Dracula in Naples?

VladTepes1485Southern Italy is full of surprises for me, and here is the latest: reported evidence that the 15th century Eastern European prince known as Vlad Dracula is buried in Naples! I knew that the royal family of Naples in this period had ties to several Eastern European kingdoms and principalities, but I had never heard the story related in this article from Hurriyet Daily News. And his daughter married a Neapolitan nobleman? As a novelist with a lifelong fascination with all things medieval, I want to know her story! Better yet, write her story.

Earliest known image of Vlad Dracula, published in Germany in 1488, is in the Public Domain, and found at Wikimedia Commons.

Do you find the claims in the article convincing? Intriguing? Preposterous?



Capodimonte porcelain–a royal tradition from Naples

In the early 1700s, porcelain produced at Meissen became all the rage in Europe. The King of Naples and Sicily, Charles VII, married Maria Amalia, whose grandfather Augustus II of Poland had founded the Meissen factory, the first hard-paste porcelain factory in Europe.

18th c. Capodimonte porcelain examples from the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia). Photo: by Sailko, from Wikimedia Commons.

18th c. Capodimonte porcelain examples from the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia). Photo: by Sailko, from Wikimedia Commons.

Pursuing his interest in the art, Charles VII founded the Capodimonte (top of the mountain) Porcelain factory in Naples in 1743. Production was well under way when Charles’ father, the King of Spain, died in 1759 and Charles took the Spanish throne and left the throne of Naples to his son Ferdinand. Before he left, however, he ordered the porcelain works demolished, and took the molds with him to Spain to found another factory there.

Ferdinand IV wasn’t so easily dissuaded–he had come to appreciate the porcelain art himself, and re-established the Capodimonte factory in 1772.  The detailed history (some found here) is more complex and involved a lot of experimentation with the porcelain “recipe”, hiring of various artists, chemists, directors, and so forth, and the establishment in Naples of an art academy.

Elaborate bisque figures, "The Triumph of Bacchus" from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Elaborate bisque figures, “The Triumph of Bacchus” from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ferdinand was soon embroiled in Napoleon’s schemes for Italy, (I’ve posted about that before) and production of the royal sponsored Capodimonte porcelain ceased around 1818. The factory was purchased by Claudio Guillard and Giovanni Tourne, who continued to used the same mark as the royal factory. In 1834 the company was purchased by a Florentine, and about 1896 they combined interests with the Societa Ceramica Richard of Milan. They continue to produce porcelain in the Capodimonte style, and the style is widely copied today.

The Judgement of Paris, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Colorful and elaborate figures typically linked with Capodimonte style. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Judgement of Paris, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Colorful and elaborate figures typically linked with Capodimonte style. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the 18th century products are in museums or collections of the wealthy today. Are you interested in buying some later pieces? Here are some listing from Ebay.com. Some claim to be 19th century pieces, and others are newer.

QUESTION: What is your favorite art or craft from southern Italy? Please comment!

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


Guest Post: A Friend in Every Corner of the World

This week, my Napolitana friend Laura Vinti writes about her passion for travel, and a new program to help travelers connect with people in the places they visit.

I see traveling as a sort of spiritual quest. This might sound pompous and self-important, but I’m unapologetic about it — when I visit a city, I’m after its soul.

Now, faced with this confrontational approach,  every city I visit tends to defend itself by doing what charming cities do best: dazzle the visitor by flaunting its beauty, throw at them magnificent palaces, glittering mosaics and frescoes, and daring towers (sometimes leaning too, for added measure), hoping thereby to make the visitor forget their Spiritual Quest and settle for aesthetic intoxication instead.

Well, I don’t fall for it. I take pleasure in all the beautiful sights, and then I aim for the heart – the forgotten alleys, the unexpected quirks, the intimate secrets, the stories you don’t find in travel guides, the places where the locals go for their morning coffee, the corners that offer shelter to star-crossed lovers. I want to uncover the city’s dark side, understand its personality, learn the inside jokes, really get to know the locals. But all too often I come up empty.

The church of Gesu Nuovo in the historic center of Naples.

However, I now have a new weapon in my urban soul-seeker arsenal. Thanks to a great initiative which is spreading its wings (pun intended) throughout the world, I’m enlisting angels in my quest: Angels for Travelers, no less, whose aim is to unite the globe-trotters of the world into a global community of friends.

Angels for Travelers is an exciting and ever-growing network which gives travelers free access to a trove of insider knowledge by providing them with local friends at any stage of their trip, even before they arrive at their destination.

As Stefano Consiglio, professor of Organization Theory at the University of Naples and founder of “Angels”, says, “Angels for Travelers is a web travel community focused around the assumption that someone who wants to visit a new city is looking for a social experience. And what is better than to be guided by people living there?”

