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main index © Jeff Matthews entry June 2003 revised Oct 2014
the street from the Mergellina train station
is an historical park known as The Tomb of Virgil, the traditional last
resting place of this immortal Roman poet, who
spent much of his life in the city of Naples.
Legend says that the poet—also renowned as a
sorcerer—called the adjacent tunnel into existence
by his powers. (It may also have been Lucius Cocceus Auctus, the
great Roman engineer who built the nearby Seiano Grotto and many of
the fortifications of the Roman
Imperial Port in Baia.) The tunnel is also
called the Neapolitan Crypt. (Also see the entry on tunnels.) Whether
or not the author of The Aeneid is actually
buried here, another, much more recent, poet is
(photo, right): the most famous of all Italian
Romantics, Giacomo Leopardi,
who died in Naples in 1837.
Tradition says that this is where Virgil, himself, expressed the desire to be buried and there have been various inscriptions to that effect over the centuries. None have survived, but various Roman sources at least make that claim. Statius (a rough contemporary of Virgil) wrote, for example: "At Virgil's honoured tomb I sit and sing./ Warmed by the hallowed spot, my muse takes fire" (Silvae, iv.4) Indeed, Roman consul Silius Italicus (c. 28 – c. 103) became obessed with the property and bought it. Pliny, the younger, tells us that Silius celebrated the anniversary of Virgil's birthday with more solemnity than his own and "used to approach the tomb with as much veneration as if it had been a temple." The purported tomb of Virgil (photo, below, left) is visible from with the entrance to the tunnel. It is some height above the modern level of the road, but it does correspond to the road level of Roman times (see comments, below). There is a now a plaque on the grounds inscribed with a few lines from a longer work by Leopardi, which he wrote in 1831 during his stay in Naples. They start: "In Naples, near the tomb erected to Virgil..."
From within the
park, itself, you have a view of the entrance to the
tunnel built by the Romans in the second century
B.C. to connect Naples and Pozzuoli.
The tunnel was intended to improve the
communications between Puteolis and Neapolis
(Pozzuoli and Naples). In the first century BC
Puteolis had reached the height of its military and
economical importance and was the largest commercial
harbor of the western Mediterranean. The city was
connected to Neapolis by the old via Antiniana,
dating back to the settlement of the first Roman
colony in Puteolis (194 b.C.). The Crypta was dug
through the hill of Posillipo, a tuff ridge
extending from north-east to south-west and running
to the sea, where the promontory separated the bay
of Naples from that of Puteolis. The tunnel made the
route easier and faster from Pozzuoli to the
villas on the Neapolitan coast between Mergellina
and Megaris (the present Castel dell’Ovo). This
is the tunnel, or grotta, referred to in the
name of this area of the city, Piedigrotta—"at the
foot of the grotto". This tunnel was used on and off
until well into the 19th century before being
superseded by the two modern tunnels used by the
traffic of today.
How the Neapolitan
Crypt has changed
In looking at
various prints and sketches of the eastern entrance
to this tunnel (photo, above, left) done over the
centuries, one is struck by the great variation.
This is due to the fact that the tunnel has
undergone extensive modification since the time of
the Romans. In The Crypta Neapolitana [sic];
A Roman Tunnel of the Early Imperial Age, the
authors* point out that...
The first documented
major change was made by the Aragonese in 1445; they
lowered the floor of the tunnel by about three
meters from what it had been under the Romans. There
was another a century later and others under the
Bourbons in the 1700s and 1800s. The floor of the
tunnel in the late 1800s was as low as 10 meters (30
feet) below the Roman level. In the 1930s, engineers
raised it back up to the current level (about 6
meter below the Roman level) by filling in the
excavations of earlier centuries. Thus, depending on
which of the many travel guides to Naples from, say,
the 1800s you decide to open, you get renderings of
the eastern entrance that are hard to place on a
scale of accuracy or authenticity because you never
quite know which chronological version the artist is
trying to convey. The one in the image shown (on the
right) appeared in Rambles in Naples by S.
Russel Forbes, 4th edition, T. Nelson & Sons,
London, 1893 (also the source of the image below).
That "original Roman cross section" is beneath the
brick arch at the top in both the recent photograph
(top left) and this older etched print. The etching
can only have been done from a view of the entrance
well before any twentieth-century fill was loaded in
to raise the floor.
"View of Naples from Virgil's Tomb"
* L. Amato, A.
Evangelista, M.V. Nictoera, C. Viggiani.
Department of Geotechnical Engineering, University
of Naples, Federico II