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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews

Soccer 4

There are any number of things that will cause popular discontent, civil unrest, and marauding bands of pitchfork-bearing peasants to start overturning the king's coaches on the highways. Hunger is one, as is taxation without representation, but in Naples, getting flim-flammed out of your rightful place in the football leagues will do the trick quite nicely. If what happened the other day had happened at any other time of the year, there might have been real trouble. It is no accident that the news broke in the middle of August, when the whole city is somewhere else on vacation, and the few stay-at-homes are sweltering in the worst heat-wave in decades. 

Another entry explains, roughly, how the Italian football leagues are set up. At the end of last season, a couple of months ago, Naples pulled out a couple of victories to finish near the bottom of the "B" football league. True, that is a long, long way from the glories of the 1980s and 90s when the team actually won the "A" league championship twice and was a competitor in most other years, but playing in the "B" league is a lot better than demotion to the "C" league, which is one step above the semi-pro and amateur leagues. That would have happened had Naples not won those few games at the end of last season. So, generally speaking, Naples football fans were, if not happy, at least relieved. 

Now comes the news that the team is to be relegated to the "C" league for next reason due not to anything that happened on the playing field, but to a decision by a judge that the team's "papers" are not in order. In order to take part in the season every year, teams are required to pay a fee. That payment is backed by a third-person guarantor. A judge has determined that, in the case of Naples, the document attesting to the guarantee is invalid due to an invalid signature. 

Such documents are not mere formalities in Italian sports, and there have been cases of entire teams being punished for irregularities. The punishment, in this case, is that Naples is sent down to the "C" league. The open slot in the "B" league will be filled by Catania, the Sicilian team that was contending with Naples last season in the league standings to keep out of last place to avoid being sent down to the "C" league. Naples made it; Catania didn't. Those results have now been reversed by the recent decision. Naples has a very short time—a few days—to appeal the decision, because the playing season is about to start. The crux of the appeal will be, one, that there was nothing wrong with the guarantor's papers and, two, that the judge who ruled against Naples is from Catania. 

The judge in question anticipated some of that in this morning's paper. "It is irrelevant that I am from Catania," he says. "I'm not a sports fan. The last time I set foot in a stadium was in 1974. I'm a judge. I apply the law." 

Lepanto, Battle of; Santa Maria della Vittoria

Many cities have squares, streets and monuments named for "victory". In many cases, the victorythe particular battle or waris left unnamed since at their dedication "everyone knows". It's simply "Victory Square". How could anyone NOT know? Frailty, thy name is memory; I have checked with a number of Neapolitans to see what they know about Piazza Vittoria (Victory Square) at the east end of the Villa Comunale. The most common answer is, "Oh, that's where the number 28 bus [alternately the number 1 street-car] turns around". Occasionally, you get a vague "named for some war or other" answer. And on rare occasion, someone knows: The Battle of Lepanto. Technically speaking, the square is named for the Church in the square: Santa Maria della Vittoria, which was, indeed, named for the battle—but that's close enough. 

The small church and an adjacent monastery were built in 1572, the year following the epic sea battle between the Turks and the Holy League, a combined European naval force promoted by Pope Pius V. It has been called the "last crusade," a battle not just between rival nations, but between rival civilizations—in this case, Islam and Christianity. It was, in every respect, as important to the survival of the West as the Battle of Marathon, and if the Holy League had not won, nothing could have prevented the Turks from advancing into Europe, from taking Rome, itself. 

Battle was joined on the October 7, 1571. It had been preceded by the Turkish conquest of Cyprus in 1570, and, of course, in the previous century by the Turkish conquest of Constantinople—the fall of the Byzantine Empire. There was no doubt in the mind of the Pope which way the wind was blowing. He got Venice, Genoa, Spain (and thus, Naples and Sicily—part of the Spanish Empire at the time) to assemble a fleet of over 200 ships to meet the slightly larger Turkish fleet south of Cape Scropha in western Greece, near Lepanto ("Epakto" in Greek). Though outnumbered and less manoeuvrable, the Western fleet was more modern, relying on cannon, as opposed to the Turks, who still relied on bows and arrows and getting in close enough to board. The losses were staggering. When the single day was done, 85% of the Turkish fleet had been sunk and 20,000 Turks killed; 8,000 soldiers in the Western fleet perished. The Holy League then disbanded, Europe went back to parochial bickering, and all was right with the world. 

The Church of Maria della Vittoria was then rededicated in the early 1600s by the daughter of John of Austria, the commander of the Western fleet. The monastery part of the building was vacated in the early 1800s and since that time has been used for private residences. The square, itself, was expanded in the 1890s as part of the Risanamento, the great urban renewal of Naples. That construction enlarged Piazza Vittoria up to the new street, via Caracciolo, at water's edge, and provided a quaint, hanky-sized harbor and bathing beach (photo, above). The beach has no real name other than the hybrid "Mappatella Beach" (using the English term). A mappatella is a small bundle made by drawing up the corners of a rectangular piece of cloth (which is how you packed to go to the beach in the days before the ubiquitous backpack or plastic sack).  The small harbor has a few fishing boats in it and is marked by a monument to those who have died at sea. The monument is a single Roman column with the top missing (photo insert, above) and thus is called, simply, la colonna spezzatathe "broken column". It was found on Via Anticaglia, one of the old main roads of Roman Naples. 

Bourbons (2)                         (part 1 is here.)

As they say, a man who needs no introduction. This is a detail from one of four versions of Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.

Southern Italy had gone its own way for a thousand years, since Charlemagne's failure to reunite the entire peninsula. It is, perhaps, a strange coincidence that another conqueror, also doomed to fail, should set in motion the machinery that would lead to the south being woven back into the common fabric of Italy. 

Beginning in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte swept across Europe in a virtuoso display of military genius, political ambition and radical social change. In the space of four years he made himself King of France, then King of "Italy" (a satrapy he carved out of northern Italy), and then Emperor! In so doing he forced the official emperor to abdicate, ending the Holy Roman Empire forged by Charlemagne. By shaping much of Germany into the so-called "Confederation of the Rhine" in 1806 and imposing the legal system known as the Napoleonic Code, he put an official end to feudalism in central Europe. Militarily, he took on the rest of Europe and at least on land was victorious at virtually every turn (his defeats at the hands of the British at sea were crucial, however). His goal to create a single Empire from the British Isles to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains failed. But it was close. 

 Napoleon was impatient with the Kingdom of Naples. In a blunt letter to Queen Maria Carolina, he told her: 

"What must I think of the kingdom of Naples … when I see at the head of its administration a man who is alien to the country… [referring to Acton, the prime minister]… I have therefore decided… to consider Naples as a country ruled by an English minister. I am loathe to meddle in the internal affairs of other states… yet… "

With that, and further motivated by his distrust of Neapolitan professions of neutrality regarding French disputes with the Austrians and British,  Bonaparte sent troops into the Kingdom of Naples, forcing the royal family to flee south again, just as during the brief period of the Parthenopean Republic a few years earlier and again hunker down on Sicily as a separate little island kingdom.  Napoleon sent his brother, Joseph, to be King of Naples, then juggled Joseph over to the throne of Spain and replaced him in Naples with their brother-in-law, the dashing cavalry officer, Joachim ('Gioacchino' in Italian) Murat

Murat was the King of Naples from 1808 to 1815. The Napoleonic Code transformed southern Italy. It dismantled the privileges of the churches and the barons, reordered the courts and set up  schools for the education of the general population. Not only in the south, but all over the Italian peninsula, this autocratic imposition of the ideals of the French Revolution would outlast Napoleon, himself, and would help shape eventual national aspirations for a single nation stretching from from Sicily to the Alps. Murat even saw himself as the future King of all of Italy and, thus, he encouraged secret societies such as the Carbonari, hotbeds of pan-Italian nationalism. Ultimately, with the defeat and exile of Napoleon, Murat's fortunes crumbled. His own attempts to resist the restoration of the Bourbons dictated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 failed when his southern army was defeated by the Austrians. He fled to Corsica and made one last futile attempt —truly à la Bonaparte!— to return from exile and raise an army to retake his kingdom. He was taken prisoner and shot

Portrait of Ferdinand (Royal Palace)
After the restoration, the former Ferdinand IV returned as Ferdinand I of the United Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Times, however, had changed. First of all, his wife, who had practically run the kingdom during the entire course of their marriage, had died. Second, the growing middle class of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, military professionals, and new property owners had set their sights on representative government, a constitution. And third, all over Italy were stirring sentiments echoed by Manzoni's famous line: "We shall not be free until we are one." (Ironically, he got that phrase from Cuoco, a Neapolitan philosopher). 