This idea was sparked by an episode he witnessed on a city bus during a recent trash crisis in Naples. “Two Spanish travelers were asking some fellow passengers about the nearest bus stop to their hostel. Soon, more people joined in to help the tourists out. It seemed that the group was attempting to distract the tourists from the garbage piling up every

Via San Gregorio Armeno, famous for Christmas creches.

street corner, while at the same time redirecting their attention to the many treasures of our city.”  He found this so striking, because the common assumption is that Neapolitans lack civic pride. “I started to think about how people can contribute to the improvement of their community, especially in a situation of serious crisis.”

Seeing how the passengers were eager to assist the tourists, he wondered about ways to channel this positive energy and do something useful for his city and for the local community. The idea of the “Angels” was born.

However, when he illustrated his idea to friends, they were skeptical: who would be willing to invest their time in helping people they didn’t know?  As it turned out, many were more than willing: only two months after the launching of the platform, already 190 Neapolitan Angels were ready to give advice to travelers arriving in the city.

“People are happy to share and more generous than we might give them credit for,” says Stefano.

Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero, a Naples landmark.

Capitalizing on their Neapolitan success, in 2010 Stefano and his staff decided to update the web platform in order to allow people from everywhere in the world to become Angels for their own city. The idea spread and now there are more than 4,000 Angels in 350 cities in the world, including New York, Paris and London, ready to share tips and insights about their hometown with new friends.

Last June, I met with one of the Neapolitan Angels, Amedeo Colella, to try the Angels’ experience first-hand.  He turned out to be the author of “Manuale di Napoletanità”, a delightful collection of 365 half-serious, half-joking lessons on Naples and ‘being Neapolitan’.

I asked him what he would suggest to an American of Neapolitan descent who wishes to unveil the authentic city of his ancestors.

“They should get in touch with its desperation and its poverty: the shady alleys where families of six or more share two bedrooms in a basement apartment, the second-hand markets where you can buy clothes by the kilo; they should look for the sites where Raffaele Viviani, the 19th century actor and playwright of the poor and forgotten, set his plays, and get a sense of the suffering that pushed his or her forebears to leave their country in search of a better life.”

To move on to a lighter topic, I steered the conversation toward food. It always works, and in Naples more than anywhere else: we Neapolitans love to cook, love to eat, and love to talk about food.

Immacolata obelisk in the Piazza del Gesu.

Since both Amedeo and I know that in our city true understanding passes through one’s stomach, we agreed that our ideal traveler will have to try a sfogliatella (a typical Neapolitan pastry made with ricotta) at Attanasio’s, near the main train station, or at least taste a babà (a yeast dough soaked with a rum and sugar syrup) at “Il capriccio” in Via Carbonara.

Mission accomplished, spiritual needs satisfied, we ended our conversation with an espresso shot at Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante: a worthy way to mark my entry into the Angels for Travelers’ community.

To find out more about Angels for Travelers visit their website: http://www.angeliperviaggiatori.com

To listen to Stefano’s talk about Angels for Travelers at TED go to (http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxNapoli-Stefano-Consiglio-An)

The photos depict some of the sights recommended by Amedeo, all situated in the narrow streets of the ancient Greek grid of Naples.

Laura Vinti is a native Neapolitan living in the greater Washington, DC area. An MFA student in Fiction, she’s writing a historical novel set in 1500s Naples.

Book Review: The Espresso Break by Barbara Zaragoza

First off, I wish I’d had this book the first time I visited Naples! I will definitely be using it the next time. I’ve looked in at Barbara Zaragoza’s blogs now and then: The Espresso Break and Naples (Napoli) Guide, and I’m glad to have her info about Naples compiled in book form.

The subtitle promises “Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond”, and I would say the book delivers. The major highlights are covered, in greater detail than many books offer, and then come the hidden corners of Naples that you would never find on your own, like Mauro the glove-maker’s factory, and Japanese restaurant recommendations.

Barbara has also included some practical travel information about safety, driving, staying healthy, and using public transportation. Her advice on greeting Italians is spot on: A little Buon giorno will take you a long way in Italy!

The great detail and variety of information make up for the lack of color photos, as I always appreciate color in a guidebook.

After seeing nearly three pages devoted to the subject of trash in Naples, I laughed out loud at Barbara’s defense of the city’s dirtiness. Why is the city so dirty? “Neapolitans have preserved so much of their past that the buildings almost by necessity tend to blend into the natural look and feel of the ancient ruins.” Naples is just natural, and she suggests that other cities seem un-naturally clean. Well, my mom and I had a good chuckle over this, but I must say, please don’t let the city’s reputation for dirt and grittiness stop you from making a visit! I compare it to the gritty vibrancy of lower Manhattan–a sign of life!

The book includes lots of detail on the ancient sites around Naples and legends connected to them. She also includes a section called the “Odious Women Tour” which includes goddesses, queens, prostitutes, and revolutionaries.

