In a culture that abounds with famous place names such as "Santa Lucia" and "Vesuvius," "Piedigrotta" still stands out as one of the best-known names among Neapolitans, themselves. The name, itself, means "at the foot of the grotto," referring to the nearby Roman tunnel that leads beneath the hill in back of the church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta; that grotto connects the section of Naples known as Mergellina at the west end of the bay with Fuorigrotta—"beyond the grotto," today a thriving and large suburb of Naples. The old Roman tunnel was bypassed many decades ago by a modern traffic tunnel on the right of the church.
Piedigrotta is connected
in popular Neapolitan culture with the famous Festival of Piedigrotta,
a celebration on September 8, a spectacular parade
led by viceroys and Kings, passing along the entire
length of the seaside road, Riviera di Chiaia, and
winding up at the church, itself. The parade was a
yearly affair in the 1600s under the Spanish (who
built the road leading to the church as they
expanded the city to the west) and in the 1700s
under the Bourbons. The parade was still held during
the 19th century and into the 20th. In some fashion
or other, there is still a celebration today.
Beginning in the 1830s, the Festival of Piedigrotta held a song-writing contest for composers of Neapolitan songs and is responsible for providing us with such songs as "Funicuì-Funiculà" (the winner from 1880) and many others. Much more recently, although there is still a celebration at the church, the parade is no longer held.
The church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta is first mentioned in a document from 1207 and is mentioned prominently by both Boccaccio and Petrach in the 1300s. Over the centuries, the church has been redone and expanded many times. The current façade of the church is from the 1850s. There is also an adjacent monastery that now serves as a military hospital. Also, near the entrance to the grotto behind the church is a monument billed as Virgil's Tomb.
Perhaps the most
interesting thing, historically, has to do with the
site, rather than the church. That is, the grotto
led to the fabled Phlegrean Fields, the
mythological entrance to Hades, and thus lent itself
well to mysterious carryings-on. Pre-Christian
religions almost certainly used the site near the
present church as a place for their rituals. One
speculation—by no less than the great Neapolitan
dialect poet, Salvatore Di
Giacomo (citing "scholarly sources")—is that
here was the setting of Petronius' Satyricon,
that great bit of pornography from the first century
a.d. Di Giacomo starts to cite the passage about the
three young men out for a good time going into the
cave and running into a band of women. Then, he
blushes to continue. As do I.