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A History Lovers Guide to Naples 
by Mark R. Whittington July 27, 2005

Naples is one of the most ancient cities in the world, having been founded three thousand years ago by Greeks and Phonecians. The sometimes chaotic, always charming city is covered with attractions from throughout history.

Soon after founding Cumae in 1000 BC, colonists from Rhodes established a settlement on the western side of Mt Vesuvius. Many centuries later, Phoenician traders from present-day Lebanon and Greeks from Athens were attracted by the beauty of the coast and so expanded the settlement, christening it Neapolis or New City. It thrived as a center of Greek culture and later, under Roman rule, became a favorite of Roman nobles such as Pompey, Caesar and Tiberius. After successive waves of invasion by the Goths and a period of Byzantine rule, Naples became an independent duchy for about 400 years until it was captured by the Normans in 1139. The Normans in turn were replaced by the German Hohenstaufens, who ruled until 1266. Then Charles I of Anjou took control of the Kingdom of Sicily and turned Naples into its de facto capital. The Angevins were succeeded by the Spanish house of Aragón, under whom the city came to prosper.

In 1503 Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily were absorbed by Spain, which sent viceroys to reign as virtual dictators. Despite their harsh rule, Naples flourished artistically and acquired much of its splendor during this period. It continued to flower when the Spanish Bourbons re-established Naples as capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1734. Aside from a Napoleonic interlude from 1806 to 1815, the Bourbons remained until 1860, when they were unseated by Garibaldi and the Kingdom of Italy.

The city was heavily damaged during more than 100 bombing raids in WWII. Marks can still be seen on many monuments. The Allies subsequently presided over a disastrous period of transition from war to peace - many observers have since attributed the initial boom in the city's organized crime, at least in part, to members of the occupying forces. A severe earthquake in 1980 and the dormant, but not extinct, Vesuvius looming to the east remind Neapolitans of their city's vulnerability. A succession of center-left governments has in recent years driven efforts to clean up the city. Churches, museums and monuments that had been off-limits to visitors for decades have been reopened and tourist areas made safer.

Church of Santa Chiara

This church was built on orders from Robert the Wise, king of Naples, in the early 14th century. Subsequently it became the church for the House of Anjou. Although bombing raids during World War II heavily damaged the church, it has been restored to its Gothic style favored by the Provencal architects. The light-filled interior is lined with chapels, each of which contains a piece of sculpture or fresco left over from the medieval church. However the best three pieces line the wall behind the High Altar. In the center is the towering multilevel tomb of Robert the Wise d'Angio, sculpted by Giovanni and Pacio Bertini in 1343. To its right is Tino di Camaino's tomb of Charles, duke of Calabria. On the left is the 1399 monument to Mary of Durazza. In the choir behind the altar are more salvaged medieval remnants of frescoes and statuary, including pieces of a Giotto Crucifixion.

Cathedral Duomo

This Cathedral was constructed over an older church in the 13th century. The cathedral has undergone three major modifications, in the 14th, 17th and 19th Centuries. The neoclassical facade was added during the latter renovation. The main attraction of this church is the San Genaro Chapel, where two bottles with the blood of the saint are kept. San Genaro’s blood is said to liquefy twice a year or else when a disaster is in the near future.

Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore

San Lorenzo Maggiore is the greatest of Naples's layered churches. It was built in 1265 for Charles I over a 6th-century basilica, which in turn lay over many ancient remains. The interior is pure Gothic, with tall pointed arches and an apse off of which radiate nine chapels, gorgeously baroque with inlaid marbles. The highlight of the interior is Tino da Camaino's canopy tomb of Catherine of Austria. San Lorenzo preserves the best and most extensive remains of an ancient Greek and Roman city currently open to the public. The church foundations are actually the walls of Neapolis's basilican law courts. Excavated bits of the Roman city's treasury and marketplace are in the cloisters. The rough remains of a Roman-era shop-lined street, a Greek temple, and a medieval building are in the crypt.

Church of San Gregorio Armeno

The church was founded shortly after the iconoclast decrees of the eighth century caused a number of religious orders to flee the Byzantine Empire and seek refuge elsewhere. Those dedicated to Gregory, Bishop of Armenia founded their place of worship in Naples on the site of an older Roman temple of Ceres. In 1025 it was joined with two other adjacent chapels into a single complex as a Benedectine monastic order. The monastery still functions, retaining its high walls and maintaining a spectacular inner courtyard with a central fountain with a sculpture of Christ and the Samaritan by Matteo Bottigliero from 1733. The church is completely covered inside with frescoes and has cloisters that were designed in 1580.

