Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

      entry Oct 2011

"On This Side of the Lighthouse"

Development of Lighthouses in and near Naples

irst, an irrelevant item about lighthouses: the underlined phrase above the title is a strange expression not used since the unification of Italy (1861). Older texts printed in the Kingdom of Naples commonly referred to the island of Sicily as al di là del faro (beyond the lighthouse) and to the rest of the kingdom on the boot of Italy (where the capital city of Naples was located) as al di qua del faro (on this side of the lighthouse). The reference was to the lighthouse at Messina on the peninsular side of the strait between the "toe of the boot" and Sicily. The usage goes back to the Angevin rule of the kingdom in the 1300s and 1400s. 

The lighthouse (above) is from the tavola strozzi, a painting from the late 1400s of Naples. That lighthouse is on the left in this image (left) from a 1653 map. It was called the "Tower of San Vincenzo". The main lighthouse is the one on the longer pier on the right and was built in 1487. Since the main lighthouse is not in the tavola (see that link) we can date the tavola to before 1487 but after the Tower was built (1477). It is not clear when the tower of S. Vincenzo was demolished, but in the early 1800s, that pier was greatly extended and is still called the San Vincenzo Pier. The main lighthouse was rebuilt many times and finally removed in the 1930s and rebuilt at the end of that San Vincenzo pier. The castle in the upper left is the Maschio Angioino, from 1300, and is still standing.

The way the modern port is laid out owes much to the wave of Angevin construction which began in 1300 with the Maschio Angioino castle. The Angevins were the ones who put a main pier where it still is today, directly east of their castle, to complement the older smaller San Vincenzo pier to the west. They also located the large Arsenale (naval ship yard) immediately to the west of that San Vincenzo pier, still seen in this painting from 1700. That ship yard has since disappeared and, obviously, subsequent construction and renovation over the centuries has wrought great changes to the port area; yet, much of it is still recognizable.

Maybe the lighhhouse at      
Alexandria looked like this.
Lighthouses or at least signal fires have been around ever since early cave-sailor decided that he would really like to sail into a harbor instead of into the rocks next to the entrance. The transition from signal fires to modern lighthouses (from wood to animal fats to kerosene to electricity) is beyond the scope of this entry; suffice it say that as splendid as we like to imagine the Lighthouse at Alexandria (image, right—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), ancient lighthouses were probably not much better than a full moon to help you see where you were sailing.

     the Fresnel lens
The truly modern lighthouse had to await the genius of Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788–1827), the French engineer whose design for a lens (now named for him) allowed the construction of multi-part, thin, light lenses without the size and weight required by lenses of conventional design. Technically, such lenses are called catadioptric (reflectice/refractive) and employ a series of separate, concentrically placed lenses to produce a progression of "steps". The Fresnel lens revolutionized lighthouses, focusing 85% of the light of a lamp versus the 20% focused with the parabolic reflectors of the time. The first such Fresnel lens was installed in 1823 in the Cordouan lighthouse at the mouth of the Gironde estuary in France. Other places in the world changed over as quickly as they could.
  (The image, left, compares cross sections of (1) a spherical Fresnel lens and (2) a conventional spherical convex lens of equivalent power. The reduction in material employed and, thus, weight is obvious.

The Bourbons were restored to the throne of Naples in 1815. One of the marks of the "relaunching" of the dynasty was the attention paid to public works, particularly those in the important area of ports and harbors, naturally including lighthouses. The first Neapolitan scientist to propose the adoption of the new Fresnel system was physicist Macedonio Melloni (1789-1854), best remembered as the creator and first director of the Mt. Vesuvius geological observatory in 1841). In 1836, he proposed installing Fresnel lenses at the port of Naples and at Nisida. The installation of the Fresnel lens at the Nisida lighthouse occurred in July of 1841; local sources proudly called it "the first lens lighthouse on this side of the Alps." It was a great step forward for the kingdom in terms of keeping on a par with technical developments in the rest of Europe. That was also the year in which the Commission for Lighthouse and Beacons came into being with the task of applying the new system in the entire Gulf of Naples and eventually the rest of the kingdom. Melloni was in charge of the technical side; a number of others devoted themselves to architecture and design. Great effort was  given to the design of these structures. The designers used the vocabulary of classical architecture—base, shaft, capital, dorian, fluting, etc.—in describing a lighthouse tower, for example. They weren't just putting up traffic-lights for boats; they were building coastal towers meant to please the eye and the spirit. Some of that is still evident in the photos, below. The commission decided to have 10 lighthouses as an initial goal; these were in the most obvious places: the Port of Naples (2), the island of Capri, Castellammare, Punta Campanella, Nisida, Baia, Capo Miseno, the island of Procida, and at Forio on the island of Ischia.

