beehive of activity, particularly in summer. Restaurants, bars, pizzerie, salsa clubs...the streets hum with the sound of foot traffic and voices...concerts and plays...and a plan to convert a huge grotto into the Casa Grotta, a big cultural center. The human overlay is very modern and young."


Operetta, musicals, musical comedy, light opera, comedy opera—all of these terms have been used at times in English since the early 1800s to describe a form of musical theater in which there is spoken dialogue as well as music; this, as opposed to simply "opera", in which even lines of dialogue are sung, or at least talk–sung as recitativo. This type of musical theater, mixing music and spoken dialogue, is also generally shorter than, say, traditional Italian Classical and Romantic opera and generally felt to be less serious and less ambitious, dramatically. Many of the names associated with this mixed form of entertainment are well known: Offenbach, Johann Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, Franz Lehar, Victor Herbert, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sometimes we remember only the name of the person who composed the music, and sometimes we remember both, even though we may not be sure who wrote what. It is conventional, too, to group this music into "national schools"; thus, we speak of the French opéra comique, Viennese operetta, English operetta, American musical comedy, and Spanish Zarzuela

There are many local, regional versions of this kind of musical theater. In Naples, it is called the sceneggiata. It is always sung and spoken in Neapolitan dialect and generally revolves around domestic grief, the agony of leaving home, personal deceit and treachery, betrayal in love, and life in the world of petty crime. (If you get all of that in one piece, then you may understand why I don't like it very much. I am allergic to musical theater in which men bite their knuckles when they find out they've been cuckolded, then stab the other man, disfigure the woman involved, and break into song.) 

The sceneggiata started shortly after WWI, was extremely popular in the 1920s, faded, but has been enjoying somewhat of a comeback with newer generations of performers since the 1960s. It is, today, extremely popular in small theaters and on local television. 

What is interesting about the sceneggiata is that besides the one focus of popularity, Naples, the other main one is (or, at least, was) that area of New York City known as Little Italy. That is not surprising, given, one, the large Neapolitan and Sicilian population in the New York of the early 20th-century and, two, the drama and trauma that naturally spin off from the theme of immigration. (Indeed, one of the most popular of all "Neapolitan Songs" comes from the tradition of the sceneggiata: Lacreme Napuletane, composed in 1925 by Libero Bovio (lyrics) amd Francesco Buongiovanni (music). It is the ultimate immigrant tearjerker written in the form of a letter home to mamma in Naples at Christmas. The writer is the immigrant son in America, who bewails being far from home; the famous refrain begins, "How many tears America has cost us". 

When one says—as I did—that the song "comes from" the tradition of the sceneggiata, that ties in with another interesting point about this kind of musical theater: the relationship between an individual song in the piece and the entire piece, itself. Most people who have seen, say, American musical comedy, are used to the idea that songs are written for a musical. That is, the story first exists in some form or another and then a tunesmith and lyricist (on occasion, one person does both) get together and knock out 7 or 8 songs for the production. (It is also the case, however, that the plots are often weak; thus, the musical will be forgotten while some of the songs become independently famous. (Quick, what musical does "Someone to Watch Over Me," come from? See?) In the sceneggiata, the opposite obtains: a song is written and the theme is so potentially dramatic that writers then decide to weave a plot around the song—basically, something for actors to do until the main song comes along. The result is perhaps the same: the individual song tends to outlive the larger dramatic framework. 

In the days when small neighborhood theaters were the main form of entertainment, and when audiences were less sophisticated (or maybe just less jaded), the sceneggiata evoked real passion among onlookers. I have some friends who, even today, talk to the television, offering advice such as "Watch out!" so I have no problem at all in believing that in the 1920s, fistfights used to break out in the audience during one sceneggiata or another as people chose up sides in support of either the betrayed husband or the unfaithful wife. (Even in straight Italian opera, Enrico Caruso and company—in the tenor's very early career—were once chased from the stage and through the streets of a small town near Naples because the audience was scared out of its wits by the apparition of the Devil in a production of Gounod's Faust.) 

