Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hospital for Dolls

Nook of Naples: Take a left at the end of Christmas Alley and walk towards the Duomo. Very shortly you will happen upon the Ospedale delle Bambole, a shop that has existed since the 1800's. It's small, quaint, and a little macabre. The dolls are on sale or you can bring your own to get fixed.

Today I leave this shopping experience to my pictures:

Christmas Alley

Nook of Naples: The famous precipe (or nativity scenes) sold down Christmas Alley year round are a 'must-do' for any visitor to Naples. The street also provides some fantastic shopping for the holidays, although during December hordes of people trample through. The pulcinella also feature down this street, which are the well-known Neapolitan puppets.

To know more about Christmas Alley and the precipe, I'd like to give a fantastic blogger of Christmastime In Italy center stage. Check out her pictures of the precipe and explanation of how Neapolitans use these delightful ornaments.

Here I'll provide a map on how to get to Christmas Alley, formally known as Via San Gregorio Armeno and located in the heart of downtown Naples.

The Veiled Christ

Nook of Naples: Only meters away from Christmas Alley, one of the 'wonders of the world' lies tucked down a narrow street inside the Cappella Sansevero. The Veiled Christ was sculpted by Giuseppe Sanmartino during the Rococo period. Little is known about the artist except that he was part of a larger group who bedecked this church with more than thirty works of art.

But far more interesting for the visitor is the man who reconstructed and commissioned these pieces during the 1700's. An Italian noble and scientist, Raimondo di Sangro invented a long range canon while serving in the military and created a water-proof cape for his friend Charles Bourbon who became king of Naples in the early 1700's .

Raimondo's interest in alchemy made rumors abound that he could create blood out of nothing, that he could replicate the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood, and that he killed people to use their bodies for experiments. While the veracity of these claims remains unknown, we do know that he was head of the Neapolitan masonic lodge, for which the Church excommunicated him. Although the Church eventually revoked his excommunication thanks to Raimondo's influence within the city, after his death in 1771 the Church threatened to excommunicate Raimondo's family if they didn't agree to destroy his writings as well as the results of his scientific experiments. Raimondo's family acquiesced and today the man who brought us such wonderful art is himself shrouded in mystery.

Getting There: Via de Sanctis 19 (They charge a 6 Euro admission, 5 Euros if you have an Artecard. No pictures allowed.)

The Precepe

Nook of Naples: Most Neapolitans set up precepe (also known as creche, cribs, or nativity scenes) in their homes during Christmas. The precepe are often very elaborate and the pieces are collected little-by-little over many years. Christmas Alley is well-known as a place to buy these miniature treasures.

But to see breathtaking precepe, The San Martino Charterhouse displays an exquisite number as part of their museum collection. While the exhibition is open all year round, most people come during Christmas.

A precepe is a depiction of the birth of Jesus in three dimensional form. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, Italy. His intent was to shift the focus of Christmas back to the worship of Christ from the secular materialism he saw during his time. His nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals. Over the centuries nativity scenes became ever more elaborate, figurines being made of ivory, wax and other materials.

At the San Martino Charterhouse, the precepe exhibition was established in 1879 by architect and playwright Michele Cuciniello. Over time it was enriched with other collections. Notably, a figurine on display at the museum was created by the artist who sculpted the Veiled Christ, Giuseppe Sanmartino (see the picture of the king on a horse above).

Wandering the precepe here, the life-like scenes portray a 'dream factory' where the everyday frenzy of Naples melts into scene after scene of idealistic rural life.

Getting There: Largo San Martino 8. Perched on top of the mountain with breathtaking views, the Charterhouse is right next to Castel Sant'Elmo. (And note: an odious woman is connected to this Charterhouse, so you'll be hearing more about it soon!)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Neapolitan Christmas Pastries

Regional pastries abound throughout the city and during Christmas three desserts in particular can be seen in pasticcerie everywhere: Struffoli, Mostacciuoli, and Rococo.

The guru of neapolitan desserts, Luciano Pignataro, has written a fabulous and comprehensive book I dolci napoletani where he reveals the secrets of these Christmas treats. For English speakers, he has translated the Christmas page of the book at his website with a bit of the history of the three treats as well as recipes for each.