Paintings from the period of the Grand Tour often included the Naples lighthouse. This version by Carlo Bonavia is from 1757. Some form of lighthouse stood on that spot from1487 to the 1930s. (See first photo, below.)
Work on the lighthouses at the port of Naples was begun in September 1841. By 1847, six of the ten were complete. By 1850 attention turned elsewhere in the kingdom, to the Calabrian and Sicilian coasts as well as islands, including Ponza (see map, below), where the structure was called "the first lighthouse in the Kingdom" (meaning northernmost). In 1859 a General Plan for the Systematic Lighting of the Coasts of the Kingdom 'On this Side of the Lighthouse' was published. (There was a separate plan for Sicily.) The plan called for 67 lighthouses; at the time of publication, there were only 16 in existence. A royal decree approved the building of 41 of the remaining 51. The rest were put off. The study had also looked into the feasibility of restoring and using some of the many old Saracen towers along Italian coasts in order to defray expenses. Indeed, one of the constant complaints of members of the commission was that they were hindered by the tightwad treasury of the kingdom; as a result, in spite of the large, impressive Neapolitan fleet, the development of lighthouses lagged behind the rest of Europe, including other Italian states (still independent at the time) such as Sardinia and Tuscany. The unification of Italy (1861) changed the situation. In 1873 a commission for Ports, Beaches and Lighthouses was established within the High Council for Public Works and the first catalog of all lighthouses in the new united Italy was published.

                                           ----->There is a separate entry on Ponza here<-----
The illustration, right, shows the location of lighthouses in and near the Gulf of Naples and the Campania region in general. (A few are shown below. Sooner or later, I may get them all.)

For various reasons (such as modern electronic navigational aids aboard many vessels), lighthouses are not as necessary as they once were. (All sailors I have talked to, however, tell me that GPS navigation is fine etc. etc, but they really like to see (!) the light from the lighthouse at night.) Some elements of the lighthouse have, indeed, become, anachronisms; for example, to my knowledge, the only one of the lighthouses in the illustration that still employs a real, human lighthouse keeper is the one on Capri (see this link). There is more than just nostalgia here; there is something primordial and even mystical connected to lighthouses. Lucien Steil writes in "Metaphysical Archaeology of Lighthouses" in the American Arts Quarterly, Volume 27, number 2:
In control of visible and invisible dangers, in convivial serenity with the infinity of seas and skies, superbly coordinating the movements of ships, planets and waves, lighthouses are superbly lonesome and solitary, yet still an intrinsically integrated part of a meaningful, all-encompassing order. Lighthouses inhabit natural and metaphysical landscapes like compassionate hermits...

*note: The "focal plane" is an imaginary line drawn straight out from the middle of the optic (lens). The height of the focal plane is measured from the surface of the water and not from the base of the lighthouse.

This photo from the late 1800s shows the lighthouse at the port of Naples (the tower in the center). It was raised and modernized with the new Fresnel lens system in 1843. When the port was rebuilt in the 1930s, it was demolished; there had been a lighthouse there since 1487. A new lighthouse was put  at the end of the San Vincenzo pier (upper right), extended in the early 1800s. That is the lighthouse seen directly below.
The Old Lighthouse

Port of Naples

This lighthouse is on the San Vincenzo pier extension at the western side of the entrance to the port of Naples, opposite the lighthouse shown directly below. Focal plane 15 m (49 ft); red flash every 3 seconds. The adjacent statue of San Gennaro is one of the icons of the city.

On the eastern side of the harbor entrance on a detached breakwater, it is named for an admiral of the Royal Italian Navy during World War I. Focal plane 18 m (59 ft); green flash every 4 seconds. It is directly across from the lighthouse shown above; these two mark both sides of the entrance to the port of Naples.

The Thaon di Revel lighthouse

Cape Miseno

The station was established in 1869. The original lighthouse was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in 1954. Focal plane 80 m (262 ft); two white flashes every 10 seconds. Capo Miseno is a tall headland that marks the western end of the gulf. Mythologically, the cape overlooks the waters where Aeneas' comrade, Misenus, master of the sea-horn—the conch-shell—made "the waves ring" with his music and challenged the sea-god Triton to musical battle. 

Located at the tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the station was established in 1846. Focal plane 65 m (213 ft); white light, 2 seconds on, 3 seconds off. Reports say this lighthouse replaced one destroyed by an explosion in the 1960s. The area is now a marine park.

Punta Campanella


At Punta Carena, the SW tip of the island of Capri. Built in 1866. Focal plane: 73 meters (240 ft). It is one of the most important on the Italian coasts as to number of passing ships that rely on it. Rotating lamp w/3-sec. period seen from 25 nautical miles/46 km.

At the entrance to Ischia Porto, the main port on the island. The lighthouse was apparently built in the 1850s but only activated in 1868. Tower is 11 meters/36 feet; focal plane, 13 m (43 ft); flashes every 3 seconds, white or red depending on direction. There are other lighthouses and beacons on Ischia. Stay tuned.

