“Naples, the metropolis of many fertile provinces, the queen of many noble cities, the resort of princes, of cavaliers, and of heroes.”
–from The Percy Anecdotes, vol. II, by Thomas Byerley (1821).
When Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton decided to make Naples the haunt of Zanoni in his eponymous novel, he did so with good reason. In the book, Zanoni is the magician of magicians, an illuminist whose wonderworking, prevoyance, and erudition are comparable to Naples’s most famous magical personages: Virgil the Sorcerer (the legendary counterpart of the Roman poet) and Giambattista della Porta (one of the most esteemed natural philosophers of the Renaissance).
Yet, unlike these two, the millennia-old Zanoni has Chaldean blood, a taciturn temperament, a taste for international intrigue, and a pronounced habit of doom-speaking. He is in fact, a kind of synthesis of the Old and New World, a magnifico who, in spite of his storied past, forages herbs near the grotto of Posillipo and lives “in one of the less frequented quarters” of the Campanian capital.
Like Zanoni, Naples and its campestral environs have, over the ages, interacted with congeries of enterprising peoples, such as the Hellenes, Phoenicians, Normans, Goths, and Saracens. With new migrations came new names and new territories. In time, the Neapolis (“New City”) of Magna Graecia’s outer reaches became, as one writer noted, “a distant outpost of Byzantium.” Then there were dukedoms and kingdoms and republics; some ruled by canny polyglots, others by dissolute kinglets. Thus, as its dominions passed between the hands of European monarchs, Naples saw its fair share of bravos, conquerors, and revolutionaries.
However, one could venture to say that despite its many mutations of state, Naples has never forgotten its primaeval progenitors. One is the Siren protectress Parthenope, the mythical mother of the Neapolitan people. The other is Vesuvius, the eruptive titan, as it were, who overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea. Vesuvius has markedly been the most vocal of the two (as anyone with knowledge of the Pompeian tragedy can attest), but Parthenope has had a more esoteric function (as will be shown in one of the following anecdotes).
To conclude this introduction, it seems appropriate here to affix the words of Charles Godfrey Leland: “Naples and its dominion is legendary land.” Echoing this sentiment, the ensuing rambles through Neapolitan country serve to eulogise its unique life-spirit, mystique, and position as a heartland of Mezzogiorno culture.
The Campagna Felix (happy country) around Naples is a bipartite Arcady, a mingling of balmy riviera and volcanic hill country. These natural traits make the region remarkably fecund, a fact that has been universally accepted by scores of writers. Witness the florid words of the Renaissance antiquary Scipione Mazzella:
“Naples may be call’d Natures Darling, who seems to study how to make her self admir’d in divers places; Ceres and the God of Wine strive there for Mastery; She abounds with Silks, Oyles, Fruits, Flowers, Roots, Fowl, Fish, and Flesh, with an incomparable Race of Horses, as also with such a choice of fragrant Wines, that She may be call’d Bacchus his Inner Cellar: It is also the Country where Manna is gather’d, and She hath the best Medicinall Baths that the Earth affords. Now this rare fertility may be imputed, not so much to the heat of the Air, as to the Sulphureous quality and heat of her Soyl also…”
Thus wrapped in the figurative arms of Ceres and Bacchus, Naples sustains a cornucopia of foodstuffs such as olives, figs, and citrus fruits. That said, Naples is a seaside city, and we mustn’t forget its prized frutta di mare. There is something about the hubbub of the harbour—its fishermen, its street vendors—that conjures up of the days of pre-Modern romance. Amid the sounds of commerce; the exchange of goods and dialects, one is easily reminded of the tale-telling cantastorie who used to gather in public squares and recount stories of Crusader knights.
In Charles Godfrey Leland’s time, two of the most popular dishes included spaghetti alla vongole (spaghetti with clams) and polpo alla luciana (octopus with chilli peppers). Both were cooked al fresco over charcoal-burning braziers, and the polpo was sometimes served with ship’s biscuit. Another staple food was pizza with tomato sauce and anchovies. One English tourist, writing in the 1900s, observed that these pizzerias could “still be seen on almost every corner”. As regards Neapolitan haute cuisine, Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Cucina teorica-practica (published in 1839) was the first work to consolidate a list of popular dishes and recipes.
