Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entry Mar 2011

Cryptic Plaques & Inscriptions—Who Knows?

photo of plaqueThere are many newer inscribed plaques on the buildings of Naples: This City Councilman Lived Here; That Journalist Died Here; Great Painter Had His Studio Here. Long or short, such plaques are self-explanatory and are records of at least some of the cultural identity of many cities in the world. In Italy for many years, at least since the unification of the nation in 1861, most such civic inscriptions have been in Italian. Older Latin inscriptions are also quite common in Naples —not Roman Empire old (although those do exist), but medieval and even relatively recent inscriptions. Most of these are in or on churches, bearing witness to the long history of Latin as the ecclesiastical language of the Roman Catholic church. Most of these, too, are clear and self-explanatory if you have a dictionary, a bit of patience and an erudite friend.

Yet there are a few inscriptions scattered around town, usually on old churches, that defy interpretation. It is vexing to read them and understand the words and yet not know what they mean. Do they have to do with the arcane and magical traditions of Naples in the Middle Ages? —maybe inscribed by the same types who even today regularly consult psychics?— or believe that their dreams can predict winning lottery numbers? —or who put scribbled votive slips of paper near sacred relics and statues? Anything at all like that? Who chiseled the plaques into place? Why? When? Who knows?

Here is one such inscription on a plaque on the facade of the church of San Domenico Maggiore, to the right of the main entrance in the main courtyard:

Nimbifer ille deo michi [sic] invidit osirim imbre tulit mundi corpora mersa freto invidia dira minus patimur fusamque sub axe. Progeniem caveas troiugenamque trucem voce precor superas auras et lumina celo crimine deposito posse parare viam sol veluti iaculis itrum radiantibus undas si penetrat gelidas ignibus aret aquas.

This is as close as I can come to an accurate translation:

That bearer of storms was envious of my sun, sacred to Osiris, and with the rains washed away the bodies buried in the waters of the sea. Now we suffer fewer fierce calamities. Beware the evil progeny of Troy found beneath the heavens. I beseech with my voice the light of the higher spirits that when sin has been banished they may clear our way to heaven as does the sun sending forth its rays anew to penetrate and melt the frozen waters with warmth.

It is totally cryptic. The first word, Nimbifer, storm-bearer, might be a metaphor of trouble or mishap. I have inserted sic after the fourth word, michi, to show that it is correctly cited (I saw and photographed the inscription—sorry about the photo, but the plaque had a magical and potent bit of scaffolding in front of it), but I am not aware of a Latin word, michi. In context, it should be mihi (dative case of ego; i.e., to, with, of me). (It might be non-standard Latin or a mistake, but it's engraved in stone, a poor place for a typo! If it's a mistake, it might argue for a very late inscription when no one knew real Latin anymore. Or it might be a very recent restoration by cousin Pasquale, your friendly Neapolitan stone mason and classical scholar.) Who knows?

The use of osirim is interesting. The Egyptian god, Osiris, was seen as the force of Good (as in the eternal struggle between Good and Evil) in Egyptian and later mythology. I don't know why Osiris, instead of "God," would be inscribed on a Christian church. As a matter of fact, I don't know that the plaque was originally meant for the church in the first place. San Domenico Maggiore is one block from a statue to a presumed river-god of the Nile. The statue was in what was the Alexandrian (Egyptian) quarter of Greek Naples. The fact that the plaque is broken in the middle might mean that they found it in two pieces elsewhere and moved it to the facade of the church. Who knows?

The part about the rain washing away the bodies is perplexing. Is it a reference to The Flood?—or perhaps something much more recent? There is an historical episode from the late-1600s in Naples when rains washed thousand of human remains out of makeshift graves in a hillside where they had been dumped after the Plague. (That event was the proximate cause of the foundation of the cult of the Fontanelle.) Who knows?

Finally, "Beware the evil progeny of Troy" sounds similar to Virgil's line in the Aeneid, "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" ("I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts") but in the expression about the Greeks, the gift was the famous wooden horse full of Greek soldiers who thereby treacherously entered Troy and won the war. The losers were, of course, the Trojans, one of whom, Aeneas, according to legend and Virgil, sailed away and founded Rome. So beware of the evil descendants of those who founded Rome? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows?

My head hurts.

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