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Underground of ancient Neapolis

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Macellum under Naples
Macellum under Naples | Photo: Michal Kubicz

Contemporary Naples is a city where ancient monuments are much more difficult to find than in Rome, but that does not mean that they are not there. After all, it is a city as old as Rome. Founded by Greek colonists, the settlement already had an urban character when Rome was still a small village.

So where have the ruins of ancient Neapolis gone? The easiest way to see them is in two ways: either from a great height or underground.

Why from above? Because although a millennium and a half have passed since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, and Naples itself has changed beyond recognition, the heart of the city has preserved a regular ancient grid of streets, perfectly visible on aerial and satellite photos. One of the most popular streets for tourists – Via dei Tribunali, is the ancient “decumanus”, i.e. the main street on the north-south axis. In accordance with the old rules of Roman urban planning, it perpendicularly intersected the “cardo” – the main street of the east-west axis. At the point where they intersected, there was a large forum – more or less where the characteristic basilica of St. Paul with its antique columns on the facade. This chessboard of Neapolitan streets is the greatest legacy of antiquity visible on the surface.

But no less interesting things can be found underground. Right next to Via dei Tribunali (“decumanus”) in Roman times there was a macellum from the 2nd century CE – a huge multifunctional building adjacent to the former forum. Its remains are hidden under the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore. In the contemporary courtyard of the monastery adjacent to the basilica, a macellum model has been placed, which allows for a better understanding of the layout of the underground ruins and their location in relation to today’s buildings. The model clearly shows that the center of the rectangular courtyard was occupied by a round columned pavilion (the so-called tholos) hiding a fountain, characteristic of many other macella built throughout the Empire. Interestingly, its remains are still visible in the place where the stone slabs covering the monastery courtyard were removed.

However, the most interesting remains are deep underground. You may ask why the circular pavilion is just below the surface and the ruins in question are much deeper. The answer is simple: former Neapolis was located in an area with a considerable slope (today the decline is felt a little less). Therefore, part of the macellum was located above, and part much lower, and it is the latter that has survived to our times under the foundations of later buildings.

So let’s go underground. What will we find there? A fragment of the ancient “cardo” street with a large section of the façade of the lower storey macellum has been preserved. You can see the ancient cobblestones, entrances to workshops, shops, bakeries or the fulling house, and even to the city treasury. On the other hand, you can visit the premises of the former fish market, where the characteristic sloping stone tables on which fish were gutted have been preserved. The accumulation of a number of functions in one building is fascinating. In the Neapolitan underground, we can see in one place a well-preserved whole range of types of urban objects gathered on the main street of the city.

A little further on, small fragments of rooms have survived, which my guide described as ancient domus, but which, according to the description board, are meeting places within the macellum area. So their purpose is unclear to me. Here, unfortunately, you need to have a bit more imagination, because these are only the lower parts of the walls with the remains of frescoes and mosaics, and – what is probably the most interesting – the marble pool atrium.

For me, the opportunity to see these ruins hidden under the modern buildings of Naples was a real surprise. I didn’t expect the Neapolitan macellum to be so well preserved. I would even venture to say that a similar object in Rome cannot be seen today. Such macella have been preserved in Pozzuoli, Pompeii, Turkish Perge and Sagalassos, but macellum in Naples is by far the most interesting of all that I had the pleasure of seeing.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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