It is world-famous for the Roman ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, destroyed through the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E., however the newest vacationer appeal in Naples presentations an excessively another aspect of the town.
Opening in June, the Ipogeo dei Cristallini — Hypogeum of Cristallini Sideroad — is a part of a historical cemetery, situated simply outdoor the partitions of Neapolis, as the town used to be referred to as 2,300 years in the past.
Some 2,000 years ago, this lively Naples neighbourhood was a very different place. Situated just outside the walls of Neapolis—the Greek city so respected that even under the Romans, its Hellenistic culture was allowed to flourish—it was once a hilly area composed of volcanic rock.
Christened the Ipogeo dei Cristallini, or Hypogeum of Cristallini Street, by modern observers, the tombs’ walls are frescoed with garlands, trompe l’oeil paintings and names scrawled in Greek—a roll call of the dead. In the best-preserved chamber, a gorgon keeps a watchful eye, ready to ward off enemies for all eternity.
“It feels very emotional, descending into the bowels of a city that’s so alive up above, and seeing something as they left it in the first century,” says La Rocca. The site was one of the first he visited after taking up his post in 2019, keen to see if there was any way of opening it up to the public.
“The tombs are almost perfectly conserved, and it’s a direct, living testament to activities in the Greek era,” La Rocca adds. “It was one of the most important and most interesting sites that I thought the Soprintendenza needed to let people know about.” Luckily, the site’s owners were already on the same page.
Workers probably stumbled onto the tombs in the 1700s, when a hole drilled in the garden above destroyed the dividing wall between two chambers. Quickly forgotten, they were officially rediscovered in 1889, when Baron Giovanni di Donato, ancestor of the current owners, dug in the garden in search of a water source for his palazzo.
It’s a unique site, says Federica Giacomini, who travelled from Rome to supervise the ICR’s investigations.
“Ancient Greek painting is almost completely lost—even in Greece, there’s almost nothing left,” Giacomini adds. “Today we have architecture and sculpture as a testimony of Greek art, but we know from sources that painting was equally important. Even though this is decorative, not figurative painting, it’s very refined. So it’s a very unusual context, a rarity, and very precious.”
MANN director Paolo Giulierini agrees. As the caretaker of thousands of objects from Pompeii, he is keenly aware of what he deems an “imbalance” in how Naples and its neighbours are perceived. Though the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum may lead modern observers to view the area as a typically Roman region, Giulierini argues that Neapolis was “much more important” than those other two towns—a Greek centre of excellence that “stayed Greek until the second century C.E.”
What’s more, he says, the quality of the Cristallini tombs is so exceptional that it confirms Neapolis’ high standing in the Mediterranean region. They are closest to painted tombs found in Alexander the Great’s home territory of Macedonia, meaning they were “directly commissioned, probably from Macedonian maestros, for the Neapolitan elite.”
“The hypogeum teaches us that Naples was a top-ranking cultural city in the [ancient] Mediterranean,” Giulierini adds.