Jul 10th, 2019
‘Pyu pyu pyu!’ He imitated gunfire, pretending to shoot at the skulls lying around the vaulted room. Dressed in the traditional red and white altar boy cassock, his blonde hair falling to his shoulders, Vito Cinque looked almost angelic, except for the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Beneath the skirts of his unwieldy gown he wore a pair of sneakers, ready to dash out into the piazza between Masses for a quick game of football with the other boys.
‘If it wasn’t football, it was hide-and-seek. The whole village of Positano was within bounds, so sometimes the game went on for days.’ Vito recalls with a wistful half-smile. ‘One of the best places to hide was in the Terra Santa, or “Holy Land”, because most of the boys were afraid of going inside. It was a scary place, full of skulls and bones.’
Before Napoleon instituted cemeteries, those who left their possessions to the church after death, would have the great privilege of being buried underneath the church in the “Holy Land”. In medieval marketing terms, this was the equivalent of getting fast-tracked through the pearly gates, granting the dead instant access to paradise.
‘In fact, in Neapolitan we have a saying,’ Vito grins. ‘Senza soldi non si cantano messa. Without money, there is no singing at Mass.’
The stone walls of the subterranean vault were lined with throne-like chairs looking rather like antiquated toilets. The dead were seated on these chairs and quite literally left to “drip” their body fluids, draining through the holes in the seats until nothing remained but the skeletons.
‘I hope you drip is a nasty Neapolitan saying reserved for people we don’t like.’ Vito is full of local witticisms.
At the time a young Vito found his way past the old metal gate barring the entrance to the Holy Land, the room was being used as a church depository. Skulls and bones had been gathered into large burlap sacks that shared space with village lights, stage materials and procession items for the Festa di San Vito, Positano’s patron saint. There was also a small tunnel.
‘My mother later told me that all of the important places throughout the village were connected through a network of tunnels. From the main church, you could reach the Piazza Mulini at the top of the road. That’s where all the Positanese hid during the bombings in Napoli in WW2. Part of that tunnel system is under the main walking street today.’
Like all Greek and Roman cities, Positano is a town of many layers, one on top of the other. Beneath the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, dating back to the 10th century AD, lies the even more ancient original Roman-Byzantine church with its subterranean burial room, the “Holy Land”. And history had yet one more surprising layer to reveal. Below the vault, buried since the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and forgotten with time, lies a magnificent Roman villa dating back to the 1st century BC.
‘We always suspected there was something there, but it was only recently that they finally uncovered parts of it for the first time.’
‘They think the villa belonged to an official in charge of supplying food to the Emperor Tiberius during the monarch’s self-imposed exile on Capri. He was terrified of being poisoned and had all his food produced locally and supplied by trusted officials. The mill producing flour for Tiberius was probably the one still standing today in Arienzo.’
This official grew wealthy working for the emperor and built a palatial home that extended over a large area between the hill and the beach. The exposed walls are beautifully frescoed with polychrome paintings representing fantastic architecture, flying figurines, griffins and plants.
The roof of the villa collapsed during the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum and the house was completely covered by ash and debris. A few centuries later, the first church was built on top of the site. When the villa was finally discovered over 25 years ago, the greatest challenge was finding a way to excavate it with the foundations of important buildings like the church standing on top.
After two separate excavations were conducted, the Villa Romana opened to the public for the first time on July 18, 2018.
‘I could never have guessed when I was playing hide-and-seek amongst centuries-old skeletons, that one of the largest archaeological discoveries on the Amalfi Coast in recent decades lay hidden beneath my feet.’ Vito shakes his head. ‘For us kids it was just a secret hiding place.’