The most popular sceneggiata ever written is probably Zappatore, (meaning, exactly, "clodbuster," one who works the land and breaks up the soil for farming) written as a song in 1929 by Bovio and Albano. It was then spun out into a full-fledged stage production and even made into a film on various occasions, the first actually from a film company in Little Italy in New York. The most recent film version is the 1980 version starring Mario Merola, easily the most popular performer of the Neapolitan sceneggiata in the last 40 years and one whose considerable talents have no doubt contributed to the staying power of the sceneggiata in an age when it might have otherwise become passé. The plot is typical: Hardworking Fatherthe Zappatoresacrifices to give Son an education. Said son promptly forgets his family and is even embarrassed by their peasant presence. Etc. etc. 

If you think you have never seen a sceneggiata, you have seen at least a small bit of one if you have ever seen The Godfather, part II. There is a scene in which the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) is watching just such a production in a small theater in Littly Italy. In the scene, a young woman bursts onto the stage and says "Una lettera per te!" (A letter for you). The male lead then reads that his mother in Naples has died, pulls out a pistol, and is about to shoot himself. That is when the main plot in The Godfather, part II moves on to something else, so we never find out what happened. I suspect that the young man did not, in fact, blow his brains out, but simply broke into song. 

Virgil in Naples  (1)

One of Gastave Dore's illustrations for the Divine Comedy shows Vergil guiding Dante into the Inferno at Lake Averno.

Dore-Dante/Vergil imagePublius Vergilius Maro (70-19 bc), one of the great names in Western literature, is still connected in some slightly bizarre ways to modern-day Naples. For example, if you drive past the Castel dell'Ovo—the Egg Castle off of Santa Lucia and ask yourself why it's called the "egg" castle, the answer is that about a thousand years ago the rumor started that  Virgil, a thousand years earlier, had placed an egg in a small container on the premises. If the egg was ever broken, disaster would befall the city. Indeed, egg shells on the castle grounds were enough to cause small-scale disorder among the population of Naples in the Middle Ages! 

Another one: if you drive through the Mergellina tunnel on your way to Fuorigrotta, you pass within a stone's throw of a Roman tunnel. It was one of a few such tunnels—all major feats of engineering at the time—that the Romans built to get in and out of Naples. Legend has it that Virgil conjured this one tunnel into existence by his powers of sorcery. The Mergellina entrance to the tunnel is now on the premises of an historical site called "Virgil's Tomb". And, three, if you wander down to the seaside near Cape Posillipo, you can see the paltry remains of what, over the centuries, has been called, The Sorcerer's House—meaning Virgil. 

Sorcerer, you say?  Isn't this the person who wrote The Aeneid? The Bucolics? The Georgics? Indeed, it is, and he would probably be amused at his putative powers of legerdemain —all due, by the way, to the medieval Italian love of  attributing magical ability to the Greats of Antiquity. But when Virgil was alive, he wasn't yet Antiquity; he was just great. No magic in great writing— just hard work. 

Virgil was born near Mantua. His father was a prosperous farmer who sent his son off to Rome to study. Virgil returned home to study Greek philosophy and poetry on his own and began to write poetry that came to the notice of  Gaius Cilnius Maecenus, a friend and advisor to the young Octavius (later to become "Augustus Caesar"). Maecenas' name has come down to us as a metaphor of "patron of the arts". That reputation has largely to do with his support of Virgil and the other great poet of the age of Augustus, Horace. 

Under the patronage of Maecnas, Virgil published a collection of eclogues, idyllic poetry, called Bucolica —"The Bucolics," in English. As the title implies, they were filled with a spirit of nostalgia, a longing for a simpler time. This was understandable when you consider that Virgil was a young man when Julius Caesar was assassinated, an event that almost tore Italy apart. That episode, itself, came on the heels of great unrest during the previous 50 years in Italy. Rome was not yet the Roman Empire, and events seemed to be coursing out of control. Perhaps, indeed, a sensitive young  poet might have thought—in different words, perhaps, than it occurred to Yeats 2,000 years later—that "the center cannot hold". 

