So I thought its about time I got round to finishing up writing about my highlights of Naples from this summer before it stops being summer! These are personal highlights and to some they might appear a little bit on the morbid side however the Neapolitans themselves make my interest in cemeteries and catacombs look tame. Naples was after all home to a now banned cult of the poor souls where skulls from the early Roman cemeteries where adopted, decorated and prayed for, although this tradition still continues unofficially. And unfortunately in a city where death notices are plastered on street walls, often showing individuals who died tragically young due to the city’s high crime rate, it is easy to see why death is constantly on the mind of Neapolitans. However it was weddings that were most evident in my first highlight:
5. Basilica di Santa Chiara
I finally got inside this gothic basilica on my third visit, as on every previous occasion the church had been home to a wedding (the director of my excavation had even recently got married there). The church itself is comparatively plain especially compared to the baroque creations in the city and also due to suffering from bombings during WWII. However whilst the church itself is not visually stunning, it is home to the bodies of major Neapolitan saints alongside tombs of 14th century nobility. Tragically however the church is covered in graffiti. The attached monastic complex is however much better maintained with majolica collonade and cloisters painted with early frescoes including one of St Jerome being “harassed” by the devil in the form of a floppy eared armadillo creature. Not the most scary depiction.
4. Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco
Whilst the upper church here is nothing out of the ordinary, descend some steps and you reach Naples’ home of its cult of poor souls (anime pezzentelle); corridors riddled with niches of beautified skulls, peeling walls and a thick layer of dust. The most famous skull is that of Lucia – complete with a white veil and tiara, supposedly belonging to a teenage bride and the most popular to adopt.
Undoubtedly when thinking of classical sites in Italy, the wonders of Rome as well as the miraculously preserved windows into Roman life that are Pompeii and Herculaneum are what immediately spring to mind. I visited these two blockbuster sites whilst excavating near Naples and before visiting I couldn’t really picture what the sites looked like in my head. They were both amazing with my archaeology friends and I having heated arguments over which site we preferred.
Herculaneum has better preservation, is less touristy and more of the houses were open to the public however for me Pompeii was definitely my personal favourite. The size of it was exhausting, especially if you forget it’s essentially a preserved town with no public transport where you can go inside nearly every building, even if some were sadly closed for renovation. To me even the crowds of tourists in the forum gave a great idea of the bustle of the original Roman town. But then you are talking to someone whose favourite place is London.
However whilst Pompeii and Herculaneum receive the most attention, the Naples area is filled with other amazing classical sites that I really feel deserve a mention. Starting with…
Villa Poppaea, Oplontis
One metro stop away from Pompeii in the rather soulless town of Torre Annunziata is this sprawling villa, said to have belonged to Nero’s wife Poppaea (who he kicked to death whilst pregnant. Lovely). To understand the scale, the second picture below shows the corridor where clients waited to perform the morning ritual of salutatio for their wealthy patrons; a jumbo doctor’s waiting room if you will. The wall-paintings are some of the most colourful and best preserved of any site in the area, with even the typical Roman columns being preserved in their original state a.k.a plastered and painted with intricate patterns not the bare white columns we tend to think of.
The Complesso Monumentale San Lorenzo Maggiore:
Several feet underground, beneath a rather bare gothic church lies the original street level of Graeco-Roman Naples. Here lie remnants of Neapolis’ original paving stones and the amenities of a covered market including a bakery, communal laundry and dyeworks, complete with original shop counters and slots for the iron shutters. There is also another Roman site bang in the centre of Naples– a bathhouse under the amazing Santa Chiara, however the site is so covered in scaffolding it’s hard to visualise and relatively underwhelming. Continue reading
So, I originally wrote a Day 1 diary of my time in Naples however the internet managed to delete my whole post. Cheers mate. I was out there for around 6 weeks excavating with the amazing Apolline Project but got weekends off to explore. I’d always been planning to one day do a road trip through Italy from the north to the south but Naples was never really on my radar except as a place to explore Pompeii and Herculaneum from. Oh the errors of the ignorant – Naples is definitely a hidden gem of Italy and despite being one of the most idiosyncratic places I’ve ever been to – nothing runs on time, people have a negligible grasp of English and if female prepare to deal with frequent catcalls/amorous compliments; the culture shock eventually turned to a begrudging attachment to this mad city. Anyway since I was out there for so long, I’ve decided to do a count down of my top 10 highlights in the city instead of daily diaries.
Certosa di San Martino
Even if you don’t visit the monastery itself, the view over Naples from outside is breath-taking as you get to see the whole city with Vesuvius looming in the background from above. And it’s best reached by a funicular which happens to be incorporated into the local public transport system and not a tourist trap like funiculars in other European cities.
Aside from the view, the monastic complex once belonged to the Carthusians but is now abandoned meaning that alongisde the church you can also visit the living and administrative quarters of the monks. The cloister was one of my highlights – especially with the skull decorations on the balustrade, much more preferable than chubby cherubs and other more usual contemporary decorations. There’s also a museum attached to the monastery with the Bourbon royal barges but personally I found exploring the endless baroque passages of the monastery itself far more interesting!
Whilst images of the cathedrals in Italy’s other major cities such as Florence and Milan easily spring to mind, Naples’ main church is rather unassuming from the outside. It has an interesting seemingly embossed ceiling and 4th century mosaics in the baptisty however the person highlight was the side-chapel dedicated to Saint Gennaro containing multiple silver reliquary busts. The one belonging to the eponymous saint contains phials of blood that “miraculously” liquefy twice a year. His bust is missing the bejewelled mitre which is on display in the neighbouring museum as it contains over 3000 diamonds and multiple emeralds and rubies so being casually on display in the cathedral might not be the best idea. Continue reading