Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Dec 2013

There are two items on this page.   #1 is directly below.   #2 is here.  (added April 2015)

Massa Lubrense

1. the undiscovered country to whose bourne most travellers return
With almost no imagination you can see a strange creature (on the right in this image) about to attack and devour the helpless isle of Capri. The attacker is the Sorrentine peninsula. It divides the Gulf of Naples on the left (west) from the Gulf of Salerno on the right (east). The name of the geograpical feature that marks the division is Punta Campanella, the very tip of the snout of this beastie. The town of Sorrento, itself, is the mass of buildings behind the ears. All of the land west of the ears, virtually the entire head of the creature, coast to coast, ears to snout, is the comune of Massa Lubrense.

comune in Italy is a municipal area that usually has a main town of the same name plus other smaller centers called frazioni. The comune of Massa Lubrense has a number of such frazioni; they are Acquara, Annunziata, Casa, Marciano, Marina del Cantone, Marina della Lobra, Marina di Puolo, Metrano, Monticchio, Nerano, Pastena, San Francesco, Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, Santa Maria della Neve, Schiazzano, Termini and Torca. The population of the entire comune of Massa Lubrense is a bit more than 15,000 persons.

he sparse population is no doubt due to the fact that modern means of transportation—in this case the new road from Naples (with three tunnels!) and, above all, the Circumvesuviana railway
—all end at Sorrento. You can continue out along the coast past Sorrento, but then you wend your way up into the hills of Massa Lubrense and a small network of secondary roads. You can cross over (in this image, more or less from a point between the two ears, called Marina di Puolo) straight across to the other side of the peninsula and come down on the Salerno side and the famous (but infamous for its traffic at the height of summer) road along the Amalfi Coast. Don't do that. Stay in the outback of Massa Lubrense.

Geographically, you get quite a bit of variation in such a small area, extending in elevation from sea-level up to 500 meters (1500 feet) at Mt. San Costanzo near the cape at Punta Campanella (photo, right). (The beacon tower in the image is a restored Saracen Tower, one of the many hundreds that guarded the shores of the Kingdom of Naples for many centuries.) One of the better known spots in the Massa Lubrense comune is the Bay of Jeranto (in the above image, it is the partially open "mouth" of the beast) a site of great beauty as well as historical interest in the "development" of the entire area. That bay as well as the area immediately aound the cape form the protected Marine Reserve of Punta Campanella. Geologically, the rock-faces at sea level present a number of grottoes of extreme interest to marine biologists and geologists. Vegetation in most of the area above sea-level is the so-called Mediterranean macchia (Maquis shrubland). The area is heavily cultivated with terraced olive groves. As I note at the above link to the Bay of Jeranto, Punta Campanella and Jeranto bay are at "the confluence of waters from the bay of Naples and the bay of Salerno to the south-east; upwelling in the waters is an important part of the circulation and exchange of waters in the straits between the peninsula and the island of Capri and is vital to replenishing nutrients for the aquatic plant and animal life."

There are, as you might expect, a fair number of beaches (most of them are pebbly, not sandy). One of the best known of these is at the Marina of Cantone (the stretch behind the open mouth of the beast on the south side of the peninsula). It has a point of historical interest in that high above the beach and facing east over the Gulf of Salerno, you find (photo, left) the Casa Rosa, also known as the Villa Silentium, the home of British writer, Norman Douglas, as he wrote his Siren Land (1911), so-called because the sea below is the home of the sirens in Greek mythology.

If one is used to the distant view of Capri seen from the city of Naples, as am I, the view presented from the town of Termini on western coast of Massa Lubrense is unusual and stunning. You look (photo, right) directly across a space of about 5 km (3 miles) to the island and the height where Tiberius had his villa, and, beyond that, to the highest point on the island, Monte Solaro. On the left, the Faraglioni rocks in the water stand out as icons of the island. Atmospheric conditions permitting, you can count the  houses.

