The Vesuvian Villas — the "Golden Mile"
In the early 1700s, the eastern limit of the city of Naples was an actual wall, more or less where the red belfry of the church of the Carmine and the ruins of the old Carmine fortress still stand today on via Marina. Before railways and great roads, to venture beyond that point —that is, to hug the coastline and proceed east along the slopes of the volcano and then inland away from the bay of Naples, itself— meant taking what was called the "Calabrian Road." The few miles along that road, from the city to a point past Vesuvius at Torre Annunziata, where the Sorrentine peninsula starts to swing south, was undeveloped. Earlier Spanish development in the 1500s and 1600s had been in the other direction, to the west.
That changed with the arrival in the 1730s of the new Bourbon dynasty. In 1738, the monarch, Charles III, started construction on one of his four royal palaces, this one in Portici, on the slopes of Vesuvius about five miles out of the city. In those days, the area was bucolic —fertile and heavily wooded; you could see the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida; the recently discovered ruins of the Roman city of Herculaneum added some Classical charm, and even the delicately smoking crater of the volcano seemed perhaps more quaint than it should have. (Understandable in an age that knew little of the dynamics of exploding mountains). In short, it was a nice place to build a palace. In the course of the 18th century, members of the wealthy noble classes followed the royal family in that direction and opened the area with a series of spectacular estates and villas. The villas, gardens, courtyards, fountains, arches and terraces were the work of the finest architects of the age: Vanvitelli, Fuga, Vaccaro, and Sanfelice. So spectacular was the splurge of building that the stretch of road out of the city became known as the Miglio d'Oro—the Golden Mile.
Today, those estates are collectively called the "Vesuvian Villas." Specifically, that term covers 121 of them, defined as cultural heritage by a 1971 law that established a foundation to recover them from the ravages of the previous 250 years, a period that included the laying of the first railway in Italy exactly along the route of the old road in 1839, the subsequent growth of industry, the development of the industrial port, the aerial bombardments of World War II, and the post-war, unbridled and catastrophic land speculation and overbuilding in an area that is now the most densely populated in Europe.
The possibility of saving what could be saved was noted in a 1957 volume, Le Ville vesuviane del Settecento (The Vesuvian Villas of the 1700s) by Roberto Pane of the architecture department of the University of Naples, the publication of which fostered the formation of a consortium of the Italian state, the Campania regional government and the municipal governments of Portici, Ercolano, San Giorgio a Cremano, Torre del Greco, Torre Annunziata, the five towns along the old coastal road.
How is the program going? The villas themselves? I took a bus ride and walk out there the other day. I'm not sure what I expected. In my heart of hearts I wanted that marvelous scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her tornado-blown house and steps out into Oz, at which point the film bursts out of dull black & white into full color. I was going to cross the magic line (right beneath the highway overpass near the rusted oil refinery and industrial incinerator) and step off the bus at the first stop in San Giovanni a Teduccio. In the twinkling of an eye, the grime of years would dissolve, and the broad Calabrian road would be as it was then, stretching untold leagues away to the Great Southern Sea. It would all be in Technicolor©, and —here, I would cue the violins— I could start my voyage of discovery. I would see Vesuvius smoking in the background and Goethe taking notes along the roadside, or maybe Goethe smoking in the background and Vesuvius taking notes. Something like that. A kindly coachman would stop and give me a lift to the Royal Palace where benevolent monarch, Charles, and his gracious consort, Maria Amalia, would welcome me, feed me, and then let their 300-pound Neapolitan mastiff hunting dog, "Attila," frolic with me. (Note to myself: the last scene needs some work.)
Having sobered up, I now report that the
string of 122 sites starts in the first community
adjacent to Naples to the east, San Giovanni a Teduccio.
The last one is in Ercolano. In general, the farther out
you move from the city, the better. That is, the
"villas" in San Giovanni deserve those "so-called"
quotation marks around villas; the non-descript buildings are
simply street addresses; some look abandoned and most
are totally unremarkable. The whole length of the road
is jammed beyond belief, creating the impression that
you could climb up to the roof of the first building and
walk the entire distance, stepping from roof to adjacent
roof for miles without ever touching the ground.
Yet, a number of the villas in
Portici and Ercolano are now restored and serve as
cultural centers and residences. In between are ones
that don't look bad at all and are fully functional
apartment houses. The first site to be recovered was the
Villa Campolieto in Ercolano (photo, left). The
villa dates from 1755 and was one of the spectacular
projects of Vanvitelli. It was acquired by the Vesuvian
Villa consortium in 1978 and restored and opened in 1984
as the centerpiece of the entire project. Another
restored villa is the Villa Ginestre, the home of
Italy's greatest Romantic poet, Giacomo
Leopardi. A building that actually predates the
Bourbon arrival in Naples, it is up the slopes from
Ercolano and is an attraction for those on a "literary
tour" of southern Italy. Also, it may be cheating to
call the Bourbon
Palace in Portici one of the villas; after all, it was the villa (photo,
right). It still stands, Colossus-like, astride the old
road and is in good repair since it now houses the
Agricultural Department of the University of Naples.
I will settle for a gradual restoration of what can be restored and the integration of that restored property back into an area already well-endowed with items of great interest. The nearby archaeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis are already on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The stretch also contains one of the world's finest historical railway museums, and the premises of the Bourbon Palace contain a scientifically important botanical garden. Also, the Vesuvius national park is right next door.