Eloge du palimpseste

Une conférence d’Alfonso Artiaco

Imagine. You are sailing, on an ancient ship, a Greek, Phoenician or even Egyptian boat, powered by two row of rowers, one of each boat sides, approaching Puteoli harbour from the south.

If you are watching outboard, probably you are not a slave… I mean, you are not one of the slaves pushing and rising a row into the water, under the deck…

You are a traveller. Maybe, a merchant, coming from a faraway country. The first time visiting the central part of the Great Empire. What do you see in front of you? A rounded harbour, an astonishingly “round” place, as if some god had designed it with a compass.

In front of you, four rows of magnificent buildings that structures the urban landscape in a sequence of horizontal terraces, each of them with significant singularities: buildings and landmarks that you know from the tales of travellers you met before, but that you have never seen before.

On the right, the PILAE, the wonderful mole with celebrative columns and arches with bronze golden statues of marine gods, flags, giant bronze rampant horses. In front of you, the great temple of Apollo or Isis, with a long stair on the front, rising towards the hill.

On both sides of the temple, the two amphitheatres, the theatre and the forum, all of them with their complex arched and columned façade.

Moving your sight to the left, the Horrea, the Ripa and a lot of others huge buildings facing the sea, all decorated with columns and colourful facades.

If you put your hand above your eyes, facing the sun, it slowly sets down on the west side, another extraordinary landscape hits you: it’s Baia, with a similar terraced structure, but more variety of buildings, terraced again, but divided and sorted by colour also in vertical by large o narrow stair road.

Look at the Thermae!

The pleasure dome in which you can meet all the fantastic leisure they told you before: hot and cold baths, massages, perfumed oil, hazard games, wonderful and exotic meretrix.

Now, as you are closer to the market place, you can feel the smell of the fresh sea fruits and, if you pay attention, also the perfume of wine. Yes, you can soon taste both of them in one of the tabernae facing the sea. You can also notice the big wood tower used to cultivate the seafruit into the sea and, on the hills, the lines of the wine plants, following the profiles of the reliefs.

How can I be so sure that this was exactly the scene you would have seen in the ancient times?

Why can I tell you this tale?

Mostly because you, the merchant, before leaving Puteoli, you’ve bought a souvenir.

No, not a fridge mag.

A flask.

A glass flask with the scene that I tried to describe you, engraved, buried on its surface. And with a dedicatory inscription just underneath and around the neck of the flask, that help us to understand that the merchant MANE IBI OPTIME, enjoyed the visit. Very much.

As I hope you, now.

That flask is one of the eight flasks that were found in far away lands – some of them quite familiar to you – preserved in tombs or other special site, all of them hand-craft-made in a specialized souvenir factory, filled with perfumed oil, wine or sauce, engraved with personalized-at-the-moment inscription and, may be, with a customized selection of landmarks chosen by the customer.

Are you thinking at what I am suggesting?

Yes. A sort of instant picture of the panorama taken from the centre of the harbour. But why from that point of view?

Let’s talk about the rounded shape of the harbour…

Where are we? Let me say… we are on the top of the cover of a large steam blowing boiling bowl pot.

What’s cooking?

Underneath, not so deeply as we would desire, a large – a huge – ball of magma – we call it the “mush”, something like the uncooked pizza dough.

Directly connected with the very deep part of earth mantel by at least three big fractures of the crust.

Above, sponged structured rocks filled with water. Sea water and phreatic water… so you can choose how salty you like your soup!

And, finally, the cover! Large sedimentary stratus of volcanic hashes or heavy lava rocks that can move freely, quickly o slowly up and down, sometimes here, sometimes there.

Sometimes the rock cover brakes down, and lets some hot moist pour outside, sometime soil can rise, highly, for thousands of meters and let lava, hash or just mud come out in a shape of a well rounded small volcano hill.

Sometimes large part of the cover suddenly collapses, underneath the sea level, under a coastal Laguna or a lake, or just slowly go down, carrying with them buildings, fields, forests.

Do you now understand why the Puteoli and Baia landscapes have a terraced structure? Because the cover continuously rises and collapses leaving traces of its movement in those terraces that, now as in the ancient time, divide the towns in different stair levels.

This phenomenon clears an aspect of the title of this lecture.

The palimpsest in the title refers ALSO to the sequence of different physical stratification of landmarks.

It is mostly a phenomenon taken from abstract memory, but it’s also something that you can see and visit on foot.

It could correspond to a functional subdivision of the landscape and to the effect of the physical sedimentation of volcanic ashes and rocks.

Each event we are talking about has – of course – its own time. Geological and anthropic/historic time usually are very different and not comparable in the memory of a men watching.

But here, in the Phlegreian Fields, and probably ONLY here, events which normally appear in different times and places, like natural volcanic changing and anthropic landscape, “collide”. They cooperate.

It happens. Here. Really.

It has happened several time. From very ancient time, I mean when Neanderthal man was still walking around, to now. 15.000 years ago the big collapse of the bowl cover originates the Pozzuoli harbour. Yes, you have well understood: ONLY 15.000 years ago.

Now you understand why I said that here geological time coincide with historical time.

The last time it had happened was in 1538. Monte Nuovo eruption.

