Ipogeo dei Cristallini: the ancient Greek tombs of Naples rewrite history

(CNN) — It’s world famous for the Roman ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, but Naples’ latest tourist attraction shows a very different side to the city.

Opening in June, the Ipogeo dei Cristallini — Cristallini Street Hypogeum — is part of an ancient cemetery, located just outside the walls of Neapolis, as the city was called 2,300 years ago.

Not only is the cemetery over 400 years older than the ruins of Pompeii and other Roman cities along the Bay of Naples, it is not Roman at all. In fact, it was built by the ancient Greeks, who founded Naples in the 8th century BCE, and made it an entirely Greek city, even when it came under Roman control centuries later.

It’s a game-changing opening, according to archaeologists, that promises to change the way we think about Naples, the Mediterranean in antiquity and even Greek art. According to those involved in the project, it also has the potential to protect Naples from a tourism boom which, if continued, could lead to overtourism in the city.

In the bowels of the city

The site consists of four tombs and the path to the original necropolis.

Mimmo Jodice

Forty feet below the garden of a 19th-century palace, in what is now the city’s Sanità district, a steep staircase dug underground leads to four tombs. Each with its own grand entrance – one even has Ionic columns carved into its facade – they open onto what is thought to have been the original path that mourners would have taken.

It is only a small part of the original necropolis, or cemetery, built by the Greeks. In the fourth century BC, when the tombs were said to have been built, dozens of them would have been dug into the hills outside the city walls, says Luigi La Rocca, who, like Naples’ soprintendent, is in charge of the archaeological heritage of the city.

The ancient Greeks built two-chambered tombs – an upper chamber, where prayers were said, and a lower chamber, where bodies were interred – by hollowing out the soft tuff rock, much like making a cave.

But these are not mere caves. The chambers were sculpted to look like real rooms, with fake ceiling beams, benches, stairs and even high-mattress “beds” – sarcophagi, inside which several bodies were interred. And these were not carved out and brought in. Every detail – down to the perfectly stuffed “pillows” on these beds – has been carved from the original rock face.

Valuable paintings shed light on Greek art

In a tomb, a gorgon watches over the dead.

In a tomb, a gorgon watches over the dead.

Archivio dell’arte, Pedicini photography

Although they are now underground, their entrances would have originally been at street level – hence those towering Ionic columns, signifying the elite status of its inhabitants. Only the lower chamber would have been underground.

But centuries of mudslides that regularly devastated the area – ending only in the 1960s when the sewage system was overhauled – buried the tombs centuries after they were built.

This means that their level of preservation is exceptional, according to archaeologists. Above all, they still retain their vibrant murals.

Ancient Greek art, of course, is known the world over – but what has survived is largely sculpture.

“Greek painting is almost completely lost – even in Greece there is almost nothing left of the painting, although we know from sources that it was important,” Federica Giacomini, who has spent the last year overseeing the Site monitoring for the Italian ICR, the Central Institute for Conservation, told CNN.

“Hardly anything remains of anything painted on wood or furniture, and there are very few murals – mostly Macedonian tombs which retain significant pictorial murals, but almost nothing.

“We have a lot of Roman painting, but a lot less Greek painting. So it’s a rarity, and very valuable.”

Deep in the depths

The gorgon who watches over the dead seems to breathe.

The gorgon who watches over the dead seems to breathe.

Julia Buckley

The painted tombs give a very different impression of Greek art to these bone-white sculptures and buildings (which, too, would have originally been stained). One tomb has scarlet painted steps leading to a red faux marble floor. Stone pillows — turquoise with yellow stripes — have red hatching on the side, mimicking cross-stitch threading textiles together.

Meanwhile, the walls are richly decorated with frescoes: lush garlands dangling from columns, flaming candelabras, vases and dishes used in funerary rituals, and even two human figures, believed to be the god Dionysus with Ariadne, the woman he endowed with immortal life.

