| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Dec. 2002
Art theft is a major problem in much of Italy, and Naples is no exception. Paintings and statues of varying degrees of worth disappear all the time from small, unguarded churches, and pilferage is of great concern even at major archaeological sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are relatively well guarded. (I recall, however, a friend familiar with Mexican archaeology telling me once as we walked around Herculaneum how incredible it was to him that you could actually walk right into the buildings and touch everything. "They wouldn't let you near anything this valuable in Mexico.") There's no telling where much of the stuff winds up—probably in the hands of private collectors elsewhere in the world. Sometimes the authorities get the material back, sometimes they don't.
This morning's paper carried a story of what counts as a major "bust" in Naples. They have arrested a gentleman who had 21,000 objects of artistic or archaeological interest in his home in Campi Flegrei (the Flegrean Fields) outside the city. The gentleman in question has been very busy over the last few years scouring the area known as "Magna Grecia"—ancient Greek colonies on the southern Italian mainland. His collection—obviously meant for illicit sale to collectors elsewhere—ranges from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages and includes pottery, bronze items, and even fossils.
Sometimes, you can be sitting on top of something of interest. In many of those cases it is best to let things lie and not say anything—at least, that is the opinion of those average citizens sitting on top of it. Because of the long and tortured history of the subsoil of Naples, most of the streets in the old historic Greco-Roman center of the city—although they lie accurately over the street grid of the old city—are, in some cases, as much as 40 feet above the ancient streets themselves. In the case of the actual, geographic center of the old city—the intersection of via dei Tribunali and via San Gregorio Armeno, where the modern churches of San Lorenzo and San Paolo Maggiore now stand—that area was buried by a massive mudslide in the sixth century. The excavated site of the Roman market place below San Lorenzo is the only major excavation in the old city.
Thus, all of the
buildings within a few squares blocks of that site
have basements that would count as museums anywhere
else in the world. Bits and pieces of ancient Greece
and Rome are simply sticking out of the walls if you
go down below the ground floors of any building in
the area. Should the shopkeeper call the museum to
come and get this piece of mosaic or that tile or
vase? Maybe not. They might close down the shop and
declare the poor man's business a national treasure.
Even worse: they might form a committee to decide
what to do.
Above ground ruins are
another sticking point. There is a large remnant of
a Roman amphitheater on
the western hillside of Cape Posillipo (photo,
left). It is near the exit of an old Roman tunnel beneath that
hill. The amphitheater is, however, on private
property and may be visited only by appointment
through various cultural or tourist
organizations—two or three times a year. The owner's
point of view is that if everyone in Naples opened
their property to archaeological "culture vultures,"
then there would be no private property in
Naples. Everything, it seems, is on top of something
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