Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

Naples Miscellany 50 (start late Oct. 2014)

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(Oct. 27) - Readers may be familiar with the spoof awards called the Ig Nobels, given for weird science by Harvard's science humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research. It's all in good fun, but serves as a reminder that ...well you never know. (For example, two scientists got the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in physics for magnetically levitating a frog! Ten years later, one of them got the real deal Nobel prize in physics for his work on graphene.) Two of this year's Iggies...will you open the envelope, Art, to a team from the southern Italian University of Bari for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting rather than at a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a laser beam. Also, the nation of Italy did very well as a whole: ISTAT, the Italian government's National Institute of Statistics, took home the coveted Economics Iggie for encouraging countries in the European Union to inflate the official size of their national GDPs (Gross Domestic Product) by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants. That's not as crazy as it sounds when you consider how many professionals (say, doctors) and shop keepers run two sets of books. One for the state, wherein they show how they have dutifully charged you the IVA (value added tax) that they then pass on to state, and the other...well, it's not a "set of books," really; it's an undocumented cash transaction. You pay no IVA and they pay nothing to the state.

(Oct. 27) - I never knew there was such a thing as a Mediterranean Cooking Congress. As a matter of fact, there wasn't. This was the first of what is supposed to become an annual affair. Cooks from Italy, Spain, Tunesia, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus swapped trade secrets, cooked up and chowed down aboard the Tirrenia vessel Rubattino. It has just concluded. The organizer of the event, Luisa del Sorbo, says the idea came to her during her travels when she noticed the differences in the preparation of Italian cuisine abroad. (That reminds me that I once had a good Taco pizza in Honolulu!) Focus was all on the chefs, since they are the only ones who know how to prepare dishes that truly represent their countries of origin. I agree, but I wasn't invited. Students, however, from something called the Duca di Buonvicino Hospitality Management Institute participated. I had never heard of them, either. It's one of the many, many state institutes in Italy that train young people for professions in hotel and restaurant management. In any event, the second Med Food Fight will be next October in Opatija, Croata. The third, the year after, in Barcelona.

(Oct. 27)   - Friends from Napoli Underground (NUg) have just returned from a pleasant Sunday passeggiate marina (a "sea stroll") along the Posillipo coast; that is, you either walk on water or use a kayak. They chose the latter and explored the ins and outs of the many marine grottoes. These are things that you won't notice from much farther out at sea, especially if you power by, which is what most people do. Some of these things are natural tuffaceous caves washed out and crafted by ages of sea erosion, and others are beneath buildings long abandoned (image) or, indeed, beneath or adjacent to new structures still very much lived in. Selene and Fulvio had a sunny day, a calm sea, a kayak, lots of time to snoop along slowly and water temperatures still warm enough to welcome you in for dip after the shoot, which is what Selene does (admittedly after a quite audible, "It's cold!")

(Oct. 30) - If this image reminds you of long division (or, as I called it, Big Goes-Into's) in elementary school, boy, do you ever have a rotten memory! This has to do (or so they tell me) with something called polycyclic groups. You see... well, I won't embarrass you any further. The good news is that I don't know what I'm talking about. The better news is that Laura Coppola does. I mean really does. She is 23 years old and just got her degree in mathematics from Frederick II university in Naples with maximum marks plus honors. In other words, she nailed it. Her dissertation was, indeed, on the topic of polycyclic groups. Oh, she is afflicted with spastic quadriplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. She is confined to a wheelchair and cannot use her arms or legs, nor can she use her vocal cords to produce speech. She communicates with her eyes; her mother rigged a sort of cardboard wheel that Laura uses to indicate letters and words. Laura's friend read the dissertation to the commission.
(Oct. 31) - Greenpeace is back in town. Pictured (right) is the 58-meter (174 feet) Rainbow Warrior III, a sort of strange schooner-ketch hybrid distinguished by those unusual A-frame masts (capable of supporting 1260 sq. meters of sail!). (Not the same as the Italian Environmental League's Green schooner shown here, which sailed up and down Italian coasts this summer checking water quality.) Rainbow Warrior welcomes visitors aboard to show them what an environmentally friendly and efficient vessel looks like. Greenpeace is here to promote renewable energy, in this case, the potential in southern Italy. (See this link for an entry on wind-power in Campania.) For a change they have been well-received by various labor groups, which have typically viewed environmentalists as irrelevant types who harass Japanese fishing vessels to stop them from turning the last of our great sea mammals into cat-food.

