It was months before I noticed him. I drove past him every day … and yet I never looked left. There were two reasons – the first was fear, new-to-the-road fear, and the second was the light of the early sun on the sea.
The fear of the drive into Naples has almost gone, and with it the bolts of shock that thumped through my heart each time I joined the traffic into the city. Now, my spasmed eyeballs have relaxed and there’s time to enjoy the view.
Of course the sea, the beautiful bay, is still there but in the hot light of summer my eyes turn away from the water, back across the Via Francesco Caracciolo towards the trees that line the far side.
I glimpsed him for the first time a few mornings ago. I was squashed into the rush hour and headed towards Castel dell’Ovo when my distracted eyes suddenly caught his profile. Nothing more than the shoulders, and a fierce frown out towards the sea – but it was enough.
After that I kept on seeing him … and there were other men, glimpsed in passing through the railings around the Villa Comunale.
I knew the park, I’d walked through it a couple of times on A to B journeys when we first arrived, but I’d never noticed any of the men before.
Of course curiosity meant I had to go back to the park, and this time with a mission – to find out who the jut-jawed man of stone was.
It didn’t take long. I found him by a set of sea-front gates, towards the Mergellina end of the park. His gaze across the bay is fixed and on the plinth beneath his great shoulders there is one word – Carducci. He was my man.
Giosuè Carducci (1835 – 1907) was a poet, and, for forty years professor of Italian literature at Bologna. In 1890 Italy made him a senator for life, and in 1906 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
His bust in the park, the work of Calabrian sculptor Saverio Gatto, shows a strong man, a man who Naples has honoured with an eye-catching position. According to Jeff Matthews in his Naples: Life, Death and Miracles website, Carducci is the only outsider, the only man (there were no women that I could see) not directly connected with Naples, to be allowed amongst the park’s non-classical statues.
I’m not sure what Carducci himself, by all accounts an anti-clerical, republican of great influence, would have thought of his place in this park designed originally for the walking pleasure of royalty.
The king who commissioned the ‘walk’ in June 1778 was King Ferdinand IV, of the House of Bourbon. What he had in mind was a ‘Real Passeggio‘ (Royal Walk) in Chiaia by the sea.
Carlo Vanvitelli began work on the king’s wish in 1779 and in less than three years the project was finished. But it seems that since then the park, with its prime location, has seldom been left in peace.
For over two centuries there have been frequent, and sometimes extensive, plantings, expansions, additions and changes, and they’re still going on. Here are some of the more recent of them:
- change of name to Villa Comunale in 1869, during the unification of Italy;
- large Anton Dohrn Aquarium built in the park in around 1872;
- the bandstand La Cassa Armonica was completed in 1877;
- the lungomare, which runs the length of the park, was developed in 1883 ;
- the Circolo del Tennis opened in 1905;
- then World War II, which turned the park with its fine plants and statues, into a military camp for German troops;
- followed by liberation, and the aquarium, once famous for its collection of ‘rare crustaceans and octopods‘, was soon emptied. According to Norman Lewis in Naples ’44 the few final specimens that did not ‘go into the pot … died through the failure of the filtration plant.’
Today, clean up and improvements continue with the added challenge of managing the side-effects of a barely built underground station, still stuck behind screens down near the tennis club.
Despite all the change the Villa Comunale is full of life. Classical celebrities strike mythical poses on the grass; water splashes in fountains; families picnic; dogs frolic; and men on their pedestals look important. Like the city behind it holds a mixture of everything with the added pleasure of green space.
Through the railings along one length are the steep sides of Naples – through the other, Carducci’s view, over the traffic and out to sea … space for a distracting man of influence to ponder his poetry.
Some of the sources used for this article include:
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis published by Eland in 1983
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018