I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting a lady named Joanna, who has her own tour company called “Glass Half Full,” and I have been joining her on some of their adventures. She is so kind and funny, and extremely knowledgable. She even puts together personalized trips, which I will soon write about one that I put together with her later. Well, not too long ago I joined in on a small group tour to explore a local church, an archaeological site that is not open to the public, and a winery, all situated on what is referred to as the “dark side of Vesuvius.” This day was by far one of the most interesting and noteworthy adventures that I have experienced since being in Italy! So many people come to Italy just to cross things off of their bucket list or to only see the famous things. Nothing wrong with that; but I like to discover the lesser known gems and uncover the history and significance of them. This day was full of history!
Our first stop after a quick cafè and pastry was The Sanctuary of Madonna dell’Arco. This church sits at the foot of Mount Somma on the slopes of Vesuvius and is a famous pilgrimage destination on Easter. A votive shrine, originally built in the 15th century, housed a Madonna and Child picture named “Madonna dell’Arco” after a nearby arch from an ancient Roman aqueduct. Many people travel here to give thanks to the powers of the Madonna. Several stories are attributed to the image and its supernatural powers; here are the most famous ones: During a boccie ball game, a ball was thrown at the cheek of the sacred image, which then allegedly began to bleed. This is why her facial image seems distorted when you see it; Then there was a young woman who, in anger, trampled her husband’s ex-voto to the Madonna dell’Arco who offered it as gratitude for having cured a serious eye disease. The following year, that woman was struck by a serious illness, which caused her feet to fall off. Today, the feet are still visible, enclosed in an iron cage in the offering room of the sanctuary…
Next up was Scavo archeologico, a private, on-going archeological dig that is closed to the general public! But we knew someone who knew someone that could get us in 😉 The structures so far show a part of a large Roman building and there have been hypothesis suggesting that this could be the Villa of Augustus. Accidentally discovered by a farmer, this Roman Villa also once housed the oldest and largest wine collection in Italy!
The structures discovered so far are part of a large Roman building, built in the early imperial age that continues to live until the fifth century AD, changing character and function over time, until the Vesuvian eruption of 472 AD, which buried it for more than half of its height… The discovery of the building took place around the 1930’s, after the accidental discovery of wall structures during agricultural work… The excavation brought to light a small part of the wall structures and “marble columns and capitals, mosaic floors, beautiful statuary fragments of a character in heroic dress, polychrome stucco.” Considering the monumentality of the building and its location, it was hypothesized that the villa could be the residence where the emperor Octavian Augustus died… Despite the great interest of the people of Somma, who also sent a request for funding to Mussolini for continuation of the excavation, it was not possible to go on due to lack of funds. The new excavation was undertaken by the University of Tokyo (since 2002)… The visitor can today observe the remains of a monumental environment, consisting of a colonade, two walls decorated with niches, a series of pillars with arches, and at the bottom, a wall with three doors and two niches with decorated stucco.
In this area the floor is partly mosaic, partly ‘cocciopesto’ (a mixture of mortar and crushed bricks). To the west a rectangular room has been identified, the walls of which have numerous doors and windows. The entrance on the south side originally allowed the passage to other areas, but was then closed by an apse, and later walled up. In one of the last stages of life, the environment was destined for agricultural production, as evidenced by the discovery of a grain mill and charred olive seeds. During the excavation in 2003, two statues were found (preserved at the Archaeological Museum of NOLA), one of a woman with a Greek dress (peplos), one, recomposed from several fragments, of the god Dionysus/Bacchus with the head crowned with ivy and a panther cub in her arms. Since 2005, the excavation area has been expanded north-east: this sector is connected to the previous one with two tiers. These include a channel and two “cistern/silos.” In one of these, excavated on 2008, the torso of a marble satyr was found. On this terrace there are also two apsidal rooms, whose internal decoration is still well preserved. Inside the large apse you can see a frieze with Nereids and Tritons.
The walls of the smaller apse are decorated with a fake curtain, with small interesting details, such as two birds. The floor is mosaic with geometric decoration. To the west of this environment, during the 2008 campaign, a wine cellar with numerous containers for wine (dolia) was found. The dating of the foundation of the building, based on the data acquired so far, seems to disprove the traditional hypothesis that identifies the villa of Augustus in this site. In any case, the structures highlighted so far seem to relate to a complex of considerable extension and prestige, as evidenced by the monumentality of the structures highlighted and the great architectural quality.
And of course, we ended the day visiting a local winery, escaping the winds to enjoy delicious wines, and making new friends. Cantine Olivella was born in Sant’Anastasia at the foot of Monte Somma in the Vesuvius National Park, in the heart of the Somma-Vesuvius volcanic complex formed following the Plinian eruption of 79 AD. The protected area is the ideal habitat for the cultivation of vines. Today, they are the 4th generation of winemakers who cultivate the vines on volcanic-sandy soil ideal for growing ungrafted vines and using the propagation technique by offshoot, traditionally called pass annanz. The name of the company derives from an ancient Olivella spring located on Monte Somma which supplied water to the Royal Palace of Carlo di Borbone in Portici. At this source, a wine jar was found, proof of the wealth of an area from which the wines of ancient Rome on the market with Pompeii originated since ancient times. On the jar there is the inscription of Sextus Catius Festus, name of the ancient winemaker, and a stamp depicting a stylized leaf, similar to a heart. The seal has become the Cantine Olivella logo. The company now has 12 hectares of vineyards divided into three different municipalities: Sant’Anastasia, Pollena Trocchia, and Somma Vesuviana, located between 300m and 650m above sea level. The grapes produced are Catalanesca, Caprettone, and Piedirosso. The management of the vineyards aims for maximum biological balance: green manuring and organic fertilization only where needed; balanced pruning; manual management of all the most delicate operations, including grape harvesting. There are willow trees in the vineyard from which they produce the “vign” that they use to tie the vines. The agricultural practice of green manure is practiced every year with the alternation of rows, in which they sow three crops: the field bean is the predominant one to which they combine oats and clover.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!