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The Astroni

                                                                                                                    photo by Diosenzanome

he Astroni Crater in Agnano, part of the Fuorigrotta suburbs of Naples, has been a protected nature preserve since 1987. The site is administered by the Campanian Institute of the Ministry for the Environment and the WWF (World Wildlife Foundation). The Astroni Crater is now one of the official dozen or so WWF Oases in the Campania region of Italy, and that makes me very happy because I remember when it was not.

The crater is smack in the middle of what has historically been one of the most volcanic areas in Italy. The Astroni crater was formed by a secondary eruption well after the cataclysmic Flegrean Caldera collapse of some 40,000 years ago (also known as the Campanian Ignimbrite Eruption). There are 30 such later, secondary craters in the immediate area; the Astroni crater is one of the largest.

The floor of the crater covers about 250 hectares (617 acres), and the circumference of the rim is about 6.5 km. The space within the crater is less of a floor than it is three small hills, really--Imperatrice, Rotondella, and Pagliaroni. The SW part of the space is, however, flat and has three bodies of standing water, the largest of which is called, naturally, the Great Lake (photo, above). The crater hosts a large variety of flora and of migratory as well as local fowl plus a smaller variety of local mammals such as the fox, hedgehog and weasel, There are about 15 km of marked nature trails with explanatory documentation along the way to explain the flora and fauna.

The site was well-known even to the Romans, who situated thermal baths in the area. The entire area, including the adjacent Lake Agnano (now dry) was disrupted severely in the 1500s by the emergence of Monte Nuovo (New Mountain!) on the coast near Baia. The Astroni again became prominent under the Aragonese rule of the kingdom of Naples when Alfonso I chose it as the site of a Royal Hunting reserve in 1452 in honor of a visit by emperor Frederick III. It served in that capacity through a few changes of dynasty;  then, under the Bourbons of Naples, the Astroni was one of 22 Royal Sites, a term used to describe everything from the large Royal Palaces such as the main one in Naples or Caserta all the way down to the small "casina," the hunting lodge, such as the one in the Astroni or in Persano in the Cilento. The Astroni still hosts what is left of the Royal Bourbon Hunting Lodge, the "casina." I saw it many years ago and it was a shambles, but I am hoping that the WWF and Ministry for the Environment had a few euros left after saving all the ducks. Indeed, I now learn that in 2011, a contract was awarded for the restoration of the Bourbon Hunting Lodge! (We shall see.)

A "Bourbon Royal Site" was a piece of property that was considered the personal possession of the king or of some member of the royal family. There were 22 such sites in the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples; some were palaces, others were villas, and some were casine (singular: casina), hunting grounds centered around a lodge, the casina. Some of these hunting grounds were sumptuous (see Persano, for example below); others were less so. The complete list:

Royal Palace Naples
Royal Palace Capodimonte
Royal Palace Portici

Royal Palace Caserta
Villa d'Elboeuf in Portici
Villa Favorita
Palazzo d'Avalos Procida
Lake Agnano
residence, Carditello
residence, Persano
San Leucio
Casino del Fusaro
Palace at Quisisana
Demanio di Calvi

Indeed, it is good to be king.

The most interesting architectural feature of the Astroni crater is that is surrounded by a wall! Originally it was put there to keep poachers away from the royal game. It is still partially intact and has at least a few holes in it. I have climbed through some of them, but not to poach royal game. I think I was jogging and decided to run around the perimeter.

Finally, there is no unanimity on the etymology of the name "Astroni." They're all good choices: (1) from Sturnis or, in Italian, storni, the starling, from the abundance of that bird in the area (at least once upon a time!); (2) from the name of an abundant fern that grew in the area and was mentioned by Pliny; (3) from the name, Sterope, one of the cyclops in Greek mythology who lived here; (4) from strioni or stregone (wizard or sorcerer), held in popular legend to have performed their magical rites in the crater; (5) from Aironi the heron, once abundant in the area, and the local dialect name of which is struni. I have no idea, but my sentimental money is on the witches.

Many thanks to St. Selene (patron saint of researchers) for her assistance!

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