Underground Naples is a world unto itself, and one that continues to provide surprises for the city’s inhabitants and the archaeologists who explore its labyrinthine tunnels dug out of the tuff. In fact, two cities coexist in present-day Naples: one – above ground – is the famous chaotic, crowded, and fascinating urban sprawl that lies along a magnificent bay, overlooked by Mount Vesuvius; the other, darker Naples is hidden underneath it. This is where the remains of a complicated sequence of different structures spanning more than 2,500 years are slowly being revealed by ongoing excavations and restoration projects. The stratified Greek, Roman, medieval, Bourbon, and modern urban convolutions have survived the destructions of wars, pillaging, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. They include a theatre where Emperor Nero performed in AD 64, city walls and gates, water cisterns, crypts, catacombs, and caves where Neapolitans saved themselves from Nazi incursions and Allied bombing during the Second World War.
At the very bottom of this multi-layered subterranean maze are the remains of Neapolis (‘new city’ in Greek), one of the many Greek colonies established on the shores of southern Italy from around the 8th century BC. According to the Geographica, written by the Greek philosopher and historian Strabo (c.64 BC-c.24 AD), the colonisation of Magna Graecia – as the Romans called the Hellenised coasts of Campania (of which Naples is the regional capital), Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily – began at the time of the Trojan Wars and lasted for several centuries in the wake of demographic pressure, famines, and internecine wars in the Greek homelands, along with a need for new commercial outlets and entrepots.
It was actually Euboeans who founded the very first colonies in Campania: Pithekoussai on the island of Ischia and Kumai (Cumae in Latin) on the mainland facing it. Kumai soon developed into a major centre that later was to become a rich Roman city. There is, however, increasing archaeological evidence that Mycenaean trading hubs were operating in southern Italy many centuries before. Fragments of Mycenaean/Late Helladic pottery were found in the Bronze Age settlement (17th-15th century BC) of the small island of Vivara, next to Procida, whose sunken harbour lies at a depth of about 14m below sea level. Procida, the 2022 Italian Capital of Culture, will stage in a new museum (due to be completed this summer) the exhibition Greek before Greeks (scheduled to run from June to September), which will present the most recent evidence on the earliest Greek presence in Campania.
The Greek colonists brought with them their own varied Hellenic cultures, their dialects, religious rituals, and political systems, which left a lasting imprint on their dominions. Interactions with the native Italic cultures also had a significant and enduring impact. The most important cultural transplant happened at Cumae, where a variation of the Greek alphabet, possibly adopted first by the neighbouring Etruscans, evolved over time into the Latin alphabet we still use today.
Many Greek cities in Italy were offshoots of the first colonies. So it was with Neapolis. Colonisers from Cumae founded Neapolis in 470 BC near a small 9th-century BC port on the tiny island of Megaride (now attached to the mainland) that had been settled by sailors from Rhodes and named after a siren – Parthenope, she with the ‘maiden voice’. After the 5th-century BC attacks by neighbouring Italic peoples, internal strife between cities and malaria led to a decline in importance of most of the colonies. In 327 BC, Neapolis was to be the first Greek city in Italy to be absorbed into the Roman Republic. While it may be hard nowadays to imagine that once upon a time Naples was a fully fledged Greek city – complete with temples, an agora, and a theatre – much of the ancient rectangular street-grid still traces out the layout of the city’s historical centre.
A fragment of Naples’ buried Greek past will soon be within reach of visitors thanks to the opening to the public of a group of four contiguous tombs, each with a separate entrance, in the Ipogeo dei Cristallini. Visible after an Alice-like descent down a long staircase, these 4th-century BC burial places are located beneath the basement of a historic palace in a narrow street, the via dei Cristallini, in the heart of the city. They were part of a necropolis built outside the northern walls of Neapolis. Here, tuffaceous ridges were dug out, starting in the Hellenistic period, and used to construct funerary monuments for the city’s elite.
The Ipogeo dei Cristallini was discovered by chance in 1889, 12m underground, when the owner of the palace, Baron Giovanni Di Donato, was digging for a water source in his garden. The baron cleared the tombs from accumulated silt, handed the funerary goods found inside to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, and sealed the tombs for safety and protection. At the same time, the skeletons of the dead were removed from the site and buried elsewhere.
