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Everything is related to Naples
Number 79 in this series. Link to all items here.

The Trail of English Forts at Anacapri

Even at the height of the tourist season on Capri, there are a few places you can go that are so out of the way that you really can wander for hours and scarcely pass another person. Obviously, the town of Capri, itself, is not one of those places. Perhaps if you head up to the eastern height of the Villa Jovis, you might leave the flabby hordes behind, but, alas, up there you will run into at least small groups of very healthy tourists barely warmed up from the one-hour climb; they will trample you in the same fashion as their out-of-shape friends are trampling the beautiful flowers of the Gardens of Augustus back in town. No, you must smite the sounding furrows and sail (or at least take a bus) towards the baths of all the western stars, yea, even beyond the villa of Axel Munthe at Anacapri (though well worth the visit) and even past the fine chair-lift to Monte Solaro (also worthwhile). Go through and past the main part of the town of Anacapri, itself, as if you were walking up the stem of a gigantic capital letter "Y"; at the fork, the road on the left leads to the lighthouse at Punta Carena, and the right leads down to the Blue Grotto. The blank triangle in the middle is the western side of the island of Capri; that is where you want to go, but you can't go straight at the fork; you have to go either to the extreme left or right and then find the "trail of the forts" that leads across from one side to the other, along the entire western slope of the island. If you find it, remember how to get back, because you may very well be alone.

Historical background

Why there are English forts along the western coast of the island of Capri at all requires a bit of an explanation. Briefly, the Bourbon dynasty was chased from its kingdom of Naples by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. The Neapolitan royals, sheltered by the British fleet, fled to Sicily. This left the mainland in the hands of the French, first in the hands of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, and then of Murat, where it remained until Napoleon's ultimate departure from the European scene 10 years later. Smaller islands were problematical, and for a few years the British sought to hold on to Capri by reinforcing the island against invasion from the mainland. This entailed building a string of fortifications. [For more on the struggle for the island, see The Battle of Capri.]

The forts

Whereas Capri was protected with continuous walls, the wide-open western stretch of the island below the town of Anacapri was fortified by the English with a string of blockhouses. To a certain extent, some of these installations are on or near sites of earlier, strategically placed “Saracen towers,” which for centuries had provided protection against pirate raids. The trail of forts stretches from the Blue Grotto on the leeward northern side to the lighthouse at Punta Carena on the southern side.

The most interesting blockhouses are those at Orrico, Campetiello (also called di Mesola) and Pino. Although they were originally built by the English in 1806, they were then enlarged by the French after they took Capri at Orrico (top photo) on October 4th 1808. There is an additional small blockhouse called il cannone (the cannon) facing Tombosiello creek (photo, left). These small forts plus a few towers along the stretch constituted the  western defensive system for Anacapri.


As with almost every other historical site in the Bay of Naples, these forts have legend connected to them. The fort at Orrico, for example, is said to be where the island's first Greek inhabitants, the "Teleboi", disembarked from Epirus. There is, in fact, a convenient landing stage near the fort; it is from here that the Aragonese (who took the island from the Angevins in the 1400s) and then the English and French attacked and conquered the island. 

The construction of these forts entailed the destruction or partial destruction of some other interesting archaeological sites, including Villa Damecuta, one of the twelve Imperial Roman villas to be found on the Island of Capri. The known ruins of the Villa Damecuta extend for 140 meters along a western cliff and have an area of over 1,000 sq. meters. By way of comparison, the main block of Villa Jovis is 5,400 sq. meters (about one-third the size of the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatinate in Rome). *note

Excavations of villa Damecuta were begun under the direction of the great Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, the discoverer of the grotto of the famed Sibyl of Cuma. Villa Damecuta is reminiscent of the more famous Villa Jovis at the extreme height of the other end of the island and appears to have been abandoned after the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Also, not far from the villa is the Damecuta tower, originally a 12th-century “Saracen tower.” 

Restoration of the “Trail of forts” was begun in 1998, partially funded by the European Union.


*notes:

When you say “twelve imperial villas” of Capri, you mean villas belonging to Tiberius or Augustus or members of their aristocratic extended families. There is some uncertainty as to the number; Houston (bibliography) views with skepticism the earlier claims of Beloch (bibliography) that they were pretty much known and catalogued by the date of Beloch’s book. In any event, at least two others, besides the villas Damecuta and Jovis are:

(1) the Palazzo a mare, occupying a stretch of some 600 meters along the sea immediately to the west of today’s main harbor (the right, as you enter the harbor); it, too, underwent military transformation under the French in the early 1800s. The original layout is no longer evident, and from above (say, the Anacapri road), the area appears to be residential with a prominent football field in the middle of it all);

(2) the Villa of Gradola, immediately above the Grotta Azzurra. The buildings are strung out across the villa’s terraces in a panoramic position along the slope and had a stairway leading down to the grotto. The villa was excavated in the 19th century by the eccentric American Confederate Colonel John Clay MacKowen. He found capitals, fragments of statues, columns, and flooring, some of which he moved to his Casa Rossa in Anacapri, a current tourist attraction.


[Also see, Letter from Anacapri 2011-On the Trail of the Tiny Forts]


Bibliography:

Beloch, Julius. Campanien. Geschichte und Topographie des antiken Neapel under seiner Umgebung. Pub. Morgenstern. Breslau. 1890.

D’Arms, J.H. Romans on the Bay of Naples. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1970

Houston, George W. “Tiberius on Capri” in Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Oct., 1985), pp. 179-196. Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association.

Maiuri, Amedeo. Capri. Storia e monumenti. Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Rome. 1957.
 


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