Matthews entry Mar 2011
& Inscriptions—Who Knows?
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:
This is as close as
I can come to an accurate translation:
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.
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;
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?
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
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
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.
My head hurts.