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Parthenope

According to myth, Naples traces its origins back to a siren named Parthenope born on the hilltop of Pizzofalcone. The sirens were portrayed in Greek vases as birds with human faces. The Roman writer, Ovid, codified this idea when he wrote that the sirens were companions to Persephone. When she was abducted by Hades, the sirens couldn’t find her and begged to have wings. Demeter granted their wish, giving them sticks for legs, wings, and yet letting them retain their female faces and human voices. Interestingly, the Italian word sirena today does not mean siren or bird, but “mermaid” – a creature of the sea.

Beyond the legends and linguistics – could Parthenope have been a real person? Strabo (63/64 B.C. – 24 A.D.), the traveling Greek historian and geographer, mentioned that the tomb of Parthenope existed near Neapolis and a torch race was held every year in her honor.

NeapolisAfter Greek colonizers founded Cuma, they ventured down to the Bay of Naples where they settled in a city, which they named “Parthenope.” Soon, they founded an additional city attached to Parthenope, which they called Neapolis or the New City. Could Parthenope have been buried somewhere among the Greek foundations of the city?

Today, a sliver of the ancient Greek foundations can be visited in Piazza Bellini. Perhaps Parthenope lies close by or perhaps she lies along the street Neapolitans named after her – the Via Partenope. Another possible location is the Castel dell’Ovo and so her ghost would know the location of Virgil’s Egg. While the castle we see today was built by the Normans, the Greeks from Cuma first settled this small island.

From a purely mythological standpoint, Homer’s character Odysseus sailed through much of the boot of Italy, and perhaps sailed north, where he passed Parthenope along the island of Nisida.

Bay of NaplesMany myths can be visited all along the city or, perhaps, simply gazing out at the Bay of Naples suffices as Parthenope still lives, swimming somewhere within the hidden underwater villas.

Places To See: You can take an entire day to search for Parthenope in the city of Naples. First, walk behind Piazza del Plebiscito up Via Gennaro Serra and take a left on Via Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone. Walk up a steep hill and you’ll see the Pizzofalcone rock. There’s also a fine view of Naples.

Return to Piazza del Plebiscito and make your way down to the sea to walk along Via Partenope. Along this way, you’ll see the Castel dell’Ovo. You can also walk along the promenade and find the Villa Communale, a public park, at the end of this street.

Next, make your way to the historical center of Naples, passing Piazza Dante and going up Via Port’Alba (with its clutch of booksellers) until you reach Piazza Bellini and the ancient Greek foundations.

Finally, if you have a car, drive to Via Coroglio and take a stroll at the island of Nisida.

The Sybil

The sibyl of Cuma foretold wars and wrote her oracles on oak leaves which would often blow away, but which she would not help her listeners re-assemble. Sibyls were known for their trancelike states and shuddering voices; Michelangelo thought that the sibyls were so important that he seated five on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Cumean Sibyl, in particular, is depicted as a dark complexioned woman with wrinkles and muscular build. She reads a large manuscript, perhaps the Sibylline books.

Antro della SibillaThe fourteenth century humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio, devoted a chapter to the sibyl in his Famous Women, in which he called her a maiden named Almathea or Deiphebe. Boccaccio claimed that she preserved her virginity and had a sanctuary near Lago Averno where she made many predictions…

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Of course, by the time Virgil wrote about the sibyl, she no longer existed, so what comes down to us today is a blend of myth, fiction, and history.


The Lost Remains Of Queen Joanna

With a reputation as a nymphomaniac and a brothel owner, Queen Joanna I (1328-1382) was orphaned at the age of five and married at the age of seven. She lived most of her life at the Castel Nuovo…

Rumors flew that while in France she opened a brothel in Avignon used by the nobility of Europe…

Joanna’s remains were then dumped in the wall somewhere of the Santa Chiara Cloister…

Cloister for the Clarissa NunsBuy the book to read more.

Trotula

To cure a wandering uterus – an ailment which usually afflicts virgins, widows, and women otherwise celibate – insert putrid-smelling herbs such as pitch or burnt hair in the nostrils (if coaxing the uterus downwards) or insert sweet-smelling herbs into the vagina overnight (if coaxing the uterus upwards).

The celebrated female physician, Trotula, gave this advice in her eleventh or twelfth century work On The Diseases Of Women (De passionibus mulierum).

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Places To See: The Giardino della Minerva is located in Salerno’s city center at Via Ferrante Sanseverino 1. It began as a “garden of simples” or medicinal herbs in the early 1300′s. Here you can buy herbal teas and hear lectures. 