There are ten pastoral poems in the Bucolica, one of which contains the secret as to why Virgil was held in such high, magical esteem by Italians in the Middle Ages. It is Eclogue number four, the so-called Messianic Eclogue, in which Virgil predicts a new age of peace for the world, ushered in by the birth of a child: 

"Come soon, dear child of the gods, Jupiter's great viceroy!
Come soon—the time is near—to begin your life illustrious!"

Medieval Christian scholars saw this as a prediction of the birth of Christ and, thus, held the poet to have been a "pagan Christian", if you will—one in a position of privilege regarding the divine course of things. No doubt, this is the reason Dante chose Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory in la Divina Commediaand no doubt why, among all pagan authors, Virgil did not share their fate of centuries of benign and even malign neglect by Christian scholars. 

In any event, Octavius prevailed, the empire geared up, and Virgil moved to the Campania, to Nola, near Naples. Here Virgil wrote the Georgics -- a hymn of praise to the farmer,  another bit of nostalgia about a simpler, happier time, full of hope that the new emperor, Augustus, would be the beginning of a great reign of peace. The Georgics are marked by an extraordinary upbeat ending, one of regeneration and resurrection, told in the form of an optimistic allegory of new swarms of honey-bees issuing forth from the carcasses of sacrificed cattle. Here, at the end of the last Georgic, is where Virgil makes a famous reference to Naples: 

"This was the time when I, Virgil, nurtured in sweetest
Parthenope, did follow unknown to fame the pursuits
of peace..."

Parthenope was the siren in Greek mythology who gave her name to the first Greek settlement in the Bay of Naples-to-be. Indeed, Neapolitans commonly refer to themselves, even today, as "Parthenopeans". 

Virgil then set about  immortalizing Augustus. Drawing on the form of the Greek epic, he sang of Aeneas:

"...his fate had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far
as Italy...
...until he brought a city into being...
from this have come the Latin race, the lords
of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome..."

For Romans of the day, the Aeneid was the epic summing up of their history and a statement of their aspirations —this was to be The Roman Empire. As with the Bucolica and the Georgics, Virgil chose an earlier Greek model for his work: the Homeric epic form. Here, it is interesting to note that all later epic poetry in the Middle Ages, and even something as late as Paradise Lost (1667), owes more to Virgil than to Homer. Until our own Renaissance had rediscovered the Greeks, knowledge of the works of Homer was sketchy and anecdotal. No one in Italy could even read classical Greek in, say, 1400, even if they had had a Greek copy of the Odyssey, which they didn't. 

Those Greek originals (or, at least, copies of copies) would not be available for another century and, thus, Latin translations of Homer were not completed  until the mid-1500s; so, the "epic" tradition, as originally Greek as it might have been, passed into and through our Middle Ages and into modern times as "Virgilian" rather than "Homeric". When Dante sat around with his friends in 1300 talking about Homer —as he must have done— he knew about Homer and mythical Troy only through references in Roman writers, primarily Virgil, and through the veil of mythology, one much more impenetrable to him than it is to us today. Homer and Classical Greece  must have seemed to Dante as, perhaps, tales of Atlantis do to us, today. But Virgil? The entire Middle Ages knew Virgil —he was on the bookshelf. They quoted his language; indeed, they still wrote in Virgil's language, Latin,  though, ironically, it would be Dante, himself, to desert that language for the vernacular form later to become known as "Italian". 

Important sections of the Aeneid play out in the area around Naples. It is no problem at all, today, to walk up to the height of Posillipo where Virgil must have stood. It was called Posillipo even then, so named by Greeks centuries earlier —Pavsillipon, the "place where unhappiness ends". From there you can look west across the Bay of Pozzuoli, as Virgil must have looked as he struggled to put into poetry the mythology and events that were ancient even to him. You see a point of land that closes the bay at the other end. This is where Aeneas' comrade, Misenus, master of the sea-horn—the conch-shell—made "the waves ring" with his music and challenged the sea-god Triton to musical battle. For his troubles, he was dashed into the sea and killed by "jealous Triton". Then 

"...Pious Aeneas
sets up a mighty tomb above Misenus
bearing his arms, a trumpet, and an oar;
it stands beneath a lofty promontory,
now known as Cape Misenus after him:
it keeps a name that lasts through all the ages."

