Pozzuoli What is the fascination of this port city? Why is it a favorite tourist spot?

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What is the fascination of this port city? Why is it a favorite tourist spot?

Pozzuoli began as the Greek colony of Dicaearchia. The Roman colony was established in 194 BC, and took the name Puteoli which it has his roots from ‘puteus’, meaning well (also usede from sibyls to predict the future) and ‘osco fistulus’ (cave). An alternative etymology of Puteoli from the Latin puteo (to stink), referring to the sulfuric smell in the area, most notably from Solfatara. This is because Pozzuoli lies in the center of the Campi Flegrei, a volcanic caldera.

Puteoli was the great emporium for the Alexandrian grain ships, and other ships from all over the Roman world. It also was the main hub for goods exported from Campania, including blown glass, mosaics, wrought iron and marble. The Roman naval base at nearby Misenum housed the largest naval fleet in the ancient world. It was also the site of the Roman Dictator Sulla’s country villa and the place where he died in 78 BC.

If you are a city aiming at immortality, you could do worse than encase yourself in volcanic ash. That is what gave Pompeii and Herculaneum their eerie foreverness—and gives us the pleasure of being able to stroll their ancient streets, peeping into living rooms

Quite another case is nearby Pozzuoli, just north of Naples. It is so worn down by 2,500 years, so overlaid with bits and pieces of successive civilizations that it is virtually impossible for the casual observer to recognize it as the important city of the ancient world that it was. Excavations are now going on and, ultimately, plans call for a museum, guided tours, and the wherewithal to help you appreciate ancient Pozzuoli, just as you do its Vesuvian cousins to the south. The project entails excavating and restoring a 200 x 240 meter area of the Rione Terra, the old city.  Indeed an ambitious project.

Now Pozzuoli’s popularity is referred to the renowned restaurants and important ichthyic market, but a few people know that Pozzuoli is one of the four cities in the world – with Budapest, Metz and Petronell – to have two Roman amphitheaters.

The city is located onto the homonym gulf, nearby Naples and a fascinating volcanic area known as Phlegrean Fields (meaning Burning Fields), including the dormant Volcano Solfatara. Pozzuoli undergoes a particular geo-seismic phenomenon called bradyseism: the gradual uplift or descent of the Earth’s crust caused by the filling or emptying of a hydrothermal activity. The quick raising of the sea-level involved the port during the 80’s, so that it was repositioned 50 meters further the previous collocation.

Pozzuoli was founded in 529 BC for want of the Greek group of Samii and named Dicearchia. In 421 BC it fell into the Samnites’ hands, but in 228 BC, after the Roman conquest of Campania, Dicearchia was “rebaptised” as Puteoli and became more and more important thanks to the great port: main commercial basis and core of the economic development of Roman Empire. Pozzuoli was linked to the capital as well as the biggest cities in Campania and the most flourishing Eastern maritime cities established a commercial station here. The slow decline unfortunately started in 70 AC, because of the port opened in Ostia, built for want of the Roman Emperor Claudius and finished by Nero. The gradual coastline sinking, caused by the bradyseism, forced the locals to leave the lower part of the city and move towards the current Rione Terra, which was bounded with thick walls and turned into “Castrum Puteolanum”.

At the beginning of the XVI century, Pozzuoli was shocked by violent tremors, so that the people moved again outside the walls, founding a new hamlet close by the sea, called Tripergole. A disastrous earthquake destroyed the village of Tripergole, in the night between 29th and 30th September 1538. The Earth surface crashed and erupted so much material to form a new hill, later named Monte Nuovo (New Mountain). During the Second World War the city was bombed because of the port (that provided war ships with petrol), the company Gio. Ansaldo & C. S.A.S. (which dealt with air forces and aircraft weapons) and the very important railway line Naples-Rome that crossed Pozzuoli.

Rione Terra had been abandoned during the 70’s and is still under repair. The city has been rebuilt weaving together old and new. Among modern buildings you will be able to admire fabulous ancient witnesses of a glorious past.

The local volcanic sand, pozzolana formed the basis for the first effective concrete, as it reacted chemically with water. Instead of just evaporating slowly off, the water would turn this sand/lime mix into a mortar strong enough to bind lumps of aggregate into a load-bearing unit. This made possible the cupola of the Pantheon, which is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

In 37 AD Puteoli was the location for a political stunt by Emperor Gaius Caligula, who on becoming Emperor ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built using trading vessels, stretching for over two miles (3.2 km) from the town to the famous neighboring resort of Baiaes which he proceeded to ride his horse, in defiance of an astrologer’s prediction that he had “no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae”.

