| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
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Overlooking Mergellina harborEven in a jumbled cityscape photo such as the one above, a few buildings stand out from the dreadfully overbuilt maze of post-1950 architecture that now defines much of Naples. There are three or four in this particular shot, not counting the one that really stands out—that behemoth of a fortress at the top right (as if you really needed that indication!), the Castel Sant'Elmo. This entry, however, is about the building (circled in black) right next door to it, the Villa Fermariello.
Villa Fermariello is located at via Annibale Caccavello 16 in the Vomero section of Naples just below the west side of the Castel Sant'Elmo. That address is the main entrance to the villa, now the residence of four or five different families. The date inscribed at the base of the main entrance is 1894. There is a secondary entrance around the corner, the first gate on the right on a small road marked as Passaggio [trail] per Villa Covino; it is a paved trail and is not shown on most maps of the city. It leads down and around towards the front of the fortress. That second entrance to villa Fermariello is dated (in the same fashion, with an inscription at the base of a gate) 1892. That entrance is directly across the path from the villa Covino, itself, marked at the entrance as "Fermariello property." Both gates of Villa Fermariello are original, no doubt restored, and immaculately maintained. They are of cast iron, painted green and, typical of the late 1800s, ornately scrolled with spear points along the top. Indeed, the whole grounds are well-maintained, lush with well-tended plants and trees, including palms.
We should note that a photo taken in 1892 from the same spot (Mergellina—the small harbor in the photo, above, right) of the same area, the south slope of the Vomero hill, would have shown almost none of the buildings one sees today. The buildings along the bottom of the large photo run along the road named Corso Vittorio Emanuele (a road in existence since the 1850s when it was called Corso Maria Teresa—see this link for more on the construction of that road); the long cream-colored building at the bottom just right of center was built in 1916 and to the right of that, the red building is from 1864. The area above that, however, manifests the grand push to populate the side of the hill, which couldn't begin until new roads were laid (see Urban Expansion of the Vomero) to connect the seaside with the Vomero section of Naples on top. And that didn't begin until the 1880s and 1890s as part of the urban renewal project known as the Risanamento. That long row of buildings along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele thus represented the upper line of construction until around 1900. In place of the jumbled welter of buildings above that line in the photo (most of them from after WWII) there would have been the foliage still visible on the right, directly in front of the fortress (still today part of an undeveloped area known as the San Martino vineyard, roughly the area seen in this photo). The 1880s and 90s were the beginning of the age of "Liberty" (Art Nouveau) architecture in Naples, and it is in that period that new buildings began to dot the hillside. Interestingly, Villa Fermariello, is not really on the slope—it is on top, in the shadow of the fortress, an area already accessible by other roads from much earlier times; thus, it was built quite early in the age of "Liberty."
"Liberty" architecture is marked, yes, by such things as garlands, wreathes, other floral designs, ornateness, even the special blend of natural materials and the new metals of technology (such as in the Galleria Principe di Napoli, for example), BUT it is also marked by what is simply called "eclecticism", a mixed style. You can pretty well guess that the villa Fermariello (as well as some others, such as the villa Corradini or Lamont Young's Aselmeyer Castle, both of which are also hidden in the large photo at the top) are from the years of Art Nouveau buildings in Naples (roughly 1880 to 1920). This is not because they necessarily have floral designs or whatever, but because they are bizarrely mixed in design and gloriously non-conformist. I mean, look at this thing! First, it is absolutely rectangular, as opposed to most buildings on the south slope of Naples (those are typically rectangular with the long side facing the sea and the sun). Square Villa Fermariello is, however, not symmetrical in that the balconies (where one would presumably like to sit and take the sun and take in the view) are on only two sides, SE (photo, left) and SW. The villa has lancet windows in the top story, typically found in churches as well as in some other Liberty construction in Naples; it has a roof that slopes to four sides like something out of the Florentine Renaissance, and, of course, if you haven't noticed, it has that "thing" on top, properly called a garret or an attic story. Italian terminology just calls it a "small tower." It has columned windows. You can sit (or stand) in there and look out and, for good measure, you can ascend to the roof terrace.
If you pay excruciating attention to details of ornamentation, then some of the spirit of the age of Art Nouveau architecture come through. The triangular spaces above the columns in the windows of the tower (right) are called, I think, pediments (if they're not, please tell me!); they display vaguely floral designs (below). I'm not aware that the designs are specifically symbolic of anything, but it wouldn't surprise me. Other surfaces on the building have similar designs.