Now, 133 years after the discovery, the Martuscelli family who inherited this ‘treasure’ are sharing it with scholars and tourists by sponsoring its restoration in collaboration with the local authorities responsible for the heritage of the city. Alessandra Calise Martuscelli is lovingly coordinating and almost daily overseeing the slow and painstaking process of restoration and opening of this quite extraordinary underground site. Visitors will be able to see the tombs largely as they were when discovered and be present as they are gradually brought back to life. The site is due to open from June for limited visits, with tickets contributing to finance the ongoing restoration of the wall paintings. Alessandra Calise Martuscelli’s generous enterprise is also part of a wider programme to improve the conditions in the Rione Sanità, the district of Naples where the Di Donato palace stands. The Rione Sanità has long been one of the poorest areas of the city, and one that has seen organised crime. Cultural activities in the district like this restoration are planned to help reverse the trend.
The funerary objects from the four tombs are still in the storage rooms of the National Archaeological Museum. They are mostly terracotta items appropriate for the furnishing of tombs and quite commonly found in contemporary graves in Campania: vessels used for libations during rituals and life-like reproductions of fruit (like pears and pomegranates) and eggs, all symbols of birth and rebirth. They are similar to those on display in the museum’s large section devoted to Magna Graecia that was beautifully refurbished and opened to the public in 2020. It is hoped, though, that a selection of the many items now in the museum that were found in the Ipogeo might be displayed at the entrance of the via dei Cristallini tombs.
The tombs would have had imposing carved façades, complete with sculpted Ionic columns and doors at street level that led sraight into the burial chamber or – in the case of larger monuments – into an upper hall where the mourning rites could take place directly over the tomb proper. On entering below ground, modern visitors are confronted with a sequence of dark passageways leading to separate spaces. Each of the chambers was entirely carved out from the original tuff rock-faces to resemble real rooms with fake ceiling beams, stone benches, and stairs. One has walls with niches and carved reliefs, not from the original Greek tomb, but instead a sign of its reuse for later Roman burials, something that happened up until the 1st century AD, when all the tombs were filled by mudslides.
The eerie exploration culminates with an extraordinary and somewhat surreal vision: a whole room – Hypogeum C – decorated with wall paintings, their colours still fresh in places, and furnished with stone beds complete with slightly faded blue and yellow pillows, ready to accommodate the bodies of the deceased. The beds have ornate legs decorated with palmettes and geometric motifs imitating precious stone inlays. The life-like stone pillows even have crosses of red lines painted on to them, mimicking stitches to hold the fabric together. The bright colours used – madder, yellows, and Egyptian blues – were rare and highly prized, pointing to the wealth of the tomb’s occupants who could afford such luxury fittings. Moreover, this one tomb provides an important and rich example of Greek painting of this date, which is something that rarely survives.
The walls are painted with garlands hanging from elegant columns, silver candelabra with tall shafts and animal feet, a silver oinochoe – a wine container used during the funerary rituals – and fruit of various kinds. The garlands made of laurel leaves and the myrtle branches are linked to the cult of Dionysos, the ‘god with many names’, who presided over wine-making, fertility, and the mysteries of death and immortality. While myrtle is more often an attribute of Aphrodite, it was a favourite plant of Dionysos and associated with the afterlife too.
The names of the people buried inside the tomb are scrawled in ancient Greek on the walls below the garlands. A large head of Medusa – 60cm in height and carved from limestone with snakes emerging from her hair – glowers from above as protection for this place of rest of the deceased. The head of this gorgon is a common apotropaic motif found in numerous painted tombs both in Italy and in Macedonia.
A trompe l’oeil representation of a golden patera (a broad flat dish used for libations), painted as if hanging from the left wall beside the entrance to the tomb, is particularly significant. On the outer surface is a scene of hierogamy (a sacred union): it represents two reclining half-naked figures facing each other. The couple are thought to be Dionysos and Ariadne, the Cretan princess to whom the god gave immortal life. The same motif appears on a series of gold diadems found in burials in the Black Sea region. Among them, a beautiful pediment-shaped diadem bears a striking resemblance to the motif on the Neapolitan patera. It was found in a 4th-century BC tomb at Madytos on the European side of the Dardanelles, and it is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The other three tombs are also worthy of attention. One of the others was painted too, though now its walls are very damaged, much more so than those of Hypogeum C. It is hoped that future restoration might bring them back to their original state. In another of the tombs, the names of the deceased and the word khaire (‘greetings’ or ‘farewell’ in ancient Greek) are inscribed over six headstones.