Saint Proculus (San Procolo) was martyred here with his companions in the fourth century, and is the city’s patron saint. The seven eagle heads on the coat-of-arms for the town of Pozzuoli are said to represent seven of these martyrs. November 16 was the official feast day for Saint Proculus. St. Proculus was affectionately nicknamed ‘u pisciasotto (“the pants-pisser”) because November 16 was often a day of rain. The townspeople also celebrated his feast day on the second Sunday in May.

Since 1946 the town has been the home of the Academia Aeronautica, the Italian Air Force Academy, which was first situated on the island of Nisida, then from 1962 on a purpose-built hilltop campus overlooking the bay.

From August 1982 to December 1984 the city experienced hundreds of tremors and bradyseismic activity which reached a peak on October 4, 1983, damaging 8,000 buildings in the city center and dislocating 36,000 people, many permanently. The events raised the sea bottom by almost 2 m, and rendered the Bay of Pozzuoli too shallow for large craft.

After more than a decade of planning and rebuilding, the church (destroyed by fire in 1967) would officially reopen, but after that? The Duomo is in the oldest part of Pozzuoli, the old city, the Rione terra, a 200 x 240 meter area atop a tufa promontory over the bay. It has been deserted since 1970 when seismic activity forced evacuation of the area. Current restoration has produced a good museum at the entrance to the area and, now the Duomo. The rest of the area is in ruins. There is one road in and the same road out. There is little sidewalk space and such things as emergency exits in the restored Duomo do not meet the standards they must if the church is really to serve as a place of worship. Ideally, you would have the museum at one end and the Duomo at the other; the buildings in between would be bustling with those who serve the Grand Tourists of today. That is not likely to happen any time soon. Pozzuoli was hard hit by the earth tremors of the 1980s, followed by a time when all available resources were channeled into building a satellite town of New Pozzuoli, resettling evacuees, etc. Culture was not a priority. Yet, Pozzuoli and environs include the Phlegrean Fields, Greek and Roman archaeology (with the large Pozzuoli amphitheater), and the adjacent area of Baia, now itself a separate center of antiquities covered by the term National Archaeological Museum of Baia. The area offers a lot.

Pozzuoli also has remnants of baths, a vast necropolis, and columns from the ancient Temple of Augustus (originally a temple for the worship of Jupiter and later incorporated into the Cathedral of San Procolo). Near the harbor there stands what is still erroneously called the “Temple of Serapis”.  Apparently, it was really a market place. Now on dry land, the bases of the columns were underwater until the 1980s, when significant seismic activity shifted the ground level.

The fortunes of Putèoli declined, of course, with those of the Roman Empire. Before the arrival of the Normans at the turn of the millennium and the subsequent foundation of the Kingdom of Naples, Pozzuoli was part of the little known Duchy of Naples. Its physical fortunes eroded further over the centuries: shifting coastlines and constant earth tremors care nothing for the hard times they may be preparing for future archaeologists. Severe seismic activity had so weakened the ancient buildings of the Rione Terra that the area was almost entirely evacuated in 1970.

The goal of present excavations is to unearth the Roman city of Putèoli, including, of course, the main street, the decumanus maximus, and the area around the remnant columns of the Temple of Augustus. The digs are snaking their way back from the entrance of the exhibit through a honeycomb of Roman ruins, only a small portion of which are, as yet, part of the display. Although no new physical bits of Decaearchia have been found, plenty of Putèoli has. Fragments, for example, in a totally burned-out section near ground level have been dated to the first century a.d.; archaeologists speculate that a disastrous fire may have been caused by the very seismic upheaval that presaged the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii.

Recent exhibits have been in the Palazzo di Fraja, in a section of the building that once actually incorporated a Roman taberna, a shop, into its own structure, thus hiding it for centuries. It has been partially cleared and restored and is one of two such tabernae uncovered since the present excavations began. The taberna is situated near what is now believed to be the intersection of the main cross-roads of the old center of Roman Putèoli. The exhibit displays approximately 200 items, ranging from ceramic items to statuary.

The Rione Terra of Pozzuoli looks somewhat like a ghost town these days, due to the evacuation and, now, the burrowing and scraping away going on. Yet, this inconvenience to modern residents is a blessing for archaeologists, since they are now free to probe in and under Strabo’s “fortress raised on a cliff” in their attempts to peel away the centuries.

Kathy Kiefer

Rione Terra

click on the picture for slideshow⬇︎

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