Naples and the Vesuvius, from past to present
It’s the land of pizza, pasta and (strong and small) coffee, facing over a breathtaking gulf with dreamy islands nestled into the sea and the shape of mount Vesuvius – an active volcano, whose last eruption was in 1944 – to watch over the area, more paternal than menacing. This is Naples, a captivating city with a long and radiant history and an equally brilliant present.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Naples was born as an early Greek settlements, named Parthenope after the mythological siren who drowned herself into the sea when she failed to seduce Odysseus with her enchanting singing. A name still used today to remind of the city’s legendary and beguiling nature, hard to resist.
Many times a Capital – from the Kingdom of Naples established in the 14th century by the Aragon family, to the wide Kingdom of the Two Sicilies formed in 1815 by the Bourbon – Naples has always been a crucial cultural hub, too, and it still is today. Along the centuries many artists, poets and brilliant minds inhabithed or visited the city, leaving their traces.
Nowadays, Naples is a multilayered masterpiece from different epochs, with stunning panoramas and open-air treasures as well as hidden gems to be discovered, often lying underground. Yet, don’t expect a place frozen in time, or self-satisfied with its own past. Naples is an unresting city, where the glorious vestiges from the past go together with a relentless cultural and artistic development.
Think about the MANN, Naples’ National Archaeological Museum, with its unique heritage: from Egyptian remains to the many evidences of the history of the city itself since its Greek origins. The permanent collection also includes many finds from the Vesuvian area such as the ancient Roman bronzes from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum and original mosaics from Pompeii, the two main towns which were was almost entirely buried under the volcanic ashes during the dreadful eruption in AD 79. Hosted in a magnificent seventeenth-century building (a former barrack, then the seat of the University of Naples) and recently restored to expand the displayed collection, the Museum was first created as the Royal Bourbon Museum in 1777 by Ferdinand IV of Naples who would later become Ferdinand I, the King of the Two Sicilies.
A few steps away, Madre is its contemporary counterpart, well embodying the city’s contrasts. The museum of Contemporary Art is located in the splendid Donnaregina palace, a nineteenth-century building turned into a fascinating and functional museum by the Portoguese architect Alvaro Siza. Here ancient and modern are connected in new, effective ways. This is especially true for the site-specific works by Francesco Clemente, Sol Lewitt, Jeff Koons, Mimmo Palladino, Jannis Kounellis, Rebecca Horn and more, yet the museum also hosts temporary exhibits and cultural activities.
Right under such great places, the bowels of the city hide many other treasures from remote ages, revealing the stratified story of Naples: from the underground burial places dating back to the ancient Greek Neapolis to the remarkable system of catacombs spreading along the so-called Holy Mile, a one-mile long itinerary trough the earth of the city, above and below ground.
On the other side of Naples, facing over the breath-taking view over the sea and the small Gaiola island with its eponymous underwater park, another incredible site stands: the Pausilypon (meaning “free from cares” and giving the name to the hill of Posillipo) archaeological park with the Seiano Grotto. A 770-metres long tunnel runs through the tuff stone hill connecting the area of Bagnoli (where the main entrance is, a tall and deep cavern framed by massive stone arches built in the Bourbon period to reinforce it) to the Trentaremi bay. Dating back to the 1st Century BC, it was originally excavated as an impactful entrance to the panoramic villa of Publius Vedius Pollio, a wealthy and despotic Roman knight. Sunk into oblivion along the centuries until it was rediscovered by the Bourbons, then used as a bomb shelter during World War II, today the area – which also includes an amphitheatre still hosting concerts – can be visited upon reservation, both with free or guided tours.
It’s pretty impressive to think that at almost the same level of the catacombs and galleries, one of the city’s most striking urban face lays: the 15 “Art stations” of the city’s metro lines 1 and 6 which, starting from 2006, were created or renovated engaging contemporary artists and architects. In particular the Toledo one – designed by the Catalan architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca mixing William Kentridge’s mosaics inspired to the Pompeii ones, and the futuristic Sea Gallery by Bob Wilson – was declared the most beautiful of Europe by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2012.
Another train – the circumvesuviana – will take you to the soul-stirring archaeological site of Pompeii. Lying on a plateau right under the Vesuvius, the ancient Etruscan and Greek town established in the 6th century BC was then conquered by Romans, who embellished it with magnificent buildings. Rediscovered by chance at the end of the 17th century by the architect Domenico Fontana during the excavation of a canal to bring the water of the Sarno river to the weapons factories in the nearby Torre Annunziata, today the Pompeii Archaeological Park is amongst Italy’s most visited sites.
In 1748 Carlo di Borbone began excavations, to increase the prestige of his nascent Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Since then more and more remains have been exposed - including baths, bakeries, sanctuaries and temples, theatres and private houses - witnessing the intense life of the town which was freeze-framed by the massive lava flow. Today, visitors can wander around the 45 hectares so long excavated exploring the nine regio (areas) in which the town is divided, discovering incredible treasures such as the wonderful paintings of the recently restored Villa of the Mysteries or of the house of Venus in a shell, the many mosaics such as the dog one at the House of Paquius Proculus or the striking casts of the victims of the eruption, like those at the Garden of the fugitives.
Pompeii is not the only attraction of the area: beside many other archaeological sites – such as Herculaneum and Oplontis, all enlisted in the UNESCO Heritage – the Vesuvius itself is well worth a visit: from April to September, several trekking paths go up to the crater. The area of the Vesuvius National Park also includes Italy’s first volcanic wilderness area while for those interested in volcanology there is the interesting Vesuvius Observatory, now seat of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV): founded in 1841, it’s the oldest volcanology observatory in the world and a vantage point to admire Naples and its gulf.
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