The Spanish governor, Don Pedro de Toledo, couldn’t believe his eyes: in only two weeks the earth rose about 45 meters. And then, in the night between the 29th and the 30th of September, the eruption and the rise of a new mountain!

Not very dangerous indeed – you can stay watching very closely to the site – but… hey! We are talking about the birth of a mountain! A small mountain, about 150 mt high, right, but where in world it happens before you eyes? Because, you know, in the place of that small mountain, before, at the time of Roman Empire, there was a large– half natural, half man build – lake!

So this is also a place in which, in a life-man-time, can happen!.

I mean things like mountain, coastal line, sea level.

And a place in which people continuously had to re-build houses, roads, structures, changing agriculture or fishing practices.

So preserving the palimpsest of what happens is a strategy of life – or of surviving, may be – not “only” a cultural effort.

This is a place where we can talk about our common human history, just looking outside the window or, better, sailing in the middle of the harbour.

Eating ostrich and drinking sparkling fresh wine. Tasting cereal flavour pizza looking at sulphur moist field, reflecting about the fact that, underneath the surface, Mother Earth is blowing, cooking something new, that may be could remember us that we are not really necessary to her landscape designs.

And… then? Well, Puteoli after the III century b. C. slowly slipped down the sea level. All the docks and the harbour structures disappeared under about 5 meters of water.

The city had already lost its strategical role in the Empire, with the construction of the harbour of Ostia, but the pleasantness of the site still attracts rich people, that keep on visiting Baia for its unique Termae.

With the ruin of West Roman Empire, the coastal cities of Southern Italy had to face a very deep demographic crisis due mostly to the unsafe conditions of survival and the exposition to the direct attack of always new conquerors.

In the X century, after six hundreds years of decadence, Puteoli – whose name has turned in Pozzoli or Pozzuolo – is known only for the Balnea, the sulphur water pool and the wells.

It’s “very” famous – a lot of important visitors came here for medical reasons, as, some years later, the Italian poets Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio and also Giotto and Simone Martini – but, starting from the 1200 an intensive sismic activity put the land – literally – under pressure.

The Angiò domination historic period is characterized by a continuous process of struggle between the necessity of putting under the control of crown the phlegreian coast and the islands and the aspirations of the city to reach an independent regime of taxation.

This is the time in which the Amalfi Naval Republic acts an eminent role for the economical development of the region and, fighting against the pirates – usually Saracens – as against the Church and the Empire, tries to extend their hegemony and control on all the cities.

With the Spanish domination, Pozzuoli had to face a new period of intense volcanic activity, culminated with Monte Nuovo Eruption, in 1538.

But, not surprisingly, for the effect of a special light taxation due to the necessity of helping the proved Universitas, the economy restarted each time with a new energetic deal, and the demographic curve seems not to be seriously affected even by great epidemics or catastrophic earthquakes.

In the period between the XIII and the XVI century, many ecclesiastic orders built their monasteries in the area, and the harbour became again a safe place for commerce and for military strategy.

During the Empire of Charles V, the Viceré Don Pedro de Toledo, built or re-built castles, palace with large gardens, roads, naval supply stuctures. Actually we can still admire the tower of the Viceré Palace in a eminent position above the new Pozzuoli harbour, and, facing to it on the other side of the gulf, the Castle of Baia.

Under the Borbone, through the XVII and XVIII century, the Phlegreian Fields knew a very quite period concerning the seismic activity, and then, with the love of Carlo III and Ferdinando IV for both hunting and antiquities, this made the land a sort of “garden for king passions”: forests were planted and preserved, the lakes were used during the migration of birds season as hunting sites, the activities of antiquities research and excavation was pushed – unfortunately, very often only for commercial reasons – and specifically ruled by a special system of laws.

On the other hand, the Borbone dynasty, pushed the settlement in the city of a lot of industries, some of them very advanced in the construction of strategic weapons. The factories were established on the coast, in order to use ships as system infrastructure and a rail road was projected, following the entire line coast from Naples to Fusaro lake, also.

After the unification of Italy, until the First World War, the industrial development continued.

During the Fascism an after World War Two, Pozzuoli, under the urban transformations of Naples in Metropolitan City, became more and more clearly only one of the Naples peripheries.

In addiction, the choice of a specialized economy – based on heavy industries – taken for socio-political reason by the city council highly conditioned by communist party, in the late ’70s, suddenly turned out as a fake and a failure.

Inexorably, all the main, and then also the small, factories of secondary sector, close. Pozzuoli lost definitively its economical autonomy.

In addiction, the volcanic Caldera started again to “boil”. Several slow but effective earthquakes followed. These activities started in the late ’50s and end in the ’80s, with two peek crisis in 1973 and in 1984.

Actually, the pot is under pressure again. And a lot of signals of a renewed activity are registered by scientist.

Pozzuoli has began, meanwhile, again a touristic place. The most important part of population had been forced to move in new “safer” houses… built in an ancient volcanic cone!

And the down town is weekly taken by the assault of Saturday Night life pirates.

It is still a nice place to live. One of the most pleasant of Naples neighbourhood.

But it needs love. And love is made of respect.

For both, knowledge and self-consciousness are needed.

So we need to preserve and promote memories.

You are welcome in the community of Pozzuoli lovers.

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