The items, below, appeared separately in the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated and have been consolidated onto a single page here. After that, there is an update from March 2012 and one from March 2014. The blue box in the first item was added in February 2018.)
The Villa Comunale is the most prominent and visible park in the city of Naples. It stands on reclaimed land, for, as early prints show, the sea once came right up to a rather swampy area, the site mostly of fishermen's houses. It wasn't until the 16th century, the beginning of the Spanish viceroyship, that a general campaign was undertaken to make the land suitable for the construction of the fashionable villas that sprang up in the 1600s along that section of the sea front. (Click here for a related item.)
The Villa was the result
of the wishes of King Ferdinand
IV, who, in 1788, decided he wanted a large wooded
area along the sea for members of the royal family to
stroll in. The park, thus, was open to the public only
one day a year, for the Festival
of Piedigrotta. They say that many marriage
contracts of the day even stipulated the husband's duty
to take his wife to the gardens on that day each year.
The park was opened to the general public on a permanent
basis in 1869 after the unification of Italy. The
seaside road, via Caracciolo, which now lies between the
aquarium and the sea, is another, more recent
reclamation project added to the topography of the city.
Until 1900, the sea rolled up to the villa, itself, and
coach traffic passed along the Riviera di Chiaia, the
road now bounding the inner side of the park.
Comunale houses the Anton Dohrn Aquarium (photos,
above and right). In 1870 Anton Dohrn (1840-1909),
German zoologist and disciple of Darwin, requested and
got permission to build a “Zoological Station”—an
aquarium—in Naples. He was given a site within the Villa
Comunale; the project was begun in 1872 under Oscar
Capocci and finished by the German architect Adolf von
Hildebrand. Interesting artwork within the Florentine
Renaissance building include murals by the German artist
Hans von Mareès, who drew inspiration from
characteristic fishing scenes of the Mediterranean,
especially Naples and Sorrento. Since its inception, the
aquarium in Naples has not only served as an exhibition
of marine flora and fauna, but has also been a working
research facility in marine biology.
Looking Back at the Dohrn Zoological Station
When the Dohrn Zoological Station opened in 1870, it was immediately seen as a major innovation in marine biology. In June 1883, Science, the journal of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) hailed the..."use of the best modern methods, with all the material that these rich southern regions can supply, all the help that may be had from a well-furnished library, all the aid that can be obtained from well-trained attendants and subordinates, and all the stimulus that consciously and unconsciously comes from the intercourse of many minds giving their best powers to the same work..." (the image, above left, is from that issue). The station thrived in the final years of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. Even the First World War did not have a serious physical effect on the workings of the station although international cooperation among former colleagues in science (and now deadly enemies) was stifled. That passed, but then came WWII. When Italy made a separate peace in September 1943, her former Axis ally, Germany, punished the city of Naples by wide-spread destruction of the physical infrastructure and even the mindless destruction of intellectual facilities such as libraries, large portions of which were set ablaze. Fortunately, the station itself was not destroyed and workers had removed the books and some of the equipment out into the countryside for safekeeping.
The entire Villa
Comunale underwent remodeling a couple of years
ago. There seem to be fewer trees than before. Some call
it "pruning back". Some call it firewood. I haven't made
up my mind.
[2011 update: The condition of the trees in
the Villa is precarious at the moment due to the
presence of the palm tree pest. See this
Elia Mannetta, the engineer from Baltimore who built the new aquarium in Genoa, will be in Naples in a week or so to help decide if the city of Naples needs a new aquarium and, if so, where to put it. There are three candidates: (1) in San Giovanni a Teduccio, a suburb of Naples just to the east along the coast; (2) Bagnoli, where a new aquarium would fit in nicely with the pedagogical ambitions of the Science City exposition and fair grounds as well as with a general rejuvenation of the area after decades of decay; (3) in the Villa Comunale, where a new aquarium would take the place of the older one, the Anton Dohrn Aquarium, in place since the 1870s. Choice number 2, Bagnoli, is probably the strongest candidate.
