Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 Dec. 2010


These six items about Procida appeared separately on the dates indicated. They have been consolidated onto a single page here. The 6 items are: 

    1. Procida  (directly below)
            2. Uncovering the Bronze Age
                            3. Tibetan Bridge  
                                            4. Children of the Mysteries 
                                                         5. Church restoration  
                                                                        6. Saving the Colors

entry Mar. 2009               
Procida (1) 

Modern-day travelers in the Bay of Naples can sail by and miss the Isle of Procida as easily as the Greeks did three-thousand years ago. Even from the vantage point across the bay on the Sorrentine coast or the heights of Capri, the isle of Procida rides so low in the water that in bad weather it is hard to spot. At best it looks like a smudged extension of the mainland. Approaching it dead on from the south, you may not even recognize it as separate from the neighboring island of Ischia. 

Procida has an equally low figurative profile: compared to the other islands in the bay, Ischia and Capri, the island is relatively unfrequented by tourists. And certainly, after the flood of English and German that accosts your ears on those other islands, you get the distinct and accurate impression that on Procida, Italian is the native language. 

Tourist brochures about Procida usually read something like this: 

Of the islands embracing the Gulf of Naples, Procida has best succeeded in preserving its original, genuine beauty, unpolluted nature and simplicity of life. This tiny isle, cradled in clear and shining waters, is a precious jewel case inbosoming natural sceneries of exquisite green shades, colors of bygone ages, iridescent views, and a wealth of marvelous sights of a primitive and wild grandeur. The natural harbors abound  with fishing boats, reminders of the ancient traditions cherished by the inhabitants…

Inbosoming? Native Procidians are embarrassed by that kind of language. After all, they pride themselves on not being a tourist Mecca. They are mainly farmers and sailors. They work for a living and have the same problems as working people anywhere else.

    Corricella harbor. The peak in the background is Mt. Epomeo on
    the island of Ischia. Photo © by & courtesy of Giacomo Garzya.

The most prominent physical feature of the island is the medieval fortress, the so-called “Terra murata,” set high above the sea (photo, above) on the eastern approach to the main harbor. It has, over the years, gone from being a fortress to a penitentiary to what it is today, a monument open to the public. Besides the main harbor, there are two smaller harbors, Corricella, set right below the imposing ex-fortress (photos, left and top of page), and Chiaiolella, a small natural harbor at the southern extreme of the island. Here is where you can believe the tourist brochures—these two tiny harbors are truly peaceful and picturesque. 

Also worth a visit is  the neighboring islet of Vivara (below, #3); flanking Procida to the south-west and  connected to it by a bridge, this crescent-shaped remnant ridge of an ancient volcanic crater is now a nature preserve. It is also the site of recent archaeology that has uncovered fragments of Mycenaean pottery, left by Greeks who were there many centuries before the  "original" Greeks colonized the bay (#2, below).

another view of the Terra Murata                   
added: April 2014 - The name of the island may derive from the Roman Prochyta, itself from the Greek for 'near Cuma' which is how the island appeared to the early settlers from Greece. Or perhaps it's from the Greek prokeitai, that is, flat, prostrate, lying, a description of the island's appearance in the sea. In Greek mythology, the island was connected to Mimas, one of the Titans of Zeus thrown into the sea as punishment. Mimas landed at Procida. His struggles, as well of those of the other Titans bound in the sea nearby, to free themselves, were the mythological cause of eruptions and earthquakes.

In the Middle Ages the island became a feudal holding of the Da Procida family that had taken its name from the island in the first place. The fief included a section of the mainland, Monte di Procida. That section became separate in 1907. Administratively, Procida is a comune (a town or number of villages with a separate city hall) in the province of Naples. The current (2014) population is about 10,000.

Historical highlights:

In Roman times, there were some aristocratic villas on the islands, more or less mirroring the "Roman riviera" effect of much of Roman Campania in those days. Juvenal spoke of it as lonely and peaceful place. In the years following the fall of the western Roman empire, the island turned into a refuge for those seeking to escape the Vandals, the Gothic wars and Lombard invasions. It is during these centuries that the  high ground of the island was fortified and became known as the Terra Murata (Walled Earth) (photo, above). The island was also subject, along with other coastal areas in southern Italy, to brutal raids by the Saracens, Muslim pirates. As noted, Procida became feudal  property with the arrival of the Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries. The fief was sold to the Cossa family in 1339. That family is remembered for Baldassarre Cossa, who became John XXIII, the Pisan 'anti-pope' who originally convened the council of Constance in 1414 to resolve the problem of the Western Schism. He, himself, was deposed as a result of that council, historically becoming an illegitimate has-been pope now forgotten by Roman Catholics.

