Public Art in Naples

Ancient, medieval, modern–Naples is full of art history! Here are some examples from my own photos:

Detail of the 1470 triumphal arch entry to Castel Nuovo, the 13th century fortress on Naples' waterfront.

Detail of the 1470 triumphal arch entry to Castel Nuovo, the 13th century fortress on Naples’ waterfront.

Modern art with a practical application?

Modern art with a practical application?

Mythical figures flank an entryway.

Mythical figures flank an entryway.

A late medieval shrine.

A late medieval shrine.

Salvatore and the Priest (Part 2 of 3)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week’s post introduced Salvatore and our serendipitous meeting.

So how did this 80-something retired Latin teacher from a remote town east of Naples learn English? “I learned from an American priest,” he told us. “The priest who saved Piedimonte Matese!”

We walked along a street that climbed one side of a valley. As we walked, he told us about the priest. As a young man in America, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and was rejected by his Protestant family because of it. They wanted nothing to do with him. But he felt called to the priesthood, and eventually studied in Rome. He was assigned to serve in Piedimonte Matese in the 1930s. His family in America cut him off completely, but he loved his life and work in Italy as a priest, and he taught English to those who wanted to learn, including Salvatore, who was a young teenager at the time.

Then the war came. Mussolini joined the Axis powers in 1937, and as war gradually engulfed Europe, life in Italy became more and more difficult. The German presence in Italy grew to an oppressive level, and life was further disrupted by food shortages and military conscription. With the potential of American involvement in the war, the church and community authorities urged the priest to return to America, but he refused. Italy was his home, and he had no family waiting for him.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war.

Salvatore paused on the sidewalk and pointed across the valley to another section of the town. “Do you see the palazzo over there, the biggest building? That is where the priest stayed during the war.”

The ducal palace, highest building in this photo.

The ducal palace, largest building in this photo.

Because it wasn’t safe for him to continue his service, the authorities prevailed upon the local duke to take him under his protection. Within the Palazzo Ducale, the priest was safe, but he could not leave the palace without risk of capture and imprisonment as an enemy alien.

Almost two years later, in the fall of 1943, American and British forces began making their way north up the Italian peninsula. The Germans had established a camp west of Piedimonte Matesa, near the Volturno River, and as the Allied forces approached in October, the Germans began a slow retreat, destroying bridges, roads, and supplies in their wake.

American forces continued their approach, shelling locations the Germans had occupied, causing additional damage to the war-ravaged town. The citizens were caught in the crossfire.  The priest knew the Germans had all withdrawn from the town, and wanted to let the approaching Allied forces know.

He attached a white flag to a pole, and set out for the American line, over the protests of the local citizens. When they realized he would not be dissuaded, a couple of them joined him as he walked down the main road directly into the Allied attack, waving the white flag and calling out to them in English. Finally, the shooting stopped.

“He saved our town,” Salvatore told us with tears in his eyes. “He was a hero to us.”

The Allies set up a camp where the Germans had been, and helped restore some order to the area. They needed help communicating with the local officials and citizens, and the priest recommended his young student, Salvatore, as their translator. Each day an army jeep driver picked up Salvatore to help with translation, and he was granted permission to be out after curfew so he could give Italian language lessons to the soldiers in the evenings. His father’s house had been bombed, and the soldiers helped them begin rebuilding.

“You see,” Salvatore said, “we owe a lot to Americans.”

I took photos of the palazzo across the valley, and we started back down the road. “Now, I’d like you to come to my house. I have made some liqueur I would like you to try.”

Come back next week for Part 3!

Preparing to celebrate the New Year

While you still have the weekend to prepare, I’m allowing you enough time to enjoy New Year celebrations with some Italian flair.

First, you’ll need to dress for success. Prosperity, happiness, and virility in the coming year depend on wearing red undies. red undies Who knew?? So whether it’s Victoria’s Secret or Jockey, get some red ones–even if no one else knows you’re wearing them.

Food is a mainstay of all kinds of human celebration, and Italians have their own specialties associated with New Year’s Eve. Namely, lentils. Because they look (remotely, I’ll admit) like little coins, they are said to bring wealth in the coming year. And just for more financial success, eat those lentils with sausages that are sliced up into larger “coins”. How about a salad of dollar bills on the side? Just kidding!! Here’s a tasty recipe for your lentils and sausage. One tradition says to eat the lentils at midnight, one spoonful for eat tolling of the midnight bell. There is no midnight bell in my town, so I’ll just have to take my chances with the timing.

You’ve probably heard the expression “Out with the old, in with the new.” Traditionally in southern Italy, they’ve taken it to heart, and anything old and worn out was thrown out the window on New Year’s Eve. It has mostly died out now, but if you are walking around Naples that night, watch your head!

And while you are eating your lentils, wearing you red undies, you’ll likely be watching fireworks. Naples has one of the biggest fireworks displays, but they are popular throughout the country. Be careful, though. Illegal fireworks have been a problem (police seized more than 650,000 last year in late December) and injuries are not uncommon. Some cities have banned fireworks for various public safety reasons. You won’t have any trouble finding them in Naples, though. They’ll be welcoming 2013 with a bang, in fine Italian style.