But Naples was suffering from—to use Croce's phrase—the "stamp of illiteracy', brought about by the flight of and persecution of intellectuals, liberals and other supporters of Murat and of the earlier Parthenopean Republic. Now, the old lazzarone, the king who had always felt most at home among the peasantry, no longer even trusted his own subjects to support him. He imported companies of Swiss mercenaries to augment his army. 

Ferdinand was forced to relinquish absolute rule and grant a constitution to Naples in 1820 as a result of a carbonari-led revolution. The last thing he did in his life, however, was to reaffirm his spiritual allegiance to another century by getting Austrian help to suppress the constitutional government and carry out brutal reprisals against the leaders. He died in 1825 after one of the longest reigns (excluding Napoleonic interruptions) in European history, having ascended the throne in 1759. He had outlived his wife, two capable prime ministers (Tanucci and Acton) and, quite clearly, his time. His son, Francis I, succeeded him for a brief period and then, in 1830, the grandson, Ferdinand II, came to the throne. 

The inauguration in 1839 of the first railway in Italy, from Naples to Portici.
The last thirty years of the existence of the Kingdom of Naples are marked  by great strides in science, technology and industry. The first railways and iron-suspension bridges in Italy were in the south, as was the first overland electric telegraph cable. Also, the fleet of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies was the largest merchant fleet in the Mediterranean.  By 1839, the main streets of Naples were gas-lit. Ferdinand II even built the cliff-top road along the Sorrentine peninsula. To some, such accomplishments define a sort of Golden Age similar to that under Charles III a century earlier. Much Bourbon achievement  at mid-nineteenth century, however, was possible only because Murat had laid the groundwork decades earlier by reforming the university and founding various scientific academies. 

More relevant than industry to Naples' real future, that is, its participation —or lack, thereof— in the struggle for Italian unity, was Ferdinand's inability to read the handwriting on the wall. Two  of his comments bear repeating: "I don't know what is meant by an independent Italy —I only understand an independent Naples," and "My kingdom starts at seawater and ends at Holy Water," (referring to Sicily in the south and the Papal States in the north). Clearly, this mentality was at odds with nationalist sentiments of groups such as Mazzini's Young Italy, agitating all over the north to unify the peninsula. 

General revolution in the name of constitutional government swept  Europe in 1848. In Naples,  the king, like his grandfather before him, was forced to grant a constitution. Neapolitan troops actually went north to join the fight against the Austrians in what would become known as the First War of Italian Unification, but they were recalled to the south when their King, again like his grandfather, staged a counterrevolution and revoked the constitution. At this point, thousands of intellectuals and liberals fled north to join the struggle for "Italy." It was now the only game in town, and they would be part of it—with their King, if possible, but without him, if need be.

Ferdinand, thus, denied the South the opportunity of being part of the Risorgimento, the movement for a single Italy. He became ever more absolutist and isolated. He died in May, 1859 and was succeeded by his son Francis II, destined to be the last king of Naples. Although Francis tried to stave off the inevitable by giving in to liberal demands to restore the constitution, it was much too late for such half-measures. The Kingdom of Naples had come full circle: founded by the Norman invasion of Sicily eight hundred years earlier, it was about to end by another invasion of the same island, this one led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. 

[continued at Bourbons (3)]

Mercadante Theater

When the Jesuits were expelled from the Kingdom of Naples in the 1770s, a fund was set up to handle the new wealth that had accrued to the Kingdom from the confiscated property. One decision was to build a new theater, appropriately called the Teatro Fondo (after the "fund" that had underwritten the construction). It was inaugurated in 1779 and was intended to be more a vehicle for lighter theater, such as the Comic Opera, and not to be in direct competition with nearby San Carlo, generally given to more serious works. Unlike smaller, private theaters in Naples at the time, the Teatro Fondo was sponsored by the state; it was a "royal theater" like San Carlo and was prestigious. 

During the brief duration of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799, the name was changed to Il Teatro Patriottico, and monarchist fluff such as Comic Opera was abolished in favor of  the more politically educational fare of republican theater. Between 1809 and 1829, the theater was managed by Domenico Barbaja, who was also the director of San Carlo. During that period, many works that one would normally associate with San Carlo—the works of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, for example—were commonly performed at the Teatro Fondo. 

The name of the theater was changed to the Mercadante Theater in 1870 to honor Saverio Mercadante, a prominent Neapolitan composer and director of the Naples Music Conservatory, who had just passed away. Although obscure today, Mercadante enjoyed a considerable reputation during his lifetime and was mentioned in the same breath as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and even Verdi as one of the great Italian composers of the 19th century. His entire life was bound up with Naples; he entered the Naples Conservatory in 1808, became the composer–in–residence at San Carlo in 1823, the director of the conservatory in 1840, and from 1845-55 the director of  San Carlo. 

For reasons having to do with his support of the Carbonarist Revolution in Naples in 1820-1, Mercadante left Naples for a few years and worked in northern Italy, Austria and Spain. Reconciled with the Bourbon monarchy in Naples, he returned to continue his career as composer and musical impresario. He is best remembered, historically, as one who tried to revitalize Italian instrumental music (as opposed to opera) and one who introduced Neapolitan audiences to the music of contemorary German composers. Mercadante was held in such high esteem that when the Kingdom of Naples collapsed before the forces of Garibaldi, he was kept on as director of the Conservatory, where he turned out an orchestral hymn to Garibaldi—no doubt with the same professionalism as a year earlier when he had composed the coronation music for Francis II, the last King of Naples. 

In the latter part of the 19th century, the Mercadante Theater gradually left music to San Carlo and concentrated on plays and, later, vaudeville. The theater was damaged in WW2. Now, after decades of difficult false starts, the Mercadante has been restored and is once again in a position to host significant contributions to the cultural life of the city. As one sees the theater today, the façade is the redone version from 1893, the decade of the great urban renewal of that part of the city. Today, over 100 years later, the Mercadante is flanked by bigger and, frankly, ugly buildings such that it now stands out like a gem. 

Garibaldi  (U.S. reaction to) (1)

I'm reading another one of Howard Marraro's interesting books (also see here), this one entitled American Opinion on the Unification of Italy, 1846 –61, first published in 1932. He stitches together and comments upon newspaper items, magazine articles, pamphlets, and speeches and messages of American public figures from those years to show what the public in the United States felt, generally, about the broad issue of Italian unity and, specifically, how it reacted to the conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Garibaldi

Public opinion in the United States was overwhelmingly behind the Risorgimento, the drive to unite Italy. There was some dissent among Roman Catholics and in the Catholic press, which knew that the unity of Italy would mean the end of the1000-year-old Vatican States, the broad buffer zone between northern and southern Italy, and, thus, the end of the "temporal power of the Pope". Other than that, opinion was enthusiastically behind Garibaldi and his daring campaign to free the long-suffering peasantry of the Kingdom of Naples from the yoke of centuries of oppression — (yes, just such rhetoric). It was common to see and hear Garibaldi referred to as the "Washington of Italy," high praise, indeed, from Americans. They sent more than their good wishes, too. Americans sent money and even material help; a number of US citizens residing in Italy at the time actually fought with Garibaldi, and some American merchant captains put their vessels at Garibaldi's disposal to cross the straits of Messina to begin his march towards Naples in 1860. 

Strangely related to that is an item I found about the recent addition to the library of the University of South Carolina of the Anthony P. Campanella Collection, a formidable array of material about Garibaldi. The text describing the collection and donation contains this paragraph:

There can be no doubt that the March, whose progress was eagerly followed in a United States ideologically opposed to European dynastic "tyranny," was viewed in this country as a powerful vindication of the right of the individual to political self-determination. It also encouraged Southern leaders in their move towards secession at precisely the time when accounts of Garibaldi's exploits appeared in the American press. Nor is it coincidental that in 1876 Wade Hampton's followers, in their resistance to the continued presence of Federal troops in South Carolina, appropriated the name of Garibaldi's followers—Red Shirts—for themselves.

