Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry May 2003, update Oct. 2019


The woman next to me was complaining that "the ruins we saw in Libya are much better preserved than these." We were standing in what amounts to ruins of ruins of ruins at Miseno, at the extreme western end of the Gulf of Naples, in the middle of what used to be Portus Iulius, the home port for the western Imperial fleet under Caesar Augustus. She was right, of course, but then antiquity holds up pretty well in the desert air. Libya, too, is about six times larger than all of Italy and has fewer people in it than I can see from my balcony in Naples.

The specific ruin she was groaning about was an amphitheater with row upon row of spectator seats set in the side of the cliff overlooking the outer harbor of the port, now called "Lake Miseno," such that the spectators had their backs to the hillside and, beyond the cliff, the water. Of course, we couldn't see any of that because the concave recess that was once the amphitheater is full of modern houses, some of which incorporate Roman masonry. We were actually in the man-made cavern beneath the theater, a passageway running the perimeter of the semicircular structure above and —two-thousand years ago— allowing entrance from the waterfront, itself. In order to get in there, we walked through someone's front yard and down some stairs by the driveway and garage. (Presumably a concession the owner has to make to the Ministry of Culture for having his bathroom take up aisle IV, seats XII through XXVI.)

Part of the problem —no, all of the problem— is that very little of this was discovered until the 1960s, when overbuilding went absolutely wild, what with everyone wanting to ride the Italian economic miracle to the outskirts and live high up overlooking the bay where, yea, brave Ulysses sailed, and only a few hundred yards from where some of the juiciest parts in The Aeneid are supposed to have played out. 

Archaeologists have discovered and excavated what is left of a sacello (a small shrine, see photo, above) built to Caesar Augustus, but any appreciation of that, as well, has to contend with adjacent apartments. Certainly, in an area of Italy with abundant and open displays of ancient Rome, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, and even ancient Greece, such as Cuma and Paestum, it is strange to prop yourself up against a bus-stop so you can try to shoot around the rubbish bin for a good shot of a shrine to the emperor.

Relatively unspoiled, however, and high at the top of the cliff over the bay is the Cento Camarelle —the One Hundred Little Rooms— (entrance in photo, right) a group of cisterns arranged on two levels oriented at right-angles to each other. Whether or not there are really one-hundred chambers, I don't know, but the entire labyrinth is impressive and cut out of the tuff of the cliff. The passageways between the individual cisterns are narrow and not for the claustrophobic. The walls are still plastered with the waterproof plaster called cocciopesto and there are graffiti on those walls from those who have visited before you. One I saw was from "1737". Besides the two accessible levels, there is evidence of another one even deeper. The great Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, suggested that much of the structure was originally a basement of sorts for a private villa, possibly that of the orator Quintus Hortensius Ortalus (114–50 b.c), public-speaking rival of Cicero, himself. That is speculative, but, in any event, that would place any private villa on the spot well before the time when the premises were given over to the service of the later imperial port under Augustus.

Related article on the Serino aqueduct that supplied Miseno.

Also "The Baia Castle and the Museum of the Phlegrean Fields"  and IMMAGINARIA 2020 at the Baia Castle.)

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