Considering that many travel guides offer just a few pages to the entire south of Italy, this book is a treasure for visitors to the Naples region. If you have a day, or several, to spend in Naples, this book will help you fill your time well.

The Grand Tour: An Italy of the past

File:South west prospet of mount Vesuvius - September 1747 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine.jpg

[Illustration from the September 1747 issue of “The Gentleman’s Magazine]

“A man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”  Samuel Johnson said it, and Joseph Spence, at the age of 31 in 1730, set off from Oxford to see what a man should see. Spence was a commoner with little money, but through the connections of friends, arranged to travel with Lord Middlesex, the 19-year-old son of a duke. The rakish lord drank his way through Europe for a couple of years, while the Oxford don spent his time developing a passion for Italian opera.

In 1737, Spence accompanied John Morley Trevor to the continent, eager to return to Italy. However, Trevor turned out to be a dull companion, and they did not make it to Italy, because Trevor was recalled to England before the end of the year.

In 1740, Spence was asked to accompany another young nobleman, Lord Lincoln, to Italy, where Lincoln was to attend the Royal Academy at Turin. As his governor, Spence oversaw the improvement of Lincoln’s fragile health and guided him out of an affair with an unsuitable partner, returning him to England better prepared for his future.

Spence kept a journal, and wrote numerous letters to his mother while traveling. Here are excerpts from letters to his mother describing his first visit to Naples:

In going to Naples we often passed old Roman roads, in many places all laid with large smooth stone and as entire still as the pavement of a great hall, though near two thousand years old. ‘Tis to me the most surprising thing of art which we have seen abroad. This noble pavement, sometimes for miles together, is bordered with myrtles and a hundred other evergreens, and on each side of it you see perpetually the ruins of old tombs and monuments, for the Romans always buried by great roads (perhaps to put people in mind that this life is but a journey, and that in this world we are not properly at home).

There are sometimes orange-trees in the road, and at Mola, a little seaport on the way to Naples, all the orchards were full of them just like apple-trees with us. Within about thirty miles of Naples we came into a vast plain, the richest soil and the best cultivated in Italy: whence the Italians call it ‘Campagna Felice’ or ‘the happy country’. It was soon after that we discerned the top of the famous Mount Vesuvius, and the smoke which it perpetually flings out looked at that distance like a cloud gilded with the sun.

Naples is one of the most delicious sea-ports in the world: it lies down a sloping ground, all in a large half moon to the sea. The shore on for a great way humours the same shape of a half moon. In one side of it, about six miles on the left hand from Naples, is Vesuvius, and on the right the grotto of Pausilippo and the tomb of Virgil…

It was with a great deal of impatience that I waited for the morning when we were to go up Mount Vesuvius, which was heightened by my seeing it every morning. The tops of the houses are all flat at Naples and as smooth as a floor; they often set them out with flower-pots and orange-trees, and ’tis their usual place for diversion on summer evenings. From the top of our house we had a most distinct view of Vesuvius, and I used to run up there every morning the first thing I did, to see whether he increased in his smoking or not.

At last the morning came: four mile we went along the beautiful shore of Naples in chaises, which were then quit from the rising and badness of the way, for horses. These carried us two mile more, and then the way is so steep and bad that you are forced to quit even them and be dragged up the two last mile by men who make a trade of it…. Two of these honest men get just before you, with strong girdles on; you take hold of the girdles, and then they draw, and you climb up as fast as you can. Both they and we are forced to rest very often, and then tug and trudge again…. In some of the resting places here we felt the earth hot under us as we sat down…. The last stage is infinitely the worst. ‘Tis all loose crumbling earth in which your two draggers and you sink every step almost up to the knees, beside which it often yields under you, and ’tis often impossible not to slip back half a yard…but eagerness to get to the top when so near makes it the less troublesome. When there, you have a ragged rocky edge all round a vast cauldron of perhaps half a mile deep and a mile round, all full of smoke. The wind every three or four minutes clears away the smoke, and then you have a view of it. It sinks irregularly and raggedly all down on the inside. There are several places in it that look of a fire-colour, blueish, greenish and principally yellow…

One of my guides was an extraordinary honest fellow; I was got very intimately acquainted with him in our journey uup. He told me that ‘to be sure the devil lived in that hill’, and wished very heartily that all the Frenchmen were in there with him. Upon my telling him that we are all Frenchmen, he said he was sorry for it, but it could not be helped….

When the wind blew away the smoke from between the crags of the opposite side of the cauldron, we had a veiw of a beautiful piece of country, green fields, meadow-grounds, etc. thick set with houses; on the right hand appeared a part of the delicious bay of Naples: ’twas but turning the head, and we had a full view of all the city and bay.

Spence’s writings are collected in a book edited by Slava Klima entitled Joseph Spence: Letters from the Grand Tour published in 1975.

Watch for a BONUS re-blog of a modern day view of Vesuvius.