[The entire item is on the internet at http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/hist/garib/garib.php ]

I find at least some of that strange. I am prepared to take the word of the gentleman who wrote those lines that there might have been something inspiring in the heroics of the anti-tyrant, Garibaldi, something that appealed to those in the south who felt they, too, were suffering under tyranny—the tyranny of federalism. (Indeed, a year later, those southerners commonly referred to their cause as The Second American Revolution). (At the risk of being really wrong, I wonder, too, if there is not parochialism in that paragraph. He is writing on behalf of the University of South Carolina —South Carolina, the birthplace of the Confederacy.) 

Also, I strain to believe that any southerners after the Civil War would have appropriated Garibaldi's name or symbols to their lost cause. Surely, they knew that Lincoln, in 1861, had offered Garibaldi the position of a general in the field for the Union armies, and that the only reasons Garibaldi turned Lincoln down were (1) that Lincoln wouldn't make him commander-in-chief (Abe already had that job) and (2) that Lincoln wouldn't let him free slaves wherever he found them during his military campaigns. (Invading plantations and liberating slaves in South America had been one of Garibaldi's favorite things to do during his younger days, when he was abroad and training for the big fight). 

Comic opera, Neapolitan (and Mozart)

mozart profile imageIn a letter to his sister in May of 1770, Mozart wrote from Naples that…"An opera composed by Jomelli begins on the 30th. We have seen the king and queen at Mass in the royal chapel at Portici, and we have seen Vesuvius, too… Madame de Amicis is singing at the opera. We have been to visit her. Caffaro is the composer of the second opera, Ciccio di Majo of the third…".

A few weeks later he wrote, again to his sister, that "… the opera here is by Jomelli; it is beautiful, but too discreet and old-fashioned for the theater. Madame de Amicis sings incomparably… The theater is handsome. The king …always stands on a stool at the opera to appear a little taller than the queen. The queen is beautiful and courteous…" 

Mozart was only 15 when he wrote those letters; he was in Naples with his father as part of a tour of Italy to further his musical education. Naples was of extreme interest to any composer of that period because it was the home of the fine conservatories as well as the most beautiful theater (San Carlo) in Europe. Also, it was the birthplace of the most popular form of musical entertainment of the eighteenth century, the Comic Opera. 

If your view of opera is that is necessarily entails death by consumption, jumping from high places, getting stabbed by your lover or, in the case of much of Wagner, being pecked to death by mythologically huge swans, you will be happy to know that such has not always been the case. Those of you with funny bones will appreciate that the record for the longest encore ever played at the end of an opera was a repetition of the entire work! It was in 1792 and the work was a comic opera entitled The Clandestine Marriage by the Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa. It was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna, and as noted, the Emperor liked it so much that he ordered dinner for everyone before having the company do the whole thing again. 

By the early 1700s, opera, the musical theater, in Europe had reached somewhat of an impasse. It was musically confusing, unable to decide on priorities between plot and music, often sacrificing everything to mere vocal virtuosity. And it was often dreary, still based, as it was, on the same Greek mythological themes that had given rise to the original melodramas of Monteverdi a century earlier. The balance between the importance of music versus the importance of text had shifted from text (where it been in the late 1500s) to music; that is, after a century of the powerful musical influence of Monteverdi, there was no doubt by 1700 what was more important—music.

One thing had to happen to keep melodrama from dying of all melo– and no drama: restore meaningful text; give people stories they could enjoy. One way to do this was to restore the literary value of the typical tales of classical mythology. This happened in the person of Metastasio, the greatest Italian librettist of the 18th century and one of the finest Italian poets of that century. His Didone Abbandonata from 1724 marks the rebirth of real poetry in the Italian libretto. 

Another way was to turn to more modern stories and set them to music. Enter the Neapolitans, who began livening up evenings at the opera by inserting light–hearted little interludes—called "intermezzos"— between the acts of the more serious stuff. They broke up an evening of Achilles or Ajax or Opheus with a few minutes of fluffy domestic farce set to delightfully singable melodies. Alessandro Scarlatti's Il trionfo dell'onore, given 18 times at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in 1718, is chronologically the first comic hit of this newer light-hearted fare. 

From there, an entire school of composers (see composers, other) dedicated themselves to such music. In 1733 Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress) was produced. In 1749, some years after the composer's death, the opera swept Italy and France, literally revolutionizing the musical theater. (In 1741, the Comic Opera as comic intermezzo had ended when King Charles III decided it was inappropriate to have such folderol break up Greek tragedy. Put that stuff in a separate theater, he said. They did, and the independent Comic Opera was born.) In 1760, Niccolò Piccinni wrote the music to La Cecchina on a text by the great Venetian playwright, Goldoni. That text was based on a very popular English novel, Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, from 1740, by Samuel Richardson. Many years later, Verdi, himself, called La Cecchina, the "first true comic opera"—that is to say, it had everything: it was no longer simply an intermezzo; it had a real story that people liked; it had dramatic variety; and, musically, it had strong melodies and even strong supporting orchestral parts including a strong, almost "stand-alone" overture (i.e. you could enjoy it as an independent orchestral piece).

From then until the end of the century, many of Europe's best-loved composers were Neapolitans working within the framework of the comic opera: Pergolesi, Paisiello, Cimarosa, among others. Mozart had come to Naples to listen to the music of these composers and to learn from them.  He spent  a short but thoroughly enjoyable time in Naples, taking in the sights and, of course, the sounds. He attended the opera, and he gave piano recitals of his own, during one of which, so the story goes, the young genius was required by the public to take off a ring he was wearing just to show that it wasn't magic and that he could still play without it! 

Like every other musical form that Mozart touched, he perfected the comic opera, too. His own works have so overshadowed the music of his Neapolitan contemporaries that of the literally hundreds of comic operas produced in Naples in the latter part of the 18th century, perhaps the only two still in the standard repertoire of opera companies elsewhere are two mentioned above: The Clandestine Marriage and The Servant Mistress.

The contemporary Neapolitan composer and musicologist Roberto de Simone has dedicated much of his activity to reviving a number of these 'lost' Neapolitan comic operas. They are generally well-received, but music that has to be revived will probably never again find a permanent place in the musical consciousness of the public. In a certain sense, we have become addicted to the passions of Romanticism. We will never be able to listen to this delightful music of the 18th century without first filtering it though our knowledge of 19th and 20th century music. We'll never appreciate it the way Mozart did when he was here. He heard it fresh, and he liked it. It was something he could work with. 

Sebeto river

I came across a passage that read: "Perhaps only the elderly recall the legends of love that blossomed on the shores of the Sebeto." I asked an elderly friend (95 years old) here in Naples what he knew about  (1) legends of love and (2) the Sebeto river, which used to flow from its source near Nola and down through the eastern part of Naples, well outside the ancient walls, and into the sea. He said: "That's the same line I heard when I was young. 'Only the elderly recall the Sebeto.' I don't know a thing about it." 

References, both classical and modern, to the Sebeto River in Naples are plentiful. There is a Greek coin minted in Naples in the fourth century B.C. bearing the head of the young river-god with his name, "Sepeithos". Virgil mentions the river, as do Italian medieval writers such as Boccaccio. The Neapolitan, Jacopo Sannazzaro, called the river "my Neapolitan Tiber". Pontano spoke of the placid waters of the Sebeto, and Veronica Gambara (1485-1550), one of Italy's first women poets of distinction, wrote, "Là dove or d'erbe adorna ambe le sponde/il bel Sebeto..." ("There where green adorns the banks of the beautiful Sebeto"). Also, near the Mergellina harbor, there is a large, marvellous fountain (photo) dedicated to the Sebeto. It was built by Cosimo Fanzago in 1635. 

More recently, there are hydrologic reports on the "Sebeto depression," a Sebeto literary prize, Sebeto internet addresses, at least one Sebeto street in Naples, a theater, a 1989 book called The Mysterious Sebeto and plans to build a green urban park along what used to be the banks of what used to be the river. Apparently the river still exists, at least to some extent, as a subterranean stream since a report on the contruction of new stations for the Circumvesuviana train-line in the extreme eastern end of the city mentioned the problem of underground water. 

