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Posted by Fulvio Salvi - Thursday, Dec 18. 2014
Translation by Larry Ray

The Naples underground and its many caves and grottoes, a majority of which are man made, are scattered all over Naples and surrounding area. They include the huge caverns that remain after the quarrying of the area's soft volcanic tuff sandstone, Roman tunnels and other underground passageways, catacombs, and seaside caverns excavated and used as shipyards and for storage. These dramatic grottoes have inspired travelers for centuries as well as artists who recorded these scenes for posterity in paintings and drawings using many mediums.

The Naples area has for centuries been closely bound up with its dramatic underground alter ego. With this in mind, web founder of this site, Fulvio Salvi, has pulled together the efforts of his multi-talented daughter, Selene, a gifted painter, scholar and researcher and her colleague, also named Fulvio who is also a multi talented artist. They have assembled photo reproductions of twenty two paintings, drawings and engravings in a variety of media that capture the magical essence of this picturesque and sometimes occult underground world. These works were created roughly between the early to mid 1700's to the last half of the 1800's.

Available at the link below, is the collection in the site gallery. "Le grotte di Napoli e dintorni nell'arte attreverso i secoli" or, 'The grottoes of Naples and surrounding area portrayed in art over the centuries.' The twenty two illustrations include the first series of this art that has been uncovered in ongoing research. Originals are located not only in collections in Naples but literally around the world in museums and private collections. Where possible in the gallery link below, each piece lists artist's name, date, type of media, dimensions of original work and its current location.

Studying these works we must bear in mind that many landscape painters from this period, many of whom were merely visiting Italy, often invoked artistic license not always faithfully representing what they observed before them. Often their notebooks contain rough sketches and comments from memory to later be incorporated back home in paintings for their clients. Many of these sites remain visible and visitable today, though often obscured by modern development and construction. Bearing this in mind we have opened a section in our Forum where visitors may leave comments and develop dialogs and if possible to provide current day photos that reproduce the same angle and composition regarding specific images of the grottoes or which depict excavated tuff sandstone.

Click on the photos below to open them in a new window or tab. We hope you enjoy this art exhibit depicting the many grottoes, hand-hewn tunnels, passageways and more, all illlustrating Naples' rich underground heritage.


"Waterfall from the black river" Aquaforte engraving, designer - Chalet, engraver - De Ghendt. The waterfall at left flowed from a grotto located near the Valley of Diana near Salerno.


"Napoli from Capodimonte" 1827 copper plate etching by Achille Vanelli. Viewed from the Capodimonte hill overlooking Naples showing various excavations into the tuff sandstone. The famous catacombs of San Gennaro were excavated in this same area from similar deep strata of tuff sandstone visible here.


"Lake Agnano in the terra di Lavoro, Kingdom of Naples" Aquaforte print, 1751, Thomas Salmon. Depicted is the Agnano volcanic crater that once held a lake, that today is bone dry with the crater variously occupied by a horse racing track, thermal baths and dense commercial and residential buildings. The brickwork buildings in the engraving lead to the "Grotto of the Dog" with toxic vapors issuing from a small grotto about 8 feet high inside ... visitors were led inside then a dog was led in. The poor animal dropped to the floor in a matter of seconds. The dog was removed and tossed into the lake where he revived quickly from the volcanic fumes that gathered near the floor, but not as high as the tourists who were aghast watching so-called "miracle revival" by the waters of Lake Averno. Any splash of cold water would have started the poor dog breathing again!


"Tarantella with Posillipo in background" Oil on canvas by Pietro Fabris. Highly stylized interpretation of a typical large seaside grotto, with Neapolitan revelry inside the cavernous expanse which is clearly also used to store wine. The verdant Posillipo cape in the far background.


"Scene of daily life at Posillipo" Oil on canvas by Pietro Fabris. Fishermen stretch out their nets for drying as mothers and children await fathers' arrival from a day of fishing the Bay of Naples. A typical boat storage grotto is seen in the center of the illustration that could be anywhere around the base of cape Posillipo.


"Scene of daily life in a grotto at Posillipo" Oil on canvas, 1756, by Pietro Fabris. This stylized painting by Fabris has it all: the sweep of the Bay of Naples around to the Pizzafalcone promontory with the Castle of the Egg off its point; Mt. Vesuvius along with Mt. Somma before eruptions that did Somma in joining it with Vesuvius, framed in the larger grotto opening; Inside the quarry, now opened to the world on two sides, we can see the square opening with dangling vines on its roof which is the typical opening used to extract large blocks of tuff sandstone for building villas on cape Posillipo, leaving a huge empty quarried cave; and inside the grotto there is a popular card game of Scopa underway, mandolin and tambourine music, a sumptuous feast being enjoyed, a bedroll about to be laid down and a tiny dog with his butt up in the air!


"Thunder grotto near the Gaiola" Watercolor on paper glued to canvas by Swiss Painter, Abraham Louis Rodolphe Ducros, 1748-1810. This is a natural grotto carved out of cape Posillipo by pounding waves whose breaking sound gives the grotto its name. Young folks take a swim while others, including a mother and child, take in the view on low rocks at the grotto's mouth. Framed in the opening is Mt. Vesuvius with white smoke issuing forth.


"Posillipo from Donna Anna Palace" Watercolor on paper glued to canvas by Swiss Painter, Abraham Louis Rodolphe Ducros, 1748-1810. The stone arch opening is part of the foundation of the fabled Donna Anna Villa above it. Built in the 15th Century it was inherited in 1630 by the woman whose name it bears, Anna Stigilano. Parts of it are still a residence today! In the tuff sandstone cliffs lining the beginning of the Cape of Posillipo can be seen various grottoes and excavated cavities.


