Naples:life,death & Miracle

contact: Jeff Matthews

added Sept. 14,  2018

Living Museums, "Static" Museums & Historical Reenactments

I've been asked about "living" archeology or history sites in Italy, meaning places that recreate the environment of a particular culture at a certain point in history in order to put you, the visitor, back in time and give you the experience of being there. My correspondent referred specifically to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in the USA and also to any number of "Dude Ranches" in the western US where you can saddle up and go play cowboy for a few hours before moseying back in to a heated pool and great brunch, just like the Good Old You Must Be Kidding Days. The easy part first: indeed, horse country in Italy is famous as Buffalo Bill found out. It's called Maremma, an area in Tuscany, where a shepherd or cowboy was/is called a buttero (the painting, above, I Butteri, is by Giovani Fattori (1825-1908). They still exist in folk festivals and dude ranches (that's where you come in because any number of Agriturismi will let you saddle up and go play Guffalo Guglielmo before heading back in to the heated etc. etc.

The second part the "living museum" is problematic. By definition, you mean sites where you wander around and watch costumed actors (or "interpreters") portray life from an earlier time. You might see them cooking on an open hearth, spinning wool and weaving, and farming without modern equipment or working as blacksmiths, tanners, printers, ...whatever. They may also serve as guides and are prepared to field questions. The main feature of living history museums, aside from the physical plant, is the use of such costumed interpreters or historians. There are really not that many. One of the best I know of in Italy is the Archeodromo of Poggibonsi (in Tuscany, near Siena, image, left). The site claims in its literature to be "Italy’s first open-air archaeology museum devoted to the early Middle Ages," a reconstructed village from the time of Charlemagne (the 800s). It is of the kind my correspondent was talking about, using actors (or "intrepreters"). Since it is so far removed in time, it has none of the problems with historically uncomfortable "authenticity" that Colonial Williamsbug had when its section of largely 18th century colonial homes cum interpreters opened in 1934 and forgot to include the slaves!

That problem is not easily dealt with especially in historical reenactments of such things as military battles, where integrity and historical authenticity come up against common sense. I know they reenact US Civil War Battles (Gettysburg) as well as ones from the Napoleonic Wars (Austerlitz) and in Italy, any number of medieval knight-smashing jousting bouts. The image (right) is a postage stamp issued on the occasion of such a "re-evocation" (the Italian term) of the Disfatta [rout, defeat] di Barletta. The question, in terms of showing more recent history, is: What are you acting out? If it is sanitized, then why do it? And aren't some things that represent our worst impulses better left dead? Trench warfare? Dachau? (I agree that Nazi death camps should not be expunged as if they never existed that is censorship by omission. Let Dachau stand where it is now and as it is now (I choose an example that I have seen personally): a museum of buildings, each one a grim hulk of death, an appropriately insane reminder of the worst we can do.

Reenactments of religious events in Christian history are well-known. The Passion Play or Easter pageant is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death. It is a traditional part of Lent in several Christian denominations, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition, in hundreds of places throughout the word. In Italy, the event at Sordevolo (region of Piedmont, about 60 kilometers / 37 mi northeast of Turin) is noteworthy. It has been held every five years since 1816 by all the inhabitants of the village. It takes place every 5 years in an open air amphitheater of 2,400 seats, built to simulate a corner of Jerusalem (image, above). Every actor involved (about 500 people) is a volunteer as are those who work behind the scenes (about 300 people) for scenography, costumes, script, animal control, etc. About 40 shows are performed for each season. The next edition will take place in 2020 (from 13th June to 27th September). In Italy most villages have some sort of religious festival dealing with local saints and involving in some way the entire village dressed in period costumes. Are those living museums? I'm not sure.

Most historical and archeological sites in Italy with ambitions to educate and inform go by various names (with overlap among them) that I simply term "static". You walk in and look around. They might be called open-air museums or museums of buildings or folk museums. The important thing here is the approach to the study of the past. This approach views the goals of archeology and anthropology as the same or at least very similar: to seek answers to questions about how humans used to live and not simply what their structures and tools looked like, to focus on "the underlying historical processes which are at the root of change." (in Renfrew, A.C., 1987, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, London: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6612-5) The current term is "processual archeology" (formerly the "New Archeology").

The idea of preserving the past in some kind of museum goes back to the early 1800s in Scandinavia. Such museums are now found throughout the world. As noted, they are duplicates of old buildings, even entire villages. And factories, such as the recent sites of so-called Industrial Archeology at the mines in Sardina (image, right). In 2001, the regional government of Sardinia officially created the “Geo-mining Historical and Environmental Park of Sardinia,” primarily in the Iglesiente area in the southwest (including the two islands off the coast). The ambitious goal of the park is to "...recover and maintain the entire set of mining infrastructures for environmental, scientific, educational, cultural and tourist purposes." That park is now on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list as, collectively, one of our planetary artifacts that should be saved because they remind us where we came from. The UNESCO description is here. So, now we have "geopark" and "evironmental park" to add to the list of kinds of museums.