There’s even a sculpted gorgon – the mythological beast with a woman’s head but snakes for hair, as they twist and coil around her pretty face. It is the only element of the four tombs to be carved and attached, rather than dug into the side of a hill.

On the walls, meanwhile, are scrawled names in ancient Greek: lists of those buried within.

The other three tombs are equally interesting, if not equally spectacular. One of them was also decorated with frescoes, although the paintings have been damaged – it is hoped that a future restoration will bring them back to light.

In another lie six tombstones, dedicated to the dead. Each lists the name of the deceased and signs with the inscription “khaire” – an ancient Greek greeting, similar to the “ciao” that modern Neapolitans use.

The tombs even have niches dug by the Romans, who reused them to bury their own dead after the death of the original Greek dynasties. In total, the necropolis was used from the end of the 4th century BC to the beginning of the first century AD before being buried by mudslides.

Elsewhere are carvings of people and traces of portraits – potentially dead ancestors, according to Paolo Giulierini, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which houses hundreds of finds from the tombs, including sculptures, vases, and carved symbols of the resurrection, such as pomegranates and eggs.

A city of the dead under the modern city

The Romans “recycled” Greek tombs, carving niches for their own funerary urns.

The Romans “recycled” Greek tombs, carving niches for their own funerary urns.

Archivio dell’arte, Pedicini photography

These are not the only tombs of the ancient necropolis that have been discovered. La Rocca says about 20 have been identified under buildings in the Sanità neighborhood, which was built in the 16th century. Some of them retain paintings, and archaeologist Carlo Leggieri leads visits to five of them – including three partially frescoed tombs and another with the remains of a carved panther. But, says Giulierini, these seem to be the most important so far.

Damaged by construction work in the 1700s, the tombs were officially uncovered in 1899, but have always been closed to the public – until now.

Archaeologists have been monitoring the environment since May 2021 to understand potential dangers. Once they have completed a year of monitoring, the tombs are to be opened for limited visits while restoration work begins. Visitors will be able to see the tombs as they are today – largely as they were when discovered – and be present as they come to life.

Connoisseurs have high hopes.

“It is a space of extraordinary importance because it provides us with valuable data on the beliefs and social structure of Neapolis during Hellenistic and Roman times,” La Rocca told CNN.

Giacomini calls it “a testimony of a civilization of which we have extremely few traces”.

For Giulierini, this is proof of the high status of Neapolis (“new town” in Greek) once held in the ancient Mediterranean. The tombs most closely resemble those found in Macedonia – the homeland of Alexander the Great, spanning modern North Macedonia and northern Greece.

“It shows that Neapolis had a huge international profile,” he told CNN, calling it a “top cultural capital” like New York, London or Berlin today.

Changing Naples tourism

the "beds" are similar to finds in Macedonia.

The “beds” are similar to finds in Macedonia.

Luca Torcigliani

Giulierini – who keeps tens of thousands of artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum in his museum – hopes the tombs will also correct the ‘imbalance’ in the way visitors perceive the city today, linking it to Roman ruins of the region.

In fact, he says, while the citizens of Pompeii staged bloodthirsty gladiatorial games, the people of Neapolis staged a more polished version of the Greek Olympics, started by Emperor Augustus. Another emperor, Nero, came to perform on stage at Neapolis, before later touring Greece. And of course, for centuries they had buried their dead in large painted chambers carved into the hillside.

Meanwhile, La Rocca hopes the opening will help bring more cultural tourism to Naples, which is currently experiencing a tourism boom.

“Naples is more than ancient but it is not often considered an archaeological city,” he said. “The city should be told through its archaeological remains, but these are best known to professionals. Unfortunately, many monuments are not open to the public.”

“Sustainable tourism in relation to cultural preservation” could be a way forward for the city, he added.

The Ipogeo dei Cristallini will open for limited visits in June. Visits to the other tombs of Carlo Leggieri can be booked by e-mail: carlo.celanapoli[at]gmail.com

Main image: Archivio dell’arte, Pedicini fotografi

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