"Villa Martinelli, Posillipo" This wonderful watercolored pen and ink drawing by Claude Joseph Vernet, mid 1700's, highlights with great detail a typical seaside grotto on cape Posillipo with its own sand beach entryway where boats could easily be pulled inside for repair, or storage. Villa Martinelli is still there, albeit greatly modernized, so much so that in 2004 city building inspectors stepped in to halt add-on abusive non-permitted construction.


"The Grotto of Posillipo"  Mixed-media on paper glued to canvas by Swiss Painter, Abraham Louis Rodolphe Ducros, 1748-1810. "Grotto" is misleading because in Italian it can also mean tunnel. Also called the Neapolitan Crypt, it is 2,400 feet long, and was built by the Romans around 37 B.C. to connect Naples with the Roman city of Pozzouli on the other side of a mountain separating them. It was maintained over time, notably by the Spanish and Bourbon rulers of Naples in the 1700's and was still in use with coach traffic passing through it well into the 1800's. The monumental stonework at the left of the painting looks the same today as depicted in the painting. (painting #19 below is a similar view of the tunnel entrance)


"A tuff quarry at Casalnuovo" Tempera on paper by Pietro Fabris. This charming little painting shows an open pit tuff sandstone quarry in a Naples suburb. The landscape across the whole Naples area contains countless quarries. The durable tuff sandstone is used for building construction, reinforcing walls and more. The braying donkey at the lower right add a nice rural touch.


"The Alimuri boat landing at Sorrento" Oil on canvas by Jacob Philipp Hackery, 1794. This rich, wonderfully painted view of the small fishing village of Piano di Sorrento again shows the use of a huge excavated grotto for all sorts of things to support the fleet of fishing and trading vessels. Some of the homes depicted were created by burrowing into the tuff with doors and windows on the smooth face of the sandstone.


"Houses in ruin" Oil on paper by Thomas Jones. This curious painting depicts an upper level of the Pizzofalcone ridge which overlooks Santa Lucia and the Bay of Naples where the Greeks originally founded their first colony. A massive tuff quarry is depicted and it could be the original antro di Mitra grotto which today has been walled up and used for auto repair and parking.


"The Gaiola" Watercolor by Thomas Jones. This wide horizontal rendering shows the very small island of Gaiola just a few yards from shore. It was an ancient navigators' shrine to Venus and site of Roman ruins of a "sorcerer's house" where the locally popular poet Virgil reportedly taught and performed magic. A modern day home on the island is abandoned today and the whole area is a protected historic zone.


"Coastal grotto with warriors on the Salerno coast" Oil on canvas by Joseph Wright AKA Wright of Derby, 1779. Luminous fog-filtered light from the coast of Salerno, south of Naples, illuminates what appear to be tired, toga-clad soldiers who are gathered in a natural grotto above the bay.


"Nighttime with tarantella on the seashore" Oil on canvas by Pierre Jacques Antoine Volaire, 1784. Wonderful control of light from a full moon and the flames from a burning barrel illuminates frenzied tarantella dancers outside the mouth of a large grotto where a reveler is seen drinking wine from a skein held high above his head. The Posillipo cape is in the far background and a stone jetty with a lighthouse could be one that was removed a couple of centuries later as land was reclaimed to enlarge the Santa Lucia shoreline.


"Harbor under moonlight" Oil on canvas by Carlo Bonavia 1751-1788. This may be a collective image from the artist's well-known imagination making the actual setting hard to determine. The natural or quarried arch is a puzzle. Activity includes a man spearing for fish, and people taking in the evening at their leisure.


"Natural arch on the Posillipo coast" Oil on canvas by Carlo Bonavia. Bonavia painted in Naples from 1751 to 1788 and is known for painting 'capprici' in which actual features of the Neapolitan seashore and countryside were placed in imaginary settings. This makes identifying the quite unfamiliar stone archway so tantalizingly difficult.


"The grotta of Pozzouli" Oil on copper by Gaspar van Wittel, Dutch Golden Age landscape painter who toured Italy in 1710. Archival paintings on copper were the rage in the 1700's and this one, 10" X 9" depicts the tunnel described in a similar painting above in painting number 10.


"Monks above the bay of Naples" Oil on wood panel by Karl Belchen, German painter who painted in Italy in 1827. Again we look out from a large seaside tuff grotto but there are no clear identifying background features.


"Scene inside a catacomb" Oil on canvas by Camillo Guerra, 1797-1852, noted Italian painter. This dark and mysterious painting may or may not be in a catacomb, perhaps in a dungeon, and both are found in Naples. The rough arches resting upon smooth columns may be tuff sandstone worked "in negative" leaving supporting arches and columns while the rest of the area is hollowed out.


"The Roman inlet to Lake Fusaro" Sketch by Giancinto Gigante, 1823. This smooth-walled curved inlet connects the small Lake Fusaro with the open sea and is excavated out of a tuf sandstone promontory. This site can be visited today.


"Cordiera Grotto" Aquaforte engraving design by Chalstelet, engraving in Paris, 1781. This detailed print depicts rope-making underway in a famous huge grotto known as the Antro di Mitra. The rope was used by the active fishing and maritime industry in Naples. Today, this grotto, dug into the face of the high Pizzofalcone promontory has been walled shut and is used for auto repair and parking up a small alley in the middle of bustling Naples.

Larry Ray, NUg translator

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