Here, I'll only give a brief history of the treats as well as pictures:

Struffoli: Once prepared by nuns in Naples and given as a gift to noble families at Christmas, this dessert consists of fried balls flavored with honey and decorated with multi-colored candied almond balls.

Mostacciuoli: Are said to bring good luck.

Rococo: Nuns prepared this treat all the way back in 1320. They are hard biscuits that are then soaked in vermouth or wine.

Buon Natale!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Le Fontanelle Cemetery

In the seedy Sanità district, the O Campusanto de Funtanelle for many years acted as a bridge to the afterlife where the living tenderly cared for the skulls of the departed. The cavernous space retains an atmosphere shot through with Gothic imagery where fetishistic bric-a-brac drapes over thousands of skulls and bones.

The Sanità district once lay outside the Greco-Roman city and provided a burial place for pagans before Christian interments took over. The vast cavity, which was first a tuff rock quarry, came into use as a burial ground for the excluded – the urban poor, victims of plague (at least 300,000 died in 1656), earthquake, insurrection, executions, and cholera (1836-7).

When the Bourbons razed many churches, the remains of Neapolitans came up to La Fontanelle. In the late 18th century, despite family members thinking their loved ones had secured a church interment, they might have been bundled into a sack at the dead of night and offloaded here. It’s estimated that 40,000 rest in plain sight, but at least four more meters of human remains hide under the floor level.

At some time in the late 17th century a rushing torrent of rain washed much of the contents of the cemetery out into the streets, creating a scene of apocalyptic horror. Then followed the first attempt to put some order into the charnel house, stacking together the skulls and bones. Father Gaetano Barbati continued this effort until, in 1872, the cult of devotion to the Anime Pezzetelle, or Poor Souls, became popular. The ritual included the selection of a capuzzella (skull) which was polished carefully and placed on an embroidered handkerchief with a rosary encircling it. Later, a lace trimmed cushion was substituted, small oil lamps lit, and flowers added.

The supplicant waited for the soul to be revealed to him or her in a dream. It was thought the soul needed some kind of refreshment: ’A refrische ’e ll’anime d’o priatorio’. If the skull seemed to sweat, that meant some success. The grace or favor sought might be the finding of a son missing in war, winning lottery numbers, or a much-longed for pregnancy. If this was not forthcoming, Neapolitans made no bones about putting the pampered skull back in the general mass of remains and beginning the process anew.

Many stories grew up about particular skulls, devotees imposing names and personalities onto their favorite skulls and, if things worked out well, giving them special stone or wooden boxes in which to repose; even a biscuit tin would do. In vain Archbishop Corrado Ursi labored to eradicate this veneration in 1969; even in the late 1970’s cars waited outside the locked gates of Le Fontanelle for the bones of Don Francesco, a Spanish cabalist long departed from this world, to reveal upcoming Lotto numbers.

Step into any of the three huge trapezoidal cavities and the atmosphere will begin to work on you, whether in front of the headless but winged statue of San Vincenzo Ferreri (1330-1419) whose cloth robe moves with the breeze, or before the three crosses set in heaped skulls laced with cobwebs. For many years the cemetery was closed to the public, but now visitors can enter thanks to an overnight occupation by locals that got the municipal authorities’ attention.

Getting There: Not an easy drive by car, consider taking the train to Piazza Cavour station (Metropolitana) and then getting on C51 bus in front of Tommaso Campanella School. A twenty minute ride takes you to the Fontanelle stop. Alternatively, walk from Materdei station.

The address is Piazza Fontanelle alla Sanità 154, Naples. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Wednesdays, the entrance is free. Call at 081 544 1305 or email: info@catacombedinapoli.it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hidden Secrets at the Convento di San Bartolomeo

Don Gawlik, an avid explorer of the Campania region, returns for this guest post!  He found this Convento in a small village of Campagna and writes of its secrets here.  Thank you, Don!

