Modern-day travelers in the Bay of Naples can sail by and miss the Isle of Procida as easily as the Greeks did three-thousand years ago. Even from the vantage point across the bay on the Sorrentine coast or the heights of Capri, the isle of Procida rides so low in the water that in bad weather it is hard to spot. At best it looks like a smudged extension of the mainland. Approaching it dead on from the south, you may not even recognize it as separate from the neighboring island of Ischia.
Procida has an equally low figurative profile: compared to the other islands in the bay, Ischia and Capri, the island is relatively unfrequented by tourists. And certainly, after the flood of English and German that accosts your ears on those other islands, you get the distinct and accurate impression that on Procida, Italian is the native language.
Tourist brochures about Procida
usually read something like this:
Of the islands embracing the Gulf of Naples, Procida has best succeeded in preserving its original, genuine beauty, unpolluted nature and simplicity of life. This tiny isle, cradled in clear and shining waters, is a precious jewel case inbosoming natural sceneries of exquisite green shades, colors of bygone ages, iridescent views, and a wealth of marvelous sights of a primitive and wild grandeur. The natural harbors abound with fishing boats, reminders of the ancient traditions cherished by the inhabitants…
Inbosoming. Native Procidians are embarrassed by that kind of language. After all, they pride themselves on not being a tourist Mecca. They are mainly farmers and sailors. They work for a living and have many of the same problems as working people anywhere else.
Corricella harbor. The peak in the background is
Mt. Epomeo on
the island of Ischia. Photo © by & courtesy of Giacomo Garzya.
The most prominent physical feature of the island is the medieval fortress, the so-called “Terra murata,” set high above the sea (photo, above) on the eastern approach to the main harbor. It has, over the years, gone from being a fortress to a penitentiary to what it is today, a monument open to the public. Besides the main harbor, there are two smaller harbors, Corricella, set right below the imposing ex-fortress (photos, left and top of page), and Chiaiolella, a small natural harbor at the southern extreme of the island. Here is where you can believe the tourist brochures—these two tiny harbors are truly peaceful and picturesque.
Also worth a visit is the
neighboring islet of Vivara (below, #3); flanking
Procida to the south-west and connected to it
by a bridge, this crescent-shaped remnant ridge of
an ancient volcanic crater is now a nature preserve.
It is also the site of recent archaeology that has
uncovered fragments of Mycenaean pottery, left by
Greeks who were there many centuries before
the "original" Greeks colonized the bay (#2,
Middle Ages the island became a feudal holding of
the Da Procida family that had taken its name from
the island in the first place. The fief included a
section of the mainland, Monte di Procida. That
section became separate in 1907.
Administratively, Procida is a comune (a
town or number of villages with a separate city
hall) in the province of Naples. The current
(2014) population is about 10,000.
In Roman times, there were some aristocratic villas on the islands, more or less mirroring the "Roman riviera" effect of much of Roman Campania in those days. Juvenal spoke of it as lonely and peaceful place. In the years following the fall of the western Roman empire, the island turned into a refuge for those seeking to escape the Vandals, the Gothic wars and Lombard invasions. It is during these centuries that the high ground of the island was fortified and became known as the Terra Murata (Walled Earth) (photo, above). The island was also subject, along with other coastal areas in southern Italy, to brutal raids by the Saracens, Muslim pirates. As noted, Procida became feudal property with the arrival of the Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries. The fief was sold to the Cossa family in 1339. That family is remembered for Baldassarre Cossa, who became John XXIII, the Pisan 'anti-pope' who originally convened the council of Constance in 1414 to resolve the problem of the Western Schism. He, himself, was deposed as a result of that council, historically becoming an illegitimate has-been pope now forgotten by Roman Catholics.
After the defeat of the Ottoman fleet at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, Saracen raids dropped off and Procidians could begin to develop commercial fishing activity. After 1735, the new Bourbon dynasty abolished fiefs and Procida became a Royal Bourbon Hunting reserve centered on the Palazzo d’Avalos, commonly known as the Procida Castle. Ship building grew as result of the increased dedication to commercial fishing. By the middle of the 1800s, about one-third of ocean-going wooden ships built in southern Italy were from ship yards on Procida.
The tiny island of Procida lies inconspicuously moored next to its big sister, Ischia, in the Bay of Naples; yet, even this little isle has a smaller relative: Vivara. Separated from Procida by a few meters of water and now connected to it by bridge, Vivara, a crescent-shaped remnant of the rim of an ancient volcanic crater, is now a nature preserve, one of the last unspoiled bits of greenery and wildlife havens in the area—and as a result of recent archaeological work, a place to catch a glimpse of the first great civilization of the ancient Greeks: Mycenae.
In 1470 BC
the Greek island of Thera exploded and put a
cataclysmic end to the grand Minoan civilization
of nearby Crete. It was the end of what might be
called the “southern dimension” of great early
cultures, the last link in a chain that had
started with the Sumerians and carried on
through the Babylonians, Egyptians and Minoans.
The end of Crete left a void that would be
filled by the proto-Greeks, a branch of the
Indo-European peoples who a few centuries
earlier had started drifting south into the
Greek mainland. By 1400 b.c.—a thousand years
before Aristotle and Plato, and many centuries
before the great city-states of Greece or any of
the renowned Greek cities of Magna Graecia in Italy
such as Cuma, Paestum and Velia—these early Greeks
had formed a league of separate kingdoms
centered on Mycenae on that part of the Greek
mainland known as the Peloponnese.
