Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry July 2003


    —Ravaschieri di Satriano (palazzo)
            —J. Sannazzaro

Mergellina is the "other" port in Naples. It is at the west end of via Caracciolo before the coast starts its long curve out to Posillipo. Once, Mergellina was a quaint fishing village and the subject of folksong and myth. Today, it has developed as an important harbor for pleasure and tourist boats, including those that make runs to Capri and, indeed, to all of the small secondary ports in the Campania region, from Bacoli at the extreme top end of the Bay of Naples to Sapri, many hours to the south. It is, however, still a working port for fishermen.

(Also see 2014 update here.)

It is not immediately evident from the modern lay-out of the coast between the Castel dell'Ovo and the harbor of Mergellina just how isolated Mergellina was from the rest of Naples through a long history that stretches from the days of the Greeks to the present. It is true that the city of Naples, itself —the historic center and the immediate surroundings— is the oldest continuously inhabited center of large population in Europe. It is, however, equally true that many of the names that one associates with Naples, such as Mergellina (and even Santa Lucia, much closer in towards the city than Mergellina) were, until the 1500s, "quaint fishing villages on the outskirts of Naples" (and I copied that phrase from an early tour-guide to the area, which so described Santa Lucia, the area around the Egg Catle).

Mergellina is yet another mile to the west along the waterfront. Today, Santa Lucia and Mergellina are connected by via Caracciolo, a road from the late 1800s. (Click here for an item on the urban renewal of Naples at that time.) If, in the mind's eye, you strip that road away, you have the modern Public Gardens, the Villa Comunale, which can still be said to connect the two ends of the long stretch of waterfront between Santa Lucia and Mergellina. Those gardens were built in the 1780s. Before that park was put in place on reclaimed land, the whole stretch was a beachfront with water rolling up approximately to where the road, Riviera di Chiaia, now runs along the inside of the gardens, 100 yards from the modern seafront. 

And that road, Riviera di Chiaia, was laid in the 1600s to accommodate the new and exclusive Spanish mansions that were wending their way ever to the west towards Mergellina. The first villa —at the east end of the Villa Comunale, still a mile from Mergellina— was the Palazzo Ravaschieri di Satriano, a building from 1605 (photo, left). It was prime beachfront property 400 years ago. (Much later, Goethe mentions the building with fondness in his Italian Journeys. He speaks of a lovely and enigmatic woman. He discreetly avoids detailing his notorious womanizing but he is probably talking about donna Teresa Filangieri, the wife of Filippo Ravaschieri, owner of the villa at the time. (In this photo —on the hill in the background Castel Sant'Elmo is on the left and the museum of San Martino on the right.) Drawings of the area from the 1680s show a lovely coast-line with a long string of villas starting at this mansion and a single long road, Riviera di Chiaia, lined with trees. That was how one got to Mergellina from Naples in the 1600s.

Mergellina itself, before that date, was pretty much isolated, except by sea and a single road leading down from the Posillipo height directly above, a twisting and steep affair called the Rampe di San Antonio. That road comes out near the modern Mergellina train station. In the days before trains, all you saw when you got to the bottom was the Roman tunnel (still in use in those days) called the "Neapolitan Crypt", in the area called Piedigrotta, the church of that name being one of the most famous in Neapolitan tradition. The modern road, via Posillipo, that leads from Mergellina west to the very end of the Posillipo hill was not completed until the French rule of Naples under Murat, although the Spanish did build a short stretch in that direction to get from Mergellina to Villa Donn'Anna. The Spanish, then, are the ones who started the development that would eventually incorporate Mergellina into "greater Naples". That development was continued under the short, but productive, period of the Austrian vicerealm and then, of course, the Bourbons.


Portrait of Sannazzaro by Titian

portrait of SannazzaroMergellina's favorite son is, no doubt, the poet Jacopo Sannazzaro (1458-1530). (There is historical documentation that the correct spelling of the surname is Sannazaro, i.e. with one z). He was born in Naples and raised in nearby Nocera de' Pagani. He gained fame and favor as a poet with the court of Naples and was rewarded in 1497 by Frederick II of Aragon with a home, the Villa Mergellina, a large property still in existence (though subdivided many times over) that today holds the church of Santa Maria del Parto, which Sannazzaro founded and where he is entombed. 

Sannazzaro wrote at an interesting time in Italy. In spite of the enormous influence of Dante's Divina Commedia (written in the vernacular), men of letters and, generally, all educated persons, were expected to have a command of Latin. Scholarly writing was still all in Latin, throughout Europe. Poetry and other literature —well, that gave you a bit more leeway.

Sannazzaro wrote his De partu Virginis in Latin; it is little read today, but at the time, it earned him the nick-name of "the Christian Virgil." He also wrote in Italian (called "Tuscan" at the time, since Dante was from Tuscany), as in Arcadia (1504), a masterpiece that instituted the theme of Arcadia, an idyllic land, in European literature. That work had an enormous influence on subsequent European literature. He also recast Neapolitan proverbs into Italian and published them. Sannazzaro was a member of the famed Accademia founded by Giovanni Pontano and wrote under the pseudonym of Actius Syncerus; he eventually headed the Academy. His verses in Italian are part of the body of literature that helped form that language in the Middle Ages. A main square, one block from Mergellina harbor, is named for him.

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