The Sunday Skip:  Not far from Salerno, deep in the heart of Campania, is a town that was holding a secret for sixty years.  Its position high at the mouth of a mountain canyon was the reason for the location of this mystery.  Located past its medieval center, up a walking path too steep for motorized vehicles, was an abandoned convent that became a perfect choice. Residences to the left of the stone path are one house deep, backing to a cliff.  The mountainside on the right is steep terrain.  The ruggedness of the area made the site an advantage.
Elizabetta Bettina, author of It Happened in Italy, is a native New Yorker, but spent many summers of her teenage years with her grandmother in this village named Campagna.  She had heard references to a few Jews hidden in the surrounding mountains, but it wasn’t until six years ago that she began to piece together the part this town played in the story of Jews interned in Italy during WWII. The story had not intentionally been kept a secret - for the people of Campagna, it was something they did, and then life just moved on.  
During WWII, the old Convento di San Bartolomeo was overseen by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci. His nephew, Giovanni Palatucci, born in Montella, in Avellino provence, was working in northern Italy as an Italian police officer for the Mussolini government. His job was to process foreign residents in Italy.

Italy was the only government that kept its borders open to Jews until the war began. Many Italians, following their collective conscience, did not do what they were told to do, but did what they thought was right. Giovanni Palatucci, taking advantage of his position in the government, worked to enable people to leave Italy with false documents, or, if he couldn’t, arranged to send them to his uncle in Campagna. It has now been said by surviving Jews that the Bishop’s Convento di San Bartolomeo symbolized goodness during the Holocaust. 
Jews were interned in Italy. Next to Denmark, Italy had the highest survival rate of any Nazi-occupied country.  Yet, unlike other countries in Europe, “The Italians treated them [Jews] like human beings,” said Auschwitz survivor Edith Moskovich Birns, from It Happened in Italy.  Thousands survived because of the generosity of these Italians. 

For many, it was internment, Italian style.
Campo di San Bartolomeo was like other camps in Italy -  they were not work camps, nor death camps.  They were more like detainment camps for displaced persons, where Jews, and other internees, were generally treated with dignity and respect.  They were known to have schools, synagogues, rabbis, weddings. Time might have been spent playing playing cards, or reading. Campagna’s internees were allowed to organize a library, school, theater, synagogue, and their own newsletter. A team played local soccer.  Families separated in camps were frequently reunited. In some areas where camps did not exist, apartments were provided and Italian rations granted.

Campo di San Bartolomeo was an internato libero (internment that was free). Because of the convent’s confined space, internees were allowed to leave, but had to stay in town, signing in at the police office daily. Carabinieri permission was needed if one wanted to leave for the day.
After September 8, 1943, everything thing changed for the Jews in camp. Italy stopped fighting on the side of the Germans and joined the Allies. The Germans remained in Italy and began to hunt for the Jews that the Italians would not deport. 
Entering Campagna that September, officers intended to move the Jews to extermination camps in Poland and Germany. They informed those in charge that they intended to come the next day for the Jews. The internees exited a window that night and fled into the local mountains. Only to the Germans had they disappeared, though. The Italians continued to care for those in hiding. Thousands all over Italy were sheltering and helping Jews after September 8. 
The Campo di San Bartolomeo remained in operation until September of 1944. After the war, former internees contributed to restoration of the convent.  The Itinerario della Memoria e della Pace (Route of Memory and Peace), in honor of the goodness of Giovanni Palatucci, was recently dedicated at the restored convent. “There was no difference between us and the Italians,” said survivor Walter Wolff in It Happened in Italy.
After being arrested in September of 1944, the Germans sent Giovanni Palatucci to Dachau where he died on February 10, two months before liberation. He has been called the Italian Shindler.

Before you visit, call Carmine Granito at 339.280.9483.  He will open the museum for you. He loves to help visitors and groups understand the museum, but a knowledge of Italian will help, as he speaks little English.  Most information in the museum is in English, however. There is no entrance fee.

Getting There:  Follow autostrada A3 east, and about 35 km. past Salerno take the Campagna exit. Then, follow local signs to the town. After entering town, follow signs to the parking area.  Walk back to the main piazza, and across the street from the war memorial is the first sign for the itinerario.  You will follow the main street uphill, stopping at other informational signs long the way.  The route will conclude at the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo, where the visitor will find the final sign at the entrance to the convent and museum.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Neapolitan Flip-Over Coffee Pot -- Part II

A French tinsmith invented the macchinetta Napoletana in 1819.  Not much is known about the pot's history beyond that, including when it was introduced to Italy.  Only in 1946 did the famous actor, Eduardo De Filippo, make the pot popular in his movie Questi Fantasmi or Three Ghosts.  De Filippo holds up the pot and says it's important to put a little paper cone over the spout while the water drains through the grinds;  this keeps in the aromas.

