Siamo sul prestigioso The Sunday Times Travel Si parla di Napoli, del Rione Sanità e di Pompei.
A remarkable tomb in Naples is revealing its grisly secrets, while across the bay in Pompeii, six newly restored houses have opened to the public. Mia Aimaro Ogden goes ghost-hunting.
One of the strangest, mostimportant and downright creepiest sightsin Naples is revealing its macabre secrets. You’ll find the 4th-century Catacombs of San Gaudioso below the flamboyant 17th-century church of Santa Maria della Sanita — and, thanks to its restoration, it’s a trip into the underworld you shouldn’t miss. If you’re visiting this part of Italy, it would seem a shame not to make the short journey around the Bay of Naples to Pompeii, especially as six houses have just reopened there, part of a £76m restoration programme. I’m on a trip to see both — in the company of Francesca Del Vecchio, a local guide and art historian. “Look at this church,” she says when our taxi pulls up at Santa Maria. “Like the Neapolitans themselves, it’s excessive, expressive — though what it conceals is even more important.”
Last year, it received a £395,000 grant to restore its early-Christian catacombs, as well as the 17th-century Dominican crypt above. The latter isn’t due to open to the public until the autumn, but Del Vecchio sneaks us behind the scenes. At the back of the basilica, below an elaborate staircase, an episode of Time Team is unfolding under the watchful eye of their Tony Robinson, Adele Pezzillo. She’s part of a co-operative called La Paranza, which is bringing life back to the neighbourhood.
For Del Vecchio, the most exciting discoveries emerging from the darkness are the dynamic frescoes of Bernardino Fera, a master of Neapolitan art, born in 1667. The tufa walls of the crypt were painted over by lesser artists several times, but flashes of crimson, blue and yellow offer tantalising glimpses of Fera’s martyrs meeting a ghastly end. Each is more grisly than the last.
“The women were mostly murdered because they refused to marry pagans,” Del Vecchio says. “Eugenia here had to flee to a monastery, disguised as a monk, but a woman fell in love with her, there was a trial, and she was killed. Benedetta was simply beheaded. It’s thrilling to see them for the first time.”
These lost women act as the guardians of the eerie tombs on which the church was built: the Catacombs of San Gaudioso. Over the past few months, the art on their walls has been delicately restored and the mould creep controlled. They’re now fully open to the public. Despite the work, the slippery staircase is running with damp and sprouting moss.
Septimius Celius Gaudiosus was a North African bishop whose remains were laid here in AD453. His body is long gone, but he’s left behind a fabulous spectacle: the Galleria dei Nobili, where the high-born of 17th-century Naples paid a small fortune for their bones to lie with the ancients in spooky illustrated tombs. Life-size skeletons in perky poses are painted on vast tufa slabs, each holding the tools of his former trade: lawyers, judges, writers and the artist himself, Giovanni Balducci, who refused a fee so he, too, could be entombed here.
The modesty of the skeletons belonging to dead women is preserved with frescoed skirts below their naked ribcage. And at the top of each bony neck is a hole in the wall — holding the owner’s skull. I shiver in the gloom. Even in death, this grisly gang is laughing at us. “It happened to me yesterday; it will happen to you tomorrow,” one epitaph declares. It’s a relief to get back out into the sunlight.
POMPEII’S STORY is also hardly short on death, but today it’s full of life. On the streets around the six newly restored houses, the crowds are five deep. These domus opened in December. Some had been closed for decades; others had all but fallen down. A state of emergency was declared in the crumbling city in 2008. Del Vecchio has sharp elbows, and prods her way to the front of the queue before you can say “Mary Beard”.
Now, I’m no Cambridge classicist, but even I can see that the Cryptoporticus house is both an important insight into the life of a Roman city and a jolly nice bit of interior decoration. The glorious frescoes in Pompeiian red and the shrine to Mercury immediately go on my Instagram feed. The Roman graffiti is fun, too. But how did guests in the summer dining room manage to eat, lying down, on those sloping benches? “No wonder they were always vomiting,” Del Vecchio says.
The House of Paquius Proculus has a gorgeous mosaic floor, an elegant porticoed garden and a set of lead water pipes no different from those in any Victorian bathroom. At the entrance, I pick up a loose tile from the intricate pattern on the ground and ask the guard what to do with it. “Just hide it in a hole in the wall,” she tells me. “It will be a surprise for someone in 100 years.” In Stephanus’s fullery, the elegant marble basins for trampling the laundry in urine — it softens the fabric — provide amusement for schoolkids. The jagged door of the House of the Ephebus, which was barred against the lava in AD79, is a moving reminder of human frailty.
And that’s what Pompeii is all about: the minutiae of daily life, cut short. And that’s why the restored domus are so fascinating. They’re the details of a story that will always break your heart.