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Letter from Anacapri, September 2011.
On the Trail of the Tiny Forts
Sept. 21—First Day of Autumn
Sunset from Anacapri. The island of Ischia
is in the background, lower right.
We got here about 6 pm. I hadn’t taken a boat to the local islands in so long that I wasn’t aware of how much the comings and goings at the main port in Naples have changed. The hydrofoils and fast double-hull boats are now all at one pier, Molo Beverello, directly in front of the Maschio Angioino fortress, while the ferries have moved to a new pier called Porta di Massa, about 100 yards farther east, beyond the old Immacolatella customs station. The new terminal at Porta di Massa is really a remodeled old warehouse from well before WWII, possibly even from 1900 when the port was rebuilt during the risanamento. The shiny plaque says the new pier and passenger terminal have been open since 2007, but you couldn’t prove it by me.
Our hotel on the Anacapri hill lives up to its name—Bellavista (Beautiful View): our balcony faces Vesuvius and the coast of Naples; the dining room faces northwest to the islands of Ischia and Procida. (I was sure the sun was rising in the wrong place the next morning but I finally figured it out. I was wrong; HE was right, as usual. HE is either God or the sun—of masculine grammatical gender in Italian. If your language is German, your mileage may differ.)
The island of Capri is off the east end of the Gulf of Naples. We are high enough in the town of Anacapri on the western side of the island so that facing over some 17 miles (30 km) across the bay you see Ischia and Procida distinctly as two separate islands off the other end of the gulf. (Even Vivara, Procida’s own little satellite isle, is quite distinct.) You don’t see that separation from many places in the bay. If you’re at sea-level (on a sail boat, for example) and farther than four or five miles away from those islands and looking at them, the bottoms are cut off by the horizon; unless you already know, you can’t really tell the difference between separate bits of land and a single low-lying strip broken up in places by the optical trick of the horizon. (Note: If you are six-feet tall and standing on the beach, your line of sight out to sea will hit the horizon—the curve of the earth—in about four miles; a crusty old merchant seaman told me that! So if you are any good at math and you know the circumference of the earth, you should be able to calculate how tall you are! Then again, I may have watched too many episodes of NUMB3RS. p.s. I just tried this; I am 12 feet tall. Back to the drawing board!) Thus, even from the modest height of the town of Anacapri—just under 300 meters/900 feet—you actually see Ischia and Procida set in the sea with the horizon behind. Then you see the two-mile strait between Procida and Monte di Procida on the mainland, then all of the western end of the Gulf of Naples and the Bay of Pozzuoli, then to the east past the city and finally Vesuvius before your view runs into our neighboring hotel, the Cesare Augusto. They have a good view, too.
My wife chose this hotel because she remembers staying here once with her parents when she was a little girl. I rather hoped we would be at the place down the road where we stayed a couple of years ago. They had a great collection of old science books, totally neglected and falling apart and jammed askew into the shelves. That is my justification for ‘saving’ a volume by Alfred Russel Wallace, the ‘other’ Darwin. It was called The Wonderful Century—written in 1898, when the future seemed predictable. The book was a glowing view of science and the future. It contained this passage:
The flowing tide is with us. We have great poets, great writers , great thinkers, to cheer and guide us; and an ever-increasing band of earnest workers to spread the light and help on the good time coming. And as this century has witnessed a material and intellectual advance wholly unprecedented in the history of human progress, so the Coming Century will reap the full fruition of that advance, in a moral and social upheaval of an equally new and unprecedented kind, and equally great in amount.Wallace died in 1913, one year before the beginning of the Great War.
We had a good dinner; we paid too much but were surrounded by beautiful people. It was one of those places, quite common on Capri, that displays photos on the walls of all the famous people who have dined there. (I offered them a picture of Yours Truly! They said they’d get back to me.)
I really want to get a swim in tomorrow; today the high daytime temperature was probably 25+ C. (high 70s, F.) although it cooled off quickly later in the afternoon. I also have to find the trail of small English forts along the western side of the island and take some photos. (They are alternately called “French forts” in some sources. They were both. See the link immediately above and also the section farther down on this page.)
