solfatara -- 8/22/23

Today's selection -- from The Serpent Coiled in Naples by Marius Kociejowski. Solfatara is the less famous volcanic site in Italy just a few kilometers west of Vesuvius:

“Percy Bysshe Shelley, a shrewd observer otherwise, was dismissive of Solfatara when he visited it in December 1818: 'There is a poetical description in the Civil War of Petronius,' he writes to Thomas Love Peacock, 'beginning Est locus, & in which the verses of the poet are infinitely finer than what he describes for it is not a very curious place.' Vesuvius, on the other hand, fascinated him. This is no great surprise given that the nineteenth-century mind preferred the alpine to the elfin, geysers to trickles, symphonies to bagatelles. Why go south of Mont Blanc if Vesuvius was not one's objective? Solfatara, by comparison, is a collapsed scuffle, a crater sans eminence, a rotten egg of a place. One smells the sulphur before one even gets there. All it ever does is to stink, bubble, and fume. There's no saying, though, what a poet will add to his grab bag of stored images and it's not altogether unreasonable to suppose that the Cave of Demogorgon, at the beginning of Act II, sc. ii of Shelley's poetic drama Prometheus Unbound, contains the memory of a local guide at Solfatara thumping the ground with a stick in order to produce the echoing sound that still unsettles visitors today, which gives the impression of there being very little beneath one's feet other than a rather thin crust and, under that, a dome-like cavern. Actually the booming sound is produced by tiny veins of gases. Most pleasingly to the ear, the Italian for this is rimbombo. The poetical mind imagines itself stretched like a drum skin over an abyss. It's where it functions best, anticipating doom. 

“One of the Oceanides asks, 'What veiled form sits on that ebon throne?' Shelley at Solfatara: it was not Greece, where he'd never been, but Italy that fed the physical attributes of his poetic vision. As Mary Shelley wrote in her 'Note' to the aforementioned poem, 'Shelley loved to idealize the real -- to gift the mechanism of the material universe with a soul and a voice.' 

‘I see a mighty darkness 
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun.
--Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is 
A living Spirit.’

“Solfatara (from the Latin sulpha terra 'land of sulphur') or Strabo's forum Vulcani is for me a most curious place. Would it be a volcanologist's idea of blasphemy were I to say it fascinates me even more than Vesuvius? But then I prefer string quartets to symphonies. An elliptical space covering approximately thirty-three hectares, which for those of us who know no better is roughly eighty-two acres, the volcanic crater of Solfatara, one of forty in the area, is deemed inactive. Strange when, depending on where one is, it goes from warm to hot to the touch, and with the swell of the magma chamber below is subject to the uplift and subsidence known as bradyseism. It feels very much alive. There is a curious tendency in the mind to think history stops in the hour and the spot where one stands, whereas, of course, the story is far from over. 

Sulfur at the Solfatara crater

"Solfatara's bare expanses would seem to be empty of life. Not so. There is a bubbling pool of mineral-rich muddy water in the middle of it, which is home to a rare form of archaea, the lowest form of cellular life, Sulfolobus solfataricus. Somewhat charmingly, because of its penchant for hot places, it has been described as an extremophile. Also unique to the area is a creature called Seira tongiorgii which one is tempted to call a bug, which really is not a bug at all but a species of Collembola that belong to the grand order of hexapods, at which point an inattentive mind might revert to calling them bugs because bugs are what they most resemble. The male of the species collects spermatophores from the female without having to go to the bother of making love. I saw a graffiti in Naples, GENDER IS OVER, which would suggest the human race is headed for some kind of class reunion with its collembolic origins. Surely, though, Neapolitans are too highly sexed for it to be true. 

“Standing with one's back to the entrance of Solfatara and, on the outer ridge, an unsightly building development for which we have other kinds of dark seismic forces to thank, what one sees rising from fissures in the ground are plumes of sulphuric smoke, the most impressive of which is the Bocca Grande ('big mouth'), with its continually burning coals covering a colour spectrum that goes from the most beautiful yellow to the most beautiful reddish-orange. This, according to the highly impressionable ancients whose minds were more alert to the poetic than ours, was the dwelling of the god of fire. It is difficult to determine whether one is better or worse for breathing in the sulphuric fumes, although from Roman times onwards they have been said to have curative properties. The Samnite goddess Mefitis reigned here long before the Roman gods -- to her we owe the word 'mephitic', which denotes foul-smelling gases. The goddess of foul smells is also, curiously enough, the Samnite goddess of love, ritual prostitution being one of the features of her temples. Paradoxically, she is a protectress against those same poisonous gases, and until relatively recently she would be called upon to avert bad smells issuing from sewers. She ought to have been kept on the payroll but sadly has slipped into the minor ranks of gods and goddesses. 

“Pliny the Elder mentions the 'Fontes Leucogei ', the whitish aluminous waters found in Solfatara and elsewhere. It has not much changed for centuries. The toga'd Romans basked there, the barbarians put a stop to such fripperies, and the Middle Ages saw considerable mining of the extra rich mineral deposits which comprise a list to warm any alchemist's heart with, in addition to the various alums, alunogen, arsenopyrite, arsenschwefel, coquimbite, dimorphite, epsomite, galuberrite, goldichite, gypsum, halotrichite, kalinite, kaolinite, krausite, leucite, mascagnite, mendozite, metavoltine, mirabilite, natrolite, opal, orpiment, pararealgar, pickeringite, pyrite, realgar, russoite, rutile, salammoniac, sanidine, sassolite, sulfuite, sulphur, thenardite, trona, tschermigite, voltaite, and, my favourite, yayapaiite. And yet at a single glance, the untrained eye sees only an expanse the colour of sun-bleached bone. 'Colours that destroy the soul,' said Petronius of the place. Solfatara is a place of wonders geological, biological, and mythological. In the late fourteenth century during Aragonese rule, it became a royal hunting reserve where wild boar were pursued. It would later become an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour when it became a regular feature in travelogues of the time. If Shelley claims to have been unimpressed I suspect he was perhaps more impressed than he let on, either that or some of Lord Byron's facetiousness had rubbed off on him. 

“Solfatara's visitors have been legion. One is tempted to imagine Dante among their number, though there is no evidence for this -- yet there is a passage in his Commedia that describes it perfectly. The great comedian Toto was filmed there, in toga and laurel crown, as the mean-spirited Baron Antonio Peletti, who in order that he might see the error of his ways is tricked into what he is led to believe is the afterlife. After 47 morto che parla (1950) who needs the small fry that is Alighieri's Commedia? Silius Italicus in his Punica would have us believe the Carthaginian Hannibal was shown Solfatara and its environs by his nobles. It is not certain whether this was based on fact or if the author was taking his readers on a tour of the places he himself loved. The line in the poem -- the longest surviving epic in Latin -- most fitting to my perennial theme is when Hannibal, leaving his winter headquarters in Capua, is compared to a glossy serpent coming out of hibernation, 'lifting its head and breathing out gore.'"



Marius Kociejowski


The Serpent Coiled in Naples


Haus Pub.


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