Amulets of the Siren Goddess
Fascinators—sorcerers who bewitch their enemies with their eyes—have always been a source of great fear for communities. In Naples, such malefactors are called jettatori. According to popular tradition, jettatori maim their victims by concentrating their hate into a kind of virus which is ejected from the eyes and—not unlike a guided missile—strikes targets from a distance. An “infection” of this sort, some claim, can cause fever, melancholy, general bad luck, or even death. Fortunately Neapolitans, perhaps borrowing from the Ancient Romans and Greeks, devised a counter-offensive measure to deal with such maleficium: the sirena.
The sirena is a silver talisman which is normally worn around the neck. It is said to work like a hypercosmic magnet, drawing down the primaeval powers of the beneficent sovereign of the land, Parthenope. One might think that what supposedly occurs is akin to a contest of powers (as in the battle waged between Moses and the Egyptian magicians in the Book of Exodus). The ill will of the sorcerer is matched against the aeonic magic of a righteous deity and the end result is the total subjugation of the inferior power. Just as Moses’s serpent swallowed the snakes of the Egyptians, so Parthenope the Siren (emanating from the amulet) is supposed to countervail the charms of jettatori. Naturally, in a clash of wills, the divinity always carries the trump card. In this way, Parthenope is still the surreptitious guardian of Neapolitan paesani.
Giordano Bruno and the Demons of Nola
Without a doubt, Giordano Bruno was one of the most fearless and imaginative thinkers of the early modern era. He was also a relentless Gascon and poet who often launched biting invectives against pedants and collectivists, those he thought promoted and sustained anti-empirical sentiment in philosophical research. He rankled Oxford dons, cast aspersion at Calvinists, and drew the ire of the Inquisition. In the end, he died a notorious celebrity in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, his vaunting but heroic legacy immortalised by the pyre.
Many years before his dramatic execution, Bruno was a precocious countryman of Campania. He had relatively humble origins and was born and raised in the rural town of Nola. In Nola, the young Bruno spent his days traipsing through the countryside, exploring the region’s age-old ruins and meditating atop its rugged foothills. It was here that Bruno, so he claimed, came face-to-face with the supernatural.
In his treatise De magia, Bruno says that he was once assailed by terrestrial phantoms during a nighttime stroll through an ancient burial ground near Mount Cicala. These mischievous sprites bombarded him with stones which exploded near his head. Fortunately, he emerged from the ordeal completely unscathed. Elsewhere, in De immenso, Bruno also recounts his experience with an anomalous, luminous ball. The projectile, moving in a straight line, zooms through the atmosphere and passes over the mountain. Had Bruno seen a UFO, an aerial demon, or something more explicable like a bolide? This is a question for the ages.
Alexander ab Alexandro, the Lawyer-Adventurer
For ages, storytelling in Naples has been a kind of cultural pastime. One could, of course, circumscriptively situate the origin of the province’s mythopoetic bent with Virgil, who, according to custom, kept a holiday villa near Posillipo. A more exhaustive investigation however, would undoubtedly find earlier examples of regional raconteurs.
In the early modern period, Giambattista Basile (a compiler and populariser of fairy-tales) and Torquato Tasso (the author of the romance Gerusalemme Liberata) stand out as two of the most gripping writers of fiction. A third and much less influential writer can also be counted amongst these romanticists, and this man is Alexander ab Alexandro.
Alexandro was born in Naples and spent the first half of his life as a lawyer. To escape the doldrums of his job, Alexandro stopped practising law, took up a quill and notebook, and hit the road. The result of this venture was the Genialium dierum, a hodgepodge collectanea of personal narratives and anecdotes. A few of Alexandro’s tales are of particular interest. In one account, Alexandro and his business partner explore a haunted house in Rome. In another, Alexandro details the story of a predatory merman who attempted to make off with a woman on the coast of Epirus. Elsewhere, Alexandro speaks about his experiences with precognition and the study of dreams. Although much of what Alexandro reported can be construed as speculative fiction, he did have a link to an alleged wizard. This was his tutor Giuniano Maio, a professor of rhetoric and poetry who was also said to be one of the most well-respected oneirocritics in fifteenth-century Naples.
