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Along the River Sarno

Itinerary: Along the River Sarno


In a book dedicated to Rome's most famous rhetoricians, Tranquillo Gaio Svetonio tells us about the presumed divine descent of Marco Epidio, tutor of Marco Antonio and Ottaviano Augusto. His great-great-grandfather, Epidio Nocerino (or Nuncino?) fell, so he says, into the source of the river Sarno and a short time later reemerged, invisible and with horns: made divine therefore! Of the three sources which make up the main nucleus of the river, Rio Santa Marina, Palazzo and Foce, the latter maintains some fascination. It has an air of charm and perhaps of the miraculous event (cfr. the illuminating article by Franco Salerno in Campania Felix) a. IV n.1) even though, of late, its waters have been tapped.

Around it, very old anthropic remains (second part of the IVth rnillenium BC) and of rudimentary culture have been found, traceable to the closing period of the Mid-Neolithic and to the Late Neolithic. In the same area, in Hellenic period, a sacro-architectonic complex grew up, and testifies an uninterrupted period with cults and rituals.

In this precise spot during the course of “traumatic building works", in the first years of the 1960s, a small theatre, built around the 2nd century BC came to light: it was an integral part of the sanctuary, dedicated perhaps to the god Sarno, of the Nocerini Confederation, or more probably, to a divinity of the underworld. The theatre building, a small architectural jewel, rises up the gentle slope of a hill. The unmistakable amber-yellow nuances of the local limestone mix with the grey nocerino tuffstone, characterised by its intense deep blue reflections, in the elegant seating of the proedria, where the highest authorities of the city took their places. Their refinement is highlighted by the back rests, recalling the seating of the ima cavea, with armrests in the form of sphinx and lions feet.

A temple, yet to be located, was also part of the sacred area and perhaps this should to be sought behind the theatre, considering that the entire complex kept to the well known Hellenic-Roman building plans, like those, for example, at Tivoli or at Palestrina. At the moment it is not possible to admire the elegant female votive statuette and the other clay ex-votes in loco. Out of their true context, unfortunately, they are no longer able to restore the locality and its purifjing waters with that mysterious conjunction with the divinity which is typical of the sanctuaries of antiquity.

Although the ancestral dimension of the deus loci is unknown, the entire field of vision, rising to the highest point of the scenographic terrace, above the cavea, has come down to us, with the sight of the extraordinary plain, cut by the great river, up to the point where it converges with the Tyrrhenian, in front of the Rovigliano islet.

A little further on, still at Foce, one glimpses an substantial tract of the monumental acqueduct from the times of Augusto, built in the bridge-and-channel form in brickwork and decorated with apsidal niches. In the locality of Garitta, towards Palma Campania, inside a vast ancient necropolis, an astonishing tomb, made from slabs of painted tuff has come to light, together with other finds. It has been defined as belonging to "the warrior", in consideration of the iconographic theme painted on the surfaces. As the archaeologist Laura Rota, discoverer of the burial, has noted, it is datable to before the 4th century BC and belongs to a member of the Sannitic elite, a people which dominated an extensive area of Campania in antiquity.

Besides the liveliness of the bright colours - from yellow to turquoise, to the blood-red of the cheeks of the people what strikes us are the ingenuity and immediacy of composition.

The story proceeds in a diachronic sequence along the four painted slabs. The scene showing the return of a young soldier with dark hair, on horseback, appears in front of a crowned woman, with proud features, sitting on a cart, on the opposite wall. She is preceded by two men as in a funeral cortege; one is looking backwards, the other is holding the tail of another warnor's horse. This third warrior is advanced in years, (most probably, the deceased) at the moment of the last passage, and is placed on the shortest surface. On the opposite side, there is a garland, and among the figures here, pomegranates, natural and sacred symbols of the continuity of life: the one which contains the many.

Currently, the tomb and all the furnishings are in a restoration phase, and, later on, will find a new collocation at Palazzo Capua in the historical centre of the town, where this marvellous eighteenth century building will host the Museo della Valle del Sarno, while the artefacts of the rudimentary culture from the more than 1500 tombs discovered in the area of Sarno, San Valentino Torio and San Marzano up to now, will soon be on display.

The first inhabitants (the Sarrasti of remote tradition) settled beside the slow waters of the river which runs down towards the valley which bears its name, and along its banks. The Roman writer Servio based his description of them on what Conone, one of his predecessors, had referred: “... Some Pelasgi and others coming out of the Peleponnese reached that part of Italy, which did not have any name beforehand, and gave the name of Sarno to the river near which they inhabited, from the denomination of their home country, and called themselves the Sarrasti ... ". Whether a mythical or real, they had to combat and cohabit with two great forces of nature, Vesuvius and the Sarno, without respite, and despite alternating phases they settled in small or large centres, Nuceria for example, in the central portion of the great plain.

Finds of the remains of huts from the Bronze Age at Poggiomarino, near the river, witness the spectaculative nature of life in contrast to the cult of the dead, abundantly testified by finds from all the centres rising on river banks.

San Valentino Torio, to use the words of Marisa de’ Spagnolis, “... has the topographic aspect of an open fan, with the base constituted by the line of the Fosso lmperatore which flows into the Sarno and with a curved part formed by the course of the celebrated river in its initial part. This geographical configuration must also have existed in antiquity and, therefore, ... had the characteristic of being completely delimited by the course of the water".

The territory is characterised by large necropolises traceable to the "trench-tomb culture". Chronologically they fall between the ninth and the sixth centuries BC, that is, relating to the Iron Age, to the period of orientalization and to early antiquity.

The oldest depositions (mid-9th or early-8th century BC) contain uniform burial furnishings for both men and women, made up of the most sumptuous, arms, fibule in bronze, askoi, cups, single-handled bowls and clay pots, while in the successive period the furnishings differ, with the furnishings of women's tombs characterised by objects connected to personal ornamentation and to housework. The tombs from early antiquity see the appearance of bucchero vases and the presence of ceramics of local production, with an enormous wealth of metallic objects. Two recently discovered stonework altars erected next to each other in the countryside constitute very important evidence from Roman times. Most probably they belonged to a place of some cult, and were buried by the eruptive activity of 19 AD. The remains of a rustic villa, built in the course of the 1st century BC are also interesting. It was extended after the eruption of Vesuvius which buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplonti etc., was later active for a considerable time.

The Fossa lmperatore separates San Valentino Torio from San Marzano which is crossed by the Sarno to the west. Following the line of marsh reeds, the willows and the reed-mace, which resist tenaciously along the banks one sees water-hen and the coots, together with domestic ducks. These last remaining uncultivated corners give impulse to the challenge of restoring its long denied identity to the river. Setting up the River Sarno Regional Park is the first step in the process of developing environmental resources