"All the ages" is a long time, but at least 2,000 years later, it is still Cape Miseno. 

Right past Miseno and the end of the bay, Aeneas and his men "glide to the Euboean coast of Cuma"—"Euboean" from the Greek isle of "Evvoia", purported home of those who had founded the city. Here 

"... you reach the town of Cumae
 the sacred lakes, the loud wood of Avernus,
 there you will see the frenzied prophetess
deep in her cave of rocks she charts the fates
... She will unfold for you... 
the wars that are to come and in what way 
you are to face or flee each crisis..."

This, of course, is where Aeneas has come to get the answer he seeks —where and whether the wandering Trojans will be able to rest. Here is the cave of the prophetess, the Sibyl of Cuma: 

"The giant flank of that Euboean crag
has been dug out into a cave; a hundred
broad ways lead to that place, a hundred gates;
as many voices rush from these..."

Then, Aeneas is off to the lake of Avernus to descend into the underworld to seek his father. At the lake still called Lago Averno, 

"There was a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast
and rugged, sheltered by a shadowed lake
and darkened groves; such vapor poured from those
black jaws to heaven's vault, no bird could fly
above unharmed (for which the Greeks have called
the place "Aornos" or "The birdless")..."

Here, then, is Virgil's repetition of the popular etymology that has Averno as the source of “infernal,” and even the word “inferior” in the sense of "the bottom part of"—i.e. the underworld, Hell. 

Aeneas finds his father Anchises, who tells him 

"...that famous Rome will make her boundaries
as broad as earth itself, will make her spirit
the equal of Olympus, and enclose
her seven hills within a single wall,
rejoicing in her race on men..."

Those lines are the epic justification for what Rome was to become. They were undoubtedly lines that Octavius —Caesar Augustus—wanted to hear and once Virgil had given him those lines, there was no way that Augustus was going to give them back. That is to say, Virgil left Naples on a trip to Greece. He took ill and returned, dying in Brindisi in 19 bc at the age of 51. He had not finished the Aeneid, and he left instructions for the work to be destroyed. The emperor made sure that did not happen. Augustus entrusted the unfinished work to two of Virgil's friend for editing, and that is the version that passed through the centuries to Dante and to us. 

Virgil's remains were returned to Naples and entombed. Whether they are in the exact spot of Virgil's Tomb in Mergellina is irrelevant. As George Sarton says: "...his main creations were the fruits of his life in Campania. What a country to live in for a poet, a country full of natural beauty and glorious remembrances... If one wants to visualize Virgil, it is there that one must seek for him, not in  the land of his birth, but in the one that was the nursery of his genius." 

And as Virgil, himself, said: he was "nurtured in sweetest Parthenope". 

[Passages cited from the Aeneid, are from The Aenid of Virgil, a verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum, A Bantam Classic Edition, 1981. Translation © 1971 by Allen Mandelbaum. Passages from The Eclogues or The Georgics are from Virgil, The Eclgues, The Georgics. The World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1983, translation by C. Day Lewis © 1983.] The Sarton quote at the end is from his A History of Science, Vol. 2: Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C. 1959. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge.]

Diplomatic Relations, US/Naples (2)

I've just acquired a fascinating two-volume work entitled Diplomatic Relations Between The United States and the Kingdom of Two Sicilies by the late Howard R. Marraro, the prominent historian at Columbia University. The work contains most of the official correspondence between US diplomats in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies (also known as the Kingdom of Naples) and the various presidents of the United States between 1816 (following the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of European monarchies) and 1861, the year of the defeat of the Kingdom and its incorporation into united Italy. 

It's great reading. You're at the elbow of the ambassador in Naples in 1816 as he gets instructions from President Madison on pressing Ferdinand IV for reparations from Naples for an episode in which Murat, ruling for the French in Naples a few years earlier, had confiscated American goods and ships in Naples*. King Ferdinand's point-of-view, of course, was that Murat—indeed, Napoleon, himself—had been a usurper, so why should the rightful Bourbon government now be required to pay for crimes committed by an illegitimate predecessor? That took until the early 1830s to straighten out. (Naples eventually paid, caving in to robust Yankee logic that said, Yes, Murat was a usurper, but how could Naples claim to bear no responsability for the usurper's debts and continue to reap the fruits of the usurper's actions?--meaning that Naples had kept (!) the American ships and was even using them in the Neapolitan fleet!) 