Right above that, of course, is the roof terrace and the designs embedded in the railing, which may also be called a 'ballustrade'. (If that is not the case, again, please report me to EXAM —Egregious Examples of Architectural Misnomering.) All four sides display a series of interlocked rings:
Four interlocked rings. Maybe it's a prototype of a similar design (but much simpler—four rings interlocked in a horizontal row, one ring to the next) used later for the logo of Auto Union, the fusion of the German car firms, Wanderer, Audi, DKW, and Horch. (That would have been very far-seeing of 1892 Neapolitans because that fusion didn't happen until 1932, so that is probably out.) Too bad it's not three rings. That's a slam-dunk; that world-wide symbol is commonly called 'Borromean rings' in Europe, after their use in the coat of arms of the aristocratic Borromeo family in Northern Italy. The three rings symbolize the Trinity, or, for example, in Lacanoan psychology, the three components of reality: Real, Imaginary and Symbolic. Also, the Greatest Show on Earth has three rings (though not interlocked). The symbol is also found in Nose mythology (I meant to write Norse mythology, but who am I to discriminate against people with rings in their noses?). The symbol is also used in Ballantine beer. This is heap big medicine. But that's three rings, not four. Five is easy, as well; it's the Olympic symbol, originally designed in 1912 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, co-founder of the modern Olympic Games. He said that the ring colors stood for those colors that appeared on all the national flags that competed in the Olympic games at that time. But that's five rings, not four. Four, four... hmmmmm. For one thing, this type of plait work (a woven, unbroken cord design) with four interlaced rings is sometimes known as a Celtic knot. In Europe this design, or other variations of the "endless knot," apparently began in northern Italy and southern Gaul and spread to Ireland by the 7th century; hence, Celtic. The designs were widely used to ornament Christian monuments and manuscripts. Also, in Buddhist symbolism, four interlocking rings represent the Four Immeasurables of Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity, and, as long as I'm stuck in a Lotus position over this, the four vases mounted at the corners of the ballustrade would be very symbolic in Buddhism—possibly ceremonial vases filled with the nectar of immortality! The Immeasurables and the immortality are all meant to be spread to others in typical Buddhist benevolence. The Endless Knot design has many interpretations in Buddhism. Alas, I suspect something more ominous here: four interlocked rings also stand for steroids in chemistry, any of a group of lipids with a complex molecule containing carbon atoms in four interlocking rings. So back in 1894 we had a bunch of well-to-do villa-dwelling Neapolitans up there on the moon-deck (that's the sun deck under a full moon) howling, stroking their ring designs, pumping iron and growing big necks. (But I could be wrong.)
Villa Fermariello, seen from the Passaggio per Villa Covino
I went to the front gate to ask about the architect. There are currently five families listed as residents (such listings are usually by husband's surname and wife's maiden name): Fermariello-Casertano; A. Casertano-Scialpi; Ciruzzi-Casernitano; F. Ciruzzi-M.Mellone; Casertano, E.-D'Agostino. This encourages me—lots of relatives. Maybe it's one big Masonic Buddhist inbred polygamist compound. Unfortunately, not listed was one not very amiable German shepherd doggie—let's call him Fang Fermariello—who approached me and reminded me that he was a police dog and was going to run my sorry hindquarters down to headquarters if I didn't stop hanging around the front gate. I did, but not before my vise-like Sheerluck mind noticed the vague but plausible similarity between the name of the villa, Fermariello, and the first name on the list on the intercom panel at the gate, Fermariello.
"By Jove, Fang, this is most singular! Why, this is the original owner of the property and quite possibly the architect, himself! But even if he was a child prodigy architect, today he's 140 years old if he's a day and probably too frail to sit for an interview."
"It's a relative, you moron."
"Yes. Quite so." I was beginning to think that the name was connected to Fermariello Enterprises, the company that built the nearby Chiaia cable cable in the 1880s. Gennaro Fermariello was the name of the boss. I set my Kerbaker Street irregulars to the task. There is no Baker Street in Naples, but there is, indeed, a via Kerbaker, named, if you must know, for Michele Kerbaker (1835-1914), renowned Italian linguist and translator...
To be continued...
...some days later:
Being somewhat irregular, myself, I decided to do it on my own. I was fortunate to have a conversation with the great-grand-daughter of the original owner of the premises, the person who had built the villa. It was indeed, Gennaro Fermariello, the engineer who had built the Chiaia cable car. His descendant told me that no one in the family seems to know if he employed the services of a separate architect or if, as four generations of family lore has it, he just built it himself. The premises, she says, have been through a few tough times, including a near miss by a bomb in WWII. There used to be more palm trees, but after almost 115 years of care and restoration by the same family over the decades, the villa looks fine.
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