Sieges: conquerors climbing from the underground

In 19th century it may be still possible to climb down one of the 4628 wells and tour the underground city in all its length and width from Santa Caterina a Formielloto Monte di Dio, from Ponti Rossi to Capo Misero, and from San Giovanni a Carbonara to the Sanità.

In order to take possession of the city, many conquerors had the idea of cutting off the aqueducts; in 537, for example, Belisarius, who commanded Justinian’s army in the Italian campaign against the Goths, got to Naples and concealed a whole regiment of horsemen in the cavern of Sportiglione, below Capodichino, while he himself set up camp in front of the gate of Santa Sofia, which is now San Giovanni a Carbonara.

According to Melisurgo, when Belisarius cut off the aqueducts, he exclaimed: “…we’ll make these Neapolitans surrender by making them thirsty.” However, fate had it that one of his soldiers, Isauro, on his way along an underground passage of the ancient Bolla Aqueduct and after a few metres, saw the light from the bottom of a well; he climbed up it by using the footholds of the well-diggers and found himself at the centre of the garrison guarding the Santa Sofia Gate.

That night, some of Belisarius’s soldiers climbed up the same well, overcame the guards and opened the gates, so permitting the troops to conquer the city.

In 1442, the troops of Alfonso I of Aragon, with Diomede Carafa in command, set up camp in the same place. Alfonso I was an educated man and had read about Belisarius, and so gave Carafa orders to find the same point of access.

Carafa contacted two well-diggers, Aniello Ferraro and Roberto Esposito, who led him to the house of “Mastro Citiello Cosetore”, a tailor who lived right in front of the Santa Sofia gate, where the Bovio school now stands and where there used to be a well beneath his house. This time, Alfonso’s soldiers, who were  sailors, climbed the well since they were more expert in the use of ropes and ladders. So, for the second time the city of Naples was conquered by the underground aqueduct.

The places change, but not so the underground passageways, the wells and the ancient cisterns; some of the latter were widened during the Second World War so that they could be used as raids shelters.

A brief survey of Naples History

The city of Naples was founded during the VIII century BC  by the inhabitants of the Greek colony of Cuma. They called it “Neapolis” or new city  to distinguish it from the oldest one, Partenope or Palepolis, the old city founded during the VI century and   built up   between Monte Echia (where now is the “Castel dell’Ovo”) and the hill of “Pizzofalcone”. This new city  was and  is still characterised,  as all the cities of Greek origin, by its “ippodameo”, a grill shape plant: three large decumani, with East-West direction (Via Tribunali, Via Anticaglia, via San Biagio dei Librai), crossing many Cardi (hinges), narrow lanes much more tightened with direction north-south.

 In spite of the later urban planning stratification, and the rising of a larger city (such as the one of the Middle age, the Spanish one etc) the classic Greek urban planning shape of its historical town centre is still visible, indeed it is one of the bigger opened historical centres of Europe, an artistic and cultural heritage declared heritage of the humanity  by UNESCO.  Greek Naples was in war with Samnites, that in the 423 BC conquered Cuma, and with the Romans, who defeated them in 326 BC. The city became summer residence of wealthy romans “patrizi”: they built many villas between Puteoli and Sorrento (Scipione the African, Silla, Tiberio, Caligola, Claudius, Nerone, Bruto and Lucullo, as an example). Orazio, Plinio the Old one, Virgilio, found there inspiration for the artistic genius). Naples was the centre of refined culture, a border with Greece in Italian Peninsula. At the beginning of the Middle Age it became part of the Byzantine empire, then independent under the direction of its dukes, with the other Marine Republics it traded and fought with the Muslims.

In 1139 it became part of the Normans Empire and therefore of the Swabians with Federico II. In 1266 Naples and the kingdom of Sicily were given by Pope Clement IV to Charles of Anjou, who moved the capital from Palermo to Naples. In the 1400s Aragonese followed and therefore Carl V of Habsburg. It remained joined to the Spanish Crown until the 1707 and after one short period of union to Austria, became independent Reign in 1734 with Carl III of Bourbon. The second part of the 1700s was a period of cultural and civil splendour that ended with the French revolution and the events of the Republic “Partenopea”   of 1799. At the end of the 1700s French had placed on the throne first Giuseppe Bonaparte, brother of the Napoleon and therefore Giacchino Murat. With the defeat of Napoleon in the 1815, when the Bourbons came back, they formed the kingdom of Two Sicilies which lasted until 1860 when Garibaldi expedition   of “the thousands” allowed  Italian Political Unity.

Then Naples lost its rank of Capital city but continued its development, although sharing the difficulties with all the south of Italy.

In spite of this long and complicated history, in spite of the several dynasties and families who ruled on Naples, although the many wars fought, the decumani with its hinges are still there, witnesses of more than two thousand years of history.