Very few Neapolitans would
like to see the Villa Comunale dug up and closed again
(as it was a few years ago for restoration) or see the
current aquarium demolished. It fits in with the general
old-fashioned atmosphere of the park—classical statues,
fountains, gazebo/bandstands, etc.—though that, too, has
changed a bit since the recent overhaul. Not only did
they chop down a lot of trees but they replaced a number
of 19th–century metal scrolls and curlicues along the
fence with more modern bulletoid metalwork that has
already midwifed an entire repertoire of suppository
to entries on architecure & urban expansion to top of this pageOnce upon a time there was a Golden Tree
by Selene Salvi
O my tree of gold,
I planted you with a hoe of gold,
And with a little pail of gold I bathed you
And dried you with a towel of silk,
Do the same with me!
Do the same with me...*
(The “La Cat Cinderella" by Giambattista Basile - image, right)
* The magic spell uttered by Zezolla - Cinderella to turn into a queen
I read just today the sad news that last January they chopped down the giant Chilean palm tree in the Villa Comunale (public gardens) in Naples. The Campania Region keeps a catalog of Monument Trees in the region; it is card #19 in the catalog. (That index is off-site, here.) The tree in all likelihood went back to the first half of the 1800s. It was among the oldest trees in the Gardens and among the oldest of its species. What WWII didn't do (there were signs of bullet strikes on the trunk), the tree pest called the "red palm weevil" did. They noticed it too late. I don't know — it is certainly the case that the Villa Comunale with its overwhelming number of visitors has been struggling lately.
The tree was 16 meters/48 feet tall and the trunk was 3.34 meters (10 feet) around. A good giant that had seen a lot. We noticed it a few years ago when we were walking around the Gardens. We were actually looking for another palm tree, the most famous tree in Naples. (We do have, you know, more than just that lonely Mediterranean Pine that crops up in everyone's memories of the city!) Think of those paintings from the 1700s that show the Mergellina coast. You will notice that they all show one particular splendid date palm, the branches of which are veined with gold. There is one memory left in the name of a tiny dead-end lane near the cable-car called "vico Dattero a Mergellina" (lane of the date palm). This is where painters of the "Posillipo School" lived, and that date palm stood over them — their guardian. Even then they said it was ancient. Who planted it? Maybe it was from Heaven.
The years 1634-1636 saw the publication in Naples of "Lo cunto de li Cunti" (The Tale of Tales) or the Pentamerone a collection of fables by Giambattista Basile. “La gatta Cenerentola” (The Cat Cinderella) is one of those. Roberto De Simone has noticed a link between that tale and the ancient legend of the Madonna of Piedigrotta. Why am I telling you this? Because Zezolla, our Cat Cinderella, got as a gift a special "dattolo" (date palm). She planted it and it grew in only four days, whence sprang the fairy tale that the tree can grant wishes.* Then, the rest... Basile saw the tree when it got to Mergellina and immortalized it in one his most famous fables. It's a fascinating tale.
Why, you ask, were we looking in the Villa Comunale? With a lot of effort and money (3000 lire!) the famous palm tree was transplanted from Mergellina down to the middle of the grand gardens of the Neapolitan Villa Comunale —about one km. When? It's not precise. Sometime in the 1800s. Imagine doing that with ordinary wagon transport of the time. Giuseppe A. Pasquale (1820 – 1893), director for many years of the Botanical Gardens of Naples, says in his Manual of Arboriculture (1867) that moving full-gown adult trees —digging down to get the entire root structure, lifting the heavy tree up and out, loading it onto a wagon, moving it even a short distance, and carefully replanting it— was difficult and dangerous.
We all wondered if it would still be there. We got to the Virgilian Temple (image, left) and saw the cyclopic Chilean Palm. It didn't look like the one at Mergellina but no doubt had ancient branches with their own tales to tell. There was something sacred about the tree. We stopped right there. Was that it? (photo above)-- the "old transplanted date palm" by the Virgilian Temple that De Cesare cites in La Villa Reale di Napoli [The Royal Gardens of Naples] (1846)? Or was this where two trees magically became one? Who knows? What remains, however, is the bitterness at having lost another precious bit of our Parthenopean soul.
*The magical power of trees to grant wishes is itself a persistent theme in Neapolitan lore. Another example is here.