(Nov. 3) - In 1833 Neapolitan historian Giuseppe Sanchez wrote a book entitled La Campania Sotterranea e Brevi Notizie degli Edificii Scavati Entro Roccia nelle Due Sicilie ed in altre Regioni [Subterranean Regions in Campania and Brief Notices of the Structures Cut into Rock beneath the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Elsewhere] (Trani typesetters, Naples). In it he says
...within the caverns were born architecture, sculpture, painting, geometry, music, poetry, astronomy, politics and all other human is there that we contemplated Heaven and Earth.
That is the beginning of a remarkable essay called Signs of the Past on the website of Napoli Underground. The essay is by Selene Salvi and Daniela Marra. The English translation is mine. It starts poetically enough:
...All great and legendary names of antiquity seem to have had something to do with grottoes: Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato... here is where the Nymphs wove cloaks of purple...and where the gods spent their infancy. Within these chambers echo Sibylline verses, and sirens sing the music of the spheres...
...but quickly gets down to the nitty-gritty:
...But quite aside from myth there were those who earned their daily bread from rock; what might those strange symbols mean that we see, quite clearly, for example, on the tuff blocks of the Greek walls of the city or in the Greek quarries at Poggioreale, or the ashlar surfaces of the church of Gesù Nuovo or in the winding tunnels that lie beneath us ...Who knows these things better than the cutters of stone?
There are about nine thousand (!) different markings inscribed in stone in the tunnels and artificial caverns beneath Naples, on the surfaces of many buildings above ground and on the ancient walls by ancient stone-cutters over centuries (The image, above, is of the old Greek walls at Piazza Cavour; photo by Napoli Underground). The symbols range from prosaic identification marks of the person who cut the stone to sacred symbols to markings that still mystify us. If this interests you, you can read the entire essay at this link. There are photos and a video taken during an underground excursion.  [Also see this item on strange musical notations on the facade of a well-known church.] [Another related item, here.]

(Nov. 5) "Musick has charms to soothe a savage eco-pig." (Don't quibble. That's how I remember it.) Let's hope so. Fourteen students from the San Pietro a Majella music conservatory in Naples are putting on a concert next weekend. They call themselves the "Acoustic Orchestra of Pausylipon" (the original Greek name of Posillipo). That is the lovely coastal stretch of cliffs and grottoes that runs from Mergellina up to the end of the Bay of Naples. Every summer ends with that beautiful coastline awash in refuse. So the kids are going to the coast and pick up as much junk as they can reasonably turn into instruments. I started to suggest, sarcastically, "Plastic-Bottlephone" and then remembered the Landfillharmonic Orchestra from Paraguay (look it up - you won't believe it. It's an exemplary youth orchestra, and every instrument in the orchestra is made from recycled trash!) Out conservatory kids will play for concert-goers at the Seiano Grotto and then give a guided tour of the Archaeological Park. They'll ask for donations to defray the cost of cleaning up the area during the winter months.

(Nov. 6) - The Italian Touring Club (TCI) has announced additions to its cultural heritage initiative called Aperti per voi (open for you). The program enlists volunteers throughout Italy to act as guides and, in general, help with the necessary work in keeping sites open that have been typically closed in the past for one reason or another (lack of funds and personnel, for example). The volunteer organization now sponsors 63 such cultural sites throughout Italy. There are now four such sites in Naples. They are the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore; the Basilica of San Giovanni Maggiore; the church of Saints Severino and Sossio; and the Royal Papal Basilica of  San Giacomo of the Spanish. All of these are monumentally important in the history of the city of Naples and it is fortunate, indeed, to have access to them now. (I have been in the first one; someone left the door open. Not the second one; not the third one; and I weasel-pleaded my way into the fourth one to see the tomb of viceroy Toledo.)

