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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Jan 2008

A Place in the Sun

"Un posto al sole"—A Place in the Sun—is the name of a wildly popular Italian soap opera. In the last episode...hold on...it occurs to me that I have never watched it and am not about to start; thus, I know nothing about the last episode. I do know, however, that it promises "love and betrayal in the beautiful bay of Naples" and is filmed on location on the premises of the Villa Volpicelli at water's edge at the little harbor of Riva Fiorita on the Posillipo coast (photo, left—Villa Volpicelli is the "castle"-looking building on the far left in the photo.)

When seen from a distance across the bay, this little harbor and the other buildings evoke—as do many points in Naples and on the islands in the bay—the infamous "You Can't Get There from Here" reflex. You stare at them for a while and wonder just how people manage to get to these places. On Capri, for example, the answer lies in narrow footpaths. Elsewhere, such as here on the Posillipo coast, many homes are accessible only by private driveways running down from the coast road, via Posillipo. That road starts at sea-level down at the Mergellina harbor and angles in as it runs up the coast, climbing as it goes, such that by the time you get a mile up the road, there is a considerable wedge of land between you and the coast, land that holds many homes and even open, cultivated plots.

There are also a few public roads that run down from the main road; in the case of our harbor, Riva Fiorita, the street named via Ferdinando Russo starts at the square, Piazza Salvatore di Giacomo, up on the main road and winds down the few hundred yards to the harbor and villa, passing by plenty of homes along the way. The road also passes by the entrance to the Villa Rosebery, a vast estate that is the official residence of the President of Italy when he happens to be in Naples. (The Villa Volpicelli is directly adjacent to the Villa Rosebery; in the photo, above, the wooded area behind the buildings is on the premises of the presidential estate.)

The watchman at the entrance to a nearby building is the one who told me of the "Un posto al sole" connection. (The villa also serves as a location for another TV series, "La Squadra,"—The Squad—a police/adventure series.) A woman standing nearby and eavesdropping on my questions spoke up and assured me that the villa was originally a Bourbon fortress—which I doubted even as I thanked her. A young woman in a local cafe said that the villa was from the 16th century. That would put it in the period of the Spanish vice-royalty in Naples. I thought that to be unlikely, as well. It turns out that both versions (and a few others) have partial truths hidden in them.

The view from your Place in the Sun every morning       

The whole Posillipo coast was actively—even lavishly— inhabited by the Greeks and Romans; bits of ancient columns have recently been dredged up from the waters just off the point where the villa Volpicelli sits at water's edge. The changing coastline and simple ravages of 2,000 years have concealed much of all that. (Some of the ravages are not so simple—earthquakes and bradiseisms, for example. Major ruins in the area include the villa of Vedius Pollio). After the fall of the Roman empire, coastal areas in this part of Italy were often abandoned in the face of dangers posed by invading marauders of one kind or another. Posillipo was such an area and did not come into a period of rejuvenation and growth until the Angevins moved the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily up to Naples. Then, with the coming of the Spanish in 1500, the area started a period of intense regrowth as the Spanish fortified the city and moved to the west towards Mergellina. At that point (the late 1500s), new villas started to pop up along the Posillipo coast.

The current villa Volpicelli sits on the site of—and incorporates parts of—the Candia e Santacroce villa, a structure that is mentioned in 1629 By A. Baratta in Veduta di Napoli (A View of Naples). Villa and harbor are also found on the 1653 Stopendael map of Naples. The property then changed hands a number of times. By the mid-1700s and the reign of the Bourbons in Naples, the harbor was the site of the villa as well as adjacent military facilities, including a small barracks and gunpowder and munitions storehouse. Later, in the early 1800s (during the reign of Murat), a new hillside road, via Posillipo, was built and a road was then put in to branch off from it and run down to the harbor. (In the really old days, of course, that top road did not exist; if you were fortunate enough to be a Greek or Roman with your own little place in the sun on the coast, the most convenient way in and out was by boat.) Whatever military significance the harbor might have had was rendered moot by the unification of Italy in 1861.

At least one of the old buildings (center) at the harbor has
been restored to resemble the villa Volpicelli, itself.

The villa was sold off in 1884 to one Raffaele Volpicelli for whom it is still named. He set about trying to restore the villa to its original 17th-century splendor; thus, what you see today is a faux chateau. ("Phony castle" sounds so much better in French! Maybe there is a school of architecture named that, in which case the villa Volpicelli can join the bizarre battlements of Lamont Young's Victorian "castles" in Naples.) The parapet and towers look a little too "castle-y" to have ever been real. They look like something conjured up in the early 1900s when waning Romanticism might have prompted you to notch a few more fine retro crenels along the top from behind which you could shoot your crossbow at the invading minions of modernism—maybe pick off a horseless carriage or two. Indeed, the villa was opened  by Volpicelli in 1907. The current work on the towers (photo, above right) will restore the villa to that "original" state of splendid anachronism.

The kind young woman in the cafe also told me that the villa now belongs to someone named Solimene. I have dutifully checked the phone book and find that name at the appropriate address on via F. Russo (the number was right next to the sign that said "Private Property. This means YOU, pal!") Maybe I'll call and see why I have been getting no call-backs on my recent dynamite auditions for the role of a top-notch lover and/or betrayer. I have a feeling I may never get to see the inside of the villa. Maybe I can get arrested in the other TV series.

A good book on the entire area is Posillipo by Renato De Fusco (pub. 1988. Electa. Naples). It contains spectacular photography by Mimmo Iodice. A good item on the villa, itself, is "Storia di una villa sul mare: villa Volpicelli al Capo di Posillipo" by Dora Musto in volume 2 of Per la storia del Mezzogiorno medievale e moderno; Studi in onore di Jole Mazzoleni (pub. Rome, 1998).

note (2010 update): Un posto al sole added some class to the soap last year. They managed to film five episodes inside the San Carlo opera house. You see, Raffaele, the doorman at Palazzo Palladini (villa Volpicelli in real life) is a great opera fan and good friend of Meri, a seamstress for the San Carlo company. She manages to get him into the theater backstage where they...well, I don't want to ruin it for you. They listen to some great music, too.


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