Folco Quilici, L'Italia vista dal cielo: Campania

Folco Quilici and Michele Prisco

Postcards of Naples are well known around the world; and yet because this city is so universally known it is also so poorly known. This may be because, besides being a city, Naples is a human category whose main trait is its unpredictability. The city's sharp contrasts of lifestyles, history, landscape, etc. lend themselves to numerous clich├ęs.

Naples has the qualities of both a metropolis and a capital: you do not see the metropolis in the postcards. If each city has a secret key to understand it, to be able to judge it, Naples' key has never been found; and so everyone has his/her own way of understanding this city. Naples seems to be satisfied with its image as a city of sharp contrasts and conflicting representations.

These contrasts exist throughout Campania, not just in Naples itself, as we can see in its varied coastline, green forests, and industrial sites built beside ancient ruins. Campania is a world of timelessness and of modern changes.

The Romans coined the fertile land between Naples and Caserta "Campania felix" (fortunate countryside) on account of its lush vegetation; but one need only look at the mountains to see how this epithet is exaggerated, if not inaccurate. Here, where the Italics first settled, one can see how the landscape is both wild and tame, the same and yet different, soft and yet harsh. The land is preeminent and engages in its own prevarication: Nature has taken the works of man and transformed them into natural objects, as in the case of these ruins. Elsewhere, man-made structures, such as this Carolingian (from the time of Charlemagne) aqueduct near Maddaloni, blend in with the natural world and become, as it were, a natural event.

At the southern border of Campania is the town of Sapri where the rebellion of Carlo Pisacane and his three hundred comrades ended tragically in 1860. Their sacrifice entered the world of legends, like so many other events which took place on this coast and where history and legend blend together. According to Virgil's Aeneid, Palinurus, Aeneas' navigator, was swept off his ship and drowned off this coast giving his name to this cape, Capo Palinuro. Just north of Naples is Cuma, the home of the Sibyl; and near lake Avernus was the entrance to the underworld (Hades). Not too far is Capo Miseno, a cape named after Misenus, Aeneas' trumpeter who was believed to have died here.

In the north the coast of Garigliano is flat and resembles a lagoon. As we move south we see a coastline which attracted poets from all over the world: Goethe, Stendhal, Chateaubriand, Swinburne, just to name a few. Their letters, diaries, travel books, and poetry are a testimony of a period when traveling along this coast was an adventure. Back then the means of transportation did not make these places readily accessible to tourists. Today, instead, modern transportation has made many of these places all too accessible: the countryside has been altered by mass tourism. A case in point is the island of Capri, the most famous of the islands off the Neapolitan coast, and therefore vulnerable to this kind of tourism. The variety of landscapes, the clarity of its waters and skies, and its famous grottos have made this one of the most famous and exclusive resort islands in the world.

The island of Ischia is less striking, but equally evocative. It is famous throughout Europe for its mud baths and thermal spas: from the tiny fishing village of Sant'Angelo to Forio at the foot of the Monte Epomeo. The Aragonese castle is where Michelangelo's close friend, the poet Vittoria Colonna, married Ferrante Davalos.

Two miles from Ischia is the island of Procida. Its ancient castle has been made into a prison. The island is the least known of the Parthenopian islands, but it is also the best preserved.

The Sorrentina coast, just south of Naples, begins at Vico Equense and ends at Sorrento. This coast was made famous by foreign poets such as Shelley, and Neapolitan poets like Salvatore Di Giacomo. Along this coast are other well known resort towns such Positano, Praiano, and Amalfi. Amalfi was one of the four most important maritime Republics in medieval Italy. Ibsen, like many other foreign writers, often spent winter here. Ravello is also a favorite resort for artists past and present. Norwegian composer Eduard Grieg composed Springtime at Villa Cimbrone. Richard Wagner was inspired to write Parzival at Villa Rufolo. Today contemporary writers like Gore Vidal have made this town their permanent residence.

The Cathedral of Maiori is surrounded and suffocated by modern buildings which should not have been built there in the first place. Further down the coast is the fishing village of Citara, and inland are the terraced vineyards of Cava dei Tirreni. Near Salerno is the town of Vietri sul Mare famous for its ceramics, as can be seen by the cupola of its cathedral. The Amalfi coast ends at Salerno. This city is dominated by the Longobard castle of Arechi (9th century), and has the oldest school of medicine in the West (probably founded by Benedictine monks in the 10th century). The cathedral of Saint Matthew, with its Romanesque belfry, is one of several architectural masterpieces in Salerno.