Church of Ges Nuovo

The Church of Ges Nuovo is covered with rich mosaics, inlaid marbles, paintings and sculptures. In a side chapel, the busts of 70 saints perch serenely on top of their reliquaries as if in miniature opera boxes. The opulent interior of this church, filled with multi-color marble and with altars inlaid with semi-precious stones such as agate, amethysts and lapis lazuli, is a sight to be seen.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale

These archaeological treasures in this museum form one of the most comprehensive collections of Graeco-Roman artifacts in the world. The museum houses a rich collection of antiquities, including ones discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum. It also contains the Borgia collection of Etruscan and Egyptian relics. On the mezzanine floor are mosaics, mostly from Pompeii, including the Battle of Alexander, the best-known depiction of the great Macedonian King. It once paved the floor in the Casa del Fauno at Pompeii and is just one of a series of remarkably detailed and lifelike pieces depicting animals, scenes from daily life, musicians and even Plato with his students. The Gabinetto Segreto or Secret Room recently opened to the public. It displays a variety of erotic statues, including one of Pan up to no good with a nanny goat and nine paintings depicting erotic positions, which served as a catalogue for brothel clients.

The Royal Palace and Gardens

This wonderful Renaissance style area dates back to the 17th century. It was the residence of the Spanish Viceroys. The royal gardens are full of tree-lined avenues, shaded by magnolias and Holm oak trees, with rare plants, statues and “secret gardens”. The Palace has a museum where all the furniture, sculptures, porcelain and paintings belonging to the Bourbon dynasty are kept. The Palace’s Sacred Art Collection can be seen in the palace chapel.

Reggia di Capodimonte

This palace, built next to a hunting forest, contains a museum. The core of the museum’s collection came from Alessandro Farnese or as he later became known Pope Paul III. It was added to throughout the ensuing centuries. The extensive holding boasts works by Bellini, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Correggio, Masaccio and Titian. One of its most famous paintings is Masaccio's Crocifissione. Other highlights are Bellini's Trasfigurazione (Transfiguration), and nine canvases by Titian.

Castel Maschio Angiolino

This castle was built towards the end of the 13th century on the instructions of the Anjou family, and became an important cultural center where artists and writers such as Giotto, Petrarca and Boccaccio stayed. The Aragon dynasty expanded the building with two towers and a fantastic Arc de Triomphe. The Cappella Palatina chapel is also worth visiting.

Castel dell'Ovo

Castel dell’Ovo or the Egg Castle rises upon the islet of Megaride, in front of the small promontory of Monte Echia. The name Castel dell'Ovo is derived from a medieval legend about the Latin poet Vergilius, at those times believed a wizard. According to this legend Vergilius, during his stay in Naples, hid a magic egg inside an amphora, which was put into an iron cage, that was hanged on the truss of a crypt under the castle: if that egg will ever have fallen and broken, this will have meant the ruin of the castle and of the entire city of Naples. It was first built and occupied by the, but later the Angevins, the Aragonese, the French, and the Spanish. The inner and higher parts of the castle are reachable through the Norman Ramp, which is still today the main way of access. It is possible to visit only some areas of the castle, and particularly the panoramic terrace with the Catalan Loggia.

Castel Sant'Elmo

Castel Sant'Elmo was built in 1329 by order of Charles of Anjou on the hill of Sant'Erasmo, now S. Martino, to dominate the roads that conducted in the city. Castel Sant'Elmo is a majestic, six-point star-shaped building. It is surrounded by ramparts and forts and stands over the city: there is a spectacular view from its terraces. The castle houses art and history exhibitions, hosts the Molaioli Library of Art and a videotheque which supplies information about all of the city's monuments. The complex also contains the 16th century and the 17th Century Chapel of Santa Maria del Pilar.

Catacomba di San Gennaro

Dating from the 2nd century, these catacombs are quite different from Rome's dark, claustrophobic mazes. Here, one will find a mix of tombs, corridors and broad vestibules held up by columns and arches and decorated with early Christian frescoes and mosaics, now much dilapidated. Tradition has it that San Gennaro was originally buried here.

Visiting Naples

Naples’ airport is the main airport for Southern Italy. The city is also accessible with the rest of Italy and by rail and road. Boats and hydrofoils leave for Capri, Sorrento, Ischia, Procida and Forio from Molo Beverello in front of the Castel Nuovo. Longer distance ferries leave from the Stazione Marittima. Naples has an extensive bus and tram mass transit system.


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