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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Jan 2007
(After "The Big Money Pit" in November, 2006, here is a new item from Larry Ray, former and longtime resident of Naples. He maintains his own website here and is the English-language translator for Napoli UnderGround which you are cordially invited to visit. )
Beneath the Oldest Basilica in Naples
© by Larry Ray
Napoliunderground.org's webmaster, Fulvio Salvi, along with fellow urban speleologist friends, as well as his daughter, Selene, completed a fascinating visit beneath the city's historic center at the end of 2006. They took advantage of an opportunity to explore an incredible labyrinth of switchback steps, ladders and passageways leading to a huge quarried cavity beneath the Santa Maria Maggiore alla Pietrasanta basilica. [Photo, left. Located at number 38 on this map.]
The church itself is fascinating. It was built in the first half of the sixth century on the site of an ancient Roman building. Opposite the entrance hall on the ancient via dei Tribunali, is an imposing medieval bell tower from the eleventh century built with ancient Roman materials and column. It is among the oldest examples of the Roman architectural style in the city. It is the first basilica in Naples dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and was rebuilt in the Baroque style in 1652.
A stairway beneath a back altar originally provided access to a series of paleochristian burial crypts or hypogea beneath the church. A severe earthquake in the Mount Vesuvius and Naples area in 1980 caused widespread structural damage. The foundation of the ancient basilica was reinforced with a massive engineering undertaking. Reinforced ferroconcrete walls and support piling were constructed beneath the basilica's foundation. A switchback stair ramp was installed to provide access to the new construction.
Fulvio Salvi and his speleologist friends were able to inspect not only this engineering marvel, but also to discover an additional access to a large square shaft leading down into a bottle-shaped cavern beneath the church created by the quarrying of large blocks of sturdy yellow tuff sandstone. It is this quarry that provided material most probably used to build the basilica. The shaft, called the "eye of the mountain" is typical of hundreds upon hundreds of other gigantic cavities found in all areas beneath Naples.
Fulvio and his team used a flexible ladder to reach the bottom of the huge quarry cavity, and then made an interesting discovery. They noted fields of stalactites about 1 to 2 centimeters in length indicating long term seepage and water infiltration. Then to the right of the chamber they felt a strong, constant cool wind blowing from two small openings, indicating connection to other cavities and probably the old Greek aqueduct. Further inspection showed a small 'window' which would allow access to a tunnel about 10 meters down. This would most certainly be a diversion tunnel dug to tap the ancient aqueduct, providing a controlled flow of water into a lime coated reservoir. This was a common method of using the quarried cavities as water wells to supply buildings above. Since the outing was a casual inspection, no ropes or climbing gear was taken along, but Fulvio and his fellow explorers plan a return trip soon to do a more complete survey.
This article appears, in different format, on the website of Napoli UnderGround, at
http://www.napoliunderground.org/Article585.php, where you will also find a photo gallery of the expedition.
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