From Salerno we go to the towns located on the bay of Naples: the naval yards at Castellammare di Stabia and its various fishing trawlers. On the other side of the bay is the picturesque fishing village of Posillipo, made famous by Salvatore Di Giacomo's Marechiare. Just around the promontory of Nisida is Pozzuoli, ancient Rome's biggest port.

In the background stands the Vesuvius, known to the people living around it as simply "la montagna." Its last major eruption took place in 1944. Nearby is one Italy's biggest steel mills--Italsider. This volcano's deadliest eruption occurred in the 79 A.D., the year it buried Pompei with lava and ash. Pliny the Younger wrote a detailed letter to Tactitus describing that darkest of nights. This city is the best example of Roman civilization in Campania: it is a monument to a past which has not been spoiled by the present.

Past and present come closer together here, on the Via Appia, probably the most famous Roman road in Italy. It has been re-paved over the centuries, but some Roman monuments still stand on each side of the road: such as the Conobia mausoleum and Carceri Vecchi (prisons) near Santa Maria Capua Vetere. In Santa Maria Capua Vetere we find the Roman amphitheater.

As we go back in time, we come to the ancient town of Paestum with its Greek temples. The city was founded by Achaeans from Sibari (in Basilicata) in the 6th century B.C. The past is shrouded in mystery: the mystery of ritual and of the sacred grounds. Several years ago these stones revealed one of its greatest secrets: Greek paintings were found in one tomb, known as the "tomb of the diver." This is the only example of ancient Greek painting which has survived. The paintings may have been influenced by local Italic artists.

Moving inland we come across isolated hill top towns like Sicignano dei Alburni and Vallo di Lucania in southern Campania. As we move north into Irpinia (the northeastern part of Campania) we come Lauro with its feudal castle and church perched on top. The melancholy of a semi-abandoned town like this one reminds us of how many people left the country to find work in the bigger cities. The capital of Irpinia is Avellino, an ancient Roman town where the independence movement in Campania began in mid 1800. One of the best spokesmen for this region, Guido Dorsi, was from Avellino.

From Cefaloni, high on the Sabato valley, to the mountains of Montesarchio we come to the Forche Caudine where the Samnites, the people who built these cities, dealt Rome one of its greatest defeats on the battlefield. Their capital was Benevento; the name, however, is Roman (Beneventum) in honor of Rome's eventual victory over the Samnites. What remains of Rome in this city are Trajan's arch and the amphitheater. This city was the capital of the Longobard duchy in the south. It then became a pontifical city (under the control of the Church). In World War II it was badly damaged by American bombers: its medieval cathedral was totally destroyed, and poorly rebuilt.

The Basilica of San Michele at Sant'Angelo in Formis (three miles north of Santa Maria Capua Vetere) was built by Benedictine monks in the 11th century over the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Diana.

At Capua we see a similar layering of epoches: Etruscan, Roman, medieval, and modern, one on top of the other. The same is true at Sessa Aurunca (in the northwestern part of Campania) where the cobblestone streets of the city have not changed since Roman times.

The fertile northwestern plain of "Campania felix" is also known as "Terra di lavoro" (either because of it fertility or because of the peasants' hard labor). The Volturno river divides this land in two; its waters are used for irrigation and hydro-electric energy. The older agrarian ways of live have remained the same in many places, despite some attempts at modernization.

The mountains of Matesse, in northern-central part of Campania, are the natural boundary of the "Terra del Lavoro." The "capital" of this agrarian plain is the town of Caserta which actually contains two towns: the old medieval town (once Longobard) which is abandoned, and the Reggia, the huge palace Vanvitelli built in 1752-1774 for Charles III the Bourbon king who dreamt of having his own Versailles. Its park is equally impressive. Usually a city was built around a palace, this palace seems to have little, if any, relationship to the city of Caserta or its people. It seems to have no historical roots: there is no relationship between the city and its past.

This is not the case with Naples. There is a visceral relationship between this city and its people. In Spaccanapoli, the old part of Naples, we see people who attempt to find happiness in their misery, and discover melancholy in the few joys life has to offer them. Above the hustle and bustle of Spaccanapoli, we find an oasis of silence: the medieval church of Santa Chiara. Its cloister is filled with Capodimonte ceramic tiles dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, and representing aspects of Neapolitan life.

The film concludes with a bird's eye view of the Maschio Angioino (or Castel Nuovo) built for Charles of Anjou in 1282.