As close as it is, I don't know if you could really direct a naval battle at Capri from a vantage point such as this, especially in the early 1800s, but some claim that is what happened in October of 1808 when French and Neapolitan forces dislodged the British from Capri in a famous naval engagement (more here and here) during the brief tenure of French rule of the kingdom of Naples. The ruler of Naples at the time was Napoleon's brother-in-law, king Gioacchino Murat. He had a delightful residence (photo, left) at the village of Annunziata. It was high up on the western cliff. It had (and still has) a magnificent view of Capri, Ischia, Procida, the western end of the Gulf of Naples, then (panning back to the east) the city of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. (Indeed, it is good to be king!) He supposedly directed the battle. I'm not sure how that worked, except maybe with a good spy-glass, some signal flags and an iPhone (admitedly, a prototype)."No, no! I said 'Belie the mizzenmast'!"--what? Oh..belay?...duke, do you think your kids will know the difference a few years from now?' Indeed, Murat was a former cavalry officer of great skill and daring and one of Napoleon's most trusted officers, (which is why he got promoted to king) but he wasn't much on naval terms or tactics. (More on that point.) Some sources say he just watched and gloated.

ack over on the Bay of Salerno side, just off the coast, you
have the Li Galli islands. Apparently they were some kind of a youth hostel for sirens back in the day. They were said to have tempted Ulysses as well as Jason and the Argonauts. Other forms of life have since lived there, including Russian dancer, Rudolf Nuryev. The property is now in other hands, but is still inhabited. The main islands are Gallo Lungo, La Castelluccia, and La Rotonda; they are part of the  protected marine national preserve. There is also a fourth small island, Vetara, as well as another one, Isca, closer in and not visible in this image. 

And, of course, as you wander through these many frazioni of Massa Lubrense, you have the good fortune to meet interesting persons. I happened upon Mr. Francesco Cioffi in his small shop in Nerano. He is an artist and specializes in salvaging "stuff from the sea." (I think that's a technical term. Sorry.) Not just shells and driftwood, mind you, but even plastic. He turns it all into a little wonderland (photo, left), a kind of candy store for the eye.

In reference to the altered Shakespearen quote/sub-title of this page, they do tell me that many of the tourists you see in this area were originally being dragged through here non-stop and breathless on their way over to the Amalfi coast. They looked around, then told the driver to stop and let them off and come back in a couple of years.

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2. - added April 2015

The Desert of Massa Lubrense & the Sirens

The "Desert" of Massa Lubrense, pointing to the SW. The gulf
of Naples is the water on the right. The mountain at the top is
 Mt. Costanzo  at 500 m. above seal level (1500 feet). It looks
down on Punta Campanella, which separates the two gulfs.

It seems strange to have a desert high atop the lovely Sorrentine peninsula, overlooking both the Gulf of Naples to the west and the Gulf of Salerno to the east. The desert, however, is fortunately only a “desert” and is on the mountain overlooking a town called, naturally enough, Sant'Agata dei Due Golfi [St. Agatha of the Two Gulfs]. This desert is actually a monastery (image, right) built in 1679 by the Discalced (or Barefoot) Carmelites, a Catholic mendicant order. Since they had roots in the eremitic tradition of the Desert Fathers, they thought it would be a real hoot to call their new home The Desert. (No shoes but a good sense of humor, those monks.) Now, that's what everyone calls it. They call the whole mountain the “Desert”. The real name of the mountain, however, is Monte Sireniano—Siren Mountain. And when you consider that the entire part of the peninsula, coast to coast (see image at the top of this page), is the town (divided into various quarters called frazioni) of Massa Lubrense, a corruption of the Latin mansio deludrum, place of the temple, then things start to fall into place a bit.

You can read about the Greek sirens of our shores here. They are well known, but not too many know that there was actually a siren cult in the area, supposedly with its own temple, just as there were Greek temples dedicated to Athena and Minerva. The Desert, some have said, was even built on the ruins of an ancient pagan temple; indeed, archaeological discoveries in the first half of the 1800s were stupendous. An Greek necropolis out there on the peninsula in the section of Massa Lubrense called Vadabillo confirmed the existence of a substantial population in the area during the time of the expansion of Magna Grecia into Italy, an expansion that gave us Cuma, Paestum, Naples, etc. Later discoveries from the 1990s support the claim that the population was in place around 600 BC and carried on trade with the Etruscans.

