When we first arrived in Italy, as our bus left the airport and drove into Naples, we could clearly see from the windows a mountain in the distance. I say in the distance, but actually it seemed startlingly close. We asked our guide Linda if it was Vesuvius. She answered in the affirmative. I think we were all wonder struck, seeing this fabled peak for the first time.
From many angles, many places, Vesuvius can be discerned, brooding over Naples like a mother over her fractious child – an unstable, dangerous mother, liable to blow her top at any moment…
And yet – a loving and generous mother as well. Three days after our arrival in Italy, we began our ascent of the mountain, initially via bus. Linda explained that the people of the Bay of Naples have a complex relationship with the volcano. Despite its potential for raining down death and destruction, Vesuvius is nevertheless the object of respect, one could almost say veneration, by Neapolitans and their near neighbors. Volcanic ash, it seems, contains all manner of useful minerals and accounts for the exceptionally fertile soil that characterizes the region. Now, as in ancient times, gardens and vineyards can be found on the slopes of the mountain. Linda further informed us, without a trace of irony, that the name of the wine produced from the grapes grown in this region is Lacryma Christi – the Tears of Christ.
(Add to this the fact that that the road up the mountainside was narrow and tortuous, with increasingly heavy traffic. I was momentarily mesmerized by the crucifix that swung crazily from the bus’s rear view mirror.)
As we reached the foothills of Vesuvius, I was surprised to see numerous houses and apartment complexes. These were lovely neighborhoods, gracefully landscaped. Yet they were in squarely in what is known as the Red Zone, a five-mile radius surrounding the volcano where the danger from an eruption is greatest and most immediate. (I was reminded of California, not for the first or last time.)
Vesuvius National Park was created in 1995. Since that time, it has become a popular excursion, especially on a sunny, mild Sunday. This is exactly when our tour group fetched up there. Armed with walking sticks – mine actually doubled as a monopod for use with my Canon Powershot – we followed the trail up the mountain, along with many other trekkers. Although we were assailed by swarms of tiny insects, the mood remained festive.
As we neared the trail’s end, we were met by our guide, Pasquale. He filled us in on the history and geology of Vesuvius.
The enormous caldera in the background was actually the result of the last major eruption, which occurred in 1944. Pasquale had us all shout across it in unison; our voices echoed eerily. He then explained to us that guides used to take people down into the caldera until an American serviceman, tossing a rock in order to hear the sound it would make as it hurtled downward, lost his balance and hurtled downward himself, to his death. (Not fifteen minutes after I heard this harrowing tale, a man walked by me, stopped at the railing, and threw a rock over the edge into the caldera!)
In a small gift shop near by, you could buy a postcard and have it stamped as proof that you had climbed the mountain.
I was filled with pride and exhilaration – I did it!
Due to the friable soil under foot, the walk back down was a bit tricky – I was deeply grateful for my monopod/walking stick. We made it back safely – well, relatively safely. By the time we completed our descent, the parking lot was crammed full of cars and tour buses. In an effort to stay clear of oncoming traffic, one of our tour members fell, banging up her hands and knees. Once we were settled on the bus, she coped bravely. (Hers was the first of several falls experienced by both tour members and our guide.) We then headed away from that extraordinary experience and toward an even more astounding one: Pompeii.
In between these two momentous encounters, we stopped in Torre del Greco. Famous in its day for the production of cameo jewelry, this town whose name literally means “Tower of the Greek” houses but a few establishments that still practice this ancient craft. Linda told us that until recently, cameos were handed down from mothers to daughters to granddaughters, and so on. Like so many traditions of old, this one is, alas, dying out.
One of the premier jewelers still making cameos in Torre del Greco is Giovanni Apa. We stopped at this fine establishment, where we were shown the art of making cameos, and – naturally! – given the opportunity to shop. The cameo I purchased bears a close resemblance to this one:
Source is the Howard County Library’s quarterly publication. In it, you will find information concerning all manner of upcoming events. The issue covering the summer months has just come out, and I’d like to bring to your attention two upcoming book discussions, both of which involve Yours Truly.
