The Vesuvius and Pompeii

Vesuvio in eruption

Depiction of Vesuvio in eruption

Today we go to Naples again, we have been away entirely too long. Naples is of course on the sea, and it snuggles up against the Vesuvius. To this proximity to a dangerously active volcano many people attribute many of the character traits that Neapolitans are supposed to have: their fatalism, their penchant for living in the “now” rather than planning for the future, their many religious practices which center on rituals for the dead, their ability to “make do” under adverse circumstances, their irrepressible joyfulness and zest for life. The Vesuvius and its history of eruptions have marked this land and this race indelibly, even as the volcano provided, century after century, the “tufa” out of which the city was built and the volcanic ash that enriched the soil and made it among the most fertile in the world.

The most famous eruption by the Vesuvius, and by far the most lethal, was the one that occurred in 79 AD and that buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These cities lay for centuries under meters of compacted ash, utterly lost to posterity for a millennium and a half, until accidentally rediscovered in 1599. For many decades they were forgotten again, then finally excavations began in earnest (though even later they proceeded by fits and starts.) Even today Pompeii is not fully excavated, and new discoveries are being made all the time.

A Tale of two Ferraris

Ferrari 330GTC

Ferrari 330GTC

So, moving from the general to the particular, the time has come (as W. said) to tell you about MY Ferraris. I have owned two of them, but alas, no longer! The first was a 1967 330GTC, an absolutely beautiful car that I had bought used for what now seems like a pittance. This was a significant car, and is certainly a collector’s item today. It sported the original V-12 Colombo-designed engine, carbureted, 330 cc per cylinder (that’s x12, if you want the engine size), 300 hp. This was one of a total run of 600 cars built by Ferrari in 1966 and 1967. It was the first Ferrari designed and built for the road: earlier models had all been essentially modified race cars. As such, it was equipped with air conditioning, electric window lifts, and other amenities that had been lacking in the more spartan earlier Ferraris. The steering, alas, was still unassisted, which made driving the car a chore at low speeds. But hey, I was 30 and in top shape, and I did my best to never slow down below 50 mph, so the problem was not serious (just kidding :-))

There were more macho cars coming out of Maranello at that time, notably the much-desired 275GTB/4, and of course there had been the GTO, but none that could match the understated elegance of the GTC’s flowing lines. The green paint was a non-Ferrari color, but it was hard to take issue with its soft metallic translucence. Of course the oval grille in the front shouted FERRARI at a distance. The car was robust and non-temperamental, a perfect rebuttal to all those silly stories about the unreliability of Italian cars. I owned it for several years, then, one fateful day, probably under the influence of some alien ray that completely befuddled my brain, I traded it in.

Romance, passion, secrets, victories… FERRARI!

Ferrari Enzo

Ferrari Enzo

Myths are never born by chance. They are not the result of coincidences, rather, they are the mark of destiny. Scuderia Ferrari was born in 1947.

As the Commendatore, at nearly 50, was finally realizing the dream that had obsessively directed his life and that was to revolutionize Italian industry, the current president of Scuderia Ferrari, Luca di Montezemolo, was being born in Bologna, not far from Maranello. Two men, one symbol: the Prancing Horse of Francesco Baracca.

The story of the House of Maranello is inextricably intertwined with the lives of these two strong and charismatic figures, each an expression of his time. The Grand Old Man became a myth in his own lifetime; he never left the legendary factory that had been his brainchild, to which he was attached with a visceral intensity. Indeed he had no need to go anywhere, for the world came to him instead: heads of governments, princes, kings, sports personalities, Hollywood celebrities made a beeline to place orders for the mechanical and aesthetic marvels that trickled from the fabled Maranello works.

Exclusivity Italian Style

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

So, what comes to your mind when you hear Gucci and Ferragamo? Furla and Armani? Yes, Italian fashion, elegance, exclusivity…and expensive, of course. Well, I wish to share with you a little story about what Italian exclusivity REALLY is. Every word of it is true.

I was in Milano several years ago and happened to mention to the Milanese friends with whom I was staying that I was looking for a particular gift for a friend back in the States. I wanted something elegantly Italian, for the home, perhaps a silver serving platter, or similar. Not to worry, said my Milanese friends, we know exactly where to take you, and we know you will find exactly what you want. We’ll go tomorrow, first thing.

