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Number 94 in this series. Link to all items here.

The Nile in Naples

The name "Nile," curiously, no doubt, occurs in Neapolitan toponymy. There is a small Nile Square where you find the Church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo, as well as a statue of a Nile river god. The church is the only one in Naples with a name that gives such obvious testimony to the bonds that the Greek founders of the original city had with their own cultural forerunners, the Egyptians; the word "Nilo" does, in fact, mean Nile. Here was the Alexandrian (Egyptian) Quarter of the original Greek city.

The church (photo, right) goes back to 1384 when it was built by Cardinal Rinaldo Brancaccio. Most of the physical structure visible today, however—the facade—for example,is the result of work done in the early 1500s. The works within the church bear the stamp almost entirely of the Brancaccio family, throughout the centuries the only true patrons of this church. The tomb of Cardinal Brancaccio within the church is one of the most important examples of Renaissance sculpture in Naples. It was done by Donatello and Michelozzi in Tuscany, where the executor of Brancacio's will, Cosimo dei Medici, then had it transferred to the church in Naples.
To understand why there should be anything at all in Naples named for the Nile river, it helps to remember that our inherited body of Greco-Roman myth is at least partially Egypto-Greco-Roman. There were, for example, at the time of Christ, a number of Temples of Serapis throughout the Roman Empire. That Roman cult is directly traceable back through the Greeks to the Egyptian worship of Isis and Osiris. (However, the so-called 'Temple of Serapis,' in Pozzuoli, we now know, was just a market-place.)

Nearby, the small statue, itself, has been restored and cleaned up. It is of an old merman-like figure reclining on his pedestal and at the approximate spot where the colony of Egyptians from Alexandria settled in the days of Nero, well after the incorporation of Naples into the dominion of Rome. Here the Egyptians erected a statue, possibly for veneration, of the God of the Nile, the river that played such an important part in the mythology of their own native culture.

The statue disappeared for centuries following the advent of Christianity in the Roman Empire. It was not until the 1100s that it was uncovered, headless, during construction of an early kind of town hall for the area. (The name "Nilo" of the general area had stuck through the centuries even in the absence of the statue.) That building was eventually demolished in the 1600s and the statue was moved to the center of the square where it still stands. At that time the sculptor, Bartolomeo Mori, was hired to add the head; the statue was restored again in 1734, and a plaque, in Latin, was added to commemorate the restoration.

[See 2013 update, below, for further details.]

Given the importance of water, particularly rivers, in much world mythology—and especially the importance of the Nile to the Egyptians—it is not surprising that settlers from Egypt would have brought the Nile with them to Naples. They chose a city by the sea, but also one that had a river of its own at the time, the Sebeto, which then flowed through the eastern part of Naples.

Even without the head, the original statue would have been easy to identify as a chimera, that fantastical patchwork of more than one creature, something common to many mythologies. It is likely to have been a representation of Creation, and the original head might have been that of a crocodile, making it the man-crocodile, Sobek, the Egyptian river God. Possible, too, is that it was another chimera, Ammut, the god that devoured the souls of the condemned, and a composite of crocodile, lioness and hippopotamus. The creature represented by the statue would in both cases have been similar to those in much sacred literature ("leviathan," in the Bible, for example) or in Canaanite and Babylonian mythology, where the Creator conquers a dragon or sea-monster representing primordial Chaos.

The Nile figure in Naples is resting on sand, (perhaps rising out of "primordial mud"), making the "sea monster" interpretation plausible. Yet, in spite of the paws on the body of the statue,  clearly identifying it as at least part beast, the 17th century sculptor chose to restore the statue with the head of a man. This might simply have been an attempt to re-establish the gender of the statue, which many had mistaken for a goddess of some sort when it was rediscovered. It might, however, have been a conscious attempt to make the statue resemble the Egyptian god, Nun, god of the original waters before the Creation and often depicted as an old man with a beard, a sign of virility. Also, the figure holds a cornucopia, a widespread symbol of abundance, probably stemming from 'horn' ('corno-') as the symbol of a bull and thus the source of virility, fertility and abundance, all of which makes the 'Creator' interpretation just as plausible as that of the 'sea monster'.

