Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Jan 2011, consolidated Feb 2018

The items, below, appeared separately in the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated and have been consolidated onto a single page here. After that, there is an update from March 2012 and one from March 2014. The blue box in the first item was added in February 2018.)

entry June 2003
1. The Villa Comunale & Dohrn Zool. Station/Aquarium

acquariumThe Villa Comunale is the most prominent and visible park in the city of Naples. It stands on reclaimed land, for, as early prints show, the sea once came right up to a rather swampy area, the site mostly of fishermen's houses. It wasn't until the 16th century, the beginning of the Spanish viceroyship, that a general campaign was undertaken to make the land suitable for the construction of the fashionable villas that sprang up in the 1600s along that section of the sea front. (Click here for a related item.) 

The Villa was the result of the wishes of King Ferdinand IV, who, in 1788, decided he wanted a large wooded area along the sea for members of the royal family to stroll in. The park, thus, was open to the public only one day a year, for the Festival of Piedigrotta. They say that many marriage contracts of the day even stipulated the husband's duty to take his wife to the gardens on that day each year. The park was opened to the general public on a permanent basis in 1869 after the unification of Italy. The seaside road, via Caracciolo, which now lies between the aquarium and the sea, is another, more recent reclamation project added to the topography of the city. Until 1900, the sea rolled up to the villa, itself, and coach traffic passed along the Riviera di Chiaia, the road now bounding the inner side of the park.

The Villa Comunale houses the Anton Dohrn Aquarium (photos, above and right). In 1870 Anton Dohrn (1840-1909), German zoologist and disciple of Darwin, requested and got permission to build a “Zoological Station”—an aquarium—in Naples. He was given a site within the Villa Comunale; the project was begun in 1872 under Oscar Capocci and finished by the German architect Adolf von Hildebrand. Interesting artwork within the Florentine Renaissance building include murals by the German artist Hans von Mareès, who drew inspiration from characteristic fishing scenes of the Mediterranean, especially Naples and Sorrento. Since its inception, the aquarium in Naples has not only served as an exhibition of marine flora and fauna, but has also been a working research facility in marine biology.

(box added Feb 2018)

Looking Back at the Dohrn Zoological Station

When the Dohrn Zoological Station opened in 1870, it was immediately seen as a major innovation in marine biology. In June 1883, Science, the journal of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) hailed the..."use  of the best modern methods, with all the material that these rich southern regions can supply, all the help that may be had from a well-furnished library, all the aid that can be obtained from well-trained attendants and subordinates, and all the stimulus that consciously and unconsciously comes from the intercourse of many minds giving their best powers to the same work..." (the image, above left, is from that issue). The station thrived in the final years of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. Even the First World War did not have a serious physical effect on the workings of the station although international cooperation among former colleagues in science (and now deadly enemies) was stifled. That passed, but then came WWII. When Italy made a separate peace in September 1943, her former Axis ally, Germany, punished the city of Naples by wide-spread destruction of the physical infrastructure and even the mindless destruction of intellectual facilities such as libraries, large portions of which were set ablaze. Fortunately, the station itself was not destroyed and workers had removed the books and some of the equipment out into the countryside for safekeeping.

As the war moved north and away from the city of Naples, itself (after Sept. 1943), Science reported in a letter to the editor in March 1944...
...that the station was in limited working order [but that] the library has now been returned, with the loss of a very few volumes. Since the libraries of the various university institutes have suffered great damage, the value of the station library is greater than ever before. It is being used considerably by the scientific workers from the laboratories of biochemistry in the American military hospital. Unfortunately, some of the important instruments have been damaged. Dr. [Reinhard] Dohrn indicates that the establishment of contacts with former workers at the station would be greatly appreciated and that expressions of interest by friends of the station would constitute valuable spiritual help.
Finally, Science from Sept 23, 1949, was able to print a letter from a local university professor that said...

The Zoological Station survived the war without heavy damages. The laboratories and library lost some apparatus and books, but the building was not seriously damaged. The devotion of the personnel and the intelligent cooperation of allied military authorities are the main factors responsible for this fortunate circumstance.
The writer comments on the quantity and quality of new equipment and says further that...
...The library is also in very good shape. The gaps in the files of journals have been almost entirely filled, and subscriptions are running regularly. This is most important since so many biological laboratories in Europe have been destroyed... It would be impossible to mention here all of the people and organizations who have helped and are still helping the institution towards its rehabilitation. The cooperation of the friends from all over the world has been the directorial staff's greatest reward.