 

The Queen Who Sweat Like A Pig

Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, was born in Vienna. In 1768 she married Bourbon King Ferdinand IV and cried all the way down to Naples because she insisted that Neapolitan Kings were unlucky. She was sixteen years old. The first time she laid eyes on Ferdinand, she thought him very ugly. King Ferdinand, in turn, said that Maria Carolina slept like she’d been killed and sweated like a pig. Together they lived at Caserta Palace and produced seven children.

Ferdinand spoke in Neapolitan slang, loved nothing better than hunting, and often sold his fresh caught fish on the streets among the lazzaroni. Since he was a practical joker and absolutely positively impervious to higher learning, Maria Carolina took over the reigns of day-to-day ruling with ease. She built up the navy, established a silk factory in San Leucio, brought the Farnese collection to Naples, patronized artists such as Angelica Kaufmann, and supported the Freemasons for a time.

Reggia di CasertaThen, in 1793 her sister, Marie Antoinette, was executed. Horrified, Maria Carolina turned Naples into a police state in the hope of avoiding a revolution in the kingdom. The army was kept perpetually mobilized, which had the effect of increasing taxation. She set up a spy network as well as a secret police force and sub-divided Naples into twelve police wards controlled by government appointed commissioners, replacing the popular elected system. Becoming paranoid, she employed food-testers and switched the royal family apartments daily. The Queen, however, couldn’t stem the tide of revolution. By 1812 Ferdinand abdicated and the very next year Maria Carolina was exiled to Austria where she died in 1814.

Places To See: In downtown Naples, visit the Palazzo Reale (in Piazza del Plebiscito) where you can see the Teatrino di Corte built in 1768 for Maria Carolina’s wedding to Ferdinand IV as well as Maria Carolina’s Revolving Lectern in the royal apartments.

Today, the Reggia di Caserta or Royal Palace of Caserta at (Via Douhet 22, Caserta) still pays tribute to Maria Carolina whose portrait hangs in the Art Gallery. She occupied four rooms in the 18th century apartments, which can also be visited today. Ask for a map at the ticket office and you can roam her opulent world.

The park surrounding this mansion is particularly opulent, designed by the famous Luigi Vanvitelli. You may also explore the tranquil English Garden designed by John Andrew Graefer at the suggestion of Sir William Hamilton, Special Envoy of His Britannic Majesty to the Two Kingdoms.

After visiting here, Caserta Vecchia isn’t far with its medieval town center full of lovely restaurants and the Cathedral of San Michele at Piazza del Vescovado 1, Caserta. Capua is also close by.

Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel

Executed by hanging on August 20, 1799 – her crime was writing pamphlets that denounced the Bourbon Queen Maria Carolina for lesbianism – Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel calmly stepped up to the gallows and quoted Virgil: “Perhaps one day this will be worth remembering.”

Piazza MercatoEleonora was born in Rome. Her father was Portuguese and moved the family to Naples when Eleonora was nine years old. There, she learned Greek and Latin and by the age of sixteen she published a nuptial hymn written for the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina, celebrating the accomplishments of the Bourbon dynasty. Her success catapulted her into the intellectual circles of Naples, where she wrote sonnets, cantatas, and oratorios.

She married the Marquis Fonseca, but the union was a disaster. The Marquis had no compassion for her upon the death of their infant son and he beat her so badly that she miscarried two other children. According to court documents, he also forced her to sleep in the same bed with him and his mistress. They separated and thereafter Eleonora thrust herself into the ideals of the French Revolution, becoming a Jacobin.

The Jacobins fought against royalist forces in the city in 1799 and won. They proclaimed the Parthenopean Republic at the Charterhouse of Saint Martin (Certosa di San Martino) and created a government modeled along French lines, citing liberty and equality for all. The republic, however, survived a mere five months.

Eleonora fought for Jacobin ideals through her writings. She translated books and articles into the Neapolitan dialect, hoping to incite the staunchly pro-monarchist lazzaroni to overthrow the King. To that end, she also wrote for more than thirty issues of the newspaper Monitore Napoletano, the mouthpiece of the Parthenopean Republic. But the Republic had many problems and the Bourbon monarchy soon wrested back control of the city. Eleonora was one of many Jacobins who were executed at that time.

Getting There: You’ll see the plaque dedicated to the Parthenopean Republic along the wall while walking down the street from Castel Sant’Elmo (address: Largo San Martino 1, Naples) to the Certosa di San Martino. A second plaque dedicated specifically to Eleonora can be found across the street from the Santa Chiara Cloister. Finally, Execution Square (today named Piazza Mercato) is a few blocks from the port as well as Piazza Garibaldi.

