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The Sebeto, the ancient river of Naples

by Clemente Esposito

Translated by Jeff Matthews

Naples was founded on a bay where a splendid plain was sheltered by many hills, where brooks, streams and natural springs flowed down to the river banks that greeted the first settlers. Monte Echia, rising from the sea to 55 meters; S. Martino 247 m.; S. Potito, 80 m.; Materdei, 142 m.; Capodimonte, 153 m.; Capodichino, 153 m.; and, last but not least, Poggioreale, 89 m. These are the hills that, together with the sea, surround the city. They are all of volcanic origin and consist mainly of tuff (tufa) covered with layers of loose terrain such as lava, pozzuolana and topsoil. Among these hills there are genuine natural sculptures, called valloni [glens], that have been eroded over the centuries by the water that gushes down the hills.

Via Chiaia lies between Monte Echia and S. Martino. We used to say that in ancient times it was a water course, maybe not a completely natural one but rather one dug by Lucullus to lead to his splendid spot of isolation, where his magnificent gardens nurtured cherry and peach trees brought from the Orient. Via Francesco Saverio Correra (the Cavone/Great Hollow) is between San Martino and San Potito; via Salvator Rosa divides S. Potito from Materdei and with via Francesco Saverio Correra is known to have gathered the waters and sand that came down from Camoldoli and Arenella; these are the same waters that flowed by a different route along the Vallone delle Noci (chestnuts) and the S. Rocco Vallone between Materdei and Capodimonte; it all converged upon the Sanità quarter, producing what we call the “la lava [waters] dei Vergini”, which tormented the northwestern part of the city for thousands of years, flooding and burying houses, hypogea and catacombs. Finally, in 1960, mayor Achille Lauro installed a drain/collector in the hills that channeled the water and put an end to this torment that without fail after every storm would fill the entire Vergini and the Sanità all the way to Piazza Cavour with mud, sand and loose vegetation. That's why even today there is a street in this quarter called via Arena [sand] alla Sanità; just as with via Arenella and other streets in Naples, these are the places where mud from the surrounding hillsides flowed down and pooled.

The Moiariello rise that divides Capodimonte from S. Eframo, and the Capodichino slope between S. Eframo and Poggioreale transported the waters down to the Naples plain as far as Via Arenaccia. From what they say, it is apparent that the first colonists to settle at the base of these hills, found the plain naturally irrigated from water from the hills; that was a good reason to build a city there. Legend says that Parthenope, daughter of Eumelus, king of Chalcis or Fera, after an unhappy love affair, left Greece and with a small band of followers settled on Mt. Echia where she founded the city named for her. There is some testimony to that, an epigraph in the church of S. Eligio, where we read:


To Parthenope, daughter of Eumelus, king of Fera in Thessaly, granddaughter of Pharete and the kings of Crete, who with colonists from Euboea gave to the city its first foundation and government. Placed here in her memory by the people of Naples.”

After that, other Greeks from nearby Cuma settled the area bounded by Via Costantinopoli, Vico S. Aniello, Via Luongo, Via Luigi Settembrini, Vico Grotte Della Marra, Vico Sedil Capuano, Via Tribunali, Via Pietro Colletta, Corso Umberto, Via S. Chiara and Via S. Sebastiano. Those are the boundaries of the Greco-Roman city defined by  [Bartolommeo] Capasso [1815-1900], but [Carlo] Celano [1625-1693] and then [Nicolò Carletti [1723-1796] had divided the Greek city from the Roman one,, putting between the two a free zone between Via Trubunali and Via S. Biagio dei Librai, supporting this idea from having read in Livy that consul Publilius Philo set his camp between the two to keep them separated. Carletta then says that the free was area was urbanized only later. It is probable that consul Philo camped between the Greco-Roman city and Parthenope.

So, apart from historical reminiscence, it is common knowledge that the entire city was founded on the banks of a river, the Sebeto; knowing where the first city was, those river banks must have thus been in the area between Via Roma and Via Costantinopoli. The river is famous; noted and illustrious writers have borne witness to that: Licofron (325 BC), Polybius (202-120 BC), Strabo (63 BC-24 AD), Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), and, last but not least, Petrarch. He, as guest in Naples of Robert of Anjou around 1340, went to visit Virgil's tomb and then wrote a letter to the king in which he refuted the notion that Virgil had conjured the grotto of Cucceius into existence in a single night by a magic spell. Petrarch also mentioned the Sebeto, saying “minuit presentia famam”--roughly, it's all smoke and no fire, or, in the translation by Metastasio, “so rich in honor, so poor in waves.”