The last elderly person to recall the green banks of the Sebeto must have lived in the mid-19th century and recalled a time before the Bourbons went on a swamp-draining binge late in the previous century. They succeeded in drying up the marsh area near what is now the Maddalena Bridge in the industrial section of the city. Apparently they dried up the river as well. 

Santa Maria Francesca

Everyone, of course, knows that the patron saint of Naples is San Gennaro (St. Januarius), but of the six people I've just spoken to—and I include myself in that group—not one of us knew that Naples has a co-patron-saint. Maybe the reason for our ignorance is that we all live up on the hill above the "real" city, a section of Naples that is, if not well-off snooty, at least severely gentrified.  But if you get down into the Spanish Quarter, off of via Toledo, everyone knows about Santa Maria Francesca, the only Neapolitan woman ever to be elevated to sainthood by the Roman Catholic church. 

She was born Anna Maria Rosa Nicoletta Gallo in 1715 in Naples and died there in 1791. She entered a religious order at the age of 16 to escape a particularly harsh and abusive family environment. She took the religious name of Santa Maria Francesca delle cinque piaghe (Saint Mary Francis of the Five Wounds of Jesus). She spent the last 38 years of her life as a "home saint," as it is idiomatically called in Italian. That is something like a "worker priest"; that is, she did not live a reclusive life in a convent; she lived in a private home and spent all her time working with and for the poor in the area. She was beatified by Gregory XVI in 1843, and canonized by Pius IX in 1867. Since the beatification, there has been a chapel in the left nave of the Cathedral of Naples dedicated to her. In 1856, Ferdinand II of Naples acquired the house she had lived and died in and made it into a small church named for the saint, the church of Santa Maria Francesca delle cinque piaghe. It is on a street called vico tre re a Toledo in the Spanish Quarter (photo). 

That small church made the news today because a small statue—not much more than a doll, really—of the Infant Jesus wearing a silk garment with threaded gold hand-sewn by St. Mary Francis, herself, was stolen a few days ago. The aged nun in charge of caring for the object, 90-year-old Sister Aurora, was apparently set-up: one thief distracted her with a question, and the other thief popped the cover on the small display case and made off with the statue. Sister Aurora has refused to eat since then, and a second member of the order, Sister Veronica says, "I hope this is not sinful of me, but I hope they [the thieves] find no peace". The police and a squad from the Superintendancy of Culture are on the case, as are members of the church congregation. It is a rough section of town, and if this story has a happy ending, small bands of "angels with dirty faces" will hunt down the ne'er-do-wells and give them a heavy dose of "no peace" before returning the Baby Jesus to the devotees of St. Mary Francis. 

Salerno, Duchy of

SichelgaitaWarrior Princess, and then some.

What bizarre, zigzag chain of events—even for the Middle Ages—led to the unlikely sight, in May, 1076, of a fair young princess, clad in shining armor and astride her steed, riding next to her husband, Robert of Hauteville (known as Robert "Guiscard"—the Wise), right up to the walls of her own native city of Salerno, ruled by her own brother, and demanding its surrender? 

Thereby hangs quite a tale, and you can keep it straight only if you know the cast of characters who were competing for the upper hand in Europe—and particularly in the case of our story, southern Italy—between the years 1000 and 1100. There are at least 5 major players. In no particular order, they are: 

  • 1. The Holy Roman Empire
  • 2. The Church of Rome
  • 3. The Byzantine Empire
  • 4. The Normans
  • 5. The residual Lombard duchies in southern Italy, in particular, the Duchy of Salerno.

  • (1) The Holy Roman Empire was formally proclaimed in 800 with Charlemagne as emperor. It was essentially what replaced the loose hodge-podge of "barbarian" states occupying the former western Roman Empire. It was the first great northern power base in Europe and was the forerunner of individual European nation states such as France and Germany. The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806 when Francis II, faced with Napoleon's proclamation of a new empire, abdicated. 

    (2) By the Church of Rome is meant here the territory of the Papal States, taking up much of central Italy and coming into being as result of the so-called "Donation of Pepin" in the mid-700's. That gift of land turned the Church into a secular power with enough might to field armies and crown emperors. 

    At this point, note the "Holy" in Holy Roman Empire. The Empire and the Church of Rome started out in a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for validation or military support, depending on the times. It is significant that Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the Pope, himself. That event marked the end of secular Europe (pre-Europe, really) and the beginning of large-scale involvement by the Church in continental politics, involvement that would last until the Empire, itself, was dismantled by Napoleon a thousand years later. The infamous Church vs State enmity (typified by the 'Guelph' and 'Ghibelline' factions of the 14th century) can be traced to the great reform movement within the Church in the mid-1000s, spearheaded  by the monk Hildebrand, later to become Pope Gregory VII. His call for what amounted to a theocracy and a totally subservient Empire alienated the "princes of the earth". 

    (3) The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, had its beginnings under Constantine the Great, the founder of the city in 330 that would bear his name until the fall of that city to the Turks in 1452. After the fall of Rome in 476 and even through and beyond the Lombard rule in Italy (568-774), Byzantine forces actively contested much of Italy and did not totally withdraw until well into the 1100s. 

    (4) Few peoples have been as explosive and expansive as the Normans. They started as Danish Vikings, the Norsemen who invaded Britain in the mid-800s. In that same period, they marauded almost everywhere, sacking cities from Canturbury to Paris to Constantinople; yet they also founded lasting Russian dynasties in Kiev and Novgorod.Then, in 911, they took the area of northern France that would be named for them—Normandy. In the late 900s and early 1000s the Vikings were sailing to Iceland and North America; by 1015 their cousins from Normandy would be probing southern Italy. They would then retake Sicily from the Arabs in the mid-1000s—a very difficult struggle. They would invade and subdue Britain in 1066. All in all, they were a  swashbuckling race of people -- and they were ambitious. Just how ambitious would not be clear until the greatest of them, the Robert Guiscard mentioned in the first paragraph, above, revealed his plans not just to rule southern Italy, but to take over the Byzantine Empire and reunite the Eastern and Western churches and, then, possibly, to move even further east as had Alexander the Great. 

    (5) The Lombards really have two histories in Italy. The first is as the great Lombard kingdom of Italy from 568-774. They were the last "barbarians" to invade the Italian peninsula after the fall of the western Roman Empire and ruled much of the peninsula as a loose confederation, contesting much of the territory much of  the time with the Byzantine Empire. That grand Lombard kingdom came to an end when Charlemagne invaded Italy and defeated the Lombards in the north of Italy in 774. 

    The other Lombard history concerns our story. Charlemagne, though calling himself "King of the Lombards" (and annexing the north of Italy to the Holy Roman Empire) left undefeated and largely intact the vast area of southern Italy with its separate residual Lombard holdings, most important of which was the Duchy of Benevento. That duchy, itself, underwent a civil war in 839, giving birth to an independent Duchy of Salerno. 

    In the course of the next two centuries Salerno developed into one of the cultural centers of Europe. It was primarily famous for its medical school, the first of its kind in Europe. It was here that disease became something to be diagnosed, treated and, potentially, cured, thus adopting what one day would be called a "scientific" approach and abandoning the Christian monastic treatments of prayer and mortification of the flesh. Herbal pharmacology was studied, as was anatomy and surgery --even early attempts at anaesthesia. The school also hosted a group called the "Ladies of Salerno", foremost of whom was Trotula, who taught about and wrote important early works on the medical problems of women. Women studied there, as well, and one such student was the not-yet "warrior princess", Sichelgaita. The medical school attracted scholars from throughout Europe. 

    Also, given the pre-Crusades anything-goes atmosphere of the independent ports of commerce such as Naples, Salerno, Amalfi and Gaeta, there was surely exchange of information --as well as goods-- between them and the Muslim world. Wary of the post hoc fallacy of confusing sequence with cause and effect, we may nevertheless note that there were earlier Muslim models of modern medical schools and that the school in Salerno may have benefited from such exchange. 

    So, with that...

    The Duchy of Salerno in the 11th century, before the Norman consolidation of southern Italy. (From Muir's Historical Atlas, 1911).

    Sichelgaita was born in 1035 into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno. She was the daughter of Gaimar V, who was murdered in a palace coup. Her brother, Gisulf, retook the Duchy, and she retook her place as the most privileged woman in the Duchy. She spent much of her time studying medicine and—an unlikely combination, perhaps—pursuing the "manly" arts of horseback-riding and swordplay.