After the defeat of the Ottoman fleet at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, Saracen raids dropped off and Procidians could begin to develop commercial fishing activity. After 1735, the new Bourbon dynasty abolished fiefs and Procida became a Royal Bourbon Hunting reserve centered on the Palazzo d’Avalos, commonly known as the Procida Castle. Ship building grew as  result of the increased dedication to commercial fishing. By the middle of the 1800s, about one-third of ocean-going wooden ships built in southern Italy were from ship yards on Procida.

entry May 2003, update Sept. 2015
Procida (2)

Uncovering the Bronze Age on Procida

The tiny island of Procida lies inconspicuously moored next to its big sister, Ischia, in the Bay of Naples; yet, even this little isle has a smaller relative: Vivara. Separated from Procida by a few meters of water and now connected to it by bridge, Vivara, a crescent-shaped remnant of the rim of an ancient volcanic crater, is now a nature preserve, one of the last unspoiled bits of greenery and wildlife havens in the area—and as a result of recent archaeological work, a place to catch a glimpse of the first great civilization of the ancient Greeks: Mycenae. 

In 1470 BC the Greek island of Thera exploded and put a cataclysmic end to the grand Minoan civilization of nearby Crete. It was the end of what might be called the “southern dimension” of great early cultures, the last link in a chain that had started with the Sumerians and carried on through the Babylonians, Egyptians and Minoans. The end of Crete left a void that would be filled by the proto-Greeks, a branch of the Indo-European peoples who a few centuries earlier had started drifting south into the Greek mainland. By 1400 b.c. —a thousand years before Aristotle and Plato, and many centuries before the great city-states of Greece or any of the renowned Greek cities of Magna Graecia in Italy such as Cuma, Paestum and Velia— these early Greeks had formed a league of separate kingdoms centered on Mycenae on that part of the Greek mainland known as the Peloponnese.

This is the civilization from which stems much of our vast Greek cultural heritage and familiar repertoire of Greek mythology. Indeed, Mycenae —today a small town near the original site, a few miles inland from the Gulf of Argolis in the foothills guarding the road to Corinth— was the home of “proud Agamemnon” who rallied his fellow princes to sail forth and besiege Troy to avenge the abduction of Helen in 1200 b.c. Mycenae, then, turned out to be the dominant Mediterranean civilization for almost 400 years, from 1450 to 1100 b.c. Though there was not yet a single major city anywhere in Italy (the first would be built by the Etruscans in about 900 b.c.) the Mycenaeans carried on flourishing trade with small outposts scattered on Sicily and the islands and coastal areas of southern Italy. One such outpost was Vivara.

The Bronze Age inhabitants of Vivara of 1500 BC looked out on a coastline and bay somewhat different than what we see today. Indeed, even since the time of the Romans, much less a millennium and a half earlier, the waters in the Bay of Naples have risen about 6 meters. This accounts for the ruins of submerged Roman port facilities in nearby Baia, for example. Vivara, itself, was joined to Procida by land at the period in question.

The first archaeological digs on the island (carried out in the 1930s) revealed remnants of a system of Bronze Age huts on what would then have been the plateau of the island as well as on the heights. One of the most interesting finds at the time consisted of two clay jars bearing traces of ornamental varnish—interesting in that they were of the same type as  found on Filicudi, an island further to the south in the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily. It was pottery of a type clearly Greek/Mycenaean and datable to the middle of the second millennium before Christ. Mycenaean pottery—as well as the produce it contained, such as wine and olives—was known to have been highly valued and to have been exported throughout the eastern Mediterranean and at least as far west as Sicily.

Such finds on Filicudi and then on Vivara are now taken as evidence of trade between Mycenae and Italy even at such an early date, trade supported by a network of coastal and island trading posts. Much of that commerce was concerned with the search for metals, and on Vivara, besides ceramic shards, remnants of habitations, jewelry and bits of weaponry of early Greek origin, there are signs that the area was, indeed, mined for copper at some time in the distant past—and there even appears to have been a foundry of sorts. This would be in keeping with collateral archaeology elsewhere in Italy, which indicates that the peninsula was somewhat of a Bronze Age mine for Mediterranean cultures to the south. 

