In the early 1700s the eastern limit of the city of Naples was an actual wall, more or less where the
red belfry of the church of the Carmine and the ruins of the old Carmine fortress still stand today on
via Marina. Before railways and great roads, to venture beyond that point--to hug the coastline and
proceed east along the slopes of the volcano and then inland away from the bay of Naples, itself--
meant taking what was called the "Calabrian Road." The few miles along that road--from the city
to a point past Vesuvius at Torre Annunziata, where the Sorrentine peninsula starts to swing
south--was undeveloped. Earlier Spanish development in the 1500s and 1600s had been in the
other direction, to the west.
That changed with the arrival in the 1730s of the new Bourbon dynasty. In 1738, the monarch,
Charles III, started construction on one of his four royal palaces, this one in Portici, on the slopes of
Vesuvius about five miles out of the city. In those days, the area was bucolic--fertile and heavily
wooded; you could see the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida; the recently discovered ruins of the
Roman city of Herculaneum added some Classical charm, and even the delicately smoking crater of
the volcano seemed perhaps more quaint than it should have. (Understandable in an age which
knew little of the dynamics of exploding mountains). In short, it was a nice place to build a palace.
In the course of the 18th century, members of the wealthy noble classes followed the royal family in
that direction and opened the area with a series of spectacular estates and villas. The villas, gardens,
courtyards, fountains, arches, and terraces were the work of the finest architects of the age:
Vanvitelli, Fuga, Vaccaro, and Sanfelice. So spectacular was the splurge of building that the
stretch of road out of the city became known as the Miglio d'Oro--the "Golden Mile."
Today, those estates are called the "Vesuvian Villas." Specifically, that terms covers 121 of them,
collectively defined as cultural heritage by a 1971 law that established a foundation to recover them
from the ravages of the previous 250 years, a period that included the laying of the first railway in
Italy exactly along the route of the old road in 1839, the subsequent growth of industry, the
development of the industrial port, the aerial bombardments of World War II, and the post-war,
unbridled and catastrophic land speculation and overbuilding in an area that is now the most
densely populated in Europe.
The possibility of saving what could be saved was noted in a 1957 volume, Le Ville vesuviane del
Settecento (The Vesuvian Villas of the 1700s) by Roberto Pane of the architecture department of
the University of Naples, the publication of which fostered the formation of a consortium of the
Italian state, the Campania regional government and the municipal governments of Portici,
Ercolano, San Giorgio a Cremano, Torre del Greco, Torre Annunziata, the five towns along the old
How is the program going? The villas, themselves? I took a bus ride and walk out there the other
day. I'm not sure what I expected. In my heart of hearts I wanted that marvellous scene in the
Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her tornado-blown house and steps out into Oz, at
which point the film bursts out of dull black & white into full color. I was going to cross the magic
line (right beneath the highway overpass near the rusted oil refinery and industrial incinerator) and
step off the bus at the first stop in San Giovanni a Teduccio. In the twinkling of an eye, the grime
of the years would dissolve, and the broad Calabrian road would be as it was then, stretching untold
leagues away to the Great Southern Sea. It would all be in Technicolor©, and--here, I would cue
the violins--I could start my voyage of discovery. I would see Vesuvius smoking in the background
and Goethe taking notes along the roadside--or maybe Goethe smoking in the background and
Vesuvius taking notes. Something like that. A kindly coachman would stop and give me a lift to the
Royal Palace where benevolent monarch, Charles, and his gracious consort, Maria Amalia, would
welcome me, feed me, and then let their 300-pound Neapolitan mastiff hunting dog, "Attila," frolic
with me . (Note to myself: the last scene needs some work.)
Having sobered up, I now report that the string of 121 sites starts in the first community adjacent to
Naples to the east, San Giovanni a Teduccio. The last one is in Ercolano. In general, the farther out
you move from the city, the better. That is, the "villas" in San Giovanni deserve those "so-called"
quotation marks; the non-descript buildings are simply street addresses; some look abandoned and
all are totally unremarkable. The whole length of the road is jammed beyond belief, creating the
impression that you could climb up to the roof of the first building and walk the entire distance,
stepping from roof to adjacent roof for miles without ever touching the ground.
Yet, a number of the villas in Portici and Ercolano are now restored and serve as cultural centers
and residences. In between are ones that don't look bad at all and are fully functional apartment
houses. The first site to be recovered was the Villa Campolieto in Ercolano. The villa dates from
1755 and was one of the spectacular projects of Vanvitelli. It was acquired by the Vesuvian Villa
consortium in 1978 and restored and opened in 1984 as the centerpiece of the entire project.
Another restored villa is the Villa Ginestre (top photo) , the home of Italy's greatest Romantic poet,
Giacomo Leopardi. A building that actually predates the Bourbon arrival in Naples, it is up the
slopes from Ercolano and is an attraction for those on a "literary tour" of southern Italy. Also, it
may be cheating to call the Bourbon Palace (bottom photo) in Portici ONE of the villas--after all, it
was THE villa. It still stands, Colossus-like, astride the old road and is in good repair since it now
houses the Agricultural Department of the University of Naples.
I will settle for a gradual restoration of what can be restored and the integration of that restored
property back into an area already well-endowed with items of great interest. The nearby
archaeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis are already on the UNESCO World
Heritage list. The stretch also contains one of the world's finest historical railway museums, and the
premises of the Bourbon Palace contain a scientifically important botanical garden. Also, the
Vesuvius national park is right next door.