Naple’s Secret Below the Chaos

Working my way down the vibrant street markets of Napoli just recently was mind-boggling. Scooters roared and car horns impatiently pierced the air. Throngs of people clogged the medieval arteries of the city, pressed in to look over and purchase their products from busy shopkeepers. Store windows behind them displayed rows of hanging tripe, lamb, and prosciutto, as well as mouth-watering bakery items and slices of pizza for a euro.

In a crowded intersection where two streets meet is Piazza San Gaetano. It was here that I found something I least expected in the heart of this bazaar world. Standing in front of me towered an old basilica. San Lorenzo Maggiore was a sight to behold.

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This handsome thirteenth century Gothic church was built on top of a previously existing city hall by the Franciscan order in Naples during the lifetime of its founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Evidentially, Charles I of Anjou decided to build his fortress, Maschio Angioino, where the Franciscans had an existing church. Charles compensated them by providing this site for the present church of San Lorenzo Maggiore.

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What is surprising and not noticeable until you enter the building is that it is also a monastery as well as a museum. The museum takes up three floors and gives a history of the area around San Lorenzo beginning with classical archaeology.

But the most astonishing part of all are the remains of an original Greco-Roman market that was excavated over a period of 25 years and has been opened to the public since 1992. Located in the middle of the historical center that began as the Greek-Roman city of Neapolis (new city), this market is one of only a couple of large-scale Greek-Roman sites excavated in the downtown area. For those of you who love ancient Rome, you won’t want to miss this.

Very close by is the Napoli Sottoterranea, the Napoli underground which is seen only by tours, but this is not part of San Lorenzo’s underground.

The following photos were taken while I explored the area. It truly is a rare experience of stepping back in time, from the old earthy smell to the uneven stone streets and arches. However, it requires patience and some imagination to figure out just what you are looking at. There are no tour guides or audio guides, and most of the information is posted in Italian. What was labeled or partially described I have identified below the photos.

Once an outdoor street lining the doorway to small shops. Once an outdoor street lining the doorway to small shops. This is the original street level of the ancient city of Neapolis.

Both a Greek (Agora) and Roman (Macellum) marketplace are the main discoveries that lay below the church. Dating from the sixth to the first century B.C., these streets are perfectly preserved underneath present-day bustling Napoli. Built into layers of volcanic ash and rock called tufa, these ruins are remarkably well-preserved.

Stairway leading up from the road and old arches with shops between them.

This covered space was a market area, and shows seven interconnected rooms, with barrel vaults pierced by skylights to draw in air and sunlight.

Small shops, called tabernae, line the roads and each one has a skylight of sorts. They would be dank, dark and creepy without them.

In these shops it is possible to notice selling counters and wall-niches for the storage and display of various articles. Fascinating….

This a laundrette where clothes were scrubbed clean.

This is a laundrette where clothes were scrubbed clean.

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A ‘tintoria’ was a shop to dye fabric

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Possibly a well of sorts….I just know it is very deep!

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One of many small shops with tables and storage underneath, that lined the ancient streets. Notice the ‘skylight.’

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More tables with storage underneath

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A ‘fornaio’ was a bakery. Imagine all the business they must have had!

Once you are ready to return to the surface, a stairwell leads you up to a courtyard, which is the 14th-century cloister of the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Outside the cloister and back into the streets of Naples, it seems inconceivable that below all the surrounding congestion and frenetic activity lay a still, silent world that once was a bustling marketplace of its own.



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7 replies

  1. wow Susan! congratulations! You visited that part of Naples I haven’t seen so far…the underground city called “Napoli sotterranea”. I did not have time when I was there, but when I will come back there this is the first thing I will do.

    That city is completely crazy and the Neapolitans or in general the southern Italians seem to northern Italian eyes ( like me) as comedians, theatre actors…everything in the South is like a tragedy, comedy and it makes you smile! 🙂

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  2. Hi Susan,
    I think I once mentioned an interesting Naples adventure I had in December. I tried to find the shorter version I sent to another blogger but failed. So I have copied a part of a trip review I did for a website I contribute to. It is a bit long, but I hope you can enjoy it when you have time.
    Joan

    Now I am as fond of my fellow man as the next person, maybe fonder, but after watching the way Neapolitans jam themselves on the bus and the doors barely closing, I was a bit leary of the R2. I watched three go by with not an inch of space. Finally one came by that didn’t look too bad and I headed to the back door. A youngish man took my arm and helped me on the bus. Once there more and more people pushed on. I was jammed against a seat railing. I was wearing my purse across my chest as one should in Naples, but couldn’t pull the bag (small too) around. When I finally did, I noticed the zipper was open. I did not leave it that way. I felt inside and found my two cameras. That’s all I was worried about. I carry my money clipped inside my slacks waist band.

    Of course I suspected the kindly man and his friend. They got off the bus and when my stop came so did I. I reached into my pocket to get a kleenex and found my little leather coin purse. I do not carry it there. My conclusion was that the kindly thief had returned it. i wish I could understand enough Italian to know what he said when he opened it and found my rosary. Wasn’t exactly what he wanted.

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    • Hi Joan, that is quite the experience. Yes, I have had a camera stolen on the metro in Rome, but thank heavens nothing happened in Naples. I have wised up the hard way. This time I bought a pacsafe bag that goes across my chest and is rip/slash proof. Seemed to be the ticket. Naples is a crazy jammed up environment, and I always feel like I need eyes in the back of my head. Thank goodness you came through unscathed!

      Thank you for sharing….I love to hear other travelers experiences!

      Susan

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  3. Another fascinating view of a city I love. I remember having to give up the underground visit when I was there in December. I didn’t have time for that and for my favorite street–Via Gregorio Armani (sp ?) with all it marvelous Nativity displays.

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