Altogether, the decoration of the Ipogeo dei Cristallini tombs indicates a common cultural and artistic background shared by the Greek colonists in Italy and the Macedonian elites in northern Greece. It is from ancient Macedonia that the superb 4th-century painted tombs with monumental façades came, like the great tomb at Agios Athanasios, near Thessaloniki. These magnificent funerary monuments reflect common beliefs and social practices among the wealthiest classes both in Macedonia and in Magna Graecia. Paolo Giulierini, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, has suggested that the high quality of the tombs may have been the work of Macedonian hands, commissioned by the elite of Neapolis, which seems to have occupied a place of some standing in the wider Mediterranean.
Tombs of the same date and of great sophistication and artistry were found in other Greek colonies in Campania, notably at Paestum, Nola, and Cumae, where the style and the subject matter chosen for the paintings inside the richest tombs also point to a successful blending of Macedonian and local artistic traditions, especially that of the Samnite culture. To what extent 4th-century Etruscan funerary painting in central Italy is indebted to the painting traditions existing in Campania at the same time is still an open question.
Outstanding examples of the sophisticated intermingling of cultures can be seen in Naples’ Archaeological Museum, where there is a selection of painted slabs from tombs found in southern Italy on view. Particularly striking are the four sides of the Tomb of the Dancers (late 5th century/beginning of the 4th century BC) found at Ruvo, in Apulia. They show rows of veiled women in profile holding hands and dancing a ritual dance – possibly the gheranos, evoking the myth of Theseus and the labyrinth, and, by extension, the passage between life and death.
The National Archaeological Museum of Paestum (Greek Poseidonia) has another masterpiece: the painted lid and side panels of the famous Tomb of the Diver, found at a necropolis just outside the city and dating from around 480/470 BC. These travertine slabs (the largest measuring about 2m across) are covered with a layer of white plaster over which are painted scenes from a symposium. Young men crowned with laurel leaves lie down on klinai (couches), talking to each other and playing music. The inner side of the lid shows, with an astonishing sparsity of lines, a naked young man diving from a high wall into the sea of immortality, where his soul will reach the hereafter. The diver takes the plunge alone and is set in profile against an empty sky, while two spindly trees frame the scene. The background is white, the details scarce, and there is a shocking, vibrating intensity in the scene.
The philosophical content of the paintings in these tombs and of those in the Ipogeo dei Cristallini, with their references to the mysteries of the Dionysiac cults, is not surprising when one considers that Magna Graecia was the home of some of the greatest pre-Socratic Greek thinkers, thinkers who would determine the development of Western philosophy. Their concerns about the afterlife were reflected in the arts of this time, as was their knowledge of mathematics and the rules of harmonious proportion. Pythagoras, for example, travelled to Kroton, in present-day Calabria, around 530 BC and founded there a celebrated school where vegetarianism was practised as a means of achieving a more balanced lifestyle. Metempsychosis, whereby the soul is immortal and, after death, continues existing in a new body, was a belief shared by Pythagoras and his followers.
Other tombs from Neapolis’ Hellenistic necropolis – about 20 of them – have been identified under old buildings in Rione Sanità, but, according to Luigi La Rocca, the Soprintendente in charge of the city’s archaeological heritage, those of the Ipogeo dei Cristallini are the best preserved, making the site particularly important for the evidence it provides about the inhabitants of Hellenistic and Roman Naples and about their beliefs. With the opening of the tombs, visitors will be able to encounter these funerary beliefs for themselves, as well as witnessing the vital restoration work that will help preserve the ancient underground site into the future.
Ipogeo dei Cristallini (Hypogeum of Cristallini Street) beneath the Donato Palace, Via dei Cristallini 133, 80137 Naples, will open for limited guided tours from 30 June. For more information, visit https://ipogeodeicristallini.org.
The restoration project is partly financed with European and Campania Region funds (through the POR Campania FESR 2014-2020 project). It is carried out under the scientific coordination of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per il comune di Napoli, in collaboration with the ICR (Central Institute for Restoration). It is also supported by Gianfranco D’Amato of the Seda Group and by Raimondo Amato for Garolla.
For more about Greek artefacts in Naples (in Italian only), see La collezione Magna Grecia – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, edited by P Giulierini and M Giacco.