The much older view of archeology dig it up and take it home no longer exists (I hope). That led to egregious episodes of plunder such as what Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), Britain's Minister Plenipotentiary to the court of Naples (image, left) took from the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples, half of which wound up in the British Museum with the other half still at the bottom of the English channel. There is a more home-grown version of looting described in the clever Latin pun from the 1600s "Quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barbarini." (What the Barbarians didn't do, Barbarini did.) "Barbarians" is clear, but Barbarini in Italian means "little Barbarians, but was also the family name of Matteo Barbarini before he was elected pope, becoming Urban VIII (reigning from 1623 until his death in 1644). He was very good at removing pieces of ancient Roman architecture for his own purposes. He boasted of taking the ancient bronze beams from the portico of the Pantheon to procure bronze for the baldachin of St. Peter's Basilica and for the papal cannon foundry. When he then threatened to take stone from the Roman Republic era mausoleum of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way to use in the Trevi Fountains, the people of the area, very fond of their heritage, put their foot down.

Italy is full of open-air museums if you count such well-known stalwarts of open-air antiquity in the immediate area of Naples and Campania as Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum (image, right), Velia, the Flavian amphitheater in Pozzuoli, etc. Indeed, all of Italy might be said to be a jig-saw collection of such museums. Since the 1990s almost every piece of land in Italy that has a piece of antiquity on or under it has been labelled some kind of "park" local, provincial, regional, or national the goal being to get some of the money that trickles down from Mother Europe or even UNESCO. Many sites have active digs still going on somewhere on the premises, and all follow the rules of modern processual archaeology. Carefully uncover it, and don't move it but study it on site. Even the local lowest of the low (on the trickle down funding scale from international to national to state (regione in Italy) to province (with its mere "archeological park") can still be as stunning as the photo at the upper left: the Archeological Park of Posillipo, described here. From below, it looks like this:

I really know the woman sitting on the rock. She is Selene Salvi, a marvelous painter as well as Kween of the Kayaks, although not necessarily at the same time.

Besides religious events, Italy is full of periodic reenactments of history, which might count as a type of living museum, but I'm not sure. I'm thinking of something like the Palio (contest) (image, left) in Siena (in Tuscany). It is, in fact, a medieval horse race put on at least twice a year by costumed riders and horses representing their part of the city and preceded by a historical procession. The whole city turns into a museum, at least for a day or two. Periodic processions along the canals of Venice in medieval gondolas also come to mind.

Closer to Naples, near the town of Latina on the west coast above Terracina, about 100 miles north of Naples, you find the Piana delle Orme musem, which declares itself to be a "museum of Italian agricultural and military history." Next to the sign at the entrance that says this is a center of agriturismo is a jet fighter plane. "Eclectic" doesn't begin to describe the place. They started packing stuff into the premises and simply never stopped. They have guides, but not costumed "interpreters."

There are also such things as the reconstructions of the homes of famous persons. (No doubt a long list.) The best known such site in Italy is the estate, now a giant museum, dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi (image, left), Italy's greatest patriotic hero. It is on the small island of Caprera, in the Maddalena archipelago off of north-eastern Sardina. Actually, it isn't on the island. It is the island, now joined by a causeway to the rest of Sardinia so you can drive instead of sail over the way Garibaldi had to do. 

A delightful open-air museum one that most tourists know nothing about is the trail of English forts, one of which is seen here (image, right) placed high over the sea at intervals along the cliffs of the west coast of the Isle of Capri, that is, at the Anacapri side of the island. They stretch from the lighthouse in the SW for about 2-3 miles (about 3500 meters) to the Blue Grotto side of the island in the NW. There are two entries in these pages on that. The first is here. The second entry is here and makes mention of the unique open-air ceramic library of Sergio Rubino, an artist from the town of Anacapri. The library consists of about 200 exquisite ceramic plaques (such as the one shown in the image, upper left) set amid the flora, each containing a painted image and description of a local plant or bird; as well, there are a few about the forts, themselves. The whole thing, forts and library, is, in my view, too open-air. It's totally unprotected. But it is unique.

I'm pretty sure there is no such place in Italy as the Fuggerei in Augsburg, Germany, brought to my attention by Prof. Warren Johnson of that city. It is the oldest social housing project in the world (totally and authentically rebuilt from the bombardments of WWII). It is inhabited today, and the rents have not been raised since 1520! In Naples, we have some rent controls still intact since the end of World War II. Around here, that's forever.

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