For history buffs who’d like to look up more, the other notables executed in Piazza Mercato, include King Corradino (1268) and the popular revolutionary Masaniello (1647).

Isabella Colbran

Isabella Colbran (1785-1845) radiated majesty on stage. Off-stage, it was said, she had as much dignity as a milliner’s assistant. 

Her life illustrious (working with Rossini, and lovers with Domenico Barbaja who helped her attain a terrible gambling addiction), support the author and buy the book to read more.

Sights to see in Naples, Italy

Getting There: Today, the Teatro San Carlo, located in the heart of the city, is the highlight of any Naples visit. You can get a tour during the day or buy tickets at the window for evening performances. The address is Via San Carlo 98/F, Naples.

Next door, don’t miss a visit to Galleria Umberto I.

Eusapia Palladino

Illusionist, medium, levitator, and trickster, Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) lived during an epoch that blazed with the determination to prove the supernatural through science. To that end, all manner of scientists and writers, including Pierre and Marie Curie as well as Arthur Conan Doyle, sought out Eusapia – and paid her exorbitant fees – for the sake of finding an answer to the impassioned question of the time: Was she a fraud?

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Street where Eusapia Palladino lived

While she may have continued her séances from 1910 onward, we know nothing of what happened to her except that she died in 1918 of unknown causes in an apartment house on Via Benedetto Cairoli.

Places To See: Folklore has it that Palladino held her séances at a hotel in Piazza Garibaldi, but the hotel is no longer standing. Palladino died a few blocks away on Via Benedetto Cairoli, the apartment number unknown. A Magic Café exists along this road, but if you go inside and ask if they’ve ever heard about the medium, the barista and customers only shrug.

Another local curiosity, two blocks away is an English Cemetery at Piazza Santa Maria della Fede. The adjacent church was built in 1645 and one hundred years later Carlo III’s wife, Maria Amalia of Saxony turned it into a shelter for vagrant women. Later it became a hospital for prostitutes. The cemetery started out as a garden for the church, but in 1826 Sir Henry Lushington bought the land for a non-Catholic cemetery. Herein lie expat protestants who once resided in Naples, including the mathematician and pioneer of modern astrophysics, Mary Somerville.


Sophia Loren

Born on September 20, 1934 in Rome, Sophia Loren was what in those days people called “an illegitimate child.” When her father refused to marry Loren’s aspiring actress mother, Sophia moved to the port town of Pozzuoli to live with her grandmother. That was during WWII when bomb after bomb rained down from the sky and Sophia was once struck by shrapnel in the chin. After the war, Sophia’s grandmother opened a bar where Loren waited tables until, at the age of fourteen, she entered a beauty contest in Naples. The judges selected her as a finalist and from there, she left to Rome to begin a film career.

Soon she met Italian film producer and director…

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For a a fantastic dining experience on the Amalfi Coast, go to Donna Sophia Ristorante (at Via Talagnano 5, Sorrento). To get there, you drive along sheer cliffs overlooking the sea until you reach Sorrento. You then turn onto a road so small that the walls have thin aqueduct-like lines scooped out from either side to let the belly of cars get through. Be careful though: this narrow road is considered to be a two-way street, so you need to honk your horn often to let those driving in the opposite direction know you’re headed their way. You turn onto a dead-end road with overhanging lemon trees. A parking lot is off to one side. The restaurant looks like a secluded private home. Inside, a fantastic restaurant has incredible ambiance and a menu to match.

The Lysistrata Sisters

Let’s face it, full-time wives and mothers can often be the most odious of women. Having given up dreams of career, money, and promotions, they spend their days cultivating the practice of serving others without gain. When three or more of these women get together, kings, presidents, decorated military men, and husbands quake. These women demand odious things like crosswalks at schools for their children, strict punishments for drunk drivers, and that grand word – peace.

AristophanesNeapolitan women have also flexed their muscle in the recent past. Bringing their history as part of Magna Graecia to the forefront, they have used Lysistrata by Aristophanes as a guide to protest their men folk. (In the ancient Greek play, women refuse to have intimate relations with their husbands until they agree to stop the war with Sparta.) On December 31, 2008, the BBC reported that hundreds of Neapolitan women went on a sex strike, refusing to have intercourse with their husbands unless they refrained from lighting firecrackers on New Year’s Eve.

Every year, boys and men light firecrackers or bombe throughout the city during the New Year’s festivities. Bombe explode with much of the force of conventional armaments and yet, they are thrown off balconies, down narrow streets, and into the middle of traffic. Injuries as a result of firecrackers have occurred all too frequently and have led to lost eyes or paralysis or worse.

Now, the local authorities have backed the women and the women have urged their male-folk to “make love, not explosions.”