An amusing sidelight to the whole affair is that the US expressed its willingness to take land instead of money as reparations—maybe a tiny island such as Lampedusa or one of the Lipari group with, say, a good harbor, which the US could use for its "Mediterranean Squadron"! The Bourbons of Naples weren't too keen on that one. (A British paper at the time, reporting on the earlier failure of the US to get any concessions out of Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, happily declared that the US had failed to get the island of Lampedusa. America, the paper continued, was a rising power, but perhaps it was a bit premature for her to start trying to colonize Europe.) 

[*The confiscation of US ships and property by Murat (and by Napoleon in France) is part of a long and complicated dispute between the United States, France, and Great Britain over the rights of neutral countries (the US in regards to the war between France and Britain at the time) to trade with whomever they wished. The French, however, had blockaded Britain in 1806 and declared that a neutral ship that visited a British port had lost the protection of her neutral flag and was subject to seizure. Thus, the French --and Murat in Naples-- justified the seizures because the same US ships that were in French and Neapolitan ports had just visited British ports. Napoleon (and Murat) used, as an ulterior justification, the fact that US ships in French (and Neapolitan) ports had also violated America's own Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade US ships from carrying on commerce with Britain and France. President Jefferson thought that the act would show both nations how much they really needed Yankee trade. All it did was bankrupt and infuriate New England merchant firms, who openly flouted the Embargo Act. To pursue this matter further, there is a description of  the relevant trade agreements at


and an explanation of the Embargo Act of 1807 at

http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0817234.php  ]

And you're also right there half a century later to read the diplomatic despatches as Garibaldi invades Sicily, then the mainland, then takes the city of Naples, itself. General public opinion in the US viewed the Bourbons (primarily Ferdinand II) as a tyrant and supported Garibaldi. Yet, the last US diplomat in Naples, the man who closed out the legation when the Kingdom was annexed to Italy in 1861, J.R. Chandler—perhaps because he was by training and disposition inclined to seek diplomatic solutions instead of military ones—writes less benevolently of the liberator, Garibaldi: 

Never before had "revolution" in any country arrived at such a degree of perversity and anarchy. [Speaking of Garibaldi's decision to reward the family of a Neapolitan soldier who had tried to assassinate the King of Naples a few years earlier,]...To canonize as holy the regicide, to reward publicly the assassin, to excite officially with such an example to extermination of sovereigns…Such examples speak louder than all declamations of the miserable moral state into which the Kingdom has fallen and upon the anarchy which has obtained the mastery of its destiny since the triumph of the invasion.

In the introduction to this unbelievably complete book (published in 1951), Marraro acknowledges, of course, the National Archives in the United States and the State Archives of Naples. He also mentions the encouragement he received from the Neapolitan historian and philosopher, Bendetto Croce, who was anxious to have material from original sources researched and published, since many of the relevant documents that had resided in the archives in Naples had been destroyed by the Germans when they retreated from Naples in 1943. There was no strategic reason for pillaging the archives, as far as I know. Perhaps that is a thought for another day. 

Austrian Naples —

Naples Under the Double Eagle

The great Spanish Empire founded shortly after the discovery of the New World came to an end in the year 1700 when Charles II of Spain died without an heir. He was a Hapsburg, but willed his throne to the grandson of the French King, Louis XIV, of the House of Bourbon. This potential fusion of Spain and France into a single dynasty so threatened the balance of European power that virtually all of Europe took up arms in the War of the Spanish Succession, a term so dry that it rather sounds like a description of gentleman barristers dickering over the Rule of Perpetuities. It was, however, as wars go, the real deal, the first widespread European conflict among modern rival nation states, true kin to the Napoleonic Wars of a century later and the aptly named World Wars of our own times. 

