I’m reading the recently released Capri: The Island Revisited at the moment. It is the revival of a book originally entitled Capri that was written by an American, one John Clay MacKowen in 1884. It was publisher John Churchill’s chance encounter with the book in the library in Capri that brought about its resurrection, which I’ll write more about that at later date. For now, let’s just say that the very first chapter of MacKowen’s original text, Chapter 1 – Geological, reminded me of a chance encounter with a similar subject I had earlier this summer.
Through the caves and holes formed by the action of the sea alone… Nature has written the history of Capri’s emergence from the sea…
Like resident expert Ann Pizzorusso does in her Earthscape Naples Series, it was MacKowen’s ability to read Capri’s geological history in the island’s natural formations that captured my attention. Much in the same way that the human story is written into the subsoil, though to some degree, the evidence of that may be more difficult to find, read and interpret. A millenia of geological, environmental, and man-made changes have chipped away at it, built over it, and in some cases washed away all traces of it. But if you know where to look, know what you are looking for, or as fate may have it, happen upon it after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shakes up the city, you might just discover one monumental chapter etched into the subsoil.
And in the case of my recent visit to the Hellenistic Necropolis of Naples, I found that history was not just etched into the subsoil. It was literally carved into the stone.
Now if you’ve been to the Colosseum or the Forum in Rome, or even to Napoli Sotterenea or the archaeological excavations under San Lorenzo Maggiore, you might want to readjust your expectations. Uncut, uncensored, and not quite ready for prime time public consumption, this is one site that requires keen powers of observation, elaboration and the ability to learn to read the stones like an archaeologist. But for those willing to venture here, your journey will be well rewarded.
A work in progress, this site will have you crouching on your knees, your hands searching for a toe hold on walls carved some 2400 years ago. And it will leave you with the sensation that you’ve crawled down Alice’s rabbit hole into the bowels of ancient history and into a place so intimate, so sacred, that only the most callous observers will escape unscathed.
Found less than 15 meters below a non-descript palazzo on a tiny alley in Naples Rione Sanità district, it was uncovered during a structural analysis after the 1980 earthquake. Just a stone’s throw from the childhood home of Naples prince of laughter, Totò, these funerary tombs are just a small part of the Hellenistic Necropolis of Neapolis. A humble excavation to be sure, it nevertheless provides a monumental window into Naples Grecian past.
Descending into the basement of the palazzo, we enter into the Ipogeo dei Togati where we are immediately confronted with the bottom portion of a high-relief sculpture. The legs and feet of two draped figures thought to represent a funeral scene. From the Italian adjective togato, meaning gowned or robed, it is the draping on this sculpture that gives the hypogeum its (modern) name.
Carved into Naples tuff rock, this sculpture is just a glimpse of the magnificent tombs the Greeks constructed to house the remains of the city’s aristocratic families. Built into Capodimonte Hill along the north axis leading from Porta San Gennaro, these tombs were of high quality architectural and artistic merit, executed in a style reminiscent of their homeland.
The Ipogeo dei Togati and the nearby excavation, Ipogeo dei Melograni, which requires descent down an unlit staircase with only the aid of a flashlight are but a small part of the Hellenistic Necropolis of Neapolis that were discovered just 30 years ago. But discovery is just one part of the equation.
It is only through men and women of passion that these discoveries are elucidated, propagated and passed on to future generations.
Men and women like John Clay MacKowen who chronicled his 20 years of research in his book Capri, John Churchill who happened upon it, dusted off the moth balls and revived it, Ann Pizzorusso who tirelessly studies Naples geology and brings her findings to us via the Napoli Unplugged pages, and one Carlo Leggieri who has made it his life’s mission to be the steward of one of Naples least known, yet most instructive archaeological treasures.
To protect, conserve, restore and promote this monumental chapter in Naples history, it is only through his cultural association Celanapoli, that we, the few who know about it, get the opportunity to read the tea leaves, interpret the stories written in the stones and pass on our knowledge to all those who are willing to listen.