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Beneath the Phlegraean Fields near Naples there’s a giant lake of liquid magma bubbling away. The ...
2020-06-16 09:00:00

The Dormant Beast
The Volcanoes of Naples

The Dormant Beast
The Dormant Beast

Beneath the Phlegraean Fields near Naples there’s a giant lake of liquid magma bubbling away. The entire area includes 24 craters and volcanic cones. An eruption could occur within the next few years.

Read in 13 minutes

Just under 40,000 years ago, at a point roughly in the middle of the Gulf of Pozzuoli – the western arm of the Bay of Naples – at least 150 cubic kilometres of magma gushed from the bowels of the Earth to the surface, and three times as much ash and stone shot high into the air. Apparently the climatic changes brought about by this incident were the reason why the Neanderthals died out, which in turn was to open the way for the development of modern man. In other words, it looks as if we are all children of the Phlegraean Fields, because that is the name (from the Greek φλέγω, phlego, ‘I burn’) the ancient Romans gave to the area covered by the hollow, or caldera, of this primaeval super-volcano. Or perhaps of a slightly younger one, dating back only 12,000 years, which erupted at the very centre of the original caldera, but over a slightly smaller area, with a diameter of about 13 kilometres, around today’s city of Pozzuoli (which is also the city where that volcano of femininity, Sophia Loren, is from). The scientists have identified a total of 24 craters and volcanic cones within the Phlegraean Fields, but we non-experts won’t be able to check, because most of them are under the waters of the gulf.

The ancient Romans identified natural passages from our world to the supernatural world at various sites within the Phlegraean Fields. The crater of Solfatara, located in its eastern part, was generally seen to be the entrance to the abode of the god Vulcan, while at its western end, on Lake Averno, there was a gaping cleft in the coastal hillside through which those who so wished – such as Virgil’s Aeneas – could pass through to the Land of the Dead. This is what the poet says about it:

spelunca alta fuit vastoque immanis hiatu,
scrupea, tuta lacu nigro nemorumque tenebris,

quam super haud ullae poterant impune volantes
tendere iter pennis: talis sese halitus atris
faucibus effundens supera ad convexa ferebat.
(unde locum Grai dixerunt nomine Aornum).

(The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 237-242.)

There was a deep cave, its mouth huge and gaping,
it was rocky, sheltered by a black lake and dark woods,
above which nothing at all that flew could safely
wing its way: such a vapour pouring from those black
throats was carried to the vaulted heavens
(hence the Greeks spoke of this place by the name Aornus).

I should explain that in Greek ‘aornus’ (ἄορνος) means ‘without birds’. Aeneas was shown the way to this stinking cave by the Cumaean Sybil, who lived nearby in a grotto, the entrance to which was on the opposite side of a rise separating Averno from the sea. Modern archaeologists have identified two possible locations for the Sybil’s grotto – at one of them, discovered in 1932, you go down a tunnel that’s more than 100 metres long, cut out of the volcanic tufa, and then you reach an atrium with hundreds of ventilation holes bored into its walls, through which the vapours that prompted prophetic visions must have got inside. Perhaps this is what Virgil had in mind when he wrote:

Excisum Euboicae latus ingens rupis in antrum,
quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum,
unde ruunt totidem voces, responsa Sibyllae.

(The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 42-44.)

The mighty side of the Euboean cliff is hewn out to form a cave,
into which lead one hundred broad entries, one hundred gates,
and from which as many voices pour, the answers of the Sybil.

Bye-bye, Baiae

Just two kilometres north from the gateway to the Land of the Dead is a place called Baiae, the favourite summer resort of the ancient Roman elite – which seems improbable, considering the journey from Rome to the Bay of Naples took at least a week in those days, while less than 30 kilometres from the capital the Romans could enjoy the beautiful sandy beach at Ostia. But evidently, they found the ragged, rocky coast, the gentle waters of the bay and the chance to bathe in the hot springs of the Phlegraean Fields a greater attraction. So they would admire the views, feast on the local delicacies – apparently the world’s best oysters and morays – and savour the Falernian wine (today we can only guess what it tasted like, because towards the end of the 19th century the original strain of grapes used to make it fell victim to grape phylloxera, so all we can do is take the ecstatic ancients at their word). Horace sang the praises of the natural and social charms of Baiae; Catullus too spent unforgettable hours here in the arms of his beloved, married mistress, Lesbia, and here too he suffered the torments of betrayal and rejection because of her.

Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam

plus quam se atque suos amavit omnes,
nunc in quadriviis et angiportis
glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.

Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
that same Lesbia, whom Catullus loved

more than himself and more than all his own,
now loiters at the crossroads and in the backstreets
ready to toss off the grandsons of the brave Remus.

(Catullus, Carmina, 58, translated by Cecilia Treder, 1997, reproduced by kind permission of Rudy Negenborn, from his website:

What exactly Catullus could have meant by ‘the grandsons of Remus’ I shan’t venture to guess, but plainly, ‘Lesbia’ must have given the poet a fine education in Baiae; her prototype was apparently the infamous Clodia, associated with many a scandal in those days, and Catullus’s senior by at least eight years.

Almost 14 centuries later, Boccaccio had similar experiences to Catullus’s in Baiae. The 23-year-old Florentine was sent to study in Naples by his banker father, and there he fell in love with a young married woman, Maria d’Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert the Wise, great-uncle of Louis I of Hungary (who was also king of Poland). In Baiae, where evidently by some miracle, throughout the long winter of the Middle Ages the place managed to preserve some of its special spirit of happily relaxed morals, at first his beloved bestowed her favours on him, but after less than two years of mad passion he was ultimately rejected and betrayed. The character of Maria, hidden behind the name Fiammetta (or ‘Little Flame’), winds her way through all Boccaccio’s works – above all we find her in the novels The Filocolo and The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta (here, for a change, the title heroine is unhappy and despised), but she also features in many of the stories in The Decameron.

In 1343, two years after Boccaccio left Naples, Petrarch, who happened to be in the city then, was witness to a tsunami. He described his impressions in a letter to the cardinal of Colonna, and his account is summarized by Kazimierz Chlędowski in his Historie neapolitańskie [Neapolitan Stories], (1917) as follows: “The oldest sailors say they have never seen such a fierce uprising of the elements before. The sea’s waves cast onto the shore the bodies of the poor souls surprised by the storm; some had lost their arms, others had had their legs torn off by the waves, others had had their bowels pulled out in a dreadful way. […] But suddenly everyone was deafened by an underground roar; the shore began to move away, and the waves came ever closer. Terrified, the population ran far into the city, at the sight of this relentless hostility of nature. […] Not a single ship was left in port; just one galley, with 400 criminals aboard, was saved thanks to the strength of the oarsmen.” “The conclusion,” noted Petrarch acerbically, “is that in the face of imminent death those who led the most evil life are the safest.”

It’s possible that the tsunami he witnessed was prompted by an earthquake in the underwater part of the Phlegraean Fields, although nowadays most of the scientists presume that the undersea volcano Marsili was responsible for it, hidden beneath the Tyrrhenian Sea 175 kilometres south of Naples, or possibly Stromboli, which sticks out of the sea 100 kilometres further on. This doesn’t alter the fact that so-called bradyseismic activity [the gradual change in ground level caused by the filling or emptying of an underground magma chamber – ed. note] in the region of the Fields is very great at all times. Since the 1970s, there are places in Pozzuoli where the ground level has risen by more than two metres, and earlier on, between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the greater part of ancient Baiae gradually sank beneath the surface of the sea – today from on board a special glass-bottomed tour boat you can see statues entwined in seaweed and the mosaic floors of luxury residences, partly strewn with moving sand. In the upper part of the city, still above the water line, only the ruins of the thermal baths and some bits of three temples have survived – we can console ourselves with the thought that in the 14th century Boccaccio and his Fiammetta couldn’t see any more of the Roman city than we can today.

