Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Aug. 2003


The Sampietrino & Stone-Cutting


A sampietrino means various things in Italian: (1) it was a coin minted by the Papal States under Pius VI (Pope from 1775-91) and was worth 2½ baiocchi, a name that apparently derives from the northern French town of Bayeaux. I have never been to Bayeaux, but if I go, I shall be sure to take plenty of baiocchi; (2) it refers to a person charged with tending the premises of San Peter's Basilica in Rome (indeed, sampietrino means "little St. Peter"); (3) it means a cobblestone, or paving stone, cut from a dark, fine-grained igneous rock with the geological name, in Italian, piperno —"trachyte" in English. I don't know why these cobblestones are called "little St. Peters," except that it might mean "a stone that looks like the kind they used when they built St. Peter's—the kind of stone that costs all those baiocchi." 

The sampietrino—the cobble-stone—is ubiquitous in Naples. It provides one of the two major stone colors in the city, the other being the lighter yellow of tufa, stone so porous that walls made from it will erode and have to be replaced in a few decades. But piperno is durable and many main roads are still laid by workers with small hammers, tapping one fist-sized sampietrino after another into place, mile after mile, and then drip-sealing the cracks with hot tar. Asphalt has made major inroads (thank you!) only with great difficulty. That will change shortly, according to a report in the paper. Asphalt is cheaper, safer, and faster to work with. The paper gave no date, but soon that friendly clatter as your car slowly jars itself to smithereens over those miles of treacherous trachyte along the port road of Naples will belong to another age.  [Also see this short entry from 2013. That's right. Ten years later.]

There will still be no shortage of sampietrini in Naples. All of the many stairs that lead up and down the hillsides of Naples are made of Little St. Peters, the piperno pockmarked with centuries of chisel strikes to roughen the surface so that the stairs are less slippery in the rain and so you don't slide those 200 meters of elevation from the Vomero hill down to the center of town. 

The dark stone comes from hills of Naples. The suburb of Naples called "Soccavo" sits below the height of the Camaldoli hill and takes its name from the Latin subcavum—beneath the quarry. For centuries, stonecutters quarried that hillside to extract not just tiny paving stones, but the true monoliths used at the base of almost all Neapolitan monuments, large buildings, and churches. The stone was then loaded onto ox-carts that plodded their way into the city a few miles away. The Spanish moved quarries well away from the city in the 17th century out of concern for the structural integrity of the hill that much of Naples rests upon; thus, the quarries of Soccavo closed. There is, however, still a large cross hewn from that same material standing on a street corner in Soccavo (photo, above). It was originally a religious object, certainly not uncommon on the streets of Naples, but today (protected recently by a display case) it is also, because of the material it is made of, a monument to the bygone craft of stone-cutting. It bears the engraved name of the artisan who made it and the date, 1613.


*note on spelling: St. Peter is San Pietro in Italian. The stone is a sampietro with the letter m. The n changes to m through a process known as phonetic assimilation. Don't ask.

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