Italy: Natural Beauty of the Azure Masks Its Disruptive Past

When visiting Italy, one is immersed into an energy so unlike that of Britain; from the extravagant hand gestures, to the scorching summer sun, to a vibrant history that is held within its twenty regions and 110 provinces. The region of Naples in especially boasts a history enriched by so many different and fascinating ancient cultures whose lives were particularly distinguished by the geology of the area. The volcanic landscape therefore creates an ambiguous sense of a ‘living on the edge’ existence that wavers between terror and tranquillity and it is to this day that the region holds the dramatic potential to build, as well as shatter, lives. 

Perhaps one of the more low-key tourist attractions today is Volcano Solfatara, translated from Latin as ‘the land of sulphur’. The sulphur that erupts from amongst the crater rocks was used medicinally from as far back as the Roman times; the Romans utilised the mud from the clay beds for their baths, adding to their extensive and luxurious lifestyle. Its perceived medicinal properties and scientific interest was renewed as it became a popular destination again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The dramatic location is also said to have inspired Virgil’s description of Hades, as well as Roman myths claiming it was the workplace of the blacksmith God, Vulcan. Today, as throughout history, the land is incredibly fertile, the bold eucalyptus trees and vineyards are just the beginning of what is one of Italy’s most fruitful regions. The result of this, with the influence of the sea, Neapolitan cuisine is rather distinguishable and thus the renowned Neapolitan pizza includes aubergines, courgettes, and plum tomatoes.

However, the most painful reminders of the shadow which hangs over this region are the excavations and archaeological reconstructions of ancient cities such as Herculaneum and Pompeii. Their sheer size points to the area’s splendour, which was so ruthlessly destroyed in 79AD eruption. Though Pompeii itself reveals traces of ancient cultures, in particular the Oscans, it was more a summer resort for the Romans, including Emperor Nero. It is interesting to note that what perhaps exacerbated the shock and panic, as documented in Pliny the Younger’s account, was the assumption that Vesuvius was threat free as it had been inactive for 800 years. The excavations of bodies point to the mixed reactions of the victims of the eruption: some awaited death in each other’s arms and some were desperate to escape their once tranquil lifestyle.

Today three million people live in close proximity to the Vesuvius, despite its notoriety as one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes. The Amalfi Coast gives a delicious display of the Mediterranean paradise and as John Steinbeck quite rightly  describes, ‘It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone’. The tranquillity of the azure sea and its landscapes make it easy to forget any past troubles that once plagued the area, and instead soak up the unique Neapolitan charm.

Image: Finizio