Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 128, entry May 2005

ymbols of Naples

It is not surprising that Mt. Vesuvius is a common symbol of Naples. There have been so many paintings and photos of " 'a muntagna" over the years, it's almost as if artists and weekend snapshooters were engaging in ritual propitiation. You know: "If we feed Your ego enough with all this art, maybe You won't explode again. Very sincerely, we remain Your faithful servants in Pompei." Who knows?

I am fascinated by stylized graphics of Vesuvius. I have no idea how many there have been over the years, but a recent copy of the International Journal of Semiotics, Statistics and Ouija Boards informs me, reliably, that "there are really a lot" of such graphics done by advertisers, artists, school children and bored doodlers to depict Vesuvius. They range from Andy Warhol's famous—for 15 minutes, anyway—explosion of color (at the top of this page) to the works of anonymous designers churning out ads. (A few of those are on the right, and there is another very good one here.)

Other symbols are a bit harder to come by. Dangerous, even. The 30-foot-high ceilings of the Royal Palace could only have been painted and ornamented by giraffes. (Indeed, it is my understanding that the revolutions of 1820 and 1848 in Naples could have been avoided if only the despotic rulers of the kingdom had realized they were spending too much money on giraffes and not enough on guns and butter.) Anyway, walking around said Royal Palace staring at said ceilings is a very good way to fall down the magnificent Bourbon staircase, but also a good way to notice a splendid example of the triskelion, or triskele.

The triskelion is a symbol formed by three of almost anything conjoined and radiating from the center—triangles, commas, lines, circles, tear or water drops, trombone slides, arms, or legs. Such symbols are very widespread in human cultures and are found all the way from Celtic mythology to Buddhist art. The one in the Royal Palace (photo, above) —with stylized human legs radiating from the center—is common in ancient Greek culture. The symbol is found on Greek coins and even earlier Mycenean pottery. In the palace, the triskelion is there as a symbol of Sicily, representing the claim of the Bourbon monarchy to rule the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies," a term applied on and off to the southern half of the Italian peninsula since the 1400s—Palermo, of course, being the first Sicily and, then, Naples the second.

As a symbol of Sicily, the triskelion (meaning "three legs" in Greek) goes back to the existence of Sicily as part of Magna Grecia, the colonial extension of Greece beyond the Aegean. Pliny—either the Elder, the Younger, or the One in Middle—says the use of the triskelion to represent ancient Trinacria (an earlier name for Sicily)—is symbolic of the triangular shape of the island, defined by three distinct capes, equidistant one from the other. (The modern names: Cape Peloro, at the straits of Messina; Cape Passero, at the southern tip; and Cape Lilibeo, at Marsala in the west.)

On that note, the same lovely person, Laura, who brought the triskelion on the ceiling to my attention in the first place (as she was falling down the stairs) now tells me that

...the triskelion was invented by Greek sailors, who thought the island turned around. Since the early navigators didn't use the North Star they had to cling to the coastlines. If they lost sight of Sicily due to storm or mists, they were lost at sea and risked sailing off the edge of the Pillars of Hercules. Thus, the belief developed that Sicily was tricky and not fixed so that she turned like a wheel and confused the sailors as to which cape they were seeing--or should we say 'seaing'.

I don't know if that part about not using the north star convinces me, but as stories go, it's a good one! In any event, in the center of most depictions of the Sicilian triskelion is a human face, that of the Medusa, one of the aspects of the goddess Athena, patron saint of the island. The triskelion appealed to the Bourbons of Naples primarily because it was NOT a Bourbon symbol; it was classical Greek and, as such, lent historical weight to the claim of unity of Sicily and mainland. (The keen-eyed will noticed a smaller, secondary triskelion within the first, radiating out from between the legs. They appear to be stalks of wheat. The harvest? Fertility? Phallic symbols? All of those? Guess away.)

I have not scoured the city on a great triskelion hunt, but I can't help but notice that in everyday places there are designs that fit at least the general description of "three of almost anything conjoined and radiating from the center," such as the leaf design (photo, right) on the facade of the Church of the Redeemer on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Naples.

Also in the category of Two Symbols for the Price of One is the red amulet (bottom, left) that is either (1) a single curved corno (animal horn), representing the sexual vigor implied in the phallic symbol or (2) a serpent, with a possible connection to ancient ophiolatry (serpent worship). It might be both, which makes it all the more interesting, especially since there is now a third possibility. Vendors of  the famous peperoncini—small Calabrian red peppers—stylize the ads for their red-hot little veggie (Capsicum frutescens perenne ) such that it resembles the amulet. The symbolism is enough to take your breath away. The peppers will do that, too.

Pulcinella, of course, the Neapolitan masked figure from the medieval tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte is the personage who most symbolizes Naples. (There is a separate entry on him here.)

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