    Her native Lombard Duchy of Salerno was by 1050 already in trouble, at least potentially. It had held the ever-encroaching Byzantine forces at bay, but the Normans would be more difficult. The Normans had come on the  southern Italian scene in the early 1000s. Depending on the source you choose to believe, they originally were either  pilgrims who liked what they saw and decided to stay, or they were itinerant warriors who actually helped the Salernitans repel a Saracen (Arab) raid. The Normans were then asked to stay and did. Or, perhaps, they were simply following the same Norman nature that sent them out from Denmark centuries earlier, seeking worlds to conquer. In any event, by the mid-1000s, Robert Guiscard and a number of his Hauteville clan were firmly entrenched in the south. They set about taking over, piecemeal, what was left of Lombard holdouts, Byzantine enclaves, and brigand and pirate hideouts, as well as taking on the great Arab armies on the island of Sicily. 

    "Guiscard"  is a by-name meaning "resourceful." Apparently, Robert was given the name of "Viscardus"  somewhat ironically by his first wife's nephew (1) for knowing whom to marry and (2) for his uncanny ability to know when to be ruthless and when to be forgiving. There is no doubt that he had the rough-and-tumble Norman lust for battle, but he could also be diplomatic. His wisdom extended to not being vindictive in war; he was not driven by the petty need to brutalize those whom he had defeated. You fought, you won, and you consolidated, and you do that by turning enemies into ex-enemies and then into allies. But—here's the very wise Robert—why wage war against a formidable enemy, Salerno, when you could merge both your dynasties by marriage? Why not blend the ancient, noble Lombards of Salerno with the vigorous, warrior Normans? All you needed was a handsome, robust and willing groom—himself, and a beautiful, robust and willing bride—Sichelgaita. 

    There is no evidence that the young noblewoman, Sichelgaita, was dragged kicking and screaming into a marriage she detested. Quite the contrary, if sources are to be believed. Sure, it may have been an arranged marriage of convenience, and who knows if she was truly smitten, but--for Heaven's sake! -- it was marriage to Robert of Hauteville, that great,  good-looking, charismatic warrior and the one allmighty walker-on-water figure of the 11th century in Italy. She, herself, was astute and knew what her duchy stood to gain by such a union. She had seen the handwriting on the wall, and it was all writ large in Norman French. Now, at least, the Norman and Lombards might rule much of Italy together. 

    The marriage came about in 1058. It didn't exactly enjoy the blessings of Sichelgaita's brother, Gisulf, but he, too, was intelligent enough to know that his duchy could use some friendly Normans in the family. He was beset by the nearby Duchy of Capua as well as by marauding bands of very unfriendly Normans under the leadership of Robert's younger brother, William of Hauteville. 

    In order to enter the holy bond of matrimony to his Lombard princess, Robert had to have his first marriage annulled, which he managed to do by admitting to incest. Robert and his first wife, a Norman, were nowhere close to the forbidden degree of kinship that defines incest, but it was a ploy that worked. Robert took his new, young bride off to his capital city of Melfi. 

    The next 18 years of Sichelgaita's life leading up to the siege of her own home town of Salerno were spent as a constant companion of her husband, helping him solidify his hold on southern Italy. All accounts of her activities report that she was his trusted advisor in affairs of state and military matters. Also, she was very devout, which helped her smooth over Robert's difficulties with the Church. She was genuinely troubled over the fate of her husband's immortal soul, since he had the bad habit of getting himself excommunicated every now and then for his devil-may-care invasions of Papal land. Sichelgaita's diplomatic skill was crucial in straightening out many of these thorny problems. On one such occasion, Pope Nicolas II wound up blessing Robert as the rightful ruler of the land he had already taken (most of southern Italy), all this in return for Robert's oath of allegiance to the Pope and the Church. 

    The Church's stance vis-à-vis the Normans in the middle of the 1000s changed from ambiguity to support. Though Stephen IX, Pope in 1057/8, actually proposed military campaigns against the Normans, he was followed by Nicolas II, a believer in strong ties to these people whom he no doubt saw  as somewhat of an irresistible force. Then came  Alexander II, noted for approval of that other Norman Conquest, the invasion of Britain in 1066. Then, of course, came Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII, the great reformer, friend of Sichlegaita's, a friendship that would play a great role in the life of this Pope, one of the most important in Church  history.

    The Arechi castle in Salerno, where the Lombard surrender to the Normans took place.
    When the time came, as it had to, for Robert of Hauteville to demand the surrender of Salerno, the last remaining large Lombard Duchy in the South, it was no doubt his wife who kept him from simply attacking her native city outright. And, thus, the opening scene of this story came to pass. Sichelgaita went into the city and begged her brother to surrender. He wouldn't, so Robert simply lay siege to Salerno and, bluntly, starved them out. It took months, but it was effective. Sichelgaita's had managed to save her brother's life. He went into exile in Rome. 

    Interestingly, the fortunes of Salerno took a turn for the better under the combined rule of Robert the Wise and hometown princess, Sichelgaita. The medical school returned to its splendor of old when one of the great itinerant scholars of the Middle Ages, Constantine of Carthage, called the "African", was caught secretly wandering around the premises of the medical school, admiring it. He had seen the great medical schools of Islam, but he had not seen anything like this, he told Robert—at which point Robert hired him to teach there. Also, the Lombard-Normans built a new city wall and a new cathedral. 

    Robert's grip on the south of Italy was still shakey, however. His own brothers --even if they lacked the military might to confront him directly-- often agitated against him. It would be an error to view the Hauteville Brothers as a united conquering army. Quite the contrary; Robert had to be everywhere all the time, putting one brother in place and routing a renegade baron or duke somewhere else. 

    His ambitions, however, went well beyond southern Italy. Just as he had woven himself into the old and venerable Lombard line to fix his grip on the south, he and Sichelgaita in 1074 had arranged the marriage of their daughter, Olympiade, into the ruling Dukas dynasty of Constantinople. Such a marriage would set up Norman rule not just of southern Italy but of the entire Eastern Roman Empire. It would be a force without equal in Europe. Potentially, Robert saw, if not himself, then his children as the reuniters of the recently splintered Christian faith. (The great Schism between the eastern and western churches had occurred in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and the Greek patriarch, Michael Cerularius, mutually excommunicated each other.) There would again be a true empire, and here, some sources say, Robert spoke of his ambitions to conquer Persia, as had Alexander. 

    A palace coup in Greece, however, caused the new Byzantine dynasty to back out of the proposed merger of dynasties. Robert would have to do it the hard way, and it is in this adventure that Sichelgaita's reputation as a warrior is grounded. It is true that on a number of earlier occasions she had taken the field of battle with her husband. He trusted her to lead his men and she did so, successfully. But the oft-told story of the Valkyrie-like blonde berserker --the into-the-jaws-of-death princess, charging into battle, spitting fire and railing at her men to stand their ground and fight-- comes from her heroics at the battle of Durazzo on the Albanian coast in October, 1081. Here the Normans set out to do militarily what they had failed to do through the diplomacy of marriage: conquer Byzantium. 

    The best description of Sichelgaita in battle on that occasion comes from Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexis I Comnenus, the emperor of Constantinople at the time of Robert's invasion. She writes of the Norman invasion of Greece in her 15-volume history, The Alexiad, written a few decades after the events took place. The Norman invasion was massive, meant as it was to overthrow the rulers of Byzantium. They met forceful Greek resistance, however, at which point the Norman advance stalled, one front was commanded by Sichelgaita. Her men faltered, and, here, Comnena writes admiringly of her ferocious enemy [cited in Norwich, below in bibliography]:

    Directly Gaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away.  She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words "How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!" And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.

    In spite of being badly wounded, Sichelgaita fought valiently and held her part of the battlefield until Robert arrived with reinforcements. 

    The battle was won, but the planned takeover of Byzantium had to be shelved. Matters back in Italy commanded Robert's attention. Relations between the Papal States and the Empire had taken a turn for the worse. There were two  reasons for this. The first was that Pope Gregory had supported this invasion of Byzantium by a Norman force friendly to him. He saw it as a means to bring the Eastern Church back into the fold, and a way to stem increasing Muslim pressure on Constantinople. (The Seljuk Turks had recently inflicted a devasting defeat on Byzantine forces, and the Eastern emperor had already approached Pope Gregory about the possibilty of launching a Crusade against the Muslims.) Thus, a Norman victory would be a Papal victory --something that the Holy Roman Emperor could not tolerate. The second reason for the sour relationship between the Church and the Empire was Gregory's call for a theocracy in Europe, one in which the princes and kings of the earth would be subservient to the Church of Rome. 

    Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the emperor, Henry IV, declared Pope Gregory VII (photo, left) to be deposed. The emperor invaded Rome and set up his own puppet "anti-Pope", Clement III. This situation was dangerous for Robert in the South. He had counted on a strong buffer state between the Holy Roman Empire and the Norman south. That buffer was the Church State. Robert had taken great pains in his life to renew his pledges of loyalty to the Pope and to use Sichelgaita's influence with the Church and her great diplomatic abilities to stay in the good graces of the Papacy. He would now have to honor his commitment of loyalty and free the Pope from the imperial usurpers. These strategic reasons were reinforced by his wife's closeness to church fathers. She was a lifelong friend of the archbishop of Salerno, who was a close friend of Pope Gregory. Robert really had no choice. 

    At this point, Robert made one of his few strategic blunders—necessary, perhaps, but a blunder, nonetheless. He simply lacked the manpower to take a city such as Rome, defended as it was by an imperial army. To make up for this lack, he brought in mercenaries, bands of Saracens (Muslims) still roaming the south. Let that point sink in—he hired Muslims to invade Rome! The strategy worked, militarily. The imperial forces withdrew, but the behavior of Robert's troops in the city of Rome was so outrageous that the entire populace was alienated. Gregory, himself, was seen as a collaborator of those who were pillaging the city, and he was forced to flee, leaving the anti-Pope still in charge. Gregory went to Salerno, where he was welcomed as the "real" Pope. He died there in 1085, no doubt saddened by his inability to rejuvenate the Church with his reforms (or, at least, unaware of the great, long-term moral influence his reign as Pope would have on later Church history). 

    In 1084, Sichelgaita again went with her husband to the battlefields of Greece to try and finish what they had started. They immediately met and defeated  a combined Venetian-Byzanine fleet in a ferocious encounter; they took the island of Corfu and then Cefalonia. At that point, the story of Robert of Hauteville, this greatest of Norman conquerors (his better-known cousin, William the Conqueror, is said to have bolstered his own morale by thinking of Robert's exploits) comes to a sudden end. After the battle of Cefalonia, he took ill and died quickly in July of 1085. Sichelgaita was by his side when he died, and she arranged to have his mortal remains returned to Italy to rest in the Hauteville crypt in the Cathedral of Venosa in Puglia. 

    The death of Robert left a great question mark hanging over Norman rule in the south. None of his children had his abilities—nor should that be surprising. The Norman campaign in Greece fizzled out. Rule in southern Italy fell, by default, to Robert's brother, Roger I, the conqueror of Sicily, whose son, Roger II (photo, left), would then become the founder of The Kingdom of Sicily (later, the Kingdom of Naples).That kingdom began in 1130 and then passed quickly out of Norman hands to the German Hohenstaufen line.Through later dynasties, it  lasted until 1860. 

    Sichelgaita died in March of 1090 in Salerno, the city of her birth. She had more or less "retired" after her husband's death and spent much of her time with her old teachers or in religious seclusion in the Abbey of Montecassino, a place to which she had a lifelong bond and devotion. She willed that she should be buried there. 

    There are two nasty rumors about Sichelgaita: one, that she had tried to poison her husband's son by his first marriage and, two, that she had actually poisoned Robert, himself, after the battle of Cefalonia. She was, after all, an accomplished student of herbal wizardry from her years at the medical school in Salerno. Neither of these rumors is given any credence at all by historians. It all seems to be just more medieval backbiting. 

    Other than that, she comes across as somewhat low-key, living, as she did, in the shadow of her husband, but then bursting forth at times. Her role as a battlefield fury has lent itself to caricature over the centuries, which is as unfortunate as it is natural. There is really nothing to indicate that she was even very ambitious --at least not for herself. And she was certainly neither conniving nor bent on being the power behind Robert. She was simply an intelligent and devout woman with diverse interests—spiritual, scientific, and military—and she was quite willing to put her considerable skills at the disposal of a cause, a Lombard-Norman empire. Was she a good warrior? No doubt. By all accounts, she was a good wife and mother, too. In between her bouts of diplomacy and battlefield heroics, she managed to bear Robert 10 children. 


    Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad  transl. by E. Dawes. Routledge, Kegan, Paul. London, 1928. More information on this fascinating medieval document --indeed, the complete text of the Dawes translation-- is available at
    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/AnnaComnena-Alexiad.php  A biographical sketch of Anna Comnena, herself, is at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01531a.php  Also, a more recent translation (1985) by Sewter has been published as a Penguin Classic.

    Cuozzo, Enrico. "L'Unificazione normanna e il regno normanno-svevo" in Storia del Mezzogiorno. Edizione del Sole per Rizzoli.Napoli, 1988.
    Delogo, Paolo. "Il Principato di Salerno" in Storia del Mezzogiorno. Edizione del Sole per Rizzoli. Napoli, 1988.
    Norwich, John Julius. The Normans in Sicily. Penguin. London, 1970
    Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne. Dover. Mineola, 2001. Reprint of 1935 edition, George Allen & Unwin, London.
    Scozza, Michele. Sichelgaita, Signora del Mezzogiorno. Alfredo Guida Editore. Naples, 1994.

    Sampietrino, stone-cutting

    A sampietrino, in Italian. means various things: (1) it was a coin minted by the Papal States under Pius VI (Pope from 1775-91) and was worth 2½ baiocchi, a name that apparently derives from the northern French town of Bayeaux. I have never been to Bayeaux, but if I go, I shall be sure to take plenty of baiocchi; (2) it refers to a person charged with tending the premises of San Peter's Cathedral in Rome (indeed, sampietrino means "little St. Peter"); (3) it means a cobblestone, or paverstone, cut from a dark, fine-grained igneous rock with the geological name, in Italian, piperno —"trachyte" in English. I don't know why these cobblestones are called "little St. Peters," except that it might mean "a stone that looks like the kind they used when they built St. Peter's—the kind of stone that costs all those baiocchi." 

    The sampietrino—the cobble-stone—is ubiquitous in Naples. It provides one of the two major stone colors in the city, the other being the lighter yellow of tufa, stone so porous that walls made from it will erode and have to be replaced in a few decades. But piperno is durable and many main roads are still laid by workers with small hammers, tapping one fist-sized sampietrino after another into place, mile after mile, and then drip-sealing the cracks with hot tar. Asphalt has made major inroads (thank you) only with great difficulty. That will change shortly, according to a report in the paper. Asphalt is cheaper, safer, and faster to work with. The paper gave no date, but soon that friendly clatter as your car slowly jars itself to smithereens over those miles of treacherous trachyte along the port road of Naples will belong to another age. 

    There will still be no shortage of sampietrini in Naples. All of the many stairs that lead up and down the hillsides of Naples are made of Little St. Peters, the piperno pockmarked with centuries of chisel strikes to roughen the surface so that the stairs are less slippery in the rain and so you don't slide those 200 meters of elevation from the Vomero hill down to the center of town. 

    The dark stone comes from hills of Naples. The suburb of Naples called "Soccavo" sits below the height of the Camaldoli hill and takes its name from the Latin subcavum—beneath the quarry. For centuries, stonecutters quarried that hillside to extract not just tiny paving stones, but the true monoliths used at the base of almost all Neapolitan monuments, large buildings, and churches. The stone was then loaded onto ox-carts that plodded their way into the city a few miles away. The Spanish moved quarries well away from the city in the 17th century out of concern for the structural integrity of the hill that much of Naples rests upon; thus, the quarries of Soccavo closed. There is, however, still a large cross hewn from that same material standing on a street corner in Soccavo (photo, above). It was originally a religious object, certainly not uncommon on the streets of Naples, but today (protected recently by a display case) it is also, because of the material it is made of, a monument to the bygone craft of stone-cutting. It bears the engraved name of the artisan who made it and the date, 1613. 