During the Middle Ages, the square of the Nile became the center of one of the city's administrative districts ('sedili'), called Tocco Maggiore, or in Latin, Toccum capitis platae, meaning the "zone of large houses and wide streets". Since there is an Italian word very similar to nilo —'nido' (meaning 'nest)—which can be taken to mean 'house', Nilo was understandably transformed into 'nido' in the minds of many, thus losing a sense of the original name. It is still common to hear the square misidentified as 'nido'.

For reasons that are unclear, the statue has come to be called Cuòrpo' e Napule in Neapolitan dialect (Corpo di Napoli, in Italian)—the Body of Naples—and the statue and the site have long been objects of popular 'worship'. The famous 18th-century magician, Cagliostro, even made a pilgrimage to it. During a recent cleaning, many lottery tickets and votive scribblings were found wedged in between the paws.

Surrounded by so many later and larger monuments in the downtown area, this small statue is easy to overlook. Its origin and history, too, are much less certain than those of more recent artifacts, yet, perhaps that is what gives it a peculiar charm. In a 2,500-year-old city, there are bound to be many tiny mysteries that captivate, precisely because they are enigmatic.

  • UPDATE: Dec. 2013 - The statue, in the form of the restoration from the 1700s, had some bits and pieces that were stolen in the 1950s and 60s. If you look at early drawings and even photographs, indeed if you examine the photo, above, you can see where some of the pieces used to be. There used to be three putti; now there is only one, seen looking directly up at the merman's head. You can also see a hole in the marble on the left where something else was ripped out, a crocodile head; you notice, particularly, two metal studs projecting on the right as you face the statue. They supported a sphinx. In Egyptian mythology, the sphinx was often meant to be a benevolent guardian. GOOD NEWS! That was recently found in a shop in Austria (no doubt unloaded there after WWII by art thieves). It has been returned to Naples, put on display and is to be remounted on the statue.

photo, sphinxhead: Newfotosud, Renato Esposito           

  • UPDATE: Nov. 16 2014 -After an initial restoration in 1992 and after 50 years during which an integral part - the sphinx - had been missing from the statue - the Nile god is back in some semblance of its original form, although we shall never really know what the original head of the merman chimera was (see comments
    above). There was a ceremony yesterday, a military band was present and the statue was unveiled (photo, right). Also present was a captain of the corps of Carabinieri, one of the "art squad" that tracked down the missing piece to its hiding spot in Austria last year. He was also one of those who helped organize a citizens' appeal for private donations to support the restoration. They received 2200 donations from locals and well as tourists, many of whom chose to remain anonymous. Local shops in the area had set up "piggy banks" (sphinx banks?) for the occasion. The finished product looks fine.

  • Update Feb. 2015 – Egypt in Naples – The ANSAmed news agency recently (Feb 2015) reported on a lecture given by “scholar  Marco Ruggiero” on the topic of  “Egyptian esotericism in Naples,” citing the presence of Marian processions in and around Naples and their similarity to ancient Egyptian ceremonies in celebration of the goddess Isis. For example, in Pollica, a town in the province of Salerno, you can find processions in which women carry miniature boats decorated with flowers and candles on their heads and sing devotional songs. “The practice is a descendant of the 'Navigium Isidis' ('Isis's ship'), which in Antiquity consisted in a masked procession featuring a boat filled with floral tributes.” The lecturer (according to the report) noted the presence of two churches in Naples named Santa Maria Egiziaca, the prominent Egyptian Collection at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, the presence of a “Nile square” (but not the recent restoration of the statue and return of the small sphinx) (see this page, above) nor, apparently, the fact that the small 'Nile' square (still occasionally miscalled 'Nido' - meaning 'nest') was for centuries referred to as the “Alexandrian Quarter.”

(See map of the historic center of Naples. The church and statue are # 17 and #19, respectively.)

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