(Nov.7) - In Brindisi the structure known as the Casa del Turista (Tourist House) (pictured) is the seat of the local Tourist Board. It is, in fact, part of an ancient complex of buildings that once hosted the church and living quarters of the Knights Templar in the12th century. You can still see a Maltese cross, the symbol of the Templars, on the keystone of the entrance arch. Importantly, it is at water's edge in the giant port of the city and, as such, was also the arsenale in the medieval Italian sense of a ship yard. Later the property passed to the knights of St. John. It was a pivotal jumping-off point for Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. The building is open to visitors as part of the Italian Touring Club's program mentioned in the item directly above this one. I mention this again because I'm disappointed (but not surprised) to note that of the 63 sites in the nation that the Touring Club has taken responsibility for, this one and the four in Naples (mentioned above) are the only ones in southern Italy.

(Nov. 7) - Oh, goodie! They found another Roman ship down in the construction site of  the metropolitana underground station at Piazza Municipio that is supposed to open in a few weeks. The last time they found Roman ships was 10 years ago (image, right, is from that event). What? They've been working on this thing for 10 years?! (Gasp, sputter. When they began working on "this thing" those boats hadn't sunk yet.) So far, they haven't got much of it uncovered, but this archaeologist's delight is normally a potential commuter's nightmare because work stops while they excavate and remove the vessel and that means more delay in construction. This time, that won't happen, or so they say. The part of the station that is due to open soon is up towards the top of the square; it will open just enough for people to use the trains, which is what most people want. Much of the underground site, however, is taken up by large turn-around and connection points for the incoming number 6 line down towards the bottom of the square. That line is now so far behind schedule (because of this) that it won't open for a few years. That should give everyone enough time to finish the station, run in the number 6 line, and get that boat out. I'm such an optimist. More than you want to know about the travails of the new Naples metro is at this link.
(Nov 10) - I thought I had discovered a scary cave formation at this link to the entry on the Castelcività cave in the Cilento hills below Salerno. At least it scared me. But I think my friends at Napoli Underground did me one better with the photo on the right. They are spelunkers, cavers, troglodytes, and crazy. I watched as they donned all their gear and then disappeared down a rabbit hole beneath Campo Branca in the Matese massif northeast of Naples. It, like the Cilento, is alive (if that is the proper term --and I truly hope it is not!) with karst caves that produce remarkable formations, technically known as speliothems such as stalactites. stalagmites and everything in between. This is one of the in-betweens, described as a "flowstone with curtains." My cave friends shot a video; this image is a still from that video. It really does look alive. And hungry.

(Nov. 11) Here is an excerpt from a short essay by Selene Salvi of Napoli Underground (NUg) entitled The Sea of Posillipo. (Posillipo is the coastal stretch that runs from the harbor of Mergellina to the western end of the Bay of Naples. Other entries are here and here.)  
...the scent of the marine depths enters into your veins, and the blue of heaven, the yellow of rock, and the bright greens of nature are mirrored in the crystal waters. In the reflections you see ancient forms, cut steps, baths, platforms, hollow spaces now empty, dark chambers. You behold an entire Atlantis beneath you, submerged in the slow breathing of the earth. Someone once wrote that the sea of Posillipo --this sea that banishes pain-- was made for poets and dreamers, but this sea that ingathers all the colors of Creation confuses and enchants you, calms your senses and your imagination. The ceaseless song of these waters penetrates the rough rock and there is something ancient and pagan, something that projects you into an eternal present. And you understand....
(The English translation, above, is mine.) The entire essay is on the NUg website at this link. Selene is also a fine portraitist. I have put up a album of her work at this link.   [from 2019: the NUg website is now off-line. Sorry.]