And yet in its glory days Julius Caesar had a villa in Baiae (it seems to have been on the same hill that towers above the bay where in 1541 the viceroy Pedro Àlvarez de Toledo erected a mighty fortress known as the Castello di Baia, which is still standing to this day). Here too Nero, Hadrian and Septimius Severus built their own residences. It was here that the young emperor Caligula, in order to mock the astrologer Thrasyllus for predicting that he had as much chance of ascending the throne as of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae, had a pontoon bridge built out of 2000 requisitioned commercial ships, tied together with ropes and weighted with sand, which ran all the way across to a jetty in Puteoli (today’s Pozzuoli) – 3.5 kilometres in a straight line. It was also in Baiae that, in the only fully surviving section of Petronius’s Satyricon, the freedman Trimalchio gave his famous feast, in an effort to dazzle the blasé company with nouveau-riche glitz.

The Gaiola Malediction

Half way from Baiae to Puteoli, on Lake Lucrino, stood Cicero’s villa, where he penned his opus magnum, De Re Publica. Cicero’s contemporary, the famous, super-rich commander Lucullus, remembered for his feasts, had his chief residence on the coastal isle of Gaiola, at the eastern end of the Gulf of Pozzuoli. Over the past two millennia, this split rock protruding from the sea, resembling the hull of a catamaran and measuring 80 by 90 metres, has been the scene of so many tragic episodes that in the 20th century people began to talk of the ‘Gaiola Malediction’. After Lucullus’s death, his palace passed from owner to owner – one of them was the emperor Augustus, and according to local legend at the same time it was also the place where Virgil taught – while almost five centuries later the last of the Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, sadly lived out his days there, in relative luxury, and yet in oblivion, having been deposed by Odoacer in 476. It’s hard to tell whether it was because of raids by pirates from northern Africa, which were frequent in the 8th century, or for other reasons that during and beyond the Middle Ages Lucullus’s original palace dissolved into the maritime mist. Apparently not even its ruins were still there when, early in the 19th century, a charismatic hermit known as ‘The Wizard’ settled on Gaiola, living on whatever the local fishermen brought him as gifts – until one fine day he simply vanished without trace. Some time later, Luigi de Negri, the owner of a fleet of fishing boats, built himself an impressive villa on the island that is still there today – but soon after, he went bankrupt. In 1911, Captain Gaspare Albenga decided to purchase Gaiola, but as he was sailing around the island in his ship to take a close look at it, he crashed into some underwater rocks and was killed. According to a different telling of the story, Albenga’s ship simply dissolved into thin air like an apparition, along with everyone on board. This did not discourage the Swiss shipowner Hans Braun from buying the island – his corpse, wrapped in a rug, was found in Negri’s villa in 1920, and soon after his widow drowned in the sea. The next owner, a German named Otto Grunback, died in the villa of a heart attack. One of his successors, the founder of a pharmaceutical empire named Maurice-Yves Sandoz, committed suicide in 1958 at a mental hospital in Switzerland. The list of owners of the island also includes Gianni Agnelli – the Fiat boss – and the American multi-millionaire John Paul Getty. Both suffered numerous family tragedies. The last owner of Gaiola, Gianpasquale Grappone, went to jail in 2004 for tax fraud, and his wife was killed in a car crash.

The last major eruption in the Phlegraean Fields occurred in 1538. A few hundred metres north-east of Lake Lucrino – perhaps even at the site where Cicero’s villa once stood – for nine days the earth spat hot lumps of wet ash into the air, which gradually formed a cone over 100 metres high (twice the height of Nelson’s Column), and as there were no concomitant flames or streams of molten lava, this relatively unthreatening looking phenomenon soon began to draw crowds of onlookers. After three days, when the elements appeared to have calmed a little, the first daredevils climbed to the peak of the new mountain (Monte Nuovo) to look down into the crater. According to their accounts, from the top one could see that it was still ‘boiling’ down below. Hour by hour, more people kept arriving, eager to see this wonder of nature for themselves, until finally, late in the evening of the eighth day, the crater violently erupted, costing the lives of 22 reckless tourists who happened to be in the vicinity. The contemporary chronicles report that the ash falling from Monte Nuovo settled as far away as Calabria, which is some 300 kilometres to the south-east.

