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Kunst en Cultuur

Underground Naples (Napoli Sotterranea)

The fascinating voyage to explore underground Naples begins in Via Tribunali, near the Church of San Paolo Maggiore, not far from Piazza San Gaetano.
This is where the entrance to the Napoli Sotterranea Association is, and descending the stairs made of yellow tufa stone, an unusual itinerary unfolds, which is very suggestive and in parts is illuminated only by the faint light of candles.
It is an excursion into the underground area of the city, which combines the fascination of Ancient Rome and the drama of the Second World War.
It is a real city under the city, where a supernatural silence reigns, in total contrast to the swarm of noises and voices that are so typical of Naples.
When you go down into the cavity, to about 30-40 metres under today's street level, you come out into a large bell-shaped area, and from here miles of countless passageways and tunnels lead off, from Via Anticaglia to Via San Gregorio Armeno, thanks to the thousands of years of stratification in tufa stone that was created by volcanic activity.
Along the route you will find the old cisterns of the Ancient Roman aqueduct and an intricate web of underground passages of about ten thousand square metres, dug into the rock to carry the groundwater from the Vesuvius and from the springs of the Serino to then distribute drinking water in the city.
In this way, those who lived in the buildings above were guaranteed the possibility of accessing the water directly from inside their homes thanks to their own wells, which were connected to the cisterns.
The first work on the underground excavations of tufa dates back to about five thousand years ago, almost at the end of the prehistoric period.
Then, from around 470 B.C., the Greeks removed large quantities of tufa from under the ground, contributing to the first transformations of the territory's morphology, and thus giving life to that fascinating world that since then has been Underground Naples.
Initially driven by the need for water supplies, for a long time the Greeks dedicated themselves to creating actual aqueducts made up of various underground cisterns set up for the collection of rainwater.
It was only later, when they began to appreciate the characteristics of light weight and friability that are so typical of tufa stone, that they decided to use the material left over from the excavations to construct the city walls, religious buildings and civil housing in what then became the Neapolis of the 4th century B.C.
What is still surprising today is the fact that buildings of every size and importance have been built directly over the quarries that provided the materials for their construction.
It turns out that they have been built on top of caverns, which are the exact same dimensions as the buildings themselves and which were created with the sole aim of obtaining construction materials.
This shows that, most probably, the "Naples above" wouldn't exist if it weren't for the "Naples below".
During the Roman dominion the expansion of the city brought about the enlargement of the existing aqueduct, which obviously corresponded to further extraction of the tufa from below.
Another episode that determined the fate of the Neapolitan underground was between 1588 and 1615, when decrees were made that prohibited the introduction of construction materials into the city, in order to avoid the uncontrolled expansion of the city.
To dodge the restrictions and satisfy their needs for urban expansion, the Neapolitan population had the idea of resorting to the extraction of the tufa underneath the city, exploiting the wells that already existed, enlarging the cisterns of drinking water, and creating new ones.
It was only in 1885, after a dreadful cholera epidemic, that the old open-air water distribution system was abandoned and the first new piped aqueduct was built, which still is in use today.
The last intervention under the ground dates back to the Second World War, when in around 1941-1943, to offer a safe refuge for the population, the structures of the ancient aqueducts were adapted to the needs of the citizens.
Many refuges were set up all over the historical centre as air raid shelters, the well shafts were transformed into narrow stairs and the cisterns became bomb shelters.
Still today, on the walls, pages of history can be read in the graffiti, with names and images of personalities from that era and testimonies of the times that were passed under the ground.
At the end of the war, due to the lack of means of transport, almost all the rubble was dumped underground.
In fact, even today access to some of these cavities is still blocked by the detritus that was illegally dumped in the wells that connected the ground above and below, suffocating the enormous wealth that characterises the underground of the Neapolitan territory.
Only after about twenty years of digging and recovery of the area, thanks to the help of volunteers and speleologists, an extraordinary treasure has been brought to the light, allowing us to experience almost surprising newly released pages of the history of Naples.


Another not to be missed visit that the Napoli Sotteranea Association organizes is to the Roman underground Theatre.
The two massive archways that you meet along the Via Anticaglia, in the area where underneath there are the passageways and cisterns, are a testimony to the presence of a Theatre in Roman Times.
These elements were most probably reinforcing structures for the external wall of the Theatre.
Access to the Roman Theatre is, very peculiarly, found not far from Via San Gaetano, inside one of the "Neapolitan bassos" in Vico Cinquesanti, whose name it seems in 1600 was dedicated to the main protector saints of the city by the people of Naples who were grateful
for the end of a plague.
After entering the typical Neapolitan home, and after having moved the bed that is found in the next room, a wooden trapdoor appears that unexpectedly hides the access to the Theatre.
From the trapdoor a stairway brings you to what was considered until just a few years ago to be a regular cellar, and as such was used by the tenant of the "basso" upstairs.
On closer observation of the opus reticolatum of the Roman walls, it became clear that the only things they held up were the arches of the proscenium of an ancient Theatre that even saw the Neapolitan debut of Nero.
From here, along a half-buried route, various spaces, a corridor that joins two wings of a very normal common house whose balcony is the threshold of the end of the Underground Naples itinerary.
This trip back in time terminates, incredibly, in what at first sight might seem like just one of the many courtyards that faces onto the alleyways of the historical centre of the city.

In order to know all excursion details of Underground Naples kindly click the link below

Underground Naples Excursion


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