This year’s Adult Summer Reading Game is entitled “Master the Art of Reading;” as you can see, it’s featured on the cover of Source.On page 4, you’ll find information about book clubs and discussions for adults. At the bottom of the page, there’s an announcement of a panel discussion called “Good Summer Reads” which will take place on Tuesday evening, June 2, at 7 PM at the Central Library. My erstwhile colleagues at the library graciously invited me to take part in this panel. Five of us will be touting favorite recent reads. Here are just a few of the titles whose praises I’ll be singing:
The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser
About Face by Donna Leon
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
Mrs. Astor Regrets by Meryl Gordon
Black Seconds by Karin Fossum
Other panelists will have lots more to recommend. You’ll be positively blizzarded with book lists! There will be door prizes and refreshments! Call 410-313-7860 to register. You can still come whether you call or not, but if the organizers have an idea how many people plan to come, then they can be sure that there is sufficient free food (a worthy goal, yes?). I hope to see you there.
At the top of page 4 of the Source, you’ll see the announcement concerning “The Art of the Mystery,” a discussion I’ll be leading at the Glenwood Branch Library on Thursday July 9 at 7 PM. I plan to emphasize crime fiction that works well for book discussion groups, but I’ll also be talking generally about my favorite genre. Again, book lists will be available; also, websites will be recommended. So: I not only want you to come – I need you to come! The enthusiasm of knowledgeable readers is key to making evenings like this enjoyable for everyone.
Meanwhile, here are some of the books and authors I’ll be touching on, if time permits – and that’s a very big if:
You can obtain a copy of the Source at any branch of the Howard County Library.
I would have liked another day in Naples – actually another week would have been most welcome. For one thing, I had wanted very much to see the Caravaggio paintings housed in various venues in the city:
Caravaggio, whose turbulent life would make a great movie, is one of many great artists and writers who were either born in Naples or lived some part of their lives there. Among these are Giovanni Boccaccio, author of Tales of the Decameron; the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the notorious and fascinating Emma Hamilton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the composers Alessandro Scarlatti and Carlo Gesualdo, to name just a few.
Like Caravaggio, Carlo Gesualdo led an eventful life marked by violence: upon finding his wife in flagrante with her lover, without hesitation he killed them both. He then fled to his castle in the mountains, where he proceeded to kill his only son because he suspected him of having been sired by his wife’s illicit amour. Talk about material for a movie! (This bloody tale is recounted by Jordan Lancaster in her history of Naples entitled In the Shadow of Vesuvius. The author further informs us that in a trial that lasted only a single day, Gesualdo was acquitted, ‘given the well-known just cause which guided him.’ )
And yet, and yet…such beautiful music!
And speaking of music, I neglected to mention when writing about our visit to the Cappella Sansevero that while we were there, sacred music was playing softly in the background. I heard one of my favorite selections in the early music reperoire: Miserere Mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri:
(Click here to read the history of this work – a history that involves the young Mozart.)
And speaking about music once more, I had also hoped at least to visit the Teatro di San Carlo, if not actually attend a performance there.
Alas, we got only a fleeting glimpse of this historic (1737) performance venue as our bus sped through the city.
And now, from the sublime to the merely delicious!
Among its other virtues, Naples is the birthplace of pizza – specifically, Pizza Margherita. It seems that when Queen Margherita of Savoy came to the city in 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the reigning pizzaiolo of the day, sought to create a dish in honor of her visit. His deceptively simple concoction consisted of the basic ingredients, bread and tomato sauce, topped with the famous local mozzarella di bufala and finished off with sprigs of fresh basil. Ecco, there you have it: red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag!
Housed in an elegant edifice dating from the early 17th century, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli is a vast treasure house of sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, and other artifacts from ancient times. Many are from Pompeii and Herculaneum; they were removed to the museum for purposes of safekeeping and preservation.
Click here for the harrowing tale depicted in this remarkable sculpture, thought to be the largest ever recovered from antiquity.
Okay, I know you want to see them…here are several examples of the art that resides in the famous (infamous?) “Gabinetto Segreto:“
There’s plenty more in that secret room, which used to be off limits to all but those with special permission to enter and view. I’m not about to tackle the subject of the sexual attitudes that characterized ancient Roman provinces, but I can recommend the chapter entitled “The Pleasures of the Body” from Mary Beard’s fascinating book:
We spent the morning in that place of wonders and it wasn’t nearly long enough. This fact was especially brought home to me as I paged through the catalog. I thought we had seen quite a bit, but actually we saw just a small fraction of the museum’s vast holdings.
“The female figure seen tripping barefoot away from us, her veil and the hem of her dress fluttering in the breeze, has the heartaching allure of a fleeting apparition in a dream. As she moves she turns aside to pick with gesture full of elegance white flowers from a bush which she will then lay in her basket. We do not know whether she is human or divine, a nymph, Flora, or Proserpine. But then the painter himself, who took his inspiration from 4th century models and produced this masterpiece of grace and fantasy as a vignette on a III style wall, made no effort to characterise with extraneous attributes the identity of this young maiden, whom it seems only natural to view as the embodiment of Spring itself.
On our first, and as it turned out, only full day in Naples, we were bused through Chiaia an upmarket area in the city’s Western District. After the previous day’s exciting though bewildering impromptu tour, this place was a revelation to me: turns out there are good and not-so-good neighborhoods in Naples, as in so many American cities.
[I'd like to say at this point that I've had some difficulty ascertaining which names rightly belong to which places. I apologize in advance for any errors on my part and welcome corrections from anyone who possesses more precise information.]
In Chiaia we saw lovely, gracious (and graffiti-free) buildings which, according to Nadia, our guide for the morning, used to be private residences but have now been broken up into flats and offices. While these were on our right, a beautiful park, the Villa Comunale, appeared on our left. Lovely plantings and gently swaying palm trees alternated with statues of classical gods and heroes. This was the first of many instances in which I wanted to shout, “Stop the bus! I want to get out and have a closer look.” But it was not to be – not until we reached the waterfront.
The weather was gorgeous. We descended from the bus for this picture-taking opportunity. To our left was an island on which stands the the Egg Castle, about which more in a moment.
To our right, the hill of Posillipo sloped gently down to the sea. And before us sparkled the blue water of the bay.
At that point, I had one of those mini-epiphanies that occur when things are just too perfect. “This,” I exclaimed to no one in particular, “this is why we put up with airport delays, traffic, and all the rest of it – to be in a place like this!” So there was I, in raptures, snapping pictures like crazy, and when I finally turned around, all the folks in this picture – I mean every one of them – had disappeared!
Somehow I never heard the call to get back on the bus. Presumably someone would have come back out to inform me that my transport was leaving…
Meanwhile, what’s the story on the so-called Egg Castle? Here’s Jordan Lancaster (In the Shadow of Vesuvius):
“Legend has it that the Roman poet Virgil hid an egg in a secret location in the castle on the island of Megaris, known as Castel dell’Ovo, the Egg Castle. The destiny of the castle, together with that of the entire city of Naples, is linked to the egg. As long as the egg is safe, the city of Naples is said to be protected by Virgil’s magic powers.
“References to a messianic figure, a young boy who would change the course of the world, are contained in Virgil’s prohpetic Eclogue IV.This legend grew and was embellished until Vigil gained a reputation as a magician or wizard.
Virgil’s tomb is purportedly located in Naples near the entrance to the crypta napolitana, a tunnel over two thousand feet long that runs beneath Posillipo. The poet himself is said to have excavated this underground space in a single night!
Neapolis. Napoli. Naples.
First colonized by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC, Naples has a long and fascinating history. Jordan Lancaster’s recounting of it had me hooked before I ever got there. Thus I was well disposed toward the place, but at the same time wary, because of other things said and hinted at, in books and by people with direct experience of the city.