While during the early 1900's northern Italians had invented the espresso machine and coffee house culture took hold there, neither of these gained much popularity in the south.  Instead, even today, coffee is brewed mostly in the home.  While southern Italians now use the Moka pot, the macchinetta Napoletana still remains a quintessentially southern tradition.

This just in from a reader and on-line friend of mine:  Gilbert Milone.  He found his old grandmother's macchinetta napoletana and sent me the pictures.  She used this pot during the 1940's and 1950's -- a pot that is no longer available for sale in Naples or world-wide.  It's a true antique:

Thank you Gil for sharing these wonderful photos!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ten Overlooked Sights In Italy

When the monthly magazine L'Espresso took a poll to ask Italians what it means to be Italian, people throughout the country overwhelmingly replied their art and history.  The sights in Italy are infinite.  Every kilometer of the country burgeons with historical gems.  While most tourists flock to popular places such as the Vatican, St. Mark's in Venice, or Michelangelo's David in Florence, many more pearls lie hidden in full view.  These places have fewer tourists, yet their historical depth tend to intrigue visitors.  

Here are my top ten picks of overlooked sights in Italy:

10) The Greek Philosophers City in Velia -- The Greek philosophers Parmenides and Zeno lived and lectured among these ruins in the 5th century B.C. The vast complex has a trail that winds up to a hilltop castle built during medieval times.  There's also a Roman theater, a Forum, and a Roman villa tucked behind brush.  Velia is located in the Cilento National Park where you can camp, hike, and enjoy the beaches.

9)  The Abbey and Cemetery of Montecassino -- One of the few remaining territorial abbeys, this monastery is important to scholars because it holds many original codices from the medieval ages.  Built over a Temple of Apollo in the sixth century A.D., the Nazis tried to take over the region in 1944, but a battalion of Polish forces routed them out.  A moving tribute to their heroism can be found at the bottom of the abbey in the form of a large cemetery and memorial.

8)  The Arberesh in Civita, Calabria -- The Albanians are the largest minority in Italy and have been here since the 16th century when they escaped the Ottoman onslaught across the Adriatic.  Today, hotels are named after Skanderbeg and monuments to Albanian heroes are everywhere in this area. The Arberesh have retained an ancient form of Albanian and linguists flock here to study their unique tongue. At Civita, in particular, you can visit the ethnographic museum and walk across a devil's bridge.

7)  The Etruscan Tour -- These mysterious ancients left bulbous tombs in Certeveteri, vibrant fresco tombs in Tarquinia, and a 180-meter deep well on the hilltop of Orvieto. Start at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome and then drive through the countryside to each of these impressive towns.

6) The Paper Makers of Amalfi -- The Valley of the Mills is a hiking trail going past the ruins of Amalfi's famous paper mills, which began their production in the 13th century. At the end of the trail, you can picnic next to a beautiful waterfall.  Thereafter, you can buy some limoncello in Sorrento, enjoy a concert at Ravello, buy ceramics in Vietri sul Mare, or check out the abundance of things to do in this region at one of my all-time favorite blogs:  Ciao Amalfi.

5)  The Villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga -- Emperor Tiberius had a summer home in Sperlonga while he still ruled Rome.  These ruins now contain a mammoth cave and an impressive museum of items that were found inside the villa.  A public beach is right next door.  Sperlonga is also near Gaeta, where you can visit Split Rock, Cicero's Tomb, or follow signs 80 km into the mountains to see the Grotto di Pastena.

4) Medieval Physicians of Salerno -- The oldest medical school on the continent also had the largest number of women physicians. They wrote prescriptions for things like wandering uteruses and worms in the ears. Walking toward the medical school means stopping at the macabre Duomo full of anguished scenes of saints as well as their unburied bones. On the way out of the city, you can follow signs to a hilltop Argonese Castle.

