Napoli sotterranea

Napoli sotterranea

Napoli sotterranea

Naples wears its urban dysfunctions as a disguise, a perverse diversion from the underlying substance, a challenge to anyone who wishes to know her. Like some women who are defined “high maintenance”, she requires infinite care and understanding, and forgiveness for a multitude of caprices and unreasonable demands. Willfully and maliciously, she flaunts her impossible congestion, her periodic sanitary crises, the hauteur of her people, the casual haphazardness of her services, her refusal to yield to the demands of modernity, as a gauntlet to filter out the faint of heart. Only the strong need apply, but the rewards for those who possess the necessary patience and fortitude are great.

The treasures of Naples are endless. I know the city, and yet in the course of three days there we found things new and undreamed of. One of these is Napoli Sotterranea, the subterranean city above which the modern city is built. This consists of an extensive network of underground passages, caverns and cisterns, whose deepest recesses date back to pre-Christian Greek times. Above the Greek layer one finds structures dating from Roman times, and above these one finds medieval walls and artifacts. The underground city exists for several reasons: first of all, in constructing their buildings, Neapolitans simply used the surrounding tufa, the volcanic rock ubiquitous in the region. So, as a palace or a church went up, a hole was created by the quarrying of the building material. A key use for this growing network of underground passages, then, since ancient times, was the storage of water for the city. The water came from springs in the Apennine mountains, according to the ancient techniques of the Romans, who were able to build long aqueducts without pumps. Amazingly, this water collection and delivery system persisted into the 19th century, when, because of contamination from seeping sewage, it was abandoned in favor of the current hydraulic system.

The urban legends connected with the construction and maintenance of the ancient hydraulic network are fascinating. For example, ‘o munaciello, a sort of Neapolitan playful and impish apparition that haunts some of the city’s palaces, is identified with the underground workers who tended to the water cisterns, and who effectively had unfettered access to these dwellings. So they came to rummage at night, or, in spicier versions of the story, at those times when the husband was safely out of the way at his work and the lady of the house was at home and alone.

As a tourist attraction, Napoli Sotterranea is a relatively recent addition. There’s more than one way to get into it. One is to find your way to the Gambrinus, sit out there with your coffee or cappuccino, and be on the lookout for someone holding up a sign advertising the subterranean tour. Brush up on you Italian, though, this tour is exclusively in that language.

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