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The Naples Underground Offers an Endless Timeline of Neapolitan History

Roman aqueducts, WWII shelters, art, and caches abound in the tunnels below the surface of Naples.

The tunnels of Naples Underground, featuring a hall with carved loculi (cavities).
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Founded in the ninth century BCE, Naples, Italy, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Its streets are a gallery of Greco-style fountains, Romanic statues, and an elaborate medieval castle. Today, its history sits alongside buzzing restaurants and daring Vespa drivers, but below the ground lays a seemingly untouched history that spans eras.

A trek down 136 steps opens up the world of Naples Underground—a labyrinth dating back to the fourth century BCE. This was when the Greek Empire still ruled modern-day Italy, and Naples was Neapolis. The underground was a subterranean network of reservoirs and channels that delivered potable water throughout the city.

Towards the end of Ancient Greece’s reign over Naples, miners quarried 30-40 meters beneath the city. The miners likely had no idea their work would supply the city with water for 23 centuries. They dug deep cisterns through the layers of a porous volcanic rock known as tuff. The building material itself carried a long history, as it was most likely formed as many as 35,000 years before the cavernous construction first started.

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When the Roman Empire arose in the remnants of the Hellenic world, the city’s underground pool was expanded to become part of a vast aqueduct system.

The carefully engineered aqueduct swerved through Southern Italy like a railroad network, delivering water to other nearby civilizations like Pompeii and Herculaneum. It served as the region’s primary water source for over two millennia, witnessing the rise and fall of emperors, the destruction of Pompeii further down the Gulf of Naples, and the unification of nations into what would become Italy.

A clearly abandoned room in the Naples Underground, with a rusty tub and cot.
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  • A room in the Bourbon Tunnels of the Naples Underground.

    Photo Credit: Piotr Rokita / Flickr (CC)

Placido Troyli, the 18th-century Neapolitan Abbot, took great pride in Naples’s water system. In a multi-volume history of the city, he wrote the city’s plumbing was “something that would be difficult to find in other cities of the world, with each large building having its own reservoir and each apartment the convenience of drawing water both night and day from within”. He romanticized the underground cisterns and channels, writing about the water’s health and “ineffable taste”.

In reality, the system was an impressive undertaking for the ancient world. Still, as the city’s population grew, the underground couldn’t keep up—paving the way for a deadly cholera outbreak in 1884.

As the epidemic took hold in the city, it became clear that the city would need a new way to bring water to its residents.

The 170-kilometer geological web, which had transported water over centuries of crises, was suddenly obsolete.

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The city built new systems, and as the water emptied, the ancient underground became a dumping ground for Neapolitan residents. The wells were elevated trashcans filled with items from small parcels to entire pieces of furniture. The tunnel’s history was buried, and momentarily, forgotten about.

As WWII broke out, though, the old tunnels were reawakened as a bomb shelter. Seven hundred tons of trash was removed from the underground system before it was filled with cots and other essentials. The wells were widened to accommodate spiral staircases, and the caves were even fitted with modern amenities like showers.

However, as the war ended and the citizens slowly returned to their homes or new shelters, the underground became neglected, once again. Its function had expired, and history seemed to repeat itself as it became a 20th-century dumpster.

By 1979, the underground could no longer be ignored. A carpenter was throwing out sawdust down an old well when he looked into the pit with a paper torch. Then, he accidentally dropped the flame. It triggered a fire that burnt beneath the city, releasing toxic fumes into the sky, and could not be stopped without finding a way into the underground.

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Michele Quaranta, who would later found the Libera Associazione Escursionisti Sottosuolo (LAES, or Free Association of Underground Explorers in English) with his brother in 1988, pointed the firefighters to a 1940’s-era stairwell that allowed them to extinguish the flames and rediscover a lost history. In the late 80s, the brothers opened that history to the public, beginning guided tours into the tuffaceous caverns, and again reviving the space, this time into a local attraction.

A fresco depicting a woman, man, and girl in the Naples Underground, believed to be a family.
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  • A fresco believed to depict a family in the Catacombs of San Gennaro.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Entering Naples Underground feels secretive, even alongside a crowd of tourists. The sights and sounds of the city disappear as the serene quiet of the cave takes over.

The rigid partially washed-out stones mark old water levels, and as a tour guide explains how aqueduct engineers maintained the elaborate water system, you can imagine this setting thousands of years ago. Vast pools of blue fill the depths of rock formations, appearing infinitely deep—the quiet sound of flowing and dripping water echoes along the walls.

In certain areas, visitors are also given a candle to explore the darker sections of the cavern. Though it’s electrically powered, the dim yellow glow illuminates an image of the ancient world.

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Throughout the tuff, rooms are also reminders of the role of the space during World War II. One metal recreation of a bomb hangs from the ceiling, and a few cots still linger in corners.

The underground represents two distinct moments in Neapolitan history, one of thriving early civilization historians and tourists alike seem to romanticize, and a more contemporary struggle of resilience amidst the devastation of WWII.

It tells the story of how an ancient system, buried and forgotten about, became a salvation for residents, and how that history was all too easily buried over and over again.

The contemporary Naples Underground aims to stop that cycle. As the site has become one of the most highly rated tourist attractions in the city, its history is constantly retold in languages from around the globe. Researchers continue to excavate stories that have been lost to time and geology while letting the space be a setting for new accounts. The Hypogeum Gardens, for example, offer a patch of green in the otherwise dark belly of the space. It has allowed scientists to explore how plants can grow underground, free from the pollutants of the dense urban center.

The underground’s stone paths still carry a weight of mystery, but a mystery that is now preserved and continually being rediscovered.

For more information about tours, visit the official site of the Underground.

Sources: Springer, La Napoli Sotteranea, Larry Ray

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons