Naples treasures are large and small. Tucked away and hidden in plain sight. Original masterpieces, facsimiles thereof, or in this case, it’s not what it is, but what it was thought to be. The tomb of Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC – 19 BC), known to most simply as Virgil.
The 1st century BC Roman poet who left the world the Ecologues, the Georgics and the Aenid and who is considered by some as one of the most important writers of all time.
No other writer enjoys the unanimity of selection. When it comes to the universal choosing of the world’s great literary figures we find England chooses Shakespeare and Virgil; the Germans acclaim Goethe and Virgil and Spain insists upon Cervantes and Virgil. The Chronicle-Telegram May 7, 1930
That this Augustan era tomb doesn’t actually hold Virgil’s remains seems completely immaterial. That he wasn’t born here, totally inconsequential. The world renowned writer is a hometown hero, one of the guardians of the city.
And Virgil’s affection for Naples, or should we say Partenope was the same. Having spent much time here, it was his dying wish to be buried in the place he dearly loved.
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.
Mantua gave me birth; Calabria took me away; and now Parthenope holds me: I sang of pastures, farms, leaders. Virgil’s Epitaph, 1st Century BCE
A place of immense natural beauty, a quiet spot at the foot of Posillipo hill overlooking Vesuvius and the Bay.
…we climbed the cliff and stood upon the hill which will be ever memorial as the home of the poet Virgil. Here, with perhaps the loveliest view on earth outspread before him, he composed his two great works, the “Georgics” and “AEneid,” whose glory has outlived by many centuries the Roman Empire itself. The word Posillipo means “freedom from sorrow” and, apparently, the poet found the situation worthy of its name; for when he died at Brindisi, just nineteen years before the birth of Christ, he begged the Emperor Augustus, with whom he was then traveling, to see that his remains were brought back and buried on this hill. John L. Stoddard
For over 2000 years, Virgil’s tomb has been a place of pilgrimage. A tradition that would come and go in fits and starts throughout the ages. In the first century AD it was said that the Roman poet Silius Italicus (c. 28 – 103 AD) owned Virgil’s tomb and dedicated himself to preserving the poet’s memory. It was a scene that the English painter Joseph Wright depicted some sixteen centuries later in his Virgil’s Tomb, with the Figure of Silius Italicus (1779).
Looking at Wright’s painting, it seems to me that his use of the chiaroscuro effect conjures up an air of mysticism. And I can’t help but wonder if Wright, like so many pilgrims before and after him, made the journey to Virgil’s tomb seeking inspiration or something more?
Dante’s guide in Hell in The Divine Comedy, the Middle Ages turned the poet into a sorcerer and seer, ascribing to him all sorts and manners of miracles. The magic egg hidden in Castel dell’Ovo that protects the city from some nefarious fate. The miraculous creation of the Crypta Napolitana, a 700 meter tunnel burrowed through Posillipo hill that was built during the Augustan period to connect Naples to Pozzuoli.
Is it possible that writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio, artists like Wright and the scores of other pilgrims that have visited Virgil’s tomb over the millenia were seeking not inspiration but his divine intervention?
Virgil’s legend still endures but his final resting place, or presumed final resting place is not nearly as popular as it once was. Sadly, it makes precious few traveler’s itineraries these days.
One of my very favorite places in the city, I have made the pilgrimage to Virgil’s tomb many, many times. Nestled in Parco Vergiliano a Piedigrotta, a quiet little park at the foot of Posillipo Hill, it sits not far from his Crypta Napolitana.
As I make my way up the path to his tomb I stop at a bust of Virgil set into a little niche. Though it wasn’t completed on time, it was donated by university students from Ohio for the reopening of Parco Vergiliano in 1930 on the occasion of Virgil’s 2000th birthday.
I peak inside his Crypta Napolitana. And as I reach his tomb, I always take a moment to look out upon his view and breathe in a bit of his inspiration.
Will my visits to Virgil’s tomb make me a better writer? Chissa?
I know not whether Virgil was a magician or a sorcerer or even the greatest writer that ever lived. And I’m not apt to pray or worship at the feet of any idol. But during a visit with a friend last spring, she wrote a little note to Virgil and placed it in the tripod burner as others did before us. She asked him simply to make us better writers. It was something I would have never have thought about, let alone done.
Later that night I found out that my much maligned Naples was featured in a New York Times Travel Article. And my little website that could, well that got a very nice shout out too.
Coincidence or Virgil? You decide.