Sept 22—I took a swim at the lighthouse. It’s at Punta Carena, the furthest south-western point on the island of Capri. The octagonal tower was built in 1866; the focal plane (an imaginary line extending straight out from the center of the lens) is 73 meters (240 ft) above the surface of the water. It is one of the most important lighthouses in the Tyrrhenian Sea in terms of the number of passing ships that rely on it. It is a rotating lamp with a period of 3 seconds that can be seen at a distance of 25 nautical miles/46 km. Since 2005 the lighthouse keeper has been Carlo D’Oriano, a former petty officer in the Italian navy. He loves the sea and solitude; clearly the right man at the right job! He is due to retire soon, and, alas, the job, itself, may not last much longer. Lighthouses are being increasingly automated around the world, and the figure of the lone sentinel watching over “those in peril on the sea” is fated to vanish.
[More on lighthouses here.]
While I was standing around, a most singular thing occurred (sorry, I’ve been rereading Sherlock Holmes on my e-reader!): there was a very low fly-over of single-engine two-seater Italian air force training planes, all the same color (red). There were about 15 of them and for a second it looked like a scene from Pearl Harbor. I saw the evil smirks on the pilots’ faces as they looked down and mocked us. I shook my fist at them and shouted “You nefarious oriental fiends!” even though they were really nefarious occidental fiends. They high-tailed it for home when they heard that “chuka-chuka-chuka!” .50 caliber sound I imitate so well with my voice. I have to find out exactly what that was all about.
The water temperature was perfect. I also found the beginning (from the southwest lighthouse end) of the trail that leads by the forts. It looks very do-able. I might try tomorrow. They tell me that it’s a 2-to-3-hour hike over to the other end near the Blue Grotto.
This western side of the island is still rural in many parts. It’s a pleasant break from the tourists, although there are still plenty of them around even in late September near the center of the town of Anacapri (and, obviously, in the town of Capri, itself). There are long strings of them following their group leader who waves aloft some sort of stick with a number or tour group logo on it so that stragglers can home on it and not wander over a cliff, or, even worse, wander near a place where they might NOT spend money! The wandering, trampling hordes are precisely what you don’t like about famous places—even if you, yourself, are part of the horde. As much as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke loved this island (particularly Anacapri), he got wound up about the tourist noise and glitter. He said that the town of Capri, itself, looked like a bad movie set built by German tourists. “..The signs of their stupid admiration...are so showy and tenacious that even the terrible storms that from time to time grip the island cannot cancel them...”.
Our friend and life-long resident of Anacapri, Gabriela, is going to come over and pick us up in a couple of hours and take us back to the old homestead for some old homestead cooking! She's a marvelous cook! She and her husband have a huge garden/vineyard; happily, there is still room on the island for those. She is just back from a pilgrimage to some place in ex-Yugoslavia (I’m not sure which one of the new “Yugo-Lands”—I think Montenegro; welcome back to the political geography of WWI). She came over on the boat from Naples last night almost as soon as she got back, full of energy and new vitality. She had been at a place where they (or someone or many someones have seen the Blessed Virgin). Beats me. I stopped judging the miracles of others a long time ago. She missed the miracle of San Gennaro, though—the annual liquefaction of some blood in a vial in the Naples Cathedral. Recently the Italian senate declared the traditional holiday (Sept. 19) defunct and ‘floated’ it to the following Sunday. Gennaro had his miracle on the traditional day anyway (just a few days ago), essentially telling the senators to go jump in the lake (the one of fire and brimstone, one hopes). Again, I don’t judge miracles.
Sept. 23— Cloudy morning, maybe not so good for photos. It’s only 8 a.m. though, so I’ll wait and see a while before I decide whether or not to take my photo hike of the forts. (Later)—Maybe not today. Interesting coincidence, though. This morning, I was browsing through some of the glossy magazines about Capri that hotels leave lying around for the guests: Capri Fashion, Capri Review, Capri Sailing, Capri Living, Capri Goats (well, maybe not Capri Goats). They are chock-a-block with advertising for perfume, watches, leather goods, jewelry, ceramics, clothing, hand-made sandals, sandal-made hands, art galleries, boutiques, hotels and restaurants, interlarded with short feature articles about things that usually don’t interest me, such as what Rita Hayworth was doing here in 1950. (Spoiler alert: shopping!) There was one item, however, about a local potter, painter and sculptor who has been at work here since the 1970s and is responsible for prominent “new majolica” ceramic tile work on the island, including one that I took a picture of yesterday before I knew any of this. It is the ceramic map of the “Trail of the Little Forts” posted near the lighthouse at the point where the trail begins from the southwest end. It is the first of many such descriptive tiles along the way; sooner or later I want to see the rest.