    Vico, Giambattista (1668-1744)

    Statue of Vico in the Villa Comunale.
    If you were born shortly after the death of Rene Descartes, you came of age during the great blossoming of Rationalism and the study of the natural sciences. If you were  interested in philosophy, it would not be at all surprising if  you had turned out to be a true child of the Enlightenment, one whom history might  group into that vast body of thought encompassed by  such  thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza and Voltaire. Giambattista Vico, however, did not quite fit in with the spirit of his times, and that is precisely why  he is interesting. 

    He was born on the street in Naples known as 'Spaccanapoli' and lived there most of his life. After his university studies and a few years of travelling around teaching, he wound up as a professor at the University of Naples, a post he held until his death. His thoughts are contained primarily in his Autobiography  and in Principles of a New Science of Nations

    Vico was at odds with the prevailing climate of the eighteenth century, which felt that  truth about the universe could be arrived at rationally. This idea of a 'clockwork' universe, a mechanism entirely accessible to human understanding, remained so persausive that by the late 19th century prominent scientists were all set to dot the last 'i' of the last law of physics and declare that discipline defunct. Then along came our own century with such things as Relativity, Uncertainty Principles, Quantum Indeterminacy, and Gödel's Theorem. Kurt Gödel showed that mathematics—and, hence, logic—was not the perfect standard of precision that it had appeared to be. 

    Two centuries earlier, Vico, completely out of step with  his contemporaries, had not been comfortable with the Aristotelian ideal of perfect deduction from first principles and had said that even mathemathics did not—could not—contain the certainty that philosophers such as Descarte would have liked. The so-called "truths" of mathematics were true only because the rules governing  mathematics were man-made and arbitrary. Thus, Vico was  somewhat of a harbinger of revolutionary twentieth-century scientific philosophy. 

    Something else that made Vico different from his fellow philosophers was the emphasis he placed on the study of history.To someone like Descartes, history was little more than a messy collection of human absurdities, hardly the stuff worthy of true scientific enquiry. To the extent that Enlightment philosophers worried about the nature of society, it was, again, to discern the "natural laws" that governed human beings, just as, indeed, natural laws governed the movement of the planets. 

    Vico, on the other hand, felt that the only way to understand what we are and are to become is to study what we have been, not by trying to mold humanity into rigid preconceptions of what is or isn't natural. Vico believed that societies pass through stages of growth and decay, recurring cycles of barbarism, heroism, and reason, from whence the cycle begins again. Each historical stage has its own kind of language: poetry, for example, being sensuous and metaphoric, is connected with the age of heroism (the epics of Homer, for example), while prose only enters during an age of reason, such as our own. The study of history gives us, thus, a certain power of prediction over our future; that was an idea that foresaw the historical determinism of later philosophers such as Hegel and Marx. 

    Even the literature of the 20th century owes a debt to Vico, from as cumbersome a tome as Finnegans Wake, the last page of which runs cyclically into the first page again, all the way to the science fiction of Asimov, whose Foundation novels are based on the premise that the proper study of history and human behavior can be used to predict tens of thousands of years into the future. 

    Child labor; gypsies (2)

    Anyone who spends even a few minutes looking at material from UNICEF (originally, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, but now, simply, United Nations Children's Fund) will come away depressed and confused. It is depressing not only that slavery still exists in the world, but that so many bought-and-sold human pieces of property are children between the ages of 7 and 14. UNICEF's most conservative estimate is that there are 250 million children held in bondage in the world. The confusing part is that it is not clear exactly what "slavery" means in this context. I am not sure if the numbers include the thousands of child soldiers serving in armies in some parts of the world, or the many children who work in sweat shops but who live with their immediate or extended families. If all that is taken into consideration, the numbers rise towards the 500,000 mark—half a billion (!) children in bondage, some of which —sexual slavery, for example—is perverse beyond belief. 

    Given those horrors, I suppose that the newspaper headline "A Child Slave at Every Stoplight in Naples" has to be taken in context. The phenomenon is now widespread in the city: young children walk up to your car and ask for money. Some beg outright; some wipe off the headlamps (they are too small to reach up to the windshield); and some carry signs telling you how poor, miserable and far from home they are. It is potentially dangerous for them; one young boy was run over at a crossing earlier this year and seriously injured. 

    There are, by my very unofficial and personal estimate, a few hundred such children in the city. I don't think the numbers are in the thousands. A city commission has been formed to deal with the problem, though no one knows what that means. The children are, apparently, not slaves in the normally accepted use of the word, since most of them seem to be under the supervision of an adult, probably a family member—maybe a mother or big sister—who always hides in the shade on the side of the road while the children collect the alms—for 8-10 hours at a stretch (particularly grim given the dangerous heat and humidity this summer in Naples). 

    Many of them come from the Rom (Gypsy) encampment in the Secondigliano area of Naples up in back of the main airport. One look inside that ramshackle nest will put to rest any lingering, romantic notion that, well, maybe gypsies no longer drive colorful horsedrawn wagons, but they are secretly all well-off and, after the begging gig, sneak back home in their Mercedes to plush mobile homes on the outskirts. There are no operattas being played out in Secondigliano; the gypsies truly live in a pit with few or no sanitary facilities or other amenities. 

    Is it illegal? Probably. The children don't go to school; they and their families are almost certainly in the country illegally; and the children work in conditions that are "abusive". However, those are problems separate from the issue of forced child labor. It is one thing to go in and free a real slave (and there are those in Italy), maybe an Albanian child sold to a gang or a pimp in Italy, and quite another thing for the state to "free" children from their primary care givers, their parents, who are making them work, and no doubt would defend the practice as time-honored and honest. At least we are not stealing, they would say. In any event, most drivers are ambivalent at the stoplights when a soft-eyed little seven-year-old girl asks for money. Are you supporting child abuse? Slavery? Are you helping them? I don't know. 

    de Filippo, Peppino

    James Thurber said that humorists lead an existence of "jumpiness and apprehension."  "In the house of Life," he wrote, "they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats." There is a lot of opinion in a similar vein, from Woody Allen's "The trouble with writing comedy is that no one takes you seriously" to Dorothy Parker's comment that the world is stacked against those who write humor because anyone "has the right to read what they write and say 'I don't think that's funny'."  And Neapolitan playwright and actor, Peppino de Filippo—the subject of these few paragraphs—said, "It's harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry." 

    There is no doubt that, on an international level, Peppino de Filippo is not as well known as his older brother, Eduardo de Filippo, the "other" great Italian playwright (after Luigi Pirandello) of the 20th century. That may be due to the fact—quite aside from the much-debated existential worth of comedy as opposed to drama—that comedy does not translate very well from language to language and culture to culture. Yet, within Italy—and, particularly, in Naples—Peppino de Filippo is one of the best-loved writers and actors of the last 100 years. He would have been 100 years old a few days ago (he died in 1980) and a lot of air time on local and national television was given over to his long career. 

    He made his debut at the age of six in a play written by his and his siblings' (Eduardo and Titina) natural father, Eduardo Scarpetta, one of the most prominent Neapolitan playwrights of the early 20th century. Both Peppino and his sister were part of the theatrical company formed by their brother, Eduardo, in 1930. The company enjoyed great success throughout Italy for well over a decade. They performed, of course, works by Eduardo, but also some by Peppino. The company dissolved in 1944 due to a misunderstanding. No one seems to know if it was an artistic problem, sibling rivalry or what, but it was not amicable, and the two brothers never resolved their differences; they led totally separate careers, Eduardo as the great playwright and Peppino as a comic actor and minor playwright destined to remain in the shadow of his older brother. Peppino traveled and worked internationally, and his comedies were well received. 

    In films, he is best remembered for a popular series in which he is teamed with Totò, certainly Italy's most popular comic of the last century. It would not be fair to call Peppino a "second banana" in these films, but his career does seem to be one in which he is always struggling by being compared to someone else. Outside of Italy, he is probably best remembered for his role in the Fellini segment of Boccaccio 70 called "The Temptation of Doctor Antonio" in which Peppino plays the prudish and repressed professor who is scandalized by and obsessed with a gigantic billboard ad for milk featuring a gigantic and very milky-looking Anita Ekberg. 