“O’ monaciello” the little monk coming from the underground

Every building, in Naples, took water from the cisterns below, through wells, within which workers called “pozzari” were able to go. They easily moved through these narrow channels, named “cunicoli”, and climbed up the wells thanks to holes in the walls. Actually they were kept in high consideration by the people because their well paid work was of basic importance for public health. They often came from the same families and were chosen for their ability in climbing, very small size, strength and agility. These men actually had access to every house in the city through the wells, and this is where the popular legend “Monaciello” came from.

Of  the two generally accepted Neapolitan hypothesis about his origins, one is in fact connected to the mysterious underground city of Naples, it claims that ‘O Monaciello”was actually the “pozzari” (well workers) who would use the many passageways to enter people’s homes at night, play tricks on them or try to collect on unpaid bills.

The other occurs in the mid 1400s during the reign of the Aragonese: Caterinella Frezza, daughter of a wealthy merchant fell in love with Stephen Mariconda, a labourer. Their families opposed the relationship and one night Stephen was murdered in the lover’s secret meeting place. After that Caterinella was sent to a convent, where she bore a strange child. The nuns made him cloths similar to a monk’s and adopted him after his mother’s death. He never grew bigger than the size of a six year old and had a strange enlarged head on which he wore a black hat and hid within the cowl of his monk’s hood. People came to fear him and began to blame “The Little Monk” for all their misfortunes, except when he wore a red cap, which was seen as good luck. Unfortunately for the child, he didn’t wear the red hat  frequently. One day the child disappeared, and it was assumed that he had been murdered.

This beneficent household demon might also be propitiated by food which they expected to see converted into gold; but he or she had not to boast of such supernatural gifts, else they vanished as they came. It was believed that treasure suffices for the requirements of those who received it.

The author Matilde Serao stated in her book Neapolitan Legends: “The tale of ‘O Monaciello does not end with his death. On the contrary, it begins.” … “It is not the gnome dancing on the soft grass of the meadows, nor the elf that sings on the shores of the river, it is the evil imp of the old houses of Naples. It is ‘o monaciello.”

Inhabiting the middle-class districts where he wandered in life, the spirit returns to interfere with the living. Sometimes he engages in harmless tricks, other times he breaks things or causes hardship. He’s been blamed for causing nightmares, depression and immoral temptations. It was said that he is unpredictable and capable of anything.

“It is the imp that makes old maids hysterical and causes them to fall down the stairs in convulsions. It is ‘o monaciello who turns the house upside down, puts the furniture in disarray, disturbs the heart, confuses the mind and fills it with fear. It is he, the tormented and tormenting spirit who brings chaos in his black habit, ruin in his black hood.” … “But truthful history also tells us, good reader that when ‘o monaciello wore his red hood, his presence brought good luck. And because of this strange mixture of good and evil, of malice and goodness, ‘o monaciello is respected, feared and loved.” (Matilde Serao, Neapolitan Legends, p.128-132)

The spirit is known for his lascivious behavior toward young and beautiful women, but is also known to take young girls under his protection when they are in love. He is known to cause misfortune, then to comfort the victims of his actions. He leaves money for people with the understanding that they will be silent about his misdeeds, and punishes them if they do not honour the bargain. The esoteric version of ‘O Monaciello claims that his gifts of money were attempts to buy the souls of the living, and that he was an agent or avatar of the devil. Yet despite all this he is very popular in Naples and the people love him. Perhaps he is a devil, but if so he is their devil and as such is forever part of them.

Some storytellers attempt to rehabilitate ’O Monaciello. The author Geraldine McCaughrean wrote a children’s book based on him called Monaciello, the Little Monk

In the case of Monaciello, his bad behaviour is such a part of his personality that even Ms. McCaughrean could only do so much. The author made the following comment about her book:

“I visited a friend in Naples, and she showed me the city best secret – its Undercity: a gloomy, buried world of ruined houses and streets. Then I found out Naples has a secret inhabitant too – part-good, part-bad; a bringer of good luck and trouble; a boy with a sad history of his own. Legends like Monaciello’s date from a time when stories were not just for children; when they hovered in everyone’s brain, somewhere between made-up and true. I never cared much for wicked villains or superheroes. Monaciello is a mixture of sun and shadow – like we all are. My sort of hero.”

                    Image courtesy of Hydria Virtual Museum
Book cover of Monacello, the little monk

Hydria Virtual Museum

The Monaciello and similar beliefs are still popular in Southern Italy; there was even a song dedicated to the Scazzamurrieddhru by Domenico Modugno in 1954. Eduardo Di Filippo, important vernacular playwriter in the play “these ghosts” tells of popular consideration the “monaciello” had gained among the Neapolitans

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