Starting in the early 1990s, archaeological research on Vivara has been in collaboration with the Orientale University of Naples and the Naples Superintendent for Archaeology. It is work undertaken with enthusiasm and intensity by university archaeology students on the site. Their recent discoveries include the floor and collapsed tile roof of a large structure, uncovered half a meter below the surface; also, they have found a series of clay tokens of varying shapes and sizes. The tokens were stacked and had apparently been joined by a long-since decayed ring of some sort, indicating that they were used as a means to keep track of merchandise and transactions.

update Sept. 2015 -

Research at Vivara continues, including underwater archaeology down to a depth 14 meters. It is carried out by a team led by Massimiliano Marazzo of the Euromediterranean Center for Cultural Heritage of the Suor Orsola Benincasa university of Naples. A large collection of clay domestic utensils, spearheads, remnants of dwellings, etc. have been retrieved and have permitted scholars to recreate an image of the village (image) on Vivara from 1700 BC.

(image courtesy of Suor Orsola Benincasa university)

[Much more on this entry from 2022
, The Bronze Age]


Procida (3)
Oct. 2009
The Campania region has allocated €2,400,000 to repair the 140 meter bridge (photo, right) that leads from the island of Procida to the small satellite isle of Vivara. Construction is expected to start soon. The bridge was originally built in 1957 and functioned more or less regularly until 1999. By that time, the isle had become a nature reserve, successfully resisting efforts over the years to, among other things, sell it off for development as a tourist trap village. Speaking of bridges, on July 15, 2001, Vivara got into the Guinness Book of World Records when a group of instructors from the FISS (Italian Survival Federation) strung the world’s longest Tibetan bridge from the S. Margherita promontory on Procida over to Vivara. A traditional Tibetan bridge consists of a rope used as a footpath and two upper lateral handrail ropes at about a meter above that footpath. The triangular configuration of the three ropes is made firm by thick lateral braces running the length of the bridge. The Procida-Vivara version was 362 meters long. The rope bridge was put up just to set a record and was taken down shortly thereafter; it was somewhat less than traditional in that it used a special synthetic rope. I think those clever survivalists should come back and build another one from the National Archaeological Museum up to the Capodimonte Museum instead of a screwball cabin lift affair that someone has proposed.

entry Feb 2011
The "Children of the Mysteries" on Procida

On February 11, the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, will inaugurate the Jubilee for Naples, a year-long period of civic and religious commitment meant to reawaken social values in a troubled city. Part of the activities on the first day will be the placing of a large bust of the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, at the old city gate that is still called Porta San Gennaro at the modern square of Piazza Cavour. It is significant that the cardinal chose the Ragazzi dei Misteri from Procida to sculpt the four-by-three meter display of the saint. Procida is just four-square-miles in area and is the smallest island in the Bay of Naples but it maintains one of the most interesting religious traditions in Italy: The Procession of the Mysteries on Good Friday. That tradition is kept up by a loose band of dedicated young artists and craftsmen who are traditionally called the Ragazzi dei Misteri"Children of the Mysteries."

"Mysteries" in this sense refers to Biblical events commemorated by Christians as having a special or mystical significance (such as, for example, The Last Supper). The procession is a display of large shoulder-borne floats with allegorical displays of the "mysteries" drawn from Biblical sources. The floats are made of wood, and the displays are a combination of wood, cloth, plaster, copper and papier-mâché. The floats are decorated with fruits and flowers. The procession on Good Friday is part of the Holy Week celebrations on Procida that last from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. The Procession of the Mysteries follows a fixed path from the old Terra Murata, the fortress at the highest point of the island, down to the port of the Marina Grande. Those involved in the procession will have spent many weeks crafting their displays. Typically, those who build a particular float will be the ones to carry it and, in theory, the only ones to have seen the display before it is moved to the staging area before the procession. 

Traditionally, the floats are unique each year and are disassembled or destroyed after each procession. There are however, some perennial, fixed pieces such as representations of Mary as the Mater Dolorosa as well as the center-piece of the entire procession, The Dead Christ, a large wooden sculpture from 1728, crafted by Carmine Lantricene. Activity starts on Thursday night when torch-bearing, cloaked and hooded townspeople make their way up to the staging area at Terra Murata and wait for Good Friday to dawn. The procession of about 80 floats will start at sunrise and last for some three hours. A full one-third of the island's 10,000 inhabitants can be expected to participate in the procession at some point; they wear the traditional costume of hooded white tunic and sea-blue cape. Children as young as two years of age help lead the procession; they wear black robes embroidered with gold and pearls and caps adorned with black and white ostrich plumes. These children are called angioletti"little angels." Eerily, the procession is accompanied by a town band playing a traditional funeral march, punctuated by blasts on a  trumpet. This recalls the trumpet sounded in Roman times to announce executions, for this is the Friday on which Christ was crucified.

