I accompany people
around Naples from time to time and am often subjected to
the ultimate hard question: "Gee, what's that?" My
standard answer is: "Oh, that's a dextral embrasure
flanked by a counterscarp dripstone thing. They say it was
built right before the Mopedoid invasions, but you never
Naples has a Gee-What's-That? on every street, and I found another one the other day, hidden behind the old monastery that the Orientale University of Naples now uses for classes, one block south of the Duomo, the cathedral.
It is the complex
—and just a fraction of it sticks up above ground— of the
Roman baths Carminiello ai Mannesi, (unmarked, but
near number 30 on the map of the
historic center of the city). The original complex
covered about 700 sq. meters. Archaeological evidence
suggests that the baths were terraced down towards the
sea. The complex, or part of it, stood on the site of an
earlier structure, a temple from the 5th century b.c.,
centuries before the Romans took over the area. The Romans
built up the area in the early imperial age under Augustus
and, again, following damage caused by the earthquake of
62 a.d. and the infamous Pompeii eruption of 79 a.d. The
baths were abandoned in the 5th century a.d. at about the
time of the fall of the western Roman Empire. There was
subsequently a brief period when the site was used by a
cult dedicated to Mithras, the Persian god of light, whose
worship had been imported to Rome; the cult spread
throughout the empire to become the greatest rival of
Christianity. Eventually, however, the area was totally
abandoned; no doubt the area was affected by the great
mudslide that covered much of the city just to the west in
A Christian house of worship arose in the Middle Ages on the site and was part of a greater church called Santa Maria del Carmine ai Mannesi. "Carminiello" is a diminutive and the "mannesi" part of the name refers to the occupation of those who lived in the area; they worked with wood and made and repaired carts. In Neapolitan toponymy, the name of the church is used to refer to the much older Roman structure, in the same way as, say, the "ruins of San Lorenzo" refer to the old Roman market excavated beneath the medieval church of San Lorenzo.
interest in the area was aroused following air-raids in WW2 when
destruction of buildings on the surface lay bare some of
the 2,000–year–old ruins. Serious work and cataloging of
the site had to wait until 1993. Like much of what lies
beneath modern Naples (virtually all of ancient Naples),
the site will never be totally excavated. Although the
site now has a fence around it and is marked as an object
of historical interest, I have never seen it open.
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*addenda: This kind note comes from Prof. Paul Arthur, Professor of Medieval Archaeology at the University of Lecce:The 'Gee - what's that?' site of Carminiello ai Mannesi was a housing block of late 1st-early 2nd century date, with an attached bath building. I had the honour to excavate the site in the early 1980's and it remains one of the few published excavations in the centre of Naples.
P. Arthur (ed.), Il complesso archeologico di Carminiello ai Mannesi, Napoli (scavi 1983-1984), Congedo, Galatina, 1994.
P. Arthur, Naples from Roman Town to City-State: an archaeological perspective, The British School at Rome monograph series no. 12, 2002.