Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


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The Subsoil of Naples

[This is my translation of the introduction to Il Sottosuolo di Napoli (The Subsoil of Naples), a book commissioned and published by the city of Naples in 1967. The entire 500-page work in the original Italian has recently been scanned and made available in .pdf format on the website of Napoli Underground by whose kind concession this translation appears. The Subsoil of Naples is, simply, about the problems of building and overbuilding in Naples. It was and remains an exhaustive compendium of general geology, the geology of Naples, urbanology and social commentary. Though The Subsoil of Naples is more than 40 years old, it is by no means dated and bears careful reading with respect to the things that have changed and, above all, have not changed since this introduction was written.

So far, I have translated only this introduction. With time, I hope to make more material available from the book. (Again, with time, a complete English translation of Il Sottosuolo di Napoli will be available on the Napoli Underground website.) I have added occasional bracketed comments as “translator’s notes” and am responsible for any errors or mistranslations. I appreciate comments and corrections. The image that appears in this version, below, is not from the original work. —Jeff Matthews]


update: May 25, 2010. Completed translation is off-site, here.

For other material on the topic of underground Naples, see that portal index.]


The Subsoil of Naples


A flood of houses has submerged Naples to an incredible degree. The hills have been assaulted, the greenery destroyed—the entire area victim of building speculators. Whoever now views Naples from the sea stares at a giant cement presepe clinging to a desolate tuffaceous cliff. 

[ed. note: presepe - the traditional Neapolitan manger display at Christmas]
[ed. note: tuffaceous is the adjective from tuff, a characteristic rock in Naples; it is porous and usually stratified, and formed by the consolidation of volcanic ash and dust.]


This is Naples today, once preferred by Virgil and praised by Goethe. It is a Naples that in the 18th century, driven by the sensational discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, blossomed in its role as “capital” and started to expand slowly with a few villas along the Chiaia, first towards Posillipo, then still a wooded area, and then with villas towards the green and open plain leading to Portici. It wasn’t until 1812 that Murat, violating the enchanted silence of Posillipo and her villages, decided to create the now “must see” path, the panoramic road that joins Villa Donn’Anna to the Cape. The luxuriant woods and vineyards, a sweeter and more human Naples, where an outing into the countryside of San Giacomo dei Capri [ed. note: an area in the Vomero section of Naples] meant leaving the populated areas of the city behind—all that is actually still within living memory.

This evil manipulation of Naples is really quite recent and is a result of the cultural and moral depression that has come over the city in this post-war period. Within a well-defined period of time, starting in the 1950s, serious and irreversible alterations have been allowed in one of the most scenic areas in the world; orderly urban development has been compromised, and the safety and lives of the citizenry have been blindly put at risk. Standing in the way of this havoc have been the protests of some urbanologists, intellectuals and politicians, whose voices have grown ever louder in an attempt to match the increasing frenzy of the despoilers.

But if reason, a sense of civic duty, and a love of Naples have failed at all levels of responsibility to halt this violent spread of housing speculation, there is now a new and decisive element in the problems of the city that makes it necessary to change the way we have been doing things. As this report will abundantly make clear in the pages that follow, it is something that absolutely cannot be delayed; it has to do with the safety of our populated areas and how that safety is affected by what lies below the surface of our city.

We know today, on the basis of this particularly interesting scientific study of great technical importance, that a great overload, both static and hydraulic, has been brought to bear on the ancient (or inadequate) infrastructure of our city by irrational and chaotic urban expansion over the last twenty years. We now know with certainty that the tipping point, at least in some determined areas that have been in balance, is not far off. Earth slides, cave-ins and sink-holes are, unfortunately, not new in the history of Naples, but the alarming frequency of these episodes over the last few years as well as the nature of these episodes, especially in the hill areas, is the result of a systematic and progressive deterioration of the supporting subsoil of the city. The underground cavities of all shapes and sizes that have been well identified in parts of the city aggravate this situation of precarious balance, but they are not, in general, the primary cause.

This alarming diagnosis has been formulated with scientific rigor by the Commission for the Study of the Subsoil of Naples; the commission has passed on to the city administration a series of important technical and urbanological recommendations and proposals. The concluding report by the commission will be of great interest to specialists both in Italy and abroad, but for everyone, the report is a valuable lesson and a grave warning.

It seems obvious at this point that the remedies for the damage caused by a past full of errors, thoughtlessness and abuse, are not to be found simply in a list of regulations and prioritized public works aimed at restoring conditions of safety to the city. Those remedies, above all, have to be undertaken within the vaster context of an urban restructuring of the city, which the center-left city administration has been cautiously working out. There is no one who cannot see that most of the problems are due to persistent lack of modern and functional urban regulation, regulation that goes back to 1939 and that is no longer adequate.

That basic evaluation, in fact, sums up precisely the present-day conditions and the situation in which we find ourselves. The investigation of the subsoil of Naples was promoted and carried out by the center-left administration of the city, and work towards a new regulatory plan is well underway. All of the material, appropriately coordinated, should be finished in the first months of the coming year.

We emphasize that these plans represent a clear about-face with respect to the ways in which these problems have been dealt with in the past. Correct and responsible administrative action will finally assure the city of decent urban, economic and social development based on a cohesive view of the problems and their solutions.

It is now time to move from the stage of premises and planning to actually getting the job done. Naples has to be restructured for the generations that are to come; we must give back to the city her safety, her breath, her greenery and prestige. It is a task that will require a collective commitment by cultural and technical forces as well as by the forces of labor, all sustained by decisive will power on the part of politicians.

The valiant technicians who undertook this study of the subsoil of Naples have dedicated this basic work to the coming generation of the 1980s and those who shall be on the frontier of civilization and progress. As head of the commission and, above all, as a Neapolitan, I know I speak for the entire citizenry when I express my gratitude to them. This work will not be canceled by time or by men but shall remain a secure guide to the reconstruction of the city and serve to warn the future as well as accuse the past.

Naples, October 1967,               [Signed] Bruno Romano


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