From what they say, there was still some trace of this famous river in the 1300s, but little by little the volume decreased; and due to the intense urbanization of the area as well as to seismic activity, the river just disappeared. Urbanization brings with it such things as land reclamation; things change, and just as 1960 brought an end to the ”waters” of the Vergini, it is probable that at some point in the past a factor or combination of factors did the same thing to the Sebeto river. Celano and Carletti attribute it to wild urbanization and to the natural phenomena of eruptions and earthquakes that have so often shaken the area around Naples. To support that they mention that on November 15, 1343, that is, after the death of Robert of Anjou in 1343 and Petrarch's mention of the river, there was a “horrible earthquake” after which the sea level rose and reached S. Marcellino, where today the Geology department of the university is. After the earthquake had subsided, “the sea level returned to normal over a period of eight hours, leaving the port covered with a vast amount of alluvial sand up to 8 arms high. In some cases near the port, beyond the AQUARO, it was so deep that people were getting in and getting through the windows.” At this point it helps to know that the ACQUARO was a lake area fed by a river, the Sebeto, where they used to macerate [soften and treat] hemp. That area went from the Salvatore courtyard on via Mezzocannone all the way to the church of S. Pietro Martire, where today the administrative offices of the university are located. The lake gave its name to a church, S. Pietro a Fusariello, demolished during the Risanamento [urban renewal of Naples, 1889-1915] so they could put up the new main university building. Earlier that lake had been cleaned up by Charles I of Anjou who, to get rid of the stench that comes from treating hemp, moved the facility to the mouth of another river farther to the west, the Rubeolo, which emptied into the sea beyond the Magdalene bridge—much farther away from the Greco-Roman city and even farther from Parthenope.

Now, if Charles I of Anjou cleaned up the lake, if Petrarch saw it, and if it is true that the 1343 earthquake did such damage, then it is clear that the estuary of that river must also have been disrupted, the river that Petrarch had also described as almost stagnant and poor in water. Celano believes that upheaval of the ground in the 1343 earthquake forced the river beneath surface and then to flow underground to the sea. He bolsters that view by noting that in many wells from S.Sebastiano all the way to the church of S.Pietro Martire, the water level remained steady and fluid. Carletti, availing himself of Celano's hypotheses, repeated the experiment of dropping small paper boats into the wells and seeing how long it took them to disappear in the direction of the sea, which would bespeak the existence of an underground river. At the same time, he took water samples from all of the wells mentioned by Celano and analyzed them, comparing them with samples from other wells. He concluded that the water sampled along a line (directrix) from S. Marcellino to S. Pietro Martire had a specific weight of “12 trappesi” [an archaic unit of measure], much lower than water sampled from wells to the northwest and northeast of that line, the latter samples even showing a notable presence of impurities. Thus, he concluded that the water from the northwest was from the Bolla (aqueduct), the water from the northwest was from the Carmignano (aqueduct) and the pure water, clear and light was from the Sebeto. Unfortunately, they both forgot that Naples has a third aqueduct, the Augusteo, which brings water from the Serino, well-known for the characteristics noted by Carletti and flowing at free surface precisely in this part of the city. Even if Celano and Carletti were wrong about the Sebeto having been forced underground, you can't get around the reality that the river was to the east of the Greco-Roman city such that it served Parthenope as well.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a phenomenon that I have noticed in all of the aqueduct cavities beneath the Spanish Quarters: in that area I have sampled 30,000 cubic meters of water from the aqueduct and have determined that along a well-determined line (directrix) all of the tunnels have been dug in loose terrain, a sure sign that along that line there have been abrupt collapses of tufa. I also noticed that to the west of that dire trix no cavities have been found; it is like that all the way to the boundary of the Greco-Roman city where once again we find tufa and excavated spaces. I explained the lack of cavities along the strip by the fact that there are empty spots, dug into loose terrain, just to get water, and not for the extraction of tufa. Those spots were relatively limited in size; thus, after the war, you could fill and close them for good by just dumping in a few cubic meters of debris. We know from bibliographic sources, however, that hundred of wells have been counted in the same terrain. I thus hypothesized—and may historians and geologists please forgive me!—that the collapse of tufa along this strip is due to the movement of a river, one that comes from Camaldoli and San Martino and cuts the Cavone and then by way of today's Piazza Dante flows into the sea and with the sea, itself, erodes the tufa beneath the Spanish Quarters and Montesanto to create a sharp rocky cliff. It's almost a fjord and reaches inland to the Piazza of the Spirito Santo; over thousands of years, that “fjord” has little by little been filled in to create this basin of loose terrain.

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