“Nowhere can prepare you for the manic in-your-face vitality of Naples.A highly charged mix of screaming humanity and teeming streets, it’s an unrelenting assault on your senses. Raucous, polluted, unruly, deafening and with many of its historical buildings filthy and crumbling, Naples is a city that polarises opinion like no other.
Yes – that about sums it up. But it’sonly part of the story
On that first day, my traveling companions Jean and Linda and I wandered the streets of the city on our own. We were overwhelmed and to a degree appalled by what we saw. All that graffiti, all over everything – even the base of the Dante statue in the piazza bearing his name. Dante, for God’s sake!
At one point we found ourselves in the Piazza del Gesu Nuovo. Here, street life was the expected mix of chaos and intrigue. We were already learning that the act of crossing the street required taking your life in your hands. The cars were small but aggressive, like tiny heat seeking missiles. Even they were nothing compared to the motor scooters, which were noisy, fast, reckless, and ubiquitous, driven by men and women, young and old. At least they were helmets, which perhaps should equally be issued to pedestrians who unwittingly stray into their line of sight.
In the midst of everything, a man was teaching soccer moves to some children (football, in the local parlance).
I wandered over to an odd sort of wall on which a sign proclaimed “Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.” I told my friends that I had read about this church and that it might be a good idea to step inside. It was.
A similar scenario unfolded the following day. We had just been to “Napoli Sotterraneo,” Naples Underground. This was an activity that I did not particularly enjoy. We’d been told that we would see Roman ruins in those dank caves, but somewhow all I saw was…dank caves. The situation was not helped by the fact that our guide was a Roberto Benigni wannabe who was squirrelly in the extreme and more intent on impressing us with his hip knowledge of American slang – “Hey, no problem, bro!” – than in conveying information in a a coherent fashion.
At any rate, on the way back to the hotel, Linda and I decided to stop in at the Cappella Sansevero. This chapel was located in a tiny side street off another side street, a place where you’d think you’d be safe from careening motor scooters. You weren’t. These perpetual annoyances were seemingly never denied access. (Or if they were, no one paid any attention.) Linda and I were forced to flatten ourselves against the wall several times in order to avoid being creamed. Raucous, polluted, unruly, deafening…
But once inside the Cappella Sansevero, another world lay revealed, one of transcendant calm and nearly unbearable beauty. The Cappella’s most famous feature is an amazing work of sculpture executed by Guiseppe Sammartino in 1756 : Cristo Velato, or The Veiled Christ:
Further wonders awaited us in that small exquisite space.
Soundtrack suggestion: “Santa Lucia,” one of the most famous Neapolitan songs, sung here by Mario Lanza:
At the beginning, perhaps, as we sat for two and a half hours on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport. This infuriating delay, caused first by a security-related luggage mix-up and then by the unstable weather, nearly made us miss our connection from Munich to Naples. However, thanks to game companions, good running shoes, and luck, we made it, with minutes to spare. No small feat, as Munich airport is the size of a small city and it seemed as though we had to traverse the better part of it at speed in order to reach our gate. On top of which, unbeknown to us, they had changed the gate number! Veering right, we maintained speed, with me breaking into a run…
…And we soon found ourselves aboard a Lufthansa A321 Airbus. After the cramped confines of United’s Boeing 777, this aircraft seemed positively spacious. I could even cross my legs – and I was in economy class! (Even so, am I not a part of all mankind, etc?)
Feelings of vast relief were enhanced by the friendly and efficient service of the crew. And this is probably as good a time as any for me to sing the praises of Lufthansa. I haven’t been so impressed by an airline since the crew members of Southwest first cracked wise in my surprised and happy presence. These people really know the meaning of customer service. Bless you, Lufthansa; you turned a harrowing encounter into an exhilarating kickoff for my Italian Adventure!
Next up: Naples…
Books to the Ceiling will be on hiatus while I am in Italy. I leave tomorrow and return on Saturday the 16th.