The artist’s name is Sergio Rubino (photo, above). He has a worldwide reputation with works on permanent display, for example, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Underwater Exploration Institute in Bermuda. Between 1991 and 1993 Rubino and his sons Michelangelo and Raffaello opened a workshop in New York City and then a multifunctional Art Center, “Rubino’s Art Village” in Jeffersonville, NY, in the Catskills. He has also restored restaurants in Switzerland, religious artifacts on Capri, and at Piazza Diaz in Anacapri he has restored the antique majolica benches and pillars. He has filled some rather unusual private commissions, as well, including making a tea-pot for author Graham Greene, honorary citizen of Anacapri. He also made another tea-pot for a woman who wanted the spout in the form of a penis! (Besides miracles, I also do not judge women who want tea-pots like that.) Rubino has complained about Capri souvenirs made in China, is a strong supporter of local artisanship, and accepts apprentices.
In addition to the Little Forts ceramic descriptions (such as the one in the photo, right) that I intend to search out, Rubino has one that intrigues me of what the Palazzo a Mare might have looked like at the time of Tiberius (image detail, below). That is the seaside stretch of the island facing Naples, below the heights of Anacapri about halfway between the main Marina and the Blue Grotto. Remnants of this Roman villa have been found, so the artist’s reconstruction is at least plausible. I found Rubino at his studio. He is a native of Anacapri and is gracious and garrulous. I asked if he had used a source for his version of the spectacular Roman buildings along the sea. He laughed and said, “Imagination! But that’s the way it should look.” Agreed. I really do wish they would build it all back to look exactly as he has recreated it—plus high-speed internet connection, of course. I may be nostalgic, but I’m not a Luddite.
This morning I made it down to the first fortino—little fort—the one nearest the lighthouse. It is Fortino di Pino (photo, left). It’s quite a hike down and, especially, back. There are three main ones in all; the other two are Fortino di Mesola and Fortino di Orrico. (There is a fourth smaller fortification, also on the trail near the lighthouse called Fortino Tombosiello.) I think it would be very difficult to do all of them in just two or three hours, especially if you like to dawdle to take photos and linger over the written explanations.
the ceramic library
As advertised, Sergio Rubino has about two-hundred exquisite ceramic paintings and descriptions (in Italian and English) along the entire Trail of Little Forts, covering everything from the forts themselves to notes on the geology, flora and fauna of the area, including some about the marine life in local waters. Many of the tiles are three-dimensional to simulate a book opened to display a painted image on the left-hand page with explanatory text on the facing page (photo, right). At one point my glance fell upon a ceramic page about Euphorbia dendroides, a plant called the Tree Spurge in English; it “enchants with the beauty of its colors...but is sharp and toxic...gracefully dresses the melancholy fall of the leaves, first fiery, then fading...In the end it stands erect, a bare summer skeleton, full only of poison.” (Great, now I'm depressed. I wonder if that plant is trying to tell me something.) It all amounts to a grand outdoor ceramic library with books strategically opened around the landscape. The “library” and restored fortifications are the culmination of work that started in the late 1990s. It’s probably all too recent for UNESCO to start worrying about this, but I did see a broken tile (and there may be others); an “eco-museum” such as this really does strike me as one of those cultural artifacts that we should be concerned with saving.