(Nov 15) - The San Ferdinando Theater is a few blocks in on the south side of via Foria, not far from the Botanical Gardens. It started life in the late 1700s under King Ferdinand IV, the so-called “Re Lazzarone” (roughly, 'Beggar King'). The theater is most recently connected with the life and work of Neapolitan playwright, Eduardo De Filippo, who bought the theater in the 1950s to serve as a venue for his productions. Before that, it had a history of being one of the principle venues in the city for traditional Neapolitan theater. Ownership changed hands a number of times in the 1800s and 1900s. The theater was destroyed by bombs in WWII. After the war Eduardo stepped in and bought the ruin and restored it with his own funds. Debts forced him to close the theater in 1961, but he remained involved and in the early 1970s decided to create a research center and museum at the theater, the Archives of Eduardo De Filippo. In 1996, the theater was donated by De Filippo's son, Luca, to the City of Naples for restoration into a performance venue once again. On 30 September 2007 it reopened its doors. The San Ferdinando is now  managed by the Teatro Stabile of Naples, a public theater foundation that also manages the Mercadante theater. (Earlier entry here.)   (photo: zarenrico)

FOQUS (Foundation for the Spanish Quarters)

(Nov 16) - The Spanish Quarters - a large section of Naples running along the west side of via Toledo (alias via Roma) and consisting of dozens of  symmetrical square blocks, with the east-west streets running up the slope of San Martino (at the top in this image). They lead up the slope from via Toledo and are crossed by a number of secondary parallel streets, each one at a progressively higher level on the slope. The effect is of a chessboard of little squares built on the side of a hill. It is a foreboding place with enormous social problems; petty crime is rampant and population density is four times higher than the rest of Naples. If you take it upon yourself to go in there and teach children or do social work, you deserve a medal. There are some state-run non-profit groups that work in there, and there is now one new and very impressive private organization called FOQUS (Foundation for the Spanish Quarters). FOQUS is on the premises of the ex-Montecalvario Institute, a 6,000 square meter convent built in the 1500s. FOQUS runs an ambitious and impressive program to rehabilitate the area through a wide range of activities. It has taken over the primary school that used to be on the premises of the old convent and provides instruction to 200 children. It runs a nursery school as well as a library specializing in children's literature; for young adults it provides assistance in information technology and such things as graphic design; it provides continuing education opportunities for adults and even social services such as counseling. There is a gym and, best of all (!), there is a youth orchestra with instructors from the conservatory (image, above).

(Nov 18) - I'm not sure why we used to make fun of "basket weaving" in high school and college  ('he's taking Basket Weaving 101"). But, then, we used to make fun of anyone who could do something useful such as fix a car or build a table. We were intellectuals and wanted to build Ponzi schemes and steal your money. Anyway, basket fragments have been carbon dated to 12,000 years ago, but they are much older, even older than pottery. They have been insanely useful for everything from the most bucolic up to the not so bucolic, such as transporting messenger pigeons in World War I. It is however a dying craft thanks to plastic. Not to worry, at least not on the island of Ischia, where a young woman, R.S., learned the craft from a genuine old-time artisan last year and has now opened a institute where you can get a series of five lessons. She gets retired persons, teenagers, and even entire families, all attracted not so much by the practicality of knowing how to weave together the branches of elm, myrtle, willow, olive and pomegranate, but, I imagine, as much from the notion that they are still connected to their traditions.

(Nov. 19) - For ten years, Napoli Underground (NUg) has been a non-profit group of volunteers intent, originally, on exploring the natural and man-made caves, caverns and tunnels beneath the city of Naples; they then branched out into general stalactite and stalagmite stuff known as karst speleology in the mountains of the Matese just north of Naples and in the Cilento, south of Salerno; then they just started trekking through sites of great archaeological interest (a bridge used by Hannibal!) and even rafting and kayaking. Busy folks. They are now in the process of putting up a new web-site (excerpt from home-page, image, right); much of it is in Italian, but there is a growing English component. If any of this interests you, you can check out the new English version of the site at this link. (The site is best viewed in the Firefox or IE browsers.) There is a flag icon that lets you switch to the Italian view.

[from 2019: the NUg website is now off-line. Sorry.]

END of Miscellany #50

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