Port of Ischia (Molo Bagno)

South of Naples but still in Campania, the isle of Licosa is just off Cape Licosa at the southern end of the gulf of Salerno. The structure is from 1951. Focal plane 13 m (43 ft); two white flashes every 10 s. The cape, isle and adjacent waters are part of the Cilento and Valle di Diano national park.

The southernmost lighthouse in the Campania region, in the Gulf of Policastro. Established in 1915. Focal plane 13 m (43 ft); two white flashes every 7 s. The lighthouse is a memorial to Carlo Pisacane, Italian patriot killed in 1857. Located on the west side of the entrance to the harbor of Sapri.

Baia (Fortino Tenaglia)

Station established in 1856. Focal plane 13 m (43 ft); red light, 2 s on, 2 s off. 8 m (26 ft) round, red concrete tower with lantern and gallery. The station is directly below the massive Baia castle on a small island joined to the mainland by a sandbar.

Nisida is the small volcanic island that separates the bay of Naples from the bay of Pozzuoli. The isle has been joined by a causeway to the mainland for about 100 years. The island now houses a youth detention facility and is also the HQ for the NATO naval command in the area. The pier in the photo (with the old lighthouse at the end—also see below) is not open to the public. Visible in the background in the photo is Cape Miseno on the other side of the bay of Pozzuoli.

Nisida (2)

The station was established in 1841 and claimed to be the first modern lighthouse (meaning with a Fresnel lens—see text, above) in Italy. The round masonry tower is 10 m (33 ft) high and is attached to a small keeper's house. It is now inactive, but there is an active post light (focal plane 14 m/46 ft) that flashes green every 3 seconds.

Established in 1883. Focal plane 24 m (79 ft); four white flashes every 12 s. 12 m (39 ft) octagonal masonry tower with gallery, attached to 2-story keeper's house. Scario is at the southern end of the Cilento area of Italy, and this lighthouse marks the entrance to the bay of Policastro from the north. Sign at entrance notes the 5th order lens and visibility at 13 nautical miles.

Photo by W.C. Henderson

Ischia, Punta Imperatore

 Update, Jan 2016.
update, July 2023. A German company plans to turn this into this tourist hotel. No further details yet.

The lighthouse at Emperor Point on Ischia is important. The lighthouse is on the SW coast of the island of Ischia near the town of Panza. The station is from 1884, the building from 1916.  Focal plane 164 m (538 ft); two white flashes every 15 s. 13 m (43 ft) round cylindrical masonry tower attached to the seaward side of a 2-story masonry keeper's house. Lighthouse painted white; lantern dome is gray metallic.  It is the light on the port side of the approach to Naples from the SW, about 35 Km (20 nautical miles) from the lighthouse at Punta Carena on Capri (#6 on this list, above) on your starboard side, (unless you are in a rowboat and coming in backwards, in which case you are really on your own, pal!). The lighthouse is known for the fact that it had a woman lighthouse keeper, Lucia Capuano, who took over the lonely task when her husband died in 1937.

Ventotene is the second largest of the Pontine islands. The station was established in 1869; this lighthouse was built in 1891. Focal plane 21 m (69 ft); white flash every 5 seconds.  The round tower is 16 m (52 ft) high with a  lantern and gallery attached to a one-story keeper's house. The lighthouse painted white; the lantern dome is gray metallic. The lighthouse is located at the NE end of the island above the porto romano and the approach to the modern harbor.


Capo d'Orso (Maiori)

(As of Jan 2016-for sale)
Built in 1882 (station established 1862). Focal plane 66 m (217 ft); three white flashes every 15 s. 2-story stone keeper's house, with a white lantern mounted on a platform or porch in front of the house. The house is painted white with red trim. The original lighthouse was  lower, with a focal plane of 25 m (82 ft). Located on a steep promontory at the western entrance to the Gulf of Salerno, just off of coastal highway SS163 about 4 km (2.5 mi) east of Maiori. Site open, tower closed.

*note: Alexandria lighthouse. The chances are good that it did look something like this. The image looks almost exactly like the Tower of Hercules in north-western Spain; that one is an ancient Roman lighthouse, restored, still in working order, and said to be modeled on the Alexandria lighthouse because it used to be called the Farum Brigantium, from the Greek pharos, the name of the island where the Greek lighthouse stood. The Tower of Hercules is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.         ^up


—Cirillo, Ornella. Illuminare le coste: i fari del golfo di Napoli nel XIX secolo [Illuminating the Coasts: Lighthouses in the Gulf of Naples in the 19th Century] from the website of the Italian Association of the History of Engineering. Not dated.
—Colombo, Antonio. "I Porti e gli Arsenali di Napoli" [The Ports and Shipyards of Naples] in Napoli Nobilissima, year 3, series in issues 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9. 1894.
—Spadetta, Pietro. "La Laterna del Molo" [the Pier Lantern] in Napoli Nobilissima, year 1, issue 7, pp. 109-111. 1892.

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