Carlo Celano (1625-1693)
entire anthologies dedicated to the travel writings
of those who went on the so-called “Grand Tour”, educational travels
undertaken by young men and women of means from northern
Europe to explore the ruins of ancient Rome and Greece as
well as the glories of the Italian Middle Ages and
Renaissance. Typically, the “tour” was said to have
started in the late 1600s and gone on until mass travel of
the late 19th century and especially the 20th century made
the glorious past accessible even to masses of—ugh!—kids
in back-packs and un-gentlemen in shorts. If you were
English, you typically went to Paris, Venice, Florence and
Rome. (If you were me, you tried to get into the abbey of
Monte Cassino in shorts. I'm not even Catholic, and I'm
still saying "Hail Marys" for that one.)
Naples was somewhat late in winding up on the itinerary of the Grand Tour. The late 1600s, in fact, would have been a terrible time to visit Naples: the Spanish Empire was crumbling (Naples was the largest city in that empire); the deadly plague of 1656 had cut the population in half and those who weren’t dead or dying were trying to get out of the city, not into it. (See Naples in the 1600s.) Naples didn’t start attracting Grand Tour attention until the early 1700s with the discovery of Pompeii, Paestum and Herculaneum. By the mid-to-late 1700s, the Goethes and William Hamiltons were swarming through Naples and the flood started; they all came and went nuts writing books—or chapters of books—about the city and the kingdom of Naples. (Perhaps it ended semi-officially with Mark Twain's grand anti-Grand Tour, The Innocents Abroad.)
Yet it was precisely in 1692 that Carlo Celano published the first authoritative guide to the city of Naples. As a young man in Naples, he studied law and theology and even wound up in prison for having been involved in Masaniello’s famous rebellion. He took religious vows in 1660 and was active at the Naples Cathedral. He was on good terms with archbishop Filomarino and was an intimate part of the artistic and cultural life of the city, frequenting the same circles as artists such as Luca Giordano. Celano was known to friends and visitors to the city as an eclectic and well-informed guide to city of Naples, full of stories and quite willing to share them.
After the bad earthquake of 1688, Celano’s expertise put him in charge of the reconstruction of the church of Santa Restituta (the smaller church within the Duomo, the Naples cathedral, itself); it was reopened in 1692. At the same time, he published his seminal guide to Naples, Delle Notizie del bello,dell’antico e curioso della città di Napoli [News of what is beautiful, ancient and curious in the city of Naples]. It became the guide to Naples by which all others are measured; some references to “Celano” are obligatory for anyone writing about the city—“Celano says this…Celano says that.” It remains an exhaustive and minutely detailed account of the arts, monuments and general culture of the city of the late 1600s. There was a Neapolitan printing of Notizie in 1859 that was reprinted in five volumes by Mario Miliano (editor) from 1969 to 1978. There are a number of accounts of Celano’s life and reviews of Notizie; among the best known is one by Benedetto Croce: Un innamorato di Napoli: Carlo Celano, in Napoli nobilissima, (Naples, 1893, vol. II, no. 5, pp. 65-70). Croce praised the book to the skies and wrote that it was full of anecdotes and emotion and was a real book, not just a catalogue, and it had nothing in common with the standard, arid and cold guide books to Naples.
The guide was written specifically for “foreign gentlemen”, an obvious invitation to get in on the ground floor of what was about to become the Neapolitan contribution to the Grand Tour. It is interesting how even modern guides follow Celano’s plan of dividing the city in “itineraries”—walk 1/day 1; walk 2/day 2…etc. His guide was divided into 10 such itineraries, and they are fascinating to read simply in order to notice how much is still there and what is gone forever, and also for the lore and hidden insights into the origins of things: for example, there is an item about two children who were actually responsible for founding the church of Santa Maria dell’Aiuto. In 1635 they drew an image of the Holy Virgin on a sheet of paper and mounted it in the window of a building known as Palazzo Pappacoda and gathered donations until they had enough money to hire a real artist to do a rendition. By and by, the nucleus of a small chapel was founded until the church, itself, was opened at the time of the great plague in 1656. That sort of thing. That is the reason that Delle Notizie del bello, dell’antico e del curioso della città di Napoli was and remains a valuable source and why it is still a joy to read.