Red Wedding in the New Castle, Naples

Barons Hall

In the heart of the dark, hulking Castel Nuovo, known locally as the Maschio Angioino (Angevin Keep), is the Hall of the Barons.  Some 28 meter high, the impressive medieval ribbed vaulted roof ‘fuses ancient Roman and Spanish late-Gothic influences‘.  The walls, bare today, were originally frescoed by Giotto in around 1330 with images of ancient heros: Samson, Hercules, Solomon, Achilles, Caesar etc.  It’s still a striking space, designed to shock and awe visitors to this Royal Palace.

But the Hall was also the site of a bloody wedding massacre 500 years ago, a real medieval counterpart to the fictional slaughter of Game of Thrones. Peter Robb picks up the story.  The protagonists were:

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‘The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky…’, Naples, 1834

The future fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, then aged 29, visited Naples in February 1834 and was at hand to witness one of Vesuvius’ regular eruptions of the period.  With a group of fellow Danes, he rather rashly set off by donkey to climb the volcano as the eruption reached its climax.

As he neared the top, he later described in his diary that:

We caught a sudden glimpse of the moon right over the crater. Coal-black smoke swirled upward; then a ball of fire and gigantic, glowing boulders rolled down onto the plain that we had to cross to get to the lava flow… There was no path at all; we had to walk and crawl between huge pieces of lava… With every eruption the moon was entirely hidden by the pitch-black smoke…

After a while we could feel the heat coming up from underneath us. In order to see the new lava flow we had to cross one that had been flowing the night before; only the outermost crust was black and hard, and red fire was burning in the cracks. We stepped out onto it; it burned our feet through the soles of our shoes. If the crust had broken, we would have sunk into a sea of fire.

Then we saw the monstrous stream of fire pouring slowly, thick and red like porridge, down the mountains. The sulphur fumes were so strong; the fire was burning our feet, so that after two minutes we had to go back. All around we saw fissures of fire. There was a whooshing sound coming from the crater, like when all at once a flock of birds starts up from a forest.

As this fascinating article says, the whole episode was ‘perhaps a manifestation of youthful vanity for a band of twenty-something men — an exercise to conquer danger for no good reason, except the vainglory of living to tell about it‘.  Or was the hazardous undertaking rather ‘for the sake of beauty, driven by a longing to get as close as humanly possible to nature’s source, to that fiery frontier of life and death, of beauty and suffering, from which true awe springs‘.

Andersen certainly loved the beauty, the light, the warmth and the sensuality of Naples, illuminated by blazing Vesuvius, describing it as a ‘Paradise’ where everyone lived in ‘intoxicated obliviousness of self’.  He called the city ‘the great pulse of the world’ and returned later in his life.

Sketch of Vesuvius in 1834 by Hans Christian Andersen.

A Sunday poem for an exiled Empress

Seated Agrippina

Agrippina the Younger was a Roman force to be reckoned with: great-granddaughter of Augustus, adopted granddaughter of debauched Tiberius, sister of mad Caligula (who she may have slept with), wife of slobbering Claudius (who she may have poisoned) and mother of tyrannical Nero.  The British Archeologist Mary Beard wrote that ‘Agrippina was probably the best connected woman that the Roman world ever saw ‘ and she was one of the most ruthless, described by ancient texts as beautiful but ‘ambitious, violent and domineering’, utterly determined to make her son, Nero, Emperor by all means available.  Having succeeded, in an ensuing power struggle with her son, she was exiled to the port of Misenum, now Miseno, near Naples before being bumped off in AD59 aged 43.

Above is a photograph of the famous statute known as Seated Agrippina which is in the Naples Archeological Museum.  It may or may not be her.  But when visiting Naples in the mid 19th Century, the American Herman Melville, writer of Moby Dick, wrote:

In hall of Naples here, withall I stood,
Before the pale mute-speaking stone
Of seated Agrippina – she
The truest woman that ever wed
In tragic widowhood transfixed;
In cruel craft exiled from Rome
To gaze on Naples’ sunny bay,
More sharp to feel her sunless doom,
O ageing face, O youthful form,
O listless hand in idle lap,
And, ah, what thoughts of God and man!

A rather sympathetic portrayal of a ruthless operator.  A rundown Roman ruin in Miseno is known as Agrippina’s tomb.

A Sunday poem: ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples’

The Bay of Naples from space

The English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Naples from 29 November 29 1818 until 28 February 1819.  He was at a low ebb: he was ill and estranged from his wife Mary over the death earlier in the year of his daughter Clara.  His first wife, Harriet Westbrook, and Mary Shelley’s half sister, Fanny Inlay, had both committed suicide and his two children by Harriet had been taken off him by the courts.  His friends had turned against him and his poetry was neglected by the public and condemned by the critics.  And he was plagued by financial and personal problems. The beauty of the Bay of Naples could not lift his mood and the depressive tone of this poem reflects this.

‘The sun is warm, the sky is clear,
The waves are dancing fast and bright,
Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
The purple noon’s transparent might,
The breath of the moist earth is light,
Around its unexpanded buds;
Like many a voice of one delight,
The winds, the birds, the ocean floods,
The City’s voice itself, is soft like Solitude’s.

I see the Deep’s untrampled floor
With green and purple seaweeds strown;
I see the waves upon the shore,
Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown:
I sit upon the sands alone,—
The lightning of the noontide ocean
Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion,
How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion.

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A short Naples story for Sunday

‘It was an unforgettable moment. We went towards Via Caracciolo, as the wind grew stronger, the sun brighter. Vesuvius was a delicate pastel-coloured shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-coloured slice of the Castel dell’Ovo, and the sea. But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead. We stayed on the other side of the street in a small crowd, watching the spectacle. The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white foam on their peaks, then broke into a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an oh of wonder and fear from those watching.’

From My Brilliant Friend by the cult Italian writer Elena Ferrante who writes on Naples.  As this article, Italy’s Great, Mysterious Storyteller, explains:

That Ferrante is a pseudonym, has no public presence, has never been seen, gives her a strange place in Italy, a country obsessed with image, where if you aren’t on television, you barely exist’.

Image:  Storm on Naples seafront during the America’s Cup 2013.