It is exactly forty years since I have been to this beautiful country, so I am thrilled at the opportunity to return. I’ll be in Naples and on the Amalfi Coast. Reading about the history of Naples has been fascinating, and I am looking forward to my first visit to that storied city. And I hope, in honor of my brother David’s fervent devotion to the music of Richard Wagner, to glimpse the Villa Rufolo in Ravello, where the composer stayed in 1880 while working on my favorite of all his operas, Parsifal.
Here is the sublime Good Friday music from Parsifal. Performers are Kurt Moll, Siegfried Jerusalem, and Waltraud Meier, with James Levine conducting.
Yes, many wonders await me…But first, in my effort to be a modern traveler, I decided that I needed to acquire and master certain new devices which were scarcely dreamed of when I was wandering the continent those many years ago. Here they are, starting with the most challenging:
Heartfelt thanks to the woman at the Verizon help desk for her endless, cheerful patience. She probably thinks I was born around 1890, or have been living in a cave. Thanks also to my equally patient husband – and he needed to be, trust me.
Actually, I’m really grateful for the clock: it is relatively simple to operate and made feel as though I were not a complete incompetent.
A man bears witness to the final journey of the aunt who raised him in Colm Toibin’s “The Color of Shadows.” This immensely moving story is told with eloquence and restraint by one of Ireland’s finest living writers.
In “Enameled Lady,” Hilton Als revisits the life and work of Katherine Anne Porter. The occasion is The Library of America’s recent release of Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings.
Porter had a messy private life. Born in Texas, she endured a hardscrabble childhood; as an adult, she experienced a succession of broken marriages and numerous, largely unsatisfying love affairs. She was, nonetheless (as a result?), a terrific writer.
At the age of 28, Porter nearly died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Here is an excerpt from an interview that appeared in the Paris Review, in which she describes the after effects of what she suffered:
“‘It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really ‘alienated,’ in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day,’ the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.’
Porter fictionalized this experience brilliantly in what many consider to be her masterpiece, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. I have never forgotten this passage describing Miranda’s close brush with oblivion, and the strange aftermath:
“At night, after the long effort of lying in her chair, in her extremity of grief for what she had so briefly won, she folded her painful body together and wept silently, shamelessly, in a pity for herself and her lost rapture. There was no escape. Dr. Hildesheim, Miss Tanner, the nurses in the diet kitchen, the chemist, the surgeon, the precise machine of the hospital, the whole humane conviction and custom of society, conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and wasted flesh to its feet, to put in order her disordered mind, and set her once more safely in the road that would lead her again to death.
What do an eighteenth century Russian opera singer and a warlike tribal people of ancient Italy have in common?
In The Pearl, author Douglas Smith tells the story of Nicholas Scheremetev, a Russian aristocrat who finds, in the young Praskovia Kovalyova, a woman of prodigious acting and singing talent. He puts her in starring roles in his home grown opera company. Then, almost inevitably, he falls in love with her. The problem: she is of lowly serf parentage. But this fact does nothing do dampen Scheremetev’s ardor; if anything, his devotion to Praskovia increases as she moves from triumph to artistic triumph.
I found myself turning back repeatedly to this portrait of Praskovia, attributed to German artist Johann Bardou and most likely painted in 1790. She is here depicted in the role of Eliane in an opera entitled “The Marriage of the Samnites” by Andre Gretry:
I admit that at the time, I was so engrossed in the poignant story of Nicholas and Praskovia that I did not stop long to wonder just who the Samnites were. But now that I’ve been reading up on the history of the Italian peninsula, I am encountering them again. Early settlers in central Italy, the Samnites warred repeatedly with the Romans for supremacy in the region. Ultimately they lost out, were dispersed, and gradually disappeared, as the Romans swept all before them.
Somehow, though, I doubt that their womenfolk got themselves up in elaborate costumes like Praskovia’s; animal skins were probably more the order of the day!