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The Neapolitan Crypt

income of a wide cavern
The Neapolitan Crypt

Behind Mergellina railway station is the small but suggestive Parco Virgiliano, so inappropriately named because it dates only from 1930, the occasion of the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of the poet. A walk along the avenue brings one to the tomb of the great poet Giacomo Leopardi.

Further along the avenue one comes to the entrance called the "Neapolitan Crypt". This gallery was dug out at the end of the 1st century AD to facilitate links between Neapolis and Puteoli, avoiding the winding roads and steep ascents of the "Via Antiniana per colles", which went to Fuorigrotta by way of the Vomero hill. The present-day gallery is about 700 metres long, from 4 to 5 metres wide and from 5 to 20 metres high. Illumination was given by torches and two light shafts.

Useful information about its construction is given by Strabone. The works were overseen by Luccio Cocceio Aucto, who created many other galleries in the Phlegraean area (between Cuma and Averno, for example). The finding of a marble bas-relief of the god Mitra, attributed to the 3rd century BC, has led us to hypothesise the existence of a place of worship in a ravine. According to some writers, the gallery served in ancient times as a place of rituals dedicated to Priapo, son of Dionisius and Aphrodite, god of fertility, with their night phallic rituals.

The Neapolitan Crypt continued to play a role until the beginning of the 20th century. Near the entrance there is a funeral monument at a higher level from the more ancient one. Tradition says that this was the Sepulchre of the great poet Virgil , but this can be neither confirmed or disproved. The vault lined with burial niches must have been the property of a family of great civil or religious importance. The Mantuan poet had a predilection of Naples where he had learned Epicurean philosophy from Sirone the Greek; he had already composed the Georgics and also various passages of the Aenid in which the area of Phlegraea appears. His death was described by his biographers as follows: having left Greece on a study trip, the poet fell seriously ill and died in Brindisi on the return journey, in 19 AD at the age of 51.

His remains were transported to Naples and placed in the sepulchre on Via Puteolanain the villa that Sirone had acquired. Many men of letters and poets have worshipped in this tomb - Stazio, Silio Italico, Pliny the Younger and others. In medieval times, Virgilwa seen as a performer of miracles and a magician; his remains are said to have been transferred and concealed in the Castel dell'Ovo for fear of their being stolen - in the castle which, according to the legend, had been built on a magic egg placed in its foundations.

In 1688 Pedro of Aragon had the height of the gallery lowered by 11 metres, so that the sepulchre was suspended from above. There followed endless discussion on the identification of the location of the poet's sepulchre, until in the years of the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Virgil, the vault was restored and given its present-day appearance.