3)  Sailing with Odysseus across Scylla and Charybdis -- Sailing from the Italian mainland to Sicily, a ferry takes you across the Strait of Messina, considered to be the original Scylla and Charbybdis where Ulysses passed. From here, my top picks for travel in Sicily are the ancient ruins of Agrigento and the ancient philosopher-city of Siracusa.

Strait of Messina

2)  Archeological Park of Baia -- Three enormous terraces have baffled archeologists for centuries.  Nobody knows definitively what purpose these ruins served.  Located in the Phlegraean Fields or Fields of Fire, visitors can wander through what looks like baths, steep stairwells, open gymnasium spaces, and three temples, including the Temple of Echoes.

Temple of Echoes

1)  The Sassi Caves of Matera -- These caves date back 7,000 years, but people inhabited them until the 1970's when the government deemed them dangerous and had the caves evacuated.  The picaresque city of Matera cuts into a mountain and you can stay in cave hotels.  Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of Christ here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ten Overlooked Sights of Naples

Here are my top ten sights of Naples.  I call them overlooked because they seldom make it into the travel guides and tend to have fewer tourists, but these gems also won't disappoint.  They leave visitors dreaming of mythical lands and legendary heroes.  

10)  Pizzofalcone -- Mythically said to be where the Siren, Parthenope, was born, the rock is located right beside the Military Academy.  Walking around this area feels like a seedy adventure.  The streets behind Piazza del Plebiscito become small and you must ask the locals directions at every block.  Once you reach the rock itself, there's a fine view of Naples.

9)  Entrance to Hades -- Meet Carlo Santillo who will guide you with candles and oil lamps through a Roman military tunnel.  He'll also show you the River Styx and the cave where the Sybil uttered her oracles.

8)  Temple of Apollo Celebrations -- Come before sundown at the summer or winter solstice as well as the vernal and spring equinoxes and a group of nature-minded Italians will be holding a ceremony to bring together all religions and all cultures.  They beat drums and give offerings to nature.  The event is free and hosted by Centro Nuova Era.

7)  The Papyrus Scrolls at the National Library -- Come nose-to-nose with 2,000 year old papyrus scrolls written in Greek and found during the 18th century at the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.  If you make an appointment, the librarians take you through the backdoors of one of the most prominent and oldest libraries in Europe until you reach this secluded exhibition.

6)  The Macabre Dominicans -- Part of the Naples parallel city, the San Guadioso catacombs hide underneath the Santa Maria della Sanita Church.  Tours show you the tomb of the African San Guadioso, a stunning fresco of Saint Catherine, and the artwork of Dominicans who painted their wealthy patrons using skulls and skeletons.

Burial Niches

5)  Santa Chiara Cloister -- Search for an assassination mystery.  Somewhere on the grounds, Queen Joanna I's remains were dumped.  Still today no marker bears witness to where the excommunicated Queen rests.  Some say they are located up a flight of stairs behind an always locked door.  The Cloister itself is decorated with breathtaking Spanish tiles.

The hallway beyond which Queen Joanna's bones might lie

4)  Purgatory -- The Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco Church has an underground more macabre than the Dominicans.  Since the 17th and 18th centuries, innumerable bones of the deceased have been left unburied here.  In particular, people leave flowers and cards alongside the bones of Santa Lucia, a girl stricken by tubercolosis a few days before she was to wed a Marquis.

Underground Chapel

3)  Santuaria Sacra -- Religious shops along the two famed streets of Decumano Maggiore and Via Tribunali sell items necessary for the more than 200 churches located in downtown Naples.  Priest garbs, Eucharist holders, and knick-knacks are everywhere.  One of the most charming are the silver body parts.  Buy one of these and head down to Gesu Nuovo Church where you can leave your healed or in-need-of-healing body part in the side chapel of San Giuseppe Moscati, a physician saint.

2)  University of Naples Museums -- Winding up a labrynth of stairs, passing students and faculty, several science museums display dinosaur fossils, insects, and artifacts from Troy.

1)  Riccardo Dalisi's Workshops -- Architect, tinsmith artist, and maker of the Alessi version of the Napoletana, walking along Rua Catalana you can enjoy Dalisi's art between buildings and on street corners.  Two workshops are also open, inspired by Dalisi's works.

Inside a Dalisi inspired workshop

Buon Divertimento!