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Translated by Jeff Matthews

In 1342 Petrarch wrote to cardinal Colonna” “...I saw Lake Lucrino, which provided the Romans with such fine Oysters, and the stagnant waters of Acheron, and that mountain, the roots of which touch Hell, itself, and which today is appropriately called Barbaro (Mount Gauro)...” (Familiares). “Gaurus inanis” (hollow, empty Gauro) as Juvenal described it in his Satires, is an ancient crater, now extinct, but celebrated by the Greek and Roman writers for the most excellent wine produced there.

Scipione Mazzella tells us in his Sito, et antichità della città di Pozzuolo, e del suo amenissimo distretto... [On the Place and Antiquity of the City of Pozzuoli and its Most Pleasant Environs...](1606) that in his day, however, Gauro had become a “gravelly and uncultivated mountain” because of the many fires it suffered over the years and that this is why the name had changed to Barbaro. Gaspare Paragallo, however, in Istoria naturale del Monte Vesuvio [Natural History of Mt. Vesuvius] (1705) says that name Barbaro comes from the fact that the Saracens, during their many incursions in the area, lived in the ravines and gorges, and also that the mountain is rich in minerals. Mazzella hints at as much when he speaks of the dark grottoes (perhaps dug by the ancient Cimmerian miners of whom Strabo speaks?), almost all of which have collapsed and are explored only by careless visitors who often “leave their lives there” in the hope of finding precious treasures. We noticed in our explorations that the tufa on the slopes is not compact and is fractured in many places; there also earth-slides at various points in the crater.

Archaeological evidence points to human presence in the area beginning in the fifteenth century, BC. The mountain was also the site of numerous battles during the Roman-Samnite war. In 342 BC, Roman consul, Marcus Valerius Corvus, defeated the Samnites in the famous battle of Mt. Gauro, as recounted by Livy. He also reminds us that Gauro figured in the second Punic War. It was, indeed, there in 215 BC that Hannibal consulted a sibyl before deciding on the arduous task of conquering Pozzuoli. According to Herbert William Parke, that particular oracle can only have been the one connected to Mt. Barbaro and the Cimmerian Sibyl. Stabo echoes Ephor, and places at Gauro the seat of the oracle of the dead of this mythical people since the Cuman Sibyl had disappeared by 421 BC, as recounted by Virgil and Pliny. (We should remember that in 421 Cuma was taken by the Samnites.) What if the Cimmerian and Cuman sibyls were actually one and the same? Pompei Sarnelli in his La guida de' forestieri, curiosi di vedere, e di riconoscere le cose più memorabili di Pozzuoli, Baja, Cuma, Miseno, Gaeta, ed altri luoghi circonvicini [Guide for Travelers, those who are curious to see and know the most memorable things of Pozzuoli, Baia, Cuma, Miseno, Gaeta, and other nearby places] (1769) reminds us: “...Three miles from Cuma is where Livy places the Sacred Forest of Hamae, called Sacer locus by the ancients. It was said to be a wood with a temple at the top of the mountain about a mile and a half from the baths of Tripergola [ed. note: the town of Tripergola was buried by the eruption of 1538 that formed Monte Nuovo], a mountain that ones sees today to be covered with ruins of ancient structures...”. That is where the Cumans held nocturnal, solemn sacrifices. Probably the sacred wood of Hamae is nothing more than the forest that Virgil speaks of, the dark forest destroyed by Agrippa. Mt. Barbara, at 336 meters dominates the Gulf of Pozzuoli; the Greeks called it 'Majestic' and its roots reach Averno. The Sacred Temple of Hamae is supposed to have been at the top. Probably the famous temple of Apollo was at the top of Gauro, as well; it is described by Virgil as being near the Trivia Wood where there is known to have been a local cult dedicated to the worship of Juno Gaura, sister of the god.

One of the slopes of Barbaro is called Mountain of Christ or of the Saviour because of the presence of a medieval church dedicated to the Saviour; this gave rise to the mysterious belief that here, at Lake Averno, is where Christ descended into Hell after His death, as described by Scipione Mazzella: “Where you see Tripergola, and the bath of the Arch, and the bath of Raniero, and the old bath of Tripergola, there is the mountain of Christ, so called, according to the common people, because Christ, our redeemer, who rose from the dead, there descended into Hell to free the souls of the Holy Fathers, who were in Limbo; and having risen again at Averno with the Holy Fathers, took that great mountain and closed the mouth of Hell. That is why, some say, it is called the mountain of Christ....”. Today the church (originally furnished with two cisterns) has been reduced to a pile of rubble (fig. 1).


fig. 1

And thus Apollo became Christ

During our excursion we had the privilege of admiring timeless places, where there are no boundaries between myth and history. From the heights of the mountain your gaze is lost in Kore infera [ed.note: Kore=Greek name for Proserpine; infera=the realm beyond the tomb]...(fig.2) On the way down we ran into an elderly man, who lived right there and who really knew “his” mountain. He showed us the location of place used as an air-raid shelter in WWII (fig.3). It was cut into the side of the mountain and there were many fractures on the vault and the sides (fig.4). Who knows it wasn't more dangerous to seek shelter in that thing than have bombs falling on you!


fig. 2


fig. 3


fig. 4

Irony of destiny: those who dropped the bombs now occupy the entire crater (Carney Park). Natives can't get in.

Selene Salvi and Daniela Marra

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