Naples, as a Spanish possession, was affected by the War of the Spanish Succession. While the war raged from 1700-1713 in northern Europe, Naples fell under the domination of the Austrians when that state successfully moved to take over Spanish territory in Italy. Naples, meaning all of southern Italy, thus became an Austrian dominion, ruled by the Hapsburgs of distant Vienna through a succession of Austrian viceroys stationed in Naples. That state of affairs lasted until the Austrians, as part of the treaty ending the War of the Polish Succession, ceded Naples to Charles III of Spain in 1734, at which time Naples became a sovereign kingdom of its own. 

The period from 1700-1734 is somewhat neglected in the history of Naples. (There is, however, a statue in Piazza Monteoliveto (photo, left) of the above-mentioned Charles II, the last Hapsburg king of the Spanish Empire. He was known as the "Reuccio," meaning the "Little King," so dubbed because he ascended the throne at the age of four.)  Compared to the great Spanish period before and the equally great Bourbon period afterwards, the few years under Austria are, perhaps, less important, yet not insignificant; they produced interesting social changes and were a time of great art, music and philosophy in Naples. 

Naples in the year 1700 was almost dead in the water.  Spanish rule, innovative and dynamic in the 1500s and early 1600s, had become harsh and corrupt in its last decades, and the city of Naples, itself, had just been through the mother of all wringers —the plague. The ferocious pestilences of  1656 and 1691 had reduced the population of the city from 450,000 to 140,000, and by the first decade of the 1700s Naples still had only about 200,000 inhabitants. It was a loss that crippled the working and merchant classes; sketches of the layout of the city in the early 1700s look the same as half–a–century earlier—no new buildings, no new streets. There had been no growth. 

This, then, was  the Naples that the Austrians inherited  when they entered the city in 1707. The plight was aggravated by two factors that had traditionally been another sort of plague in Naples. One was baronial power, a feudal system of local lords wielding virtually independent power throughout the kingdom, paying but lip service to the central authority of the king.  The second problem was land grabbing by the Church within the city. Some estimates set the number of clergy in the city as high as 16,000 in the early 1700s, which would make  one out of every 15 persons a cleric! That many clergy  needed a lot of land and even a brief trip through the Naples of today  sheds light on the problem of three centuries ago: a faithful church-goer in Naples can change houses of worship once a week and probably run out of Sundays before Naples runs out of churches. Early Austrian critics of the church/state relationship in Naples spoke of a "church–state within a state," a situation made worse by the centuries-old tradition of sanctuary—the premises of a church and even the surrounding area becoming ‘safe houses’ and havens for outlaws. Entire quarters of Naples were, thus, off–limits to the authorities. 

In their brief time in Naples, the Austrian viceroys at least held their own against baronial privilege, a dying societal structure anyway, but one that would not crumble until Napoleon dismantled feudalism a century later. The Austrian stance against the Vatican is worthy of note, however. It was the first time in the history of Naples that the authority of the state openly challenged the Church’s presumptive right to large untaxed land-holdings. The Hapsburg emperor in Vienna rather enjoyed antagonizing the Pope in this manner, since the Vatican had been openly on the side of the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. Austrian rule made it much more difficult for the Church to wheel and deal in Naples as it had done over the centuries. 

Additionally, Austrian revision of tax laws encouraged the beginning of planned rebuilding in Naples after the stagnant period at the turn of the century. The Austrians also instituted reform in the University, and, perhaps most importantly of all, encouraged the formation of a iureconsultus,  a body of experts in matters of the law, experts—lawyers—who would advise the state and the people when necessary. Even those who love  lawyer jokes will see how revolutionary that concept was in an age of absolute monarchy. 

As far as the physical plant of the city goes, the Austrians built coastal roads from the city out to the slopes of Vesuvius, roads which eventually led to modern expansion of Naples in that direction. 

Artistically, Naples thrived under the Austrians. It was home to great painters of the Baroque, such as Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena (self-portrait, left). The latter's  works adorn churches in Naples, Rome and Vienna and are on display in  museums in Britain and the United States. His studio in Naples became a workshop for numbers of northern European painters who made the trip south just to study with him. They coincidentally got in on the beginning of the great age of the Grand Tour: northerners coming to Italy to study antiquity; for it was under the Austrians that Naples began the rediscovery of its own Greek and Roman past. 

