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main index © Jeff Matthews entry May 2005
Everything is related to Naples
Number 128 in this series. Link to all items here.
It is not
surprising that Mt. Vesuvius is a common symbol
of Naples. There have been so many paintings and
photos of " 'a
muntagna" over the years, it's almost as if
artists and weekend snapshooters were engaging in
ritual propitiation. You know: "If we feed Your ego
enough with all this art, maybe You won't explode
again. Very sincerely, we
remain Your faithful servants in Pompei." Who knows.
Other symbols are a bit harder to come by. Dangerous, even. The 30-foot-high ceilings of the Royal Palace could only have been painted and ornamented by giraffes. (Indeed, it is my understanding that the revolutions of 1820 and 1848 in Naples could have been avoided if only the despotic rulers of the kingdom had realized they were spending too much money on giraffes and not enough on guns and butter.) Anyway, walking around said Royal Palace staring at said ceilings is a very good way to fall down the magnificent Bourbon staircase, but also a good way to notice a splendid example of the triskelion, or triskele.
symbol of Sicily, the triskelion (meaning "three legs"
in Greek) goes back to the existence of Sicily as part
of Magna Grecia, the colonial extension of Greece
beyond the Aegean. Pliny—either the Elder, the
Younger, or the One in Middle—says the use of the
triskelion to represent ancient Trinacria (an earlier
name for Sicily)—is symbolic of the triangular shape
of the island, defined by three distinct capes,
equidistant one from the other. (The modern names:
Cape Peloro, at the straits of Messina; Cape Passero,
at the southern tip; and Cape Lilibeo, at Marsala in
note, the same lovely person, Laura, who brought the
triskelion on the ceiling to my attention in the first
place (as she was falling down the stairs) now tells
I don't know if that part about not using the north star convinces me, but as stories go, it's a good one! In any event, in the center of most depictions of the Sicilian triskelion is a human face, that of the Medusa, one of the aspects of the goddess Athena, patron saint of the island. The triskelion appealed to the Bourbons of Naples primarily because it was NOT a Bourbon symbol; it was classical Greek and, as such, lent historical weight to the claim of unity of Sicily and mainland. (The keen-eyed will noticed a smaller, secondary triskelion within the first, radiating out from between the legs. They appear to be stalks of wheat. The harvest? Fertility? Phallic symbols? All of those? Guess away.)
in the category of Two Symbols for the Price of
One is the red amulet (bottom, left) that is either
(1) a single curved corno (animal horn),
representing the sexual vigor implied in the phallic
symbol or (2) a serpent, with a possible connection to
ancient ophiolatry (serpent worship). It might be
both, which makes it all the more interesting,
especially since there is now a third possibility.
Vendors of the famous peperoncini—small
Calabrian red peppers—stylize the ads for their
red-hot little veggie (Capsicum frutescens
perenne ) such that it
resembles the amulet. The symbolism is enough to take
your breath away. The peppers will do that, too.