Strabo, the Greek historian (64 BC–24 AD) wrote of the “Temple of the Sirens” on the peninsula, as did others. Of course, 2500 years is a long time. Entire civilizations and cultures don't even last that long. Things fall to pieces or are destroyed in one way or the other. Even the relatively recent “Desert” was abandoned in the 1700s. Eventually, in the mi-1800s it was restored and quite recently the order, itself, was disbanded (or "suppressed", as they say and the premises you see today are now in the hands of an order of Benedictine sisters.

Siren mosaic in the Galleria Umberto in Naples  
The Temple of the Sirens? That's a real long shot, but they've been looking ever since those first archaeological digs in the 1800s. Nothing definitive has turned up. There have been a few good leads over the years, though. Ettore Pais (1856 – 1939, Rome) the Italian historian, was the director of the Naples National Archaeological Museum and the excavations at Pompeii in the early years of the 1900s. In 1905 he published “The Temple of the Sirens in the Sorrentine Peninsula” (in the American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1905), pp. 1-6). He was quite sure that he had found the real thing, or at least bits of what was left. Prowling around “a stone-cutter's shop I was so successful as to find [an] extremely important marble fragment.” The shop and the fragment were not high up near the monastery or Greek necropolis, but rather down near the sea.

Here, on the slope of an embankment, quite near the mediaeval church of Fontanella, on the estate of Canon Luigi Rocco, were found various fragments of columns and statues which, appropriated by different people, soon found their way partly to Sorrento and partly to Rome and perhaps elsewhere. It is said that among the objects found there were two columns of ancient rosso antico. Certainly there were found objects belonging to the Roman age, as I was able to verify by inspecting the fragments which had been brought to the Hotel Victoria at Sorrento. And from the abundance of evidence collected on the spot I got the impression that the remains of a temple had lain there. This is rendered more than probable by the fact that the still visible ruins of the mediaeval building of Fontanella (which are adjacent to the place where the ancient marbles were found (…) belong to a church that was originally the home of the cult of Santa Maria, which in the sixteenth century was transferred to the still surviving church of Santa Maria della Lobbra [sic-alternately Lobra] (derived from the Latin delubrum). These ruins are, in brief, in a part of the village of Massa Lubrense, and more--over on a hill situated between Massa Lubrense and the sea-coast, precisely where the remains of the church of Fontanella are to be found. The church of Fontanella, where once a year even now sacred ceremonies are held in memory of the ancient seat of Christian worship, would thus seem to have been the successor of an ancient Graeco-Roman temple, that is, the temple of the Sirens.

- from Ettore Pais, cited abov
There's that word delubrum, again. Temple. So, maybe. Pais seemed convinced. Others not so much, including the great archaeologist who finally discovered the Grotto of the sibyl of Cuma, Amedeo Maiuri. He said simply that you couldn't really tell. He wished he had had a crack at it before the builders of new roads dug it all up. If you go out to Massa Lubrense these days, you'll find a beautifully restored Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Lobra (mentioned by Pais) almost at water's edge, maybe not a bad place to have a temple dedicated to mythological mermaids. There is also a small port, Marina della Lobra. There is a via Fontanella leading up from the port, but, to my knowledge, there are no longer even any ruins left of the ancient church of that name that Pais mentions. A number of the archaeological finds pertaining to the ancient Greek necropolis that was investigated in the 1800s and 1900s are housed in the Georges Vallet Territorial Archeological Museum of the Sorrentine Peninsula situated in the Villa Fondi in the town of Piano di Sorrento. And the Desert? Well, Friedrich Nietzsche stayed there, as did Richard Wagner and a host of other Grand Tourists. But you can't. You can, however, at specified times, get into the Belvedere, which means “Beautiful View” and it really is.

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