Music in the early 1700s in Europe was greatly shaped by the powerful influences of Neapolitan composers, primarily Alessandro Scarlatti, one of the innovators in early classical music, as important as his contemporary, J.S. Bach, and even as important as Mozart almost a century later. Also, the prodigious Pergolesi changed the face of opera by virtually inventing the Neapolitan Comic Opera, music that greatly influenced Mozart [for an item on Mozart and the Neapolitan Comic Opera, click here]  and subsequent operatic and symphonic music. 

Intellectual life in Naples in the early 1700s was active. Naples was the home of the misunderstood and obscure philosopher, Giovambattista Vico, whose cyclical view of history was quaint even when he formulated it. It was certainly to be overshadowed by the powerful thoughts of Hegel and Marx in the next century—their idea holding that history evolves through conflict to ever new and higher states in the human condition. It may well be that Vico’s quaint idea of a returning age, say, of great mythic heroes will never come to pass; yet, on the other hand, it doesn't take whatever passes for a rocket scientist among historians to notice that Karl Marx has been having his problems recently, too. So maybe the jury is still out. 

That, then, was Austrian Naples: a brief and interesting period, with one foot in the future —a time that set the stage for the Bourbon take-over in 1734 when Naples would finally become a modern European nation. 

[to Bourbon Naples

Masaniello's Revolt

The Revolt of Masaniello is more of an interesting sidelight than a pivotal chapter in the history of Naples. That is, this brief rebellion by the peopleles miserablesof Naples against the Spanish rulers of the city in 1647 is now solidly entrenched in Neapolitan folklore. It has heroism, treachery, deceit, murder, success and defeat all the elements of a good tale. 

Tommaso Anielo (nicknamed "Masaniello") (1620-1647) was an illiterate fishmonger  living and working in the area of Piazza Mercato Market Square. That  part of the city was, at the time, much more central to the everyday affairs of Naples than it is today. The rebuilding of Naples in the late 1800s and early 1900s  separated the old Market Square from the new "downtown" and removed it from the vital position it had held for centuries. It was not simply a market place. It was the site of the popular Church of the Carmine; it was a place for folk festivals; it was the scene of  historic events such as the execution of the Swabian pretender, Conradin; it  had a gallows and various instruments of torture set up in the squareall used in the 1600s; the king's soldiers thronged the square; it was filthy, loud, crowded, colorful, busy andvery importanthere was where you went to pay your taxes. 

The revolt apparently had a background of legitimate popular discontent at ever-increasing taxes imposed by the Spanish crown through their viceroy in Naples. The actual outburst, itself, came at a popular festival held in early June for the Feast of the Madonna of the Carmine. This yearly festival entailed a mock battle between the people and Turkish invaders. (This was at a time, of course, when the memory of such invasions was still fresh. The many Saracen towers set up around the cityand, indeed, the entire coastline of the Kingdom of Naples-- were a constant reminder of the recent past. At the time of the revolt, there were no doubt still those in Naples who remembered the epic sea battle of Lepanto in 1571 when the Turks had finally been defeated.) 

Straight folklore simply says that when the news broke in Piazza Mercato (painting, left) that the Spanish had levied yet another tax on fruit, Masanielloin charge of the mock army fighting the mock Turks in the festivalwas outraged and through the power of his Robin Hood-type charisma transformed his make-believe army into a real one and marched on the palace to wring justice from the evil overlord, the Spanish viceroy. There is some evidence that Masaniello, however, had been contacted by one Don Giulio Genoino, an elderly priest who had tried and failed 20 years earlier to get some redress from the viceroy and had actually spent time in prison for his efforts.  Genoino may have been the puppet master pulling Masaniello's strings the brains behind the revolt. 