"Fireworks in Naples", oil painting by Oswald Achenbach, 1875

“Fireworks in Naples”, oil painting by Oswald Achenbach, 1875


Italian Bagpipers: the Zampognari

A vintage post card image of Zampognari.

Who knew Italy had it’s own version of the bagpipes, and a Christmas tradition surrounding them? I’m referring you today to another article in the British magazine “Italy” online, which explains the history of the zampognari, shepherds who came down from the mountains to spend Christmas with their families, and stopped at shrines and nativity scenes to play their carols.

The instrument itself is strange looking, with the air bag sometimes shaped alarmingly like the lamb or sheep it was probably made from. And like Scottish bagpipe music, a little goes a long way for most people.

Are you ready for a visit from the zampognari? Play the video:

Historic changes to Italian provinces

The current provinces and regions of Italy.

The Italian government has decided to abolish several provinces with smaller populations, combining and redefining them, as part of a streamlining effort to save money. Not everyone is happy about it. This article from the Guardian (UK) gives some of the reasons.

The number of Italian provinces has almost doubled, from 59 when Italy became a nation in 1861, to 109 today. The reorganization of provinces will take place in 2014, and affects provinces throughout the country. Last month the English language version of Italy’s Corriere de la Sera ran this article about the axing of 36 provinces.

The provinces are not to be confused with regions, the better-know subdivisions of Italian government. For example, Calabria is a region with five provinces. However, after reorganization, the provinces of Catanzaro, Crotone, and Vibo Valentia will be combined into one, leaving Calabria with three provinces.

The functions of provincial level governments include planning and zoning, police and fire protection, and transportation matters such as car registration and road maintenance.

Some proposals have called for the complete abolition of provinces, with the regions taking over all the governmental functions. Others want to protect the unique cultural or historic character of a place, such as Benevento, which is scheduled to throw its lot in with Avellino despite Benevento’s ancient Samnite history.

These changes are likely to spark some protests around the country, and are expected to be challenged in court. However for most visitors to Italy, the impact is expected to be minor. Look around and see history in the making.


Caserta, the Versailles of Italy

My research in Italy in 2004 focused on thirteenth and fourteenth century history. As our visit came to an end, we didn’t want to return our rental car in a city, with all the crazy traffic, so we chose–and I can’t recall why–to drop it off at Caserta, north of Naples, and take the train back to Rome from there. I knew nothing about Caserta, because its major claim to fame developed about 450 years after the history I was most interested in.

File:CasertaNorthernAspect.jpgAcross the street from the train station, a few hundred yards away, we could see a massive building, certainly palatial, and we looked with some curiosity but no spare time, wondering what it might be. Our view was not the one you see above, but from the other side of the building, with no hint of the wonderful canal and park.

Now I know. The Reggia di Caserta, the royal palace built by the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 18th century. In fact, the largest palace contructed during that century, and among the largest buildings built in that period, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 1200 rooms, it is the largest royal palace in the world.

It is on my itinerary for Italy next year!

The palace was conceived and construction begun by King Charles VII of Naples, but he inherited the throne of Spain in 1759, and ceded Naples to his son Ferdinand who was only eight years old. After a period of rule in Naples through regents until he reached his majority, Ferdinand occasionally lived at Caserta from its completion in 1780 until his death in 1825. This included the turbulent Napoleonic period during which Ferdinand was deposed and restored three times. The Bourbons continued to rule until 1861, when Italian unification dissolved the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Fast forward to World War II, when the palace again served a prominent purpose as the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander. In April of 1945, the German surrender in Italy was signed at Caserta.

In more recent years, the palace has been used as a movie filming site for a couple of Star Wars movies, and for scenes from Angels and Demons. In Mission Impossible III, the square where the Lamborghini is blown up is one of the inner squares of the palace.

Visitors today note that the palace is completely unfurnished, and a bit run down, but it is still a popular tourist stop. The grounds are as much an attraction as the palace itself, with a three mile long “Royal Park” considered by many to be superior to the park at Versailles.

Here’s a video peek at some of the Baroque wonders of the palace and park:

History denied me: Old stuff I can’t figure out.

Exploring Sorrento on foot, Vern and I followed a road that crossed a deep ravine. Looking down, among the thick undergrowth, I saw a ruin, a former mill or factory, it appeared, covered in creepers and moss.

That kind of thing just gets my head spinning. What was it? When was it built? Who worked there? Why was it abandoned? I’m sure that some research could turn up the answers to these questions, but I had higher priorities at the time. Still, that picture catches in my imagination now and then.

The trouble with Italy (and of course there are other places) is that it is filled with these bits of time gone by, wherever you go. Bits of ancient columns built in a new(er) stone wall. Arched “doorways” forty feet above the beach on a cliff face. Roman mosaic fragments dug up during remodeling.

Sometimes when I see such things, a story simply comes to me, and I wonder how close to the truth it might be.