A mystical emerald in Naples: Virgil’s park at Piedigrotta

Years ago I read about the park in Naples dedicated to the poet Virgil, on the site where he is supposedly buried. It was just before one of my first trips down to the southern Italian city. When I arrived in Naples I was not sure how to find it, and being a bit nervous about venturing out of the centre, I decided to save it for another visit. This week I returned to the city with local friends who knew their way around… so finally I was able to see this beautiful little park which really is not hard to reach at all.

For anyone else unsure about how to get there, let us clear that up straight away: if you are in Naples Central Station you take Metro Line 2 four stops to Mergellina, and the park is just around the corner to your right as you exit the station, behind the church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta. So do not let location and logistics put you off: we had such a lovely experience in this free-entry park that we hoped to leave a donation, but there was no donation box. I am certain many literature and garden-loving tourists would feel the same, and I will try to explain why.

piedigrottaVirgil’s park was opened in 1930 to mark the 2000th anniversary of the Roman poet’s birth. It surrounds a mausoleum which is said to be his tomb, next to the Neapolitan crypt, a tunnel dug in the 1st century BC to help Naples communicate with nearby Pozzuoli.

The park’s vegetation and plants were chosen to reflect those mentioned by Virgil in his work. There are signs along the way explaining the different plants and their connection to him, with quotes from his poems. Here are ivy and rushes:

IMG_4818 giuncoOn the first bend of the pathway you come to a verse inscription and a bust of the poet among the greenery.

parcovirgilianowm

Then as you turn the next corner, there is a striking tribute to another poet: Giacomo Leopardi, in front of arches dug into the rock face. He died in 1837, when Naples was hit by an epidemic of Cholera. His friend Antonio Ranieri made efforts to ensure he was not buried in a communal burial ground and so his remains were held in the Church of San Vitale in Fuorigrotta. After the church was demolished, a new memorial was set up in this park.

parcovirgiliano12wm

Shortly after this you can go up some steps to the right, and from here there are some really stunning views of the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius, enough to inspire anyone to become a poet themselves.

viewofnapleswmMore steps lead down to the entrance to Virgil’s tomb. On the wall in front of it there are two inscriptions reading the following:

“Stop passer-by and read these few things: Virgil is here, this is his sepulchre. In the year of our Lord 1455. In the reign of Alphonso, Lord in the name of our Lord Jesus, King of the Two Sicilies.”

“What ashes? These are the ruins of a tomb. He who once sang of pastures, fields and commanders was buried there. The Canons Regular placed in 1554.”

WP_20140815_067 WP_20140815_066Although there is some uncertainty about whether this really is the poet’s resting place, it is of cultural interest in any case, having been mentioned in works by other authors and poets such as Petrarch, Bocaccio and in the Chronicle of Parthenope. I read in the park’s descriptions that the tomb is built on the site of an ancient cult of the God Janus.

Virgil, who lived and studied in Naples, was not only known for his poetry but also for his knowledge about religion, medicine and astrology. Many people came to view him as a type of sorcerer with mystical powers, and his works were seen as having magical properties that could be used for divination. Popular legends claimed that his tomb, which became a destination for pilgrims in the centuries after his death, contained a wild laurel that bloomed all year round, reflecting his divine nature.

tombvirgil

Beneath the tomb is the Neapolitan Crypt, a grotto opening to a tunnel built in ancient times, running through the Posillipo hill. It is closed off now but you can have a look in the initial section where there are two medieval frescoes from the church of Santa Maria dell’Idria.

piedigrotta

Once we had seen these fascinating sites we had a seat and looked out over the sea, and back at the rock face around the grotto. As I mentioned we hoped to leave a token of appreciation but we were not able to. Maybe installing a donation box, and perhaps more information in the centre of town to make it easier for tourists to know how to get here, would be a good way to collect funds for the upkeep of Naples’ heritage.

Nearby the garden, you can stop in to see the Church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta, built in 1352 by the fishermen of Mergellina. You can then head back into town, or down to the sea front, where there are several restaurants and bars ready to serve you a pizza, seafood, or a drink!

 Parco della Tomba di Virgilio, Via Piedigrotta 20, (also called Parco Virgiliano a Piedigrotta or Parco Vergiliano, and not to be confused with the bigger Parco Virgiliano in Posillipo), for more information see here

For more gems in Naples, see my previous post- Naples: Three Diamonds in the Rough

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