A Neapolitan Spell to Repel Floodwaters
The image above, according to diplomat Eustace Neville-Rolfe (who acquired it from a tobacconist), is a depiction of a conjuration once used to dispel clouds and hold back “formidable waters”. Rolfe claimed that a medium told him the spell had been cast by an assembly of Neapolitan magicians led by a “seer” in August 1829, a time which saw Nola and the surrounding countryside plagued by recurring mudslides and floods. These deluges were no simple matter. Walter Palmieri, in his essay “Vesuvius and the Nola Mudslides of the Nineteenth Century”, tells us that they presented a significant challenge for the hydraulic engineers of the day. Little did they know that their work was being aided by local ritualists!
The three-day ceremony allegedly commenced during the full moon (14 August) and involved incense-burning, fasting, and prayer. Curiously, one of the intercessory phantasms mentioned in the ritual is “Zacchiello”. Rolfe’s medium said that he was a follower of Pythagoras who lived in the time of the “Borgias”. Since “Zacchiello” is simply the Neapolitan name for Ezekiel, one could blankly speculate that this Zacchiello of the Borgias’ time (the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) has some relation to “Zequiel” the airy spirit and companion of the Castilian arch-magician Eugenio Torralva.
It is certainly a tempting supposition, one that merits further investigation. It is also likely that both figures are an allusion to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, whose name in Hebrew translates as “he who has been strengthened by God”. A faithful priest, Ezekiel was temporarily transported through the atmosphere into a sort of metakosmia between “the earth and the heaven” where he witnessed surreal phenomena.
Virgil and the Grimoire Under Mount Barbaro
There are many tales which deal with the adventures and misadventures of Virgil the Sorcerer. One iteration of Virgil’s origin story describes how the young tyro uncovered a grimoire in a chasm of Naples’s Mount Barbaro (also known as Mount Gauro). Here, in the vicinity of the volcanic Phlegraean Fields, Virgil retrieved his monkish treasure which lay sequestered inside the crypt of the mythical centaur Chiron. Clearly, this was a cunning move by the author of the legend, Bartolomeo Caracciolo, to furnish Virgil with a link to the mythic past and make him an inheritor of Heroic Age wisdom. Old Chiron—the original owner of the book—had tutored heroes like Achilles and Jason. Thus, in this fable, Virgil became the legitimate heir of an illustrious legacy—a fitting patron of the Neapolitan people.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing this autumn!
- GLASTONBURY, UK: Stained by the Light art exhibition. Where: Glastonbury Galleries, 10A High Street. When: Until 23 October. Who: Featuring Sasha Chaitow.
- WORLDWIDE: Release of Francesco Dimitri’s book, To Read Aloud. Where: Amazon. When: 2 November. Who: Featuring Francesco Dimitri.
- LUCCA, ITALY: Book signing of Paris Mirabilia with Ivan Cenzi. Where: Lucca Comics and Games, Piazza San Romano. When: 3-5 November. Who: Featuring Ivan Cenzi.
1. Byerley, Thomas. The Percy Anecdotes, Vol. 2. London: 1821
2. Cavalcanti, Ippolito. Cucina-teorico practica. Napoli: 1839.
3. Clement, Clara. Naples the City of Parthenope and its Environs. Boston: 1894.
4. Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Trans. E.F. Benecke. London: 1895.
5. Davis, Newnham and Bastard, Algernon. The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe. London: 1903.
6. Freeman, Augustus. Historical and Architectural Sketches: Chiefly Italian. London: 1876.
7. Leland, Charles. Meister Karl’s Sketch-Book. Philadelphia: 1855.
8. Lytton, Bulwer Edward. Zanoni. London: 1842.
9. Mazzella, Scipione. Parthenopoeia, or, The history of the most noble and renowned kingdom of Naples. Trans. by Samson Lennard. London: 1654.
10. McIntyre, James. Giordano Bruno. London: 1903.
11. Morley, Lacy. Naples Through the Centuries. New York: 1925.
12. Palmieri, Walter. “Vesuvius and the Nola Mudslides of the Nineteenth Century,” in Nature and History in Modern Italy. Athens, USA: 2010.
13. Rolfe, Neville. Naples in the Nineties. London: 1897.
14. Sears, Robert. Scenes and Sketches in Continental Europe: Embracing Descriptions of France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sicily, Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland. New York: 1848.