Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Aug. 2003

The Battle of Lepanto;  Santa Maria della Vittoria

Many cities have squares, streets and monuments named for "victory". In many cases, the victory —the particular battle or war— is left unnamed since "everyone knows." It's simply "Victory Square." How could anyone NOT know? Frailty, thy name is memory; I have checked with a number of Neapolitans to see what they know about Piazza Vittoria (Victory Square) at the east end of the Villa Comunale. The most common answer is, "Oh, that's where the number 28 bus [alternately the number 1 street-car] turns around". Occasionally, you get a vague "named for some war or other" answer. And on rare occasion, someone knows: The Battle of Lepanto. Technically speaking, the square is named for the Church in the square: Santa Maria della Vittoria, which was, indeed, named for the battle —but that's close enough.

The small church and an adjacent monastery were built in 1572, the year following the epic sea battle between the Turks and the Holy League, a combined European naval force promoted by Pope Pius V. It has been called the "last crusade," a battle not just between rival nations, but between rival civilizations—in this case, Islam and Christianity. It was, in every respect, as important to the survival of the West as the Battle of Marathon, and if the Holy League had not won, nothing could have prevented the Turks from advancing into Europe, from taking Rome, itself.

Battle was joined on October 7, 1571. It had been preceded by the Turkish conquest of Cyprus in 1570, and, of course, in the previous century by the Turkish conquest of Constantinople —the fall of the Byzantine Empire. There was no doubt in the mind of the Pope which way the wind was blowing. He got Venice, Genoa, Spain (and thus, Naples and Sicily —part of the Spanish Empire at the time) to assemble a fleet of over 200 ships to meet the slightly larger Turkish fleet south of Cape Scropha in western Greece, near Lepanto ("Epakto" in Greek). Though outnumbered and less maneuverable, the Western fleet was more modern, relying on cannon, as opposed to the Turks, who still relied on bows and arrows and getting in close enough to board. The losses were staggering. When the single day was done, 85% of the Turkish fleet had been sunk and 20,000 Turks killed; 8,000 soldiers in the Western fleet perished. The Holy League then disbanded, Europe went back to parochial bickering, and all was right with the world.

The Church of Maria della Vittoria was then rededicated in the early 1600s by the daughter of John of Austria, the commander of the Western fleet. The monastery part of the building was vacated in the early 1800s and since that time has been used for private dwellings. The square, itself, was expanded in the 1890s as part of the Risanamento, the great urban renewal of Naples. That construction enlarged Piazza Vittoria up to the new street, via Caracciolo, at water's edge, and provided a quaint, hanky-sized harbor and bathing beach (photo, above). The beach has no real name other than the hybrid "Mappatella Beach" (using the English term). A mappatella is a small bundle made by drawing up the corners of a rectangular piece of cloth (which is how you packed to go to the beach in the days before the ubiquitous backpack or plastic sack). The small harbor has a few fishing boats in it and is marked by a monument to those who have died at sea. The monument is a single Roman column with the top missing (photo insert, above) and thus is called, simply, la colonna spezzata —the "broken column". It was found on Via Anticaglia, one of the old main roads of Roman Naples.

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