There have been various watch-towers and fortification on the cliffs of Anacapri for many centuries; some of them go back to the need to protect from Saracen incursions well over 500 years ago. The restored forts that you can now hike to and visit, however, are probably largely the work of the British, allies of the Kingdom of Naples during the Napoleonic wars. Scholars are not entirely agreed on that, however; to some extent, you may also be looking at bits of earlier Bourbon fortifications from the late 1700s or later French construction and even Bourbon building from the period just after the Restoration (1815). The fort on the northwest corner of the island, Fortino Orrico, near the Blue Grotto, is the most interesting one in terms of military history. As Napoleonic battles go, the “Battle of Capri” is not exactly Austerlitz or Marengo, but it does rate a mention among Napoleon’s Mediterranean victories inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Indeed, the battle does have at least one spectacular highlight:
Napoleon took the Kingdom of Naples in 1806 and sent the Bourbon royals running off to Sicily. They had plans, however, to retake their kingdom, plans that required the British fleet to recapture the island of Capri and hold it. The first part worked fine; the British took Capri in May of 1806 and set about fortifying it as another Gibraltar. It was a great idea!—a British naval base in the gulf, just a few miles off-shore from the capital city of the French client state, the Kingdom of Naples. Capri quickly became a formidable British naval presence and a hotbed of conspiracy to restore the Bourbons—a total thorn in the side to the French. But the next part—keeping the island—was another matter; the British held Capri until October of 1808, when a combined French and Neapolitan force staged diversionary attacks at the main and secondary harbors of Capri and then sent 2,000 men up the sheer cliffs at Orrico in a very daring assault. (Interestingly, the officers in the attacking force were, indeed, French, but many of the troops were Neapolitan “irregulars”—we call them “mercenaries” today—recruited by king Murat specifically for the task. They even wore uniforms of their own design! I have that information from Mr. Rubino, just the person to specify a detail such as that.) The fort on the Orrico cliff was unassailable “without wings” (according to a fisherman sent to scout out a suitable point for ascent), so the invaders sprouted ladders. They brought aboard their ships the many hundreds of ladders used two years earlier to install tall street lamps in the dark streets of Naples and in a very difficult undertaking took the fort, then the town of Anacapri and eventually the whole island. Small irony: the British commander who surrendered, General Hudson Lowe, had been expecting imminent resupply and reinforcement by the British fleet. It arrived—bearing a store of the General’s favorite wine!—a few hours after the surrender! Speaking of small ironies: Hudson Lowe wound up a few years later as Napoleon’s last jailer on another island—St. Helena. They say that Napoleon mocked him by calling him “the hero of Capri.”
I went to Villa Damecuta in the afternoon. There are descriptions at the entrance of what little remains of this, one of Tiberius’ 12 villas on Capri. There really isn’t too much to see, certainly not on the order of the Villa Tiberius at the other end of the island. It’s not just the ravages of time, either; the Villa Damecuta has undergone more recent episodes of intentional alteration in the name of some cause or other and, as well, has been plundered over the centuries either by farmers looking for stone for their own buildings or by amateur archaeologists such as William Hamilton looking for loot to send home to the British Museum. The text near the entrance says:
The villa, which was constructed in the Iulius-Claudius age, was damaged and abandoned following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. A watchtower was built in Medieval times and towards the end of the 18th century Bourbon fortifications were added. The villa occupied an extremely vast area and is supposed to originally have had a passageway to the sea. The part which can be seen was excavated by Amedeo Maiuri between 1937-1948 and includes a guest area and a private residence. The line of top floor rooms and the structures of the bottom floors, built against the rockface, have been preserved.
The site is directly on the height overlooking the waters that stretch to Ischia and the mainland. The viewable, excavated section is a narrow strip with a rotunda at one end overlooking the sea and fronting on the remains of what was obviously a large structure with many rooms (the “guest area” referred to, above). There is then an 80-meter path along the cliff to the other end of the site, where a medieval tower stands. Stairs lead down to where the tower, as Maiuri discovered, concealed the remains of a small alcove (the “private residence”—apparently one of Tiberius’ favorite places to get away from his guests). The entire Villa Damecuta was well supplied with water from an underground cistern set back about 200 meters towards the higher hillside. The site is at the end of a small street named, indeed, for archaeologist Maiuri.
Villa Damecuta is adjacent to a military weather station and helicopter pad with a big sign that says, “Passing this boundary will provoke an armed response.” Not “...may provoke...” but “... WILL provoke...” The image that goes with the warning is of a sentry aiming a rifle straight out at you, the person reading the message. I wanted to see if they had any information on my Pearl Harbor incident, but there wasn’t anyone at the gate. I shook my fist, muttered “chuka-chuka-chuka!” and left.
other relevant entries:
Anacapri Anacapri (English forts) Capri Battle of Capri
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