The memory of the city of Naples is carved in the stone labyrinths of the hypogea, the extraordinary canyons that split the hill. The Sanità, together with the Vergini and the Miracoli, in ancient times constituted the Valley of the Dead: in the hypogea of the Greeks, especially the aristocrats, buried their dead. The Romans continued, sometimes reusing the ancient Greek hypogea or building new ones. And the Christians, who left their catacombs in place.
Many of these tombs have lost track and memory. Some, however, are still preserved under the modern building fabric and are a valuable testimony to the historical stratification of the city. Among these, the best known is the Ipogeo dei Cristallini or Hypogeum of Cristallini Street, which will open to visitors in June of 2022, according to CNN.
The Hypogeum is a place that has always been closed to the public, which will return to collective enjoyment thanks to a full-scale recovery desired by the Martuscelli family, owner of the sepulchral area, and by the Central Institute for Restoration.
It was 1889 when from the heart of darkness of the city sprang the Hypogeum of Cristallini Street. Baron Giovanni di Donato, looking for water in the subsoil of his family palace (in via Cristallini 133) found instead a treasure of Hellenic painting and architecture. A treasure chest of art and history guarded first by the same farsighted baron and then by the Martuscelli family, who inherited that treasure.
In the middle, the Sanità district and its people, who with great pride of belonging have protected these places for decades. The Greek inscriptions, and the extraordinary decorations recovered today, have survived the mudflows of the “lava of the Virgins”, that is the floods caused by the clogging of the sewer system that devastated the district until 1960.
It was Giampiero Martuscelli, with his wife Alessandra Calise, who decided that the memory of the hypogea should be returned to the city. This is how the operation of recovery of the hypogeum of the Cristallini was born, which has guarded for millennia the remains of the ancient inhabitants of Neapolis, when it was still part of Magna Graecia.
There are tombs of the late fourth century and early third century BC. The intervention of restoration will allow the opening for successive steps, already from next spring, of sections gradually larger of the hypogeum. The objective is to excavate new hypogeal chambers, still intact, and to allow a public enjoyment of these places also through the connection with other hypogea. This area never ceases to reserve surprises, and tell us about the past.
Four adjoining rooms, dug into the tufa of the hills that rose north of the current Porta San Gennaro. The sepulchral chambers are covered by barrel vaults and the monumental structure, well preserved, is enriched by a decorative apparatus that develops along the entire hypogeum. What strikes most are the colors: sharp, vivid, spectacular.
Colors that chase each other, alternate, overlap, almost to the point of composing refined trompe l’oeil effects. Testifying to the passion of the ancient Greeks for colors – an authentic cult – are the decorations on the walls and in the lunette where a large head of Medusa is represented, and then the friezes painted in red, blue and white, the crowns of flowers executed in spots, the capitals. A spectacle of light and color in the darkness of the earth.
On the wall to the left of the entrance door, there is a large golden patera where two semi-recumbent figures are represented, looking at each other. The male figure is Dionysus, the female one is Ariadne. A scene of hierogamy that makes the stone heart of the hypogeum of the Cristallini even more fascinating.
The hypogeum of Cristallini Street reveals, therefore, also the presence of ancient initiatory cults in the area of the Valley of the Dead: a funerary Dionysian cult, in particular, ascribable to sects and communities of initiates. One more mystery in the bowels of the city of Naples.