This is the civilization from which stems much of our vast Greek cultural heritage and familiar repertoire of Greek mythology. Indeed, Mycenae—today a small town near the original site, a few miles inland from the Gulf of Argolis in the foothills guarding the road to Corinth—was the home of “proud Agamemnon” who rallied his fellow princes to sail forth and besiege Troy to avenge the abduction of Helen in 1200 b.c. Mycenae, then, turned out to be the dominant Mediterranean civilization for almost 400 years, from 1450 to 1100 b.c. Though there was not yet a single major city anywhere in Italy (the first would be built by the Etruscans in about 900 b.c.) the Mycenaeans carried on flourishing trade with small outposts scattered on Sicily and the islands and coastal areas of southern Italy. One such outpost was Vivara.
The Bronze Age
inhabitants of Vivara of 1500 BC looked out on a
coastline and bay somewhat different than what
we see today. Indeed, even since the time of the
Romans—much less a millennium and a half
earlier—the waters in the Bay of Naples have
risen about 6 meters. This accounts for the
ruins of submerged Roman
port facilities in nearby Baia, for example.
Vivara, itself, was joined to Procida by land at
the period in question.
The first archaeological digs on the island (carried out in the 1930s) revealed remnants of a system of Bronze Age huts on what would then have been the plateau of the island as well as on the heights. One of the most interesting finds at the time consisted of two clay jars bearing traces of ornamental varnish—interesting in that they were of the same type as found on Filicudi, an island further to the south in the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily. It was pottery of a type clearly Greek/Mycenaean and datable to the middle of the second millennium before Christ. Mycenaean pottery—as well as the produce it contained, such as wine and olives—was known to have been highly valued and to have been exported throughout the eastern Mediterranean and at least as far west as Sicily.
Such finds on Filicudi and then on Vivara are now taken as evidence of trade between Mycenae and Italy even at such an early date, trade supported by a network of coastal and island trading posts. Much of that commerce was concerned with the search for metals, and on Vivara, besides ceramic shards, remnants of habitations, jewelry and bits of weaponry of early Greek origin, there are signs that the area was, indeed, mined for copper at some time in the distant past—and there even appears to have been a foundry of sorts. This would be in keeping with collateral archaeology elsewhere in Italy, which indicates that the peninsula was somewhat of a Bronze Age mine for Mediterranean cultures to the south.
Starting in the early
1990s, archaeological research on Vivara has
been in collaboration with the Orientale University of
Naples and the Naples Superintendent for
Archaeology. It is work undertaken with
enthusiasm and intensity by university
archaeology students on the site. Their recent
discoveries include the floor and collapsed tile
roof of a large structure, uncovered half a
meter below the surface; also, they have found a
series of clay tokens of varying shapes and
sizes. The tokens were stacked and had
apparently been joined by a long-since decayed
ring of some sort, indicating that they were
used as a means to keep track of merchandise and
update Sept. 2015 -
Research at Vivara continues, including underwater archaeology down to a depth 14 meters. It is carried out by a team led by Massimiliano Marazzo of the Euromediterranean Center for Cultural Heritage of the Suor Orsola Benincasa university of Naples. A large collection of clay domestic utensils, spearheads, remnants of dwellings, etc. have been retrieved and have permitted scholars to recreate an image of the village (image) on Vivara from 1700 BC.
(image courtesy of Suor Orsola Benincasa university)
to Ancient World
The island town of Procida has announced its intention to acquire from state ownership the ruins of the monastery of Santa Margherita Nuova. That complex is located at the tip of the Terra Murata (walled city) in the midst of the Corricella section of the island. The old monastery will be restored and thus will complete the total restoration of the Benedictine monastery/church premises. The restoration of the church of Santa Margherita Nuova (image, right, before the restoration) was completed in September, 2012. The church now hosts conventions, exhibits and various such events. The history of the church/abby complex goes back to 1585 when the older abbey of S.Margherita Vecchia (old) alla Chiaolella across from the small satellite island of Vivara decided move to escape frequent raids of Saracen pirates and change its name to Santa Margherita Nuova (new). The subsequent history was not kind. There were numerous earth slides, and political turmoil during the Napoleonic wars led to the structure being expropriated, falling into ruin and never being restored.
6. added 30 April 2016
Saving the colors of Procida
Below: Corricella harbor. The peak in the background is Mt. Epomeo on
the island of Ischia. Photo © by & courtesy of Giacomo Garzya.
The island of Procida stands out because it's small, quiet, and has its own architecture that, in turn, has its own colors. Writers come to the island for inspiration, artists come to paint, and film directors use it as a backdrop for films (Procida has been the set for a number of films: Il Postino:the Postman  and The Talented Mr. Ripley  are two well-known ones that come to mind.)
The colors of a large mainland city such as Naples can often fade or disappear, perhaps falling victim to the colorless steel and glass gleam of modern skyscraper technology, although Naples is still holding its own in that regard. The island has now announced the creation of an Office of Colors, complete with plans and experts to make sure that none of that happens on Procida. It will be done in collaboration with the architecture department of the Frederick II University of Naples. The object, says the mayor, is to "save and protect the historical and architectural heritage of our island, unique in the Mediterranean." The dynamics are not quite clear, but descriptions of how this is supposed to work is that restoration of older buildings and newer added bits (such as balconies and entrance ways) must conform to specified "island architecture" norms, and that is especially true for the colors. Slip-shod construction and odd-ball colors can cost you up to 10,000 euros.