In a culture that abounds with famous place names such as "Santa Lucia" and "Vesuvius," "Piedigrotta" still stands out as one of the best-known names among Neapolitans, themselves. The name, itself, means "at the foot of the grotto," referring to the nearby Roman tunnel that leads beneath the hill in back of the church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta; that grotto connects the section of Naples known as Mergellina at the west end of the bay with Fuorigrotta—"beyond the grotto," today a thriving and large suburb of Naples. The old Roman tunnel was bypassed many decades ago by a modern traffic tunnel on the right of the church.
connected in popular Neapolitan culture with the famous
Festival of Piedigrotta, a
celebration on September 8, a spectacular parade led by
viceroys and Kings, passing along the entire length of
the seaside road, Riviera di Chiaia, and winding up at
the church, itself. The parade was a yearly affair in
the 1600s under the Spanish (who built the road leading
to the church as they expanded the city to the west) and
in the 1700s under the Bourbons. The parade was still
held during the 19th century and into the 20th. In some
fashion or other, there is still a celebration today.
Beginning in the 1830s, the Festival of Piedigrotta held a song-writing contest for composers of Neapolitan songs and is responsible for providing us with such songs as "Funicuì-Funiculà" (the winner from 1880) and many others. Much more recently, although there is still a celebration at the church, the parade is no longer held.
The church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta is first mentioned in a document from 1207 and is mentioned prominently by both Boccaccio and Petrach in the 1300s. Over the centuries, the church has been redone and expanded many times. The current façade of the church is from the 1850s. There is also an adjacent monastery that now serves as a military hospital. Also, near the entrance to the grotto behind the church is a monument billed as Virgil's Tomb.
Perhaps the most
interesting thing, historically, has to do with the
site, rather than the church. That is, the grotto led to
the fabled Phlegrean Fields, the mythological
entrance to Hades, and thus lent itself well to
mysterious carryings-on. Pre-Christian religions almost
certainly used the site near the present church as a
place for their rituals. One speculation by no less than
the great Neapolitan dialect poet, Salvatore Di Giacomo (citing
"scholarly sources"), is that here was the setting of
Petronius' Satyricon, that great bit of
pornography from the first century a.d. Di Giacomo
starts to cite the passage about the three young men out
for a good time going into the cave and running into a
band of women. Then, he blushes to continue. As do I.
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