A lunar landscape

Nowadays, the most active volcanic area within the Phlegraean Fields is the shallow crater of Solfatara. It hasn’t erupted within human memory, but now and then so-called fumarole emerge from invisible cracks in the ground – whitish puffs of steam mixed with sulphuric fumes – and the boggy patches scattered across the middle of the crater are covered in spitting bubbles of gas breaking through to the surface. The Polish tourist Maciej Rywocki, who visited Solfatara in 1586, noted with some exaggeration (as cited by Antoni Mączak in Życie codzienne w podróżach po Europie w XVI i XVII wieku [Daily Life While Travelling About Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries]): “We saw a very large mountain that was on fire; it roared so loud that our hair stood on end. Beneath this mountain, where it has burned out, green and white water boils, so venomous that if the least of it were to touch a man he would at once collapse.” These days the bubbling morass in the central part of the crater is fenced off by protective barriers, despite which in September 2017 a tragedy occurred there: the ground gave way beneath an 11-year-old boy who, deceived by the solid look of the crater’s crust, had jumped over the barrier. His parents immediately rushed to his aid, resulting in the deaths of all three, unable to get out of the crevasse that had appeared; only the younger son survived, a seven-year-old, who stayed outside the barriers. After this incident the authorities closed Solfatara to tourists entirely, and it is unlikely to be opened to the public again in the near future.

The lunar landscape of this volcanic trough has often provided inspiration for the visions of painters from the Neapolitan Mannerist circle – excuses for exploiting it have included topics such as the martyrdom of Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, who was beheaded in 305, in the reign of Diocletian, on the slopes of Solfatara. Several times a year, at Naples cathedral (of which he is the patron) a miracle is demonstrated, based on the idea that the saint’s congealed blood, preserved in a glass ampoule (apparently collected at the time of his execution), takes on a fluid state before the eyes of the congregation. There is also talk of some equally inexplicable phenomena associated with Solfatara of a completely different kind – namely that its fumes are supposed to have an extremely positive effect on male potency. This belief is so widespread that there are some enterprising people who make money out of it – a small parking lot has been opened not far from the volcano, where each individual parking place is enclosed behind high screens. For a small fee you can buy yourself a few hours of intimacy there, to take advantage of an influx of vital forces on the very spot.

About a kilometre and a half to the north from Solfatara we come to the edge of a steep escarpment, which turns out to be the rim of the largest crater in the Phlegraean Fields – Astroni, which has a diameter eight times larger than that of Solfatara. But despite its size, nowadays it is nothing more than an utterly harmless, enormous pudding mould, overgrown with virgin forest full of birds. At one time it was part of an even larger crater – Agnano, on whose eastern slope the Romans liked to enjoy the thermal waters. Apparently in the Middle Ages the local terrain suddenly sank, and this entire part of the super-crater turned into a vast, stinking swamp. This was how Mark Twain saw Agnano, who, in The Innocents Abroad (1869), described another peculiar local attraction, the so-called Grotto of the Dog; his account of it harmonizes with that of an anonymous Polish globetrotter cited by Antoni Mączak. The strange feature of this grotto was that if you took a dog inside it, after a few minutes the animal would drop dead, but if you then threw it into the lake quickly enough, it usually came back to life. “The anonymous traveller boldly tried it himself,” writes Mączak. “He stuck a leg into the grotto and kept it there until he felt warmth moving up it; when it reached his knee he retreated, ‘in need of no further experimentation’.” In 1870, Lake Agnano was drained. The Grotto of the Dog is still there, but no one conducts cruel experiments on dogs there any more, and the entrance is barred. Apparently, a strong stream of pure carbon dioxide flows across the bed of the grotto, and being heavier than air, never rises to the height of a human face, as long as it isn’t disturbed; as a result, it’s not dangerous for people, but it’s extremely dangerous for dogs.

The vulcanologists have given warning that, though dormant for 500 years, the Phlegraean Fields will not sleep forever, and a new, severe eruption of what is Europe’s largest super-volcano could occur in the next few years. They say that an increasingly mighty blister of liquid magma is gathering underneath the entire caldera, which is bound to seek an outlet. It’s hard to imagine what could happen to the citizens of Pozzuoli, Baiae, Miseno, Bagnoli and the beautiful islands of Procida and Ischia, located within the scope of the Fields. In all, there are 360,000 people living within the area of the caldera.


Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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