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the cisterns/ to cover (via Tribunali, S. Anna di Palazzo) catacombs (S. Gennaro, S. Gaudioso, Fontanelle, Purgatorio ad Arco)> Greco-Roman ruins (san Lorenzo, piazza Bellini, the Seiano grotto ).


The underground city.
From the sea to the hill, the city lends itself well to underground tourist strolls that are mid-way between archeology and cave exploration. Particularly suggestive are the wartime shelters built by transforming the twisting mazes of the ancient city aqueduct. These waterways became roads to safety when, in 1941-43, wells were turned into numerous narrow stairways; the cisterns became bomb shelters equipped with electric power, small folding beds and lavatories. Thousands of people found refuge in the ancient water tanks.

To experience a pleasant and unusual excursion underground, simply go down 150 steps on Via dei Tribunali, off the church of San Paolo Maggiore near San Gaetano Square. The walk, which lasts about two hours and is recommended by Napoli Sotterranea, the Neapolitan Speleological Association, combines the charm of Roman antiquity with the drama of WWII. Going down to about 30-40 meters below current street level, the visitor winds up in the ancient Roman aqueduct, a dense network of tunnels and cisterns dug into the tuff rock to distribute water from the headwaters of the Serino River to the city. It is an underground area of 10.000 m2 from Via Anticaglia to Via S. Gregorio Armeno, honeycombed with a myriad of tuff tunnels added through the centuries to ensure that every building above had its own well that was connected to the cisterns. Along this very interesting route, at times with only torches and candles to light the way, the visitor even has the chance to appreciate botanical experiments.

A similar structure has been recovered by the Laes Association on Via Sant'Anna di Palazzo. Visitors, after going down a spiral stairway, go 40 meters further down for a two-hour walk in the bowels of the Quartieri Spagnoli [Spanish Quarter]. It is a shelter of more than 3,000 m2 where about 4,000 people, at any one time, found refuge in the various passageways and tunnels. There are ceramic electric insulators, seats in cement, and lavatories, all installed to convert the cisterns into shelters. On the plaster-covered walls the visitor finds an interesting collection of graffiti, bearing witness to the atmosphere of the time, one of drama but at times cheerful-a period of life lived underground. There are stylized portraits of the Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini trio; and pictures of women's profiles next to those of uniformed men mingle with the shape of aviators in uniform or with pictures of young models either in bridal or in evening gowns, or with characters from comic strips like Mr. Bonaventura (for those who recall the comic strips from the Corriere dei Piccoli, ["Children's Courier"] a children's comic book, quite well known during that period). Then, there are halls by theme: the "war" room, depicting real sea and air battles as well as news stories such as the one related to the Italian submarine "Topazio" sunk in 1943 by Allied Forces in the Mediterranean Sea; or the story concerning the air raid on the city by the "accursed hunchback", the "Savoia Marchetti" bomber that used to unload bombs according to "soccer game strategy"; or even the "wedding" room, where you can read the inscription "Anna and Renzo are getting wed on September 20th", which is just a step away from a small corner that someone, a bit more demanding, booked: "reserved for Mr. Campagna".

The city beneath Naples is not just aqueducts and Greco-Roman excavation sites, but also Paleochristian chambers: hidden places of a time past and an expression of unique architectural, artistic and spiritual heritage. Groups of catacombs abound, especially in the Eastern area of the city, where they proliferated between the 2nd and 9th century A.D. with the beginning and development of Christianity and that faith's great need for well-protected areas to bury its dead and freely practice its own religious rites. Romans were prohibited access to this area, and Christians were protected from the persecutions inflicted by Imperial laws. Authentic underground labyrinths, dug in the tender tuff rock of the Partenopean hills, are simply a series of tunnel spaces following one another. The dug storage tanks that combine geometric precision with expressive freedom in an explosion of architectural forms, and the series of spaces where the walls are decorated by frescoes, all bear witness to the considerable figurative culture that became widespread in that period.

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Photos: courtesy of Monica Biancardi, Archeological complex of
San Lorenzo Maggiore, Libero De Cunzo, Laes Association,
Lucia Pagano, Renato Quaranta, Sagep.