Posted by Carlo (Skorpio) June 12, 2009
A couple of days ago I ran into Clemente Esposito, our dean of Neapolitan urban speleology, and as we stopped for a chat he told me that that afternoon he was going with some friends to have a look at a Greek hypogeum in the ancient Sanita’ quarter of Naples. Since I have been waiting for a long time to have such an opportunity I jumped at the chance to join his group.
So as planned we met at Piazza Cavour and took off up via Vergine for the Sanita’ section of town. For those unfamiliar with the area, a visit to this area is incredible: Via Vergine, from sunup to sundown it is an enormous outdoor market where a world-wise sea of humanity flows through stalls and stands that stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk along the ancient street. Here everything is for sale, and the ambient noise level includes constant chatter, the earsplitting screams from babies as well as from the “vaiasse” or women from the quarter, all mixed with the loud exhause noise and smoke from motor scooters chasing through the crowded street, drivers defiantly not wearing helmets; all this taking place amongst the once glorious churches and palaces of the nobility of the 1700’s.
Our guide was Carlo Leggieri, of the Celanapoli Cultural Association, who with great passion and competence is overseeing the discovery of this early Grecian world, for whom the ornate underground tombs or hypogea, and the Hellenist funerals were among the most important parts of their culture.
In fact, he explained that in the fourth century AD, outside the walled belt that surrounded the early Greek city of Naples to the North, all along the cliffs lining the washed out “vallone” or huge weather eroded valleys, the Greeks excavated their elaborate burial tombs in classic Hellenistic style. They honeycombed the whole hillside area, the Via Arena Sanita’, Via Cristallini, vico Traetta and via Santa Maria Antesaecula. The easily worked volcanic yellow Tuff sandstone was ideal, and located nearby are the Paleo-Christian catacombs of Naples’ Patron Saint, San Gennaro, and the San Gaudioso catacomb as well as the gigantic chambers containing the dealth-cult Fontanelle Cemetery where hundreds of thousands of plague and cholera victims were interred.
Dazed from the din in the streets, but happy about the adventure ahead of us, we arrived at Vico Traetta and then down Via Santa Maria Antesaecula, where from an ancient “basso” or windowless hovel carved into the sandstone, our guide took us down into the underground below the Sanita’. We eased down steep stairway all the way down to the level of an ancient Greco-Roman street at the bottom of a once washed out valley, eroded over the centuries as rain runoff ate away the volcanic sandstone.
Here, leaning against the ancient walkway were the entrances to hypogea carved out inside the tuf sandstone, and which led on into the funerary chambers also excavated in the rock.
Little by little we descended, emotion building, unique unrepeatable excitement, we finally found ourselves in front of the entrance to the “Hypogea of the Toga-Wearers.” It takes its name from the two figures carved into the sandstone of which we can only see the lower part today, but from which one can tell their total size. At the feet of the two figures was a panther, but only its outline remains today. It was broken off in the 1700’s and taken away by tomb raiders who first discovered the hypogea.
The outline of the guards that remains today at the tomb’s entrance most certainly represents the ultimate final salute to the deceased. Today plans are underway to carefully remove outer debris and materials from the foundation built in the 1700’s for the building above in order to completely expose the figures and the area around the tomb entrance.
We all remained for some time, sitting on the sandstone floor admiring this mind-blowing testament to the ancient Greek cult of death which was handed down over the centuries up to recent times in Naples. We speculated and discussed various hypotheses about how these ancient chambers were transformed and used and how future excavation can be done without compromising anything.
At the end of the adventure we were all tired and satisfied and extende our thanks to Carlo for the unique tour and the emotions brought back to life in the ancient excavation.
We left the Sanita’ and at one of the ancient city gates, Porta San Gennaro, we all stopped by a namesake pizzeria and enjoyed a nice pizza offered by our patron, Clemente
Translated by Larry Ray