| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Sept. 2003
One of most fascinating things about a palimpsest would be to use some of that new-fangled multispectral imaging to see what was actually written on the layers below the surface. Who knows, you might wind up in ancient Greece. (I understand that is precisely what has happened at a museum in Baltimore, where they have found Archimedes’ Theory of Floating Bodies floating well below the surface of some medieval scribbling.)
Archaeologically in Naples, there is no doubt a palimpsest phenomenon at work. All you have to do is dig a station for the metro almost anywhere near sea level in the city and you uncover, first, some Spanish walls and, sooner or later, bits and pieces of ancient Rome and Greece. It happens all the time.
Those without personal steam shovels may have to settle, however, for a kind of “horizontal palimpsest” effect. That is, wander around town and look for bits of Rome still stuck somewhere in a façade, arch, wall or tower. Such bits are easy to overlook, and most people never notice them for the simple reason that much of this ancient masonry is in a part of the old city that almost no one frequents; that is, the upper decumanus, via Anticaglia.
There were three main decumani in Greco-Roman Naples; that is, three main east-west streets. (See this map.)The bottom two are well known to anyone who has spent any time at all in Naples, or, indeed, even to those who may visit just for a day or two. They are the two streets that everyone “just has to see”: the bottom one is called, colloquially, Spaccanapoli, and starts (at the west end) at the great Church of Santa Chiara; the second one (the central decumanus) is via dei Tribunali and starts (at the west end) at the music conservatory and adjacent Church of San Pietro a Maiella. The upper decumanus—the one no one ever strolls along—is known as via Anticaglia (though it changes names a few times as it runs through the old city).
Via Anticaglia is so little known because the entire area where it used to start at the west end of the old city was razed in 1900 and rebuilt to accommodate the vast premises of the Naples medical school and Polyclinic hospital now situated between the central decumanus, via dei Tribunali the upper decumanus, via Anticaglia. An entire medieval convent belonging to the order of Carmelite Sisters was removed as the hospital grounds built their way up the steep hill between the central and upper decumanus. Additionally, the area to the west along the old Greek and Roman wall, approximately the line followed by today’s via Costantinopoli contained a number of buildings such as the church and convent of Santa Maria della Sapienza. Those, too, were removed. Finding the western entrance to the upper decumanus, then, entails hiking up the cross street from the central decumanus as if you were on your way to the medical school. At a certain point, you turn right (east) and wander down again into the old city.
The first thing that you
notice is that there are no tourists. It is almost
eerily lonely at times. In a way, you feel as if you
have gone back at least a century in time. Then, as
you approach the halfway point—the main north-south
street (called a cardine), via San Gregorio
Armeno, coming up from the right (south) as it runs
along the side of the church of San Paolo Maggiore—you
notice the “horizontal palimpsest” effect, Roman
masonry, indeed, an entire Roman arch still in place
and helping to hold someone’s house up (photo, above). This is
the area of the ancient
Roman open theater (photo,
amphitheater photo by Napoli
The theater, they say, was still discernible until the 1400s, when most of it was razed or buried in order to build the great church of San Paolo Maggiore. The theater was, in every respect, comparable to those that you can still see today in Pompeii and Herculaneum— 100 meters long and seating for thousands. More so than those towns, Neapolis was the theatrical big-time in this part of Italy, playing satire, tragedy, even a comedy written by Claudius and—if they had had neon signs, this would have lit them up!—Nero, himself! Yes, the emperor fancied himself quite a nimble finger on the lyre and fancied that he had a fine voice. (He also fancied himself a good emperor). He would sing and play in Naples while luminaries such as Seneca were in the audience, presumably trying very hard not to laugh (“Please, Jupiter, let me keep a straight face!”)
Feb 2017) After
one such concert, Nero complained that the scrolls
had not reported the event accurately and had
greatly underestimated the enormous crowd that had
given him a standing ovation. He chirped (more
of a tweet, really) in that high
nasal voice of his, "Everyone knows that there
were more people at my concert than ever ever
ever before in the history of Rome, even under
Augustus and Septembrus. These so-called scribes
have treated me so unfairly—so very
unfairly. This is not the Rome I grew up in.
It's so sad, so so very very sad. The scribes
are enemies of the people—hostis publicus."
The next day, Nero hauled the scribes over to
Vesuvius and had them all lavaboarded.
Via Anticaglia has other interesting points of history as you follow it out to the east to via Duomo. At the corner of via Gigante is the site where a Jesuit college was founded in 1552 by disciples of Loyola, himself, the founder of the order. Tarquato Tasso, the Sorrentine poet lived in this part of Naples for a while and attended the college. Giambattista Vico, too, lived in the same area. The entire street, end to end, is off the beaten track, but worth the time to wander along.