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.)

 (1) directly below  (box) Dohrn Aquarium    (2) aquarium-villa    (3) Woodman, spare that tree
                                                                 (4) The Golden Tree

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-Dec 2021:       The  entire Dohrn aquarium is now called the DaDoM - you'll never guess!


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.

added March 2021
Once upon a time there was a Golden Tree
by Selene Salvi

            O my tree of gold,
            I planted you with a hoe of gold,
            And with a little pail of gold I bathed you
            And dried you with a towel of silk,
            Do the same with me!
            Do the same with me...*
            (The “La Cat Cinderella" by Giambattista Basile - image, right)
* The magic spell uttered by Zezolla - Cinderella to turn into a queen
I read just today the sad news that last January they chopped down the giant Chilean palm tree in the Villa Comunale (public gardens) in Naples. The Campania Region keeps a catalog of Monument Trees in the region; it is card #19 in the catalog. (That index is off-site, here.) The tree in all likelihood went back to the first half of the 1800s. It was among the oldest trees in the Gardens and among the oldest of its species. What WWII didn't do (there were signs of bullet strikes on the trunk), the tree pest called the "red palm weevil" did. They noticed it too late. I don't know
it is certainly the case that the Villa Comunale with its overwhelming number of visitors has been struggling lately.

The tree was 16 meters/48 feet tall and the trunk was 3.34 meters (10 feet) around. A good giant that had seen a lot. We noticed it a few years ago when we were walking around the Gardens. We were actually looking for another palm tree, the most famous tree in Naples. (We do have, you know, more than just that lonely Mediterranean Pine that crops up in everyone's memories of the city!) Think of those paintings from the 1700s that show the Mergellina coast. You will notice that they all show one particular splendid date palm, the branches of which are veined with gold. There is one memory left in the name of a tiny dead-end lane near the cable-car called "vico Dattero a Mergellina" (lane of the date palm). This is where painters of the "Posillipo School" lived, and that date palm stood over them
their guardian. Even then they said it was ancient. Who planted it? Maybe it was from Heaven.

The years 1634-1636 saw the publication in Naples of "Lo cunto de li Cunti"
(The Tale of Tales) or the Pentamerone  a collection of fables by Giambattista Basile. “La gatta Cenerentola” (The Cat Cinderella) is one of those. Roberto De Simone has noticed a link between that tale and the ancient legend of the Madonna of Piedigrotta. Why am I telling you this? Because Zezolla, our Cat Cinderella, got as a gift a special "dattolo" (date palm). She planted it and it grew in only four days, whence sprang the fairy tale that the tree can grant wishes.* Then, the rest... Basile saw the tree when it got to Mergellina and immortalized it in one his most famous fables. It's a fascinating tale.

Why, you ask, were we looking in the Villa Comunale? With a lot of effort and money (3000 lire!) the famous palm tree was transplanted from Mergellina down to the middle of the grand gardens of the Neapolitan Villa Comunale
about one km. When? It's not precise. Sometime in the 1800s. Imagine doing that with ordinary wagon transport of the time. Giuseppe A. Pasquale (1820 – 1893), director for many years of the Botanical Gardens of Naples, says in his Manual of Arboriculture (1867) that moving full-gown adult trees —digging down to get the entire root structure, lifting the heavy tree up and out, loading it onto a wagon, moving it even a short distance, and carefully replanting itwas difficult and dangerous.

We all wondered if it would still be there. We got to the Virgilian Temple (image, left) and saw the cyclopic Chilean Palm. It didn't look like the one at Mergellina but no doubt had ancient branches with their own tales to tell. There was something sacred about the tree. We stopped right there. Was that it? (photo above)-- the "old transplanted date palm" by the Virgilian Temple that De Cesare cites in La Villa Reale di Napoli [The Royal Gardens of Naples] (1846)? Or was this where two trees magically became one? Who knows? What remains, however, is the bitterness at having lost another precious bit of our Parthenopean soul.
                        *The magical power of trees to grant wishes is itself a persistent theme in Neapolitan lore. Another example is here.

to entries on architecure & urban expansion        to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023