Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Naples Tunnel

So-called crypta Neapolitana of Seneca
by Caroline Lawrence

Traveling from the Roman resort of Baiae to Naples one day nearly 2000 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Seneca decided to take the land route instead of the short but choppy sea voyage. Part of the road took a shortcut through a mountain by means of the famous Naples Tunnel. But the Crypta Neapolitana turned out to be almost worse than a sea voyage, a virtual visit to death. In one of his famous Letters to Lucilius, Seneca describes his harrowing journey.

bronze portrait thought by some to depict Seneca
When I had to return from Baiae to Naples, I convinced myself there might be a storm so I wouldn't have to endure another sea voyage. But the road was so waterlogged that I might as well have gone by ship. Anointed with the mud of the road and then dusted in the Naples Tunnel, I felt like a wrestler. Nothing could be longer than that prison, nothing gloomier than the torches that enabled us to see not through the darkness but rather the darkness itself. Had the place any other light sources it would still be clouded by dust which even in the open air is heavy and annoying. How much more so in that tunnel where the dust swirls back on itself. Shut up without any ventilation, it blows into the faces of those who stir it up. In this way we simultaneously endured two opposing inconveniences: on the same road, on the same day we battled both mud and dust. (Letter to Lucilius 57.1-2)

Emerging from the gloom into daylight restored Seneca to his usual good spirits, but thinking about the claustrophobic darkness of the tunnel afterwards prompted him to write about the nature of death and the immortality of the soul

Mergellina station seen from Tomb of Virgil
Seneca’s tunnel was in constant use up until about a century ago, when the middle of the tunnel collapsed, but you can still see both ends. The eastern (Neapolitan) entrance is found near the so-called Tomb of Virgil in the Parco Vergiliano a Piedgrotta. Located near Mergellina train station (only a half hour’s walk from Castel dell’Ovo) this Parco Vergiliano (with an e) is not to be confused with the large Parco Virgiliano (with an i) four miles southwest. In 2013 it barely appeared on Google maps but now you can easily locate it by typing in the words Parco Vergiliano a Piedigrotta. It is behind the Church of the Madonna of Piedigrotta and easily reached by taxi or by train to Mergellina. 

Hand-made tile plaque about myrtle at Virgil's Tomb
Virgil, of course, was the great Roman poet who wrote the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, my favourite Latin poem. I was lucky enough to visit the Parco Vergiliano in September 2013 with Andante Travels. In this densely populated city without many public gardens the so-called site of Virgils tomb offers a cool, green oasis. Flanking the paths are plants and herbs mentioned in the works of Virgil, all beautifully labelled with tile plaques giving descriptions and the Latin names.

Another plaque tells about Virgil and you can see a modern bust of him in a niche, done in 1930 on the 2000th anniversary of his birth. Although the poet was born in Mantua and studied in Rome, he called Naples his home.

The plaque reads:

A modern bust of the ancient poet Virgil
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces...

Mantua bore me, the Calabrians snatched me away, now Naples holds me. I sang of pastures, countrysides, leaders...

The steep hill is formed of honey-coloured tufa cloaked in ivy and dripping with vines. Like honeycomb, the soft rock is perfect for tombs, niches and tunnels, which the Neapolitans call galleria. The biggest of these tunnels is the dramatic Crypta Neapolitana – Seneca’s tunnel. Next to it is one contender for Virgil’s tomb, a cave carved into the hill with a bust of Virgil in a niche nearby. Nearby is another tomb, that of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) a hunchback poet who was a great worshipper of Virgil. Sometimes this area is called the Hill of the Poets. 

Medieval fresco of Santa Maria dell’Idria above the tunnel
Undaunted by the background noise of the Mergellina train and police sirens, our Andante guide proclaimed Tennyson’s Ode to Virgil. Then he told us there is another possible tomb to Virgil on a higher level. 
Climbing the brick stairs with the aid of a sturdy wooden handrail we found a small Roman aqueduct that ran above Seneca’s tunnel. From up here you can get a closer look at a niche with a faded fresco of Madonna and Child. Mounting more stairs takes you to a beehive-shaped tomb that also might be Virgil’s. This atmospheric freestanding cylindrical tomb is of the columbarium type, with niches for ash-filled urns. There is a convenient tripod where you can burn fragrant bay leaves in memory of the great poet. The view from up here is breathtaking; you can see right across the bay to Vesuvius. 

Caroline Lawrence in Virgil's tomb
Although Virgil’s real burial place is probably lost in antiquity, this site became a popular place of pilgrimage. During the Middle Ages the poet became known as a magician. This belief might have started because of one of his poems, the so-called Messianic Fourth Eclogue, in which Virgil seems to have miraculously prophesied the birth of Christ. (The poet died in 19 BC.) Other legends grew up around him and by the mid-14th century a book called the Cronaca di Partenope or Chronicle of Parthenope (Parthenopeis another name for Naples) recounts some amusing achievements of Virgil the Magician. For example, he made a metal horse that cured all sick horses, a golden fly that kept away all flies, and a magic leech that, thrown into a well, rid all Naples of her leeches. 

Virgil the Magician also placed a magic hen
s egg somewhere in the eponymous Castel dell’Ovo. As long as the egg remains, goes the legend, the castle will stand strong. 

painting of the Naples Tunnel by Gaspar Vanvitelli c 1700

My favourite legend is that Virgil himself drilled the Naples Tunnel merely by turning his intensely poetic gaze on the hill, not unlike Superman with his laser vision. According to one eighteenth century travel writer, the grosso popolo of Naples revered Virgil more for his magical creation of this tunnel than for the Aeneid. So it is fitting that you will find Virgil’s Tunnel near one of his possible tombs in the vibrant city he loved so much. 

My two retellings of stories from Virgil’s Aeneid are The Night Raid, about Nisus and Euryalus from book 9, and Queen of the Silver Arrow, about Camilla from books 7 and 11. The reading level is easy but the content is dark.

A version of this post was originally published on the Wonders and Marvels blog