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                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 119, Jeff Matthews  entry June 2007        

The Waters of Chiatamone

statue of water vendorWe had a house guest once, a young woman from Finland, who took a drink of water from the faucet in our kitchen and said: "Say…(slurp)…this is great!…(slurp, slurp)… Much better than the…(slurp)…stuff you get in Finland…(slurp, aaah!)" It had never occurred to me that our water was better than the water in bucolic Finland. I suggested that maybe the reindeer up there were doing some very unbucolic things near the water sources; yet, the event again reminded me of how good the water in Naples is supposed to be.

Aside from episodic outbreaks of the vibrio cholerae bacterium, Neapolitan water has historically been said to be marvelous. And cholera? Well, since the germ theory of disease wasn't really solid until the 1880s, they didn't know about boiling water before you drink it. Thus, generations of benevolent Neapolitan monarchs actually boiled the peasants instead, but whoever said that scientific progress comes without sacrifice?

The best water was said to come from the Chiatamone spring, at the base of Mount Echia, directly across from the Castel dell'Ovo in the Santa Lucia section of Naples. Mt. Echia is also called Pizzofalcone and Monte di Dio and is essentially the cliff of Naples upon which the original Greek acropolis of the pre-Neapolis city of Parthenope stood in the 4th century, b.c. The topography of the city was radically changed by the Risanamento, the urban renewal of the 1890s. First, they moved the great Santa Lucia fountain, built by the Spanish in the 1600s to tap into the Chiatamone spring; then, all along the seaside on both sides of the Castel dell'Ovo, a broad strip of land-fill was laid in front of the cliff, and the entire strip was lined with new hotels that fronted on a broad, new seaside road. This hid the cliff and the original coast road of via Chiatamone forever; they are now behind the hotels. The original Chiatamone spring is now on the property of the Hotel Continental; the spring is covered and abandoned on a small space between two wings of the hotel (photo, below). Even if you are dying of thirst, they won't let you in. (I tried.)

In any event, for centuries the spring at the base of the cliff was the source of (1) water and (2) livelihood for the acquaioli, the itinerant water peddlers who would fill up their amphorae (called lummare in dialect) and wander the streets selling drinks to passers-by. There are many sketches and paintings of the water peddlers in various descriptions of the days of yore in Naples, especially of the trades and jobs that no longer exist. Perhaps the best known work of art connected with the acquaiolo is the silver statue of that name (photo, above) by the nineteenth-century Neapolitan sculptor, Vincenzo Gemito, a work he did on commission for the last king of Naples, Francis II, then living in exile and desperate for a memento from home. It depicts a nude scugnizzothe Neapolitan street urchinholding the amphora on his hip, his arm outstretched to offer a drink of water.

The spring was an artesian well; thus, there are other places nearby where the same drilling process has been used to tap into the water of Chiatamone over the years. One was on the grounds of the Royal Palace itself; a well was installed in 1850 at the behest of Ferdinand II, the king of Naples. The large gymnasium on the eastern side of the Royal Palace used to have a source, as well. And here and there in the area, various taps would be opened and then closed again for various reasons, hygiene being the main one. The last time you could simply buy a drink of good old Chiatamone water, they say, was before the cholera scare of 1973. A short while ago, they opened some taps on the street that runs up between the "Parthenope" University (the ex-Naval University) and the Maschio Angioino from the port to the east side of the Royal Palace, but they were turned off shortly thereafter.

(See also this related item on aqueducts.)


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