    Scarlatti, Alessandro (1660-1725)

    scarlatto cover
    I was reading the biographical entry on "Alessandro Scarlatti" in an encyclopedia the other day. It was much shorter than it should have been, finishing up with, "He is remembered as the founder of classical music and of the harmonic system later perfected by Mozart". Such a laconic throwaway line right at the end starts you reading the next entry (on "Scarlet Fever," as I recall) before the full impact of that statement really sinks in. Then-- wait …the "founder of classical music"!  Shouldn't that at least be followed by something like, "…and He saw that it was good and He rested"?

    It is relatively easy to find something familiar and enjoyable in literature and painting from the year 1600 —Shakespeare and Rubens, to name but two from an incredibly long list. Yet, music from that year presents some problems. All those things which are familiar and likeable to the average concert-goer today —the symphony, the concerto, the opera, the orchestra, itself— did not yet exist in 1600, and only a music historian, a specialist, would be able to discern in the music that Shakespeare and Rubens surely must have listened to, the ancestor of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. 

    It is only in the 1600s, with the development of the Italian opera by Claudio Monteverdi and his contemporaries, that we find music opening to the commercial world beyond the confines of the church and gaining the impetus for the development of new forms, new instruments and new concepts of melody and harmony. Alessandro Scarlatti stands at the end of this period. He is, briefly, the summing up of the entire tradition of Italian music to that time. He inherited a music that did not yet know the forms we accept today as "classical"—the symphony, the concerto, etc.— a music that had still not even settled on our modern harmonic and melodic concepts of major and minor, and a music with meager instrumental resources, to say the least. He left as his heritage advances in the modern opera, the beginnings of the symphony and a decidedly modern direction for harmony and melody; also, by including horns and woodwinds in the orchestra, he laid the foundation of the modern symphony orchestra. 

    He was born in Palermo, but spent much of his active life as a composer in Naples and Rome. He was one of the most prolific composers in history, writing 20 oratorios, 600 chamber cantatas, 200 masses, suites for various instrumental combinations and 150 operas! His division of operatic overtures into "movements" was the forerunner of the modern symphony, and his single comic opera, The Triumph of Honour, performed in Naples in 1718, paved the way for the later comic operas of Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Paisiello, Rossini and Mozart. 

    Goethe's remark that "architecture is frozen music," certainly applies to the great German composers of the Baroque. One can easily see in the mind's eye cathedrals lofting and arching on high to the music of Bach and Haendel. Yet, much of Scarlatti's music is just as "cathedralesque," if you will. He was, however, an extremely versatile composer, and therein lies his fascination to the student of music history, even today. For while the Baroque side of him spired heavenward right alongside his German colleagues, the Enlightenment, after all, had dawned, and its attendant musical expression required fewer cathedrals and more architecture of human dimension. Scarlatti's attention to the grace of newer and less ornamental forms set the stage for classicism, and his sense of melody, and even his sense of humor, imbued his art with the kind of musical humanism that would one day be the hallmark of Romanticism, itself. 


    A short drive south of Naples will bring you to Paestum and, a few miles later, Agropoli. At Paestum you have the opportunity to  visit one of the most prominent and easily accessible of the sites in Italy that, along with Cuma, Elea (Velia) and many others here in the south, made up Magna Grecia, that magnificent extension of Classical Greek civilization  beyond the waters of the Aegean half a millennium before Christ Then, on the same outing, you can drop in on the  Byzantine fortress town of Agropoli. 

    The ruins of Paestum that you see today as you drive along the length of SS 18 about fifteen miles past Battipaglia give only the faintest idea of what a great Greek city in those days must have been like. First of all, the area is known—from the discovery of pottery fragments—to have been visited many centuries before even the famous Greek city-builders by travelers from as far east in the Aegean as myth-shrouded Troy. Certainly the Mycenaean Greeks must have been among these. In any event, when it came time for Sybarite settlers—from Sibari, another Greek colony to the south near modern-day Taranto—to seek greener pastures, they chose the shores of southern Italy at a point where the Sele river flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea, the southern part of what is today called the Gulf of Salerno. 

    They founded their city of Poseidonia (named for the Greek god of the sea, the Roman "Neptune") on this fertile plain in around 600 BC. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to care about the total absence of any nearby high ground on which to build an acropolis, the "high city" typical of so many other Greek settlements. Perhaps the mythology and aura of magic already linked to the area was a factor in their decision. Here they built a city, relying on walls instead of high ground for defense; the walls were three miles in circumference, and the ruins of the four gates are still visible: Porta Aurea, Porta della Giustizia, Porta della Sirena, and Porta della Marina

    Entrance to the vast archaeological site is directly from the main road, SS 18. The most obvious ruins to be seen are those of three large temples. The southernmost one is the Doric Basilica; it was probably dedicated to Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the Gods; there is a sacrificial altar in front of the temple. Next to this temple stands the so-called Temple of Poseidon; its simply-fluted, heavy columns are the best preserved examples of classic Greek Doric architecture left in the world, including ruins in Greece. The third large temple left standing is the one erected to Ceres. All three of these structures are from the sixth century BC. 

    Perhaps, indeed, because of its lack of strategic terrain, Poseidonia had a relatively short history as a Greek city. It carried on commerce with the great Etruscan cities of the north, but then in the fourth century BC was conquered  by the Lucanians, one of the indigenous Italic peoples of the peninsula and the one whose name this region, Lucania, still bears. These people, like everyone else at the time in Italy, were then gobbled up in turn by the mighty Romans. The Romans strengthened the walls of Poseidon —Paestum, by then—and added baths, more temples and an amphitheater, turning the place into a typical Roman outpost of luxurious sybaritic self-indulgence. (That was nice, since  Sybarites had founded the city in the first place!) In any event there are also Roman bits and pieces to be seen as you stroll across the wide abandoned meadows of Paestum. 

    Over the centuries since the fall of the Roman empire, Paestum was invaded by nature, which  turned the plain into an on-again, off-again swamp, and then overrun by Saracens, the fierce Muslim pirates from the south who raided along these coasts in the eighth and ninth centuries a.d. As an archaeological site, Paestum is scarcely a few centuries old, having been rediscovered in the early 1700s along with Pompeii, Herculaneum and so many other relics of Classical Italy. There is a fine modern museum right across from the main entrance on SS 18; it contains the obvious Greek and Roman relics, but also a considerable collection of prehistoric items from the area. 

    A few minutes to the south is Agropopli. The name—clearly from Greek acropolis—does, indeed, mean "high city," but there is no evidence at all that the town is any older than the century following the fall of the Roman empire. The hill upon which the nucleus of the original town sits was probably first inhabited in the fifth century AD by Byzantine forces who were contending for Italy with great  numbers of Goth invaders sweeping down the peninsula at the time. Two things stand out about Agropoli today. One is the Saracen castle, built by the Byzantines. That term, "Saracen castle" or "Saracen tower," is used throughout the coastal regions of southern Italy to describe hundreds of structures built between the time of the first Arab incursions in Italian waters, in the eighth century, and as late as the 1500s by the Spanish rulers of the Kingdom of Naples, on guard against Turkish marauders. Through the centuries, the term has generally meant a lookout, a place to watch for Saracens —after so many centuries, simply a generic term for "Muslim pirates."  Interestingly, the Saracen castle in Agropoli was actually inhabited by Saracens—and for quite a number of years (from 882, when they took it from Byzantines, to 1028 when they were finally expelled by the Normans). Remains of Arabic inscriptions attest to the Saracen presence in Agropoli. 

    The other interesting point about Agropoli is the fact that the original city, the area high on the hill surrounding the fortress is still inhabited. In fact, there are even ‘for-rent’ signs, evidence perhaps of the town’s significant renaissance in the age of mass tourism. After all, there are good beaches nearby, so why not hole up for a summer high on an ancient fortress hillside? The castle, itself, is now a private home, museum and convention center of sorts. You can visit it by just ringing the bell, thus bidding the lord of the manor to grant you entrance. (If that doesn’t work, threaten him with your cross-bow. A small fee will also do nicely.) You can do the obligatory drawbridge and dungeon routine—failing, of course, to keep your merlons and crenels straight—and then stop and rest, still high on the hill and sheltered by the bulwarks of the castle, itself, at one of the pizzerias and restaurants that the inhabitants have seen fit to add in the last 1,500 years. Then, meander down to the newer parts of town on the lower slopes, appreciating how urban expansion must have changed as  castles on high ground gradually lost their strategic importance.