In any event, on Sunday morning, June 7, 1647, Masaniello's ragtag army, with him and his cousin at the head,  spilled out of the festival out of the world of make-believeand into the tax-collection stalls of the market place and the battle was on. Their cry is said to have been, "Long live the King! Down with bad government!" They wrecked the tax stalls, kept moving, and destroyed the nearby home of an infamous tax collector by the name of Girolamo Letizia. With a  mob/army of, by now, tens of thousands on the loose and roaming the streets, the Spanish viceroy was forced into concessions, that, on paper, seem modest enough:  the repeal of unjust taxes and the reinstitution of some of the early reforms set up in the previous century by the great founder of the Spanish Empire, Charles V. There was no realistic expectation or demand in 1647 for the abolition of the monarchy, a constitution, or even, what some say Masaniello (probably Genoino, above) really wanted: a reordering of society by which the people and the noble classes would be declared "equal"whatever that might have meant.

Masaniello got his few concessions, but they were apparently a rearguard action while the viceroy regrouped his forces. In other words, the viceroy caved in quickly, wined and dined Masaniello and his wife, and then set about getting rid of Masaniello. Simple murder makes martyrs, so that was out of the question. Somehow he had to make Masaniello irrelevant, disengage him from his cause and his followers. 

A few days into the revolt, Masaniello started exhibiting strange behavior. He went mad, they say. There are two possibilities: one is that he was totally drunk with the trappings of power conceded to him by the viceroyby the parades, the banquets, the white horses, by having himself appointed Captain of the People, by hearing his wife referred to as "the Queen of the People", etc. etc. Twoby most accounts, a likely possibilityis that he was poisoned with roserpina, a powerful hallucinogenic dumped into his wine at one of the many banquets he attended at the palace. 

On July 16, after giving a rambling, incoherent declaration to the people, he  stormed into a church and disrobed. At that point, obviously helpless and useless, he was dragged into a room in an adjacent monastery and murdered, probably by hired assassins. They severed his head and took it to the viceroy. The rest of Masaniello was collected by his loyal followers, who managed to get the head back and give the entire body a decent burial in the Church of the Carmine. More than a century later, these remains were  disinterred and disposed of probably strewn in the seaon the order of Ferdinand IV of Naples , who was taking no chances that the burial site might serve as some sort of a pilgrimage point for yet more revolutionaries. 

The revolt lasted nine days, start to finish. At its headiest, it sufficed to make the viceroy desert the palace and hole up in the Castel dell'Ovo for a while. At Masaniello's death, the revolt was spent, and it is difficult to judge whatever potential it might have had in the hands of a solid block of organized revolutionaries. It did set the stage for a very short-lived First Neapolitan Republic as part of the struggle for Naples between Spain and France. 

Today, this plaque marks Masaniello's birthplace and home near Piazza Mercato.
Masaniello was no doubt a natural rallier of men. They say that he and his rebels refused bribes from the Spanish to calm down, and that they even turned down an offer of help from the French, who would have been happy to see the Spanish lose Naples, land that had once been French. Be all that as it may, no constitution was granted or even demanded. Masaniello wanted a redress of grievances, which he got, and which did not last long after his demise.  States are not toppled by charisma alone. They may be toppled by charismatic leaders with a power base, something that Masaniello lacked. 

Whatever support he had, evaporated almost immediately. From a historical distanceone from which we can view the American Revolution, the French Revolution, The Russian Revolutionit is easy to read too much into the Neapolitan revolution of 1647 and, thus, it is difficult to judge Masaniello. Modern romantic claims that Masaniello's ideals forked over like lightning to inspire the downtrodden elsewhere in Europe are difficult to substantiate. Interestingly, a great revolution was taking place elsewhere in Europe at exactly the same timethe civil war in England, which resulted in a king being beheaded and a "protector," Oliver Cromwell, taking his place. The circumstances in Naples were totally different. (For one thing, religious strife was not a factor in Naples; everyone wasand still isRoman Catholic.) 

There is no evidence that the rebellion, itself, produced any lasting effects on the social conditions of Naples or on the generally miserable lives that the masses led. The episode, perhaps, served to remind the rulers that the masses could get out of hand. It is not clear that the rulers stored that bit of knowledge in any but the most peripheral parts of their consciousness. It would be 150 years before Naples was swept by other waves of revolutionary fervor, this time  more solid ones coming in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.