Naples – The Enlightenment Revealed

Oct 18, 2013

In the early 18th century, intellectuals and political thinkers were suddenly obsessed with things Roman. They were particularly attracted to the memories of the Roman Republic that seemed to be occupied by larger than life characters from the distant past. The beginnings of the Scientific Revolution in the previous century led to the search for Natural Laws as they applied to humans. I have always wondered why they settled on the Romans and Greeks as paragons for the application of these laws.

After all the Romans and Greeks were both slave based economies that were designed to benefit the few. It seemed like a frightening model to base Enlightened thought and political systems. Today, I think I finally figured out their fascination with the ancients.

I have visited Pompeii, plenty of Roman ruins in Italy and elsewhere including the ancient port city of Rome, Ostia Antica. These bleached remnants are fascinating and it is not difficult to imagine guys sporting their togas and riding their chariots through these ruins. It remained for today to actually understand the appeal of the Romans. It took a visit to Naples to accomplish this.

Naples is a crusty carbuncle of a city. Founded by the Greeks circa 800 BC, the city streets have seen rulers from everywhere. The most complete redo of the Neapolitan environment was accomplished by the Spanish Bourbons and their Baroque tastes. The curlycue facades are everywhere. They seem to be piled on top of previous structures along the impossibly narrow streets and alleys. The sun must only appear at noon on many of these places. Nonetheless, the streets are festooned with laundry. Dryers must not have made it here. The Piazzas are the only sunny spots that collect crowds without effort although there are plenty of people on the streets. Open space does not exist in this ancient urbanity.

We left the boat later than I wanted. It was not a good start. Walked through the subway construction near the harbor and looked at the Victorian era, glass roofed shopping center name after Humberto I. Had to be a king that followed the Victor Emmanuel’s. Have to check. We soon found ourselves in the tourist free zone of the Spanish Quarter. These streets are not for the upper classes. We kept walking waiting to be mobbed by pick pockets. Never happened. Finally reached a square with a bar and asked where we were. They could not find where we were on the map the tourist office gave us. They did point to an underground funicular and said that we should go up two stops. We reached the top and found out that we had a long way to the National Archeological Museum. Peggy got backed into by a guy in reverse. No harm no foul. The driver was very apologetic. Time to punt.

We were directed to the taxi stand and found ourselves with a talkative cabbie. 10 Euros to get us where we wanted to go. Well worth it. I need to add that at no time were we not met with helpful and friendly directions and advice despite being clueless Americans. Being lost in a somewhat notorious city is not too bad if you keep cool.

The guide books pointed us to the statue collection excavated from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the early 16th Century. So while Martin Luther was fussing and fuming about Roman corruption, the Farnese and Medici Popes were filling their villas with statuary. The statuary was grand but it did not prepare us for the upper floors that are filled with the collections from Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was in the early 18th Century that Pompeii was rediscovered and excavated. The Bourbon Farnese’s who ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicily’s from their palaces in Naples wanted all the good stuff.

The mosaics can only be appreciated at close examination. The tesserae or small pieces of rock from which the mosaics are constructed are minute. They are usually smaller than 1 mm on a side. Do the math. I think it works out to a million pieces of rock for a square meter of mosaics. The famous mosaic depicting a brave Alexander taking out a wimpy Darius at Gaugemela must be 40 meters square. It was one of a number of works in one villa. Peggy took plenty of pictures. OK, the mosaics were great but that did not answer my big question about the Romans. The solution had to be found up one more flight of stairs.

Pompeii was covered with volcanic ash for 17 centuries. The population was destroyed and buried. So was their entire lifestyle including furnishings, household items and artwork. That is the truly impressive part of the Pompeii collection. Their cups and plates, combs, pots, pans, jewelry, windows, glasses and whatever else the Roman used in daily life is stuffed into cabinet after cabinet. The diverse and intricate crafts and technologies displayed must be the reason behind the Enlightenment. The giant garage sale of artifacts makes the Romans come alive more so than the bleached busts and myths. It was the realization that a complex and dynamic culture was rising from its volcanic slumber was what created the mid-18th Century fascination with these ancients. Touring the ruins and seeing this stuff is what drew the educated classes on the Grand Tour. Pompeii is wonderful. The stuff of daily life makes it come alive. Europeans had seen plenty of Roman statues over the centuries. The excavations at Pompeii helped them just like me. I now understand why George Washington is depicted in a toga and why Jefferson built Monticello.

We finally left the museum after a few hours and ventured down the chaotic streets. We dove into the remaining street that was laid out by the Greeks. People and goods are everywhere in these alley wide passages between 10 story buildings on either side. Shops, colors and smells bombard you. We found it. The Neapolitans invented pizza and we found a place jammed with locals. Two cold Peroni’s and a wood fire, thin crust pizza and all of the days challenges went away. There was even a Soccer Saturday pizza party going on in the back room. I wonder who started that custom? It was three and we were somewhere in the middle of the city and far removed from the boat. The last boarding call was a four. No problem. We sauntered down the avenue like Italians. We only had to ask a friendly policeman for directions once.

Heading for Rome tomorrow.

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2 thoughts on “Naples – The Enlightenment Revealed

  1. Interesting thesis, Mark. Totally agree with your thesis that ” a complex and dynamic culture was rising from its volcanic slumber was what created the mid-18th Century fascination with these ancients.” In January, 2012 “Pompeii” Exhibit came to the Science Museum in Boston and Mag and I were fascinated with the murals as well as the “everyday artifacts” (glasses, weighing machines, etc).

  2. Sun afternoon Chris and and I walked as far a Jim’s garage, enjoying the fall leaves. All going well here. Glad you are finding new and interesting things there. Love to you both.

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