Walk in the Footsteps of the Ancient Greeks in These Secret Underground Tombs in Naples | Travel
Vincenzo Oste is in his artist’s studio, working with a beautiful piece of translucent alabaster that will soon become a door on an engraved cabinet he is making. “The Sanita district of Naples exudes incredible energy,” he tells me. “All my inspiration and creativity comes from what lies below us.”
One of the wonders of Sanita is that much of it is hidden from view. Anonymous entrances lead from narrow cobbled streets to huge courtyards of crumbling baroque palaces; behind a bustling street market, a single facade hides a labyrinthine complex of churches; artisans create handmade shoes, gloves and cribs in workshops you’ll never guess where. Even my B&B – the art-filled former home of the late sculptor Annibale Oste, Vincenzo’s father – is tucked away in a quiet courtyard with exuberant bougainvillea. And there are indescribably tiny gates, some guarded by sleepy mutts, that plunge you into a quiet, unsuspected underworld, far beneath the roar of Vespa jockeys.
Visitors tend not to linger in Naples, stopping to sample the pizza before heading west to the islands of Capri and Ischia, south to the Amalfi Coast or to the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii nearby. The Roman catacombs of Sanita are gaining traction with tourists, but now a much older site is about to open to the public for the first time – a site that could prove Neapolis’ importance as a center of excellence of ancient Greece, putting Roman Pompeii into context – and I’m here for a taste.
A courtyard at Atelier Ines
Sanita squats in a valley just beyond the walls of Neapolis (part of Magna Graecia) and served for centuries as the city’s cemetery; first for the Greeks, then for the Romans. Covered by successive layers of mud which flowed down from the hills (the so-called vergini lava) in the 1600s, the necropolis formed the substrate for aristocratic palaces. But with the erection in the 19th century of the Maddalena Cerasuolo Bridge, which carried traffic directly from the city center to the Royal Palace of Capodimonte, bypassing Sanita, came a reversal of fortune. Sanita has descended into neglect and poverty, its nefarious reputation for violence and mafia shootings keeping tourists at bay.
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The catalyst for the rebirth of the area has been its buried cemeteries, with the opening of the early Christian catacombs of San Gennaro and San Gaudioso in 2006. It was the initiative of Father Antonio Loffredo and a group of eight young residents who trained co-agent La Paranza. “We didn’t see a future here and we were wondering how we could find work,” says Enzo Porzio, one of the founding members. “Our priest, Father Antonio, took us under his wing and taught us the art, and we realized we had a treasure on our doorstep. He got permission to open the catacombs and we started to working as guides has changed the perception of Sanita, generated tourism and given us a sense of pride in our heritage.
Since the opening of the catacombs, almost 920,000 people have come to see the frescoes of dancing skeletons in San Gaudioso and the underground churches in the vast vaults of San Gennaro.
However, what lies beneath Vincenzo’s workshop is much older: part of a Greek necropolis built in the 4th century BC and used until the 1st century AD. Two other sections are already open and receive a trickle of tourists. But the tombs under the Via Cristallini are “the most remarkable and the most excavated”, according to Luigi La Rocca, head of the Soprintendenza, the government agency in charge of archaeological and cultural discoveries in Naples. “They belonged to the most relevant families [of the period]and were miraculously preserved by the vergini lava. This city . . . never ceases to amaze. »
The Ipogeo dei Cristallini, as this complex of four tombs is called (“catacombs” refers to a later period), was first rediscovered in 1889, when Baron di Donato was looking for water in the garden of his palace in Via dei Cristallini. “He excavated the site and discovered around 700 terracotta pots and metal objects,” says Alessandra Calise, whose husband inherited part of the property. “But then the Ipogeo was closed, except to archaeologists and the occasional friend. It became my dream to open it to the public.
To realize his dream, Calise collected €195,000 from the Regione Campania development fund – to which the family added another €100,000 (the site, exceptionally, is private property) – and invited the Soprintendenza to oversee the necessary works. The project lasted almost two years, involving cleaning with liquids and lasers, preserving and stabilizing the pigments and maintaining the delicate microclimate, as well as scientific studies and research.
As she led me up the steps built by the baron at a depth of 40 feet, I found myself at street level 2,300 years ago, gazing at the upper levels of imposing two-tiered tombs – each with his burial chamber below. The tombs and their decorations are entirely scavati (carved directly into the volcanic tuff): benches for mourners; columns in high relief; niches; sarcophagi — with the names of the deceased engraved on the walls and on tablets.
Market stalls in Via Vergini, the main street of Rione Sanita
Detailed analysis and restoration will continue, but already frescoes have been revealed: garlands, crowns and griffins adorn the walls, as well as eggs and pomegranates (symbols of the resurrection), painted in bright primary colors and, above all, mixed pigments, such as violet. created from the mixture of mineral Egyptian Blue and organic Red Madder; these secondary colors, according to conservator Serena Di Gaetano, are very unusual and reflect the status of the deceased.
The biggest wow factor, however, is Tomb C, the most complete of the quartet. On the upper level, its pitched stone roof mimics wooden beams, with a pediment in which a sculpture of Pan discovered in the rubble could have resided. As I walk across the red mosaic floor of the lower chamber, I encounter the stony shard of Medusa – the only element of the complex that is not carved directly into the tuff – then I turn to see a representation of Dionysus twice born with Ariane, the woman he immortalized in the stars. The realism of the carving is such that beaded cornices seem to frame the chamber, and the carved cushions adorning each of the six sarcophagi are as plump and inviting as down, as if painted with embroidery.
Inside the Ipogeo dei Cristallini
“It’s a fascinating leap into the past,” says Federica Giacomini, head of the restoration project at the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro. “The care and attention to detail is extraordinary. We have Greek sculpture and architecture from the 4th century BC, but surviving painting from this era is extremely rare.
Calise is thrilled to see her dream finally come true. “The plan is that visitors will have a one-hour guided tour, with a maximum of 25 people per day, to help protect the frescoes,” she says.
An hour later, like a time traveler, I emerge from the airless cold of antiquity in the glare of the Neapolitan sun and feel the jolt of 23 centuries. Wash the flaps in the breeze from the balconies overhead; people are chatting, laughing, arguing in the street; old women hang for hours above the stable doors, simply watching the spectacle of life – its energy emanating from the mysterious parallel world below.
Teresa Levonian Cole was a guest at Atelier Ines, which offers double guest rooms from £170 (atelierinesgallery.com). The Ipogeo dei Cristallini opens on Friday (£21; ipogeodeicristallini.org)
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