The next day we took a taxi to a certain square and walked to a certain address. We were in an upscale residential area, with no indication whatsoever of any commercial activity within sight. But my friends were sure: unhesitatingly they walked me to the portone of a stately palazzo, and rang the bell for a particular apartment. There was no clue to identify the establishment we were interested in.

A matter-of-fact voice poured out of the citofono, wanting us to identify ourselves and state our business there. My friend spoke, giving his name and adding he was bringing a friend (me!), who wished to see the display. He also apologized for disturbing their tranquility, and expressed a hope that we were not inconveniencing them TOO much, and that we could come back some other time if that was more convenient. At this we heard the click of the portone opening and we went in directly.

Some DO’s and DON’Ts of Italian travel

Map of Italy


1. DO fly a European carrier if possible.  You will have many more choices of final destinations if the second leg of your trip originates in Europe.

2. DO get some euro’s at the airport, as soon as you arrive.  Their exchange rates are competitive.

3. DON’T deal with banks if you can avoid it.  Generally you have to have an account at a bank to have them do anything for you at all.

4. DON’T take much cash with you, and DO use the ATM’s.  They are plentiful and the fees you incur are well worth the peace of mind.

5. In restaurants, forget the 15-to-20% tipping rule.  Ten percent is plenty, and then only if you think you have received good service.

6. DO tip your porter after he has taken your bags to your hotel room.  Figure one euro per bag.

7. DON’T, if you are over eight years old, order a glass of milk or a cappuccino with dinner.

Alexandre Dumas and Italian Unification

The military and political events unfolding during the unification of Italy in 1860 are full of fascinating details.  F.W.J. Hemmings, in his biography of Alexandre Dumas (yes, the swashbuckling author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo), writes:

“As recompense for the services he had rendered the cause of Italian unity, Dumas had, almost playfully, made two requests of Garibaldi: that when Naples was taken, he should be issued with a license to shoot game in the Capodimonte reservation; and that excavations at Pompei should be started up again under his personal supervision”.  Subsequently, the official title of Director of Excavations and Museums of the City of  Naples was conferred on Dumas.

However, the nomination did not meet with the approval of the people of Naples, who demonstrated in the streets until, to Dumas’ great chagrin, it was rescinded.

In a letter to Garibaldi Dumas wrote: “Do you want to be King of Naples?  You have almost as good a chance as M. Murat, and a better one than King Victor Emmanuel”

and, again quoting Hemmings:

”What chiefly kept Dumas in Naples, after the collapse of his high hopes of major archaeological discoveries in Pompei, was the editorship of the daily newspaper L’Indipendente, which started publication on October 11, 1960….he was able to compose and serialize a history of Naples between 1804 and 1815, under the title I Borboni di Napoli – a complete misnomer, of course”

Italian Sesquicentennial

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian Risorgimento hero.


This year (2011) is the sesquicentennial year (150th anniversary) of the unification of Italy.  Celebrations and commemorative events are being planned by Italian communities across the world, so, if you live in a city with a notable Italian presence, you may want to be on the lookout for such events.

Most thinking Italians will be aware of a couple of bittersweet ironical twists attending to these celebrations.  First, in the last couple of decades, the Italian polity has witnessed the rise of centrifugal forces which have tended to break up the country.  The fact that Northern and Southern Italy are separated by a deep cultural divide is undeniable: there are many in Italy who would like to realign the political reality to reflect these divisions.  The celebration of the anniversary of the unification, never a significant anniversary before in Italy, serves to combat these centrifugal tendencies.

Hello world!

Panorama di Napoli

Naples with Vesuvius

I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading.  It is called  “Ancient Shore – Dispatches from Naples”.  A slim, poetic, endearing little book, full of the innocence of the stranger who alights on these shores and is seduced by the Siren song of Parthenope.  It is written by Shirley Hazzard.  We natives are always a bit put off by, and suspicious of, such books.  Basically we are unwilling to credit foreigners with the sensitivity and the expansiveness of mind required for a thorough understanding of the City and its culture.

Nevertheless, Ms Hazzard has written a lovely little book, and she is, on prima facie evidence, a lovely lady.  I should be pleased and honored to offer her a cappuccino at the Gambrinus.  And I am looking forward to reading her “The Bay of Noon”, the story of Jenny and Gioconda in Naples.