The tradition of the procession goes back to the 1627 when the Congregation of the Turchini (so named for the turquoise color of the garb worn by the altar boys of the congregation) in Naples started services on Procida. The first processions are said to have been somewhat gruesome affairs of self-flagellating penitents, and only somewhat later to have developed into the colorful and choreographic displays that they are today. Procida is a natural place for such skills to develop as go into the construction of these ornate floats; it is an island of fine craftsmen who truly know how to work with their hands, trained over the centuries by building their own sailboats for their own fishermen. Of the island's 10,000 inhabitants, at least 2,000 work in some maritime capacity.

For about five years, there has been an actual organization called "I Ragazzi dei Misteri," formed to preserve the tradition of the procession. Traditionally, the floats were built in relatively large spaces such as the large entrance ways or courtyards of old 17th-century buildings, places that had not been used in many years. Little by little, however, those spaces have been gobbled up for renovation as various commercial ventures—a restaurant, a bar, etc. or have been condemned as unsafe. The young craftsmen were running out of spaces where they could work. That situation has apparently now been resolved. The organization counts about 600 members on the island; they are self-financed through contributions and have managed to procure a number of large tents to work in. As well, in the interest of preserving mementos of past processions, at least some of the used floats are no longer disassembled but, rather, wind up in a display hall where they can be viewed by the public. Lending permanence to the artifacts of the Procession of the Mysteries should encourage outside interest and help maintain the tradition.

add: April 2011

With the event right around the corner, newspapers have carried two interesting items:

(1) There is extreme interest shown in the creative handicraft involved in the preparation of the floats and sculptures for the procession, interest from a surprising source: the Design Department of Jian-gnan University in Wuxi in the People's Republic of China. Professors from that university source are now in Procida;

(2) UNESCO is considering adding the procession to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list; that is, the grand array of oral, musical and performance traditions in the world that have to be protected.

5.    Church restoration -  added 21 February 2016: also see miscellaneous item here.

   This view is of the old church before the restoration.
The view is to the southwest over the Corricella section
of Procida. The mountain in the extreme background is
Mount Epomeo on the island of Ischia. The old monastery
is out of sight, above and to the right.

The island town of Procida has announced its intention to acquire from state ownership the ruins of the monastery of Santa Margherita Nuova. That complex is located at the tip of the Terra Murata (walled city) in the midst of the Corricella section of the island. The old monastery will be restored and thus will complete the total restoration of the Benedictine monastery/church premises. The restoration of the church of Santa Margherita Nuova (image, right, before the restoration) was completed in September, 2012. The church now hosts conventions, exhibits and various such events. The history of the church/abby complex goes back to 1585 when the older abbey of S.Margherita Vecchia (old) alla Chiaolella across from the small satellite island of Vivara decided move to escape frequent raids of Saracen pirates and change its name to Santa Margherita Nuova (new). The subsequent history was not kind. There were numerous earth slides, and political turmoil during the Napoleonic wars led to the structure being expropriated, falling into ruin and never being restored.

6. added 30 April 2016

Saving the Colors of Procida

 Corricella harbor. The peak in the background is Mt. Epomeo on
                the island of Ischia. Photo © by & courtesy of Giacomo Garzya.

The island of Procida stands out because it's small, quiet, and has its own architecture that, in turn, has its own colors. Writers come to the island for inspiration, artists come to paint, and film directors use it as a backdrop for films (Procida has been the set for a number of films: Il Postino:the Postman [1994] and The Talented Mr. Ripley [2005] are two well-known ones that come to mind.)

The colors of a large mainland city such as Naples can often fade or disappear, perhaps falling victim to the colorless steel and glass gleam of modern skyscraper technology, although Naples is still holding its own in that regard. The island has now announced the creation of an Office of Colors, complete with plans and experts to make sure that none of that happens on Procida. It will be done in collaboration with the architecture department of the Frederick II University of Naples. The object, says the mayor, is to "save and protect the historical and architectural heritage of our island, unique in the Mediterranean." The dynamics are not quite clear, but descriptions of how this is supposed to work is that restoration of older buildings and newer added bits (such as balconies and entrance ways) must conform to specified "island architecture" norms, and that is especially true for the colors. Slip-shod construction and odd-ball colors can cost you up to 10,000 euros

See also: An Act of Faith by David Taylor.

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