(signed) G Montalenti, Istituto di Genetica
Della University [sic], Naples, Italy

The entire Villa Comunale underwent remodeling a couple of years ago. There seem to be fewer trees than before. Some call it "pruning back". Some call it firewood. I haven't made up my mind.

[2011 update: The condition of the trees in the Villa is precarious at the moment due to the presence of the palm tree pest. See this link.] 

entry Mar. 2003
2. aquarium, villa comunale

Elia Mannetta, the engineer from Baltimore who built the new aquarium in Genoa, will be in Naples in a week or so to help decide if the city of Naples needs a new aquarium and, if so, where to put it. There are three candidates: (1) in San Giovanni a Teduccio, a suburb of Naples just to the east along the coast; (2) Bagnoli, where a new aquarium would fit in nicely with the pedagogical ambitions of the Science City exposition and fair grounds as well as with a general rejuvenation of the area after decades of decay; (3) in the Villa Comunale, where a new aquarium would take the place of the older one, the Anton Dohrn Aquarium, in place since the 1870s. Choice number 2, Bagnoli, is probably the strongest candidate. 

Very few Neapolitans would like to see the Villa Comunale dug up and closed again (as it was a few years ago for restoration) or see the current aquarium demolished. It fits in with the general old-fashioned atmosphere of the park—classical statues, fountains, gazebo/bandstands, etc.—though that, too, has changed a bit since the recent overhaul. Not only did they chop down a lot of trees but they replaced a number of 19th–century metal scrolls and curlicues along the fence with more modern bulletoid metalwork that has already midwifed an entire repertoire of suppository jokes.

Update-March 2012:    see    Statuary, Monuments and Structures in the Villa Comunale   
                               and    Photo Album of statuary in the Villa Comunale  

Update-March 19, 2014
Woodman, Spare That Tree! *

I get suspicious when they start chopping down trees in Naples, as they are about to do once again in the Villa Comunale, the large public park along the sea-side (see entries directly above this one). Thirty-one trees are destined to be removed "in the interest of public safety," according to a spokesman for the city. Most of those trees are either diseased or unstable; those that are neither, but that are precariously close to buildings in the villa (such as the large Dohrn aquarium, visible in the photo) will, says the city, not get the axe, but just the shovel and be moved, if possible, to a safer location.

The last time they did this was a few years ago when they remodeled the villa (item 1, above). To my, admittedly, non-expert eye, all they did was make a quaint 1890s bit of charm a lot less green and a lot more metallic. On the other hand, they tell me that in the tough times after the end of WW II in Naples, the park was totally denuded of anything that could be used as firewood, after which, however, the park again prospered and staged a fine comeback. And, of course, at one time (in the 1600s) there was no park there at all. It was scraggly and brackish beach. So I suppose things could be worse.

Trees that have to be moved because they endanger buildings and passers-by —well, that is reasonable; trees or tree branches can fall on people, injuring and even killing them. (The most famous case in Naples that I remember is this one.) In the case of diseased trees, that is still a problem that Naples and other Mediterranean cities are struggling to cope with. The tree pest (the red palm weevil, Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) still exists in the city and, to my knowledge, no miracle cure has presented itself. That insect attacks only certain kinds of palm trees, but oak and pine in the villa are also set upon by certain wood-boring insects.  So you save some and lose others. It's not an easy battle. (For more on the tree pest, see this link.)

Unstable trees are a peculiar problem because the causes are not clear. At least a few geologists have speculated that construction of the  number 6 train line of the new Naples subway (adjacent to the park on the north side) may be responsible. Faulty engineering interfered with the underground aquifer in the area, causing the collapse last year of a building along the proposed route. Work on the train line has since been halted; a major street on the surface next to the park has been closed and traffic has had to be rerouted. It may be that underground work also blocked the natural flow of fresh rain water into the soil of the park, water that nourishes tree roots. In the place of fresh water, there is now sea water seeping in from the landfill beneath via Caracciolo on the other side of the park and rotting the roots.

*Woodman, Spare that Tree is the title and first line of a poem by American poet and song writer, George Pope Morris (1802-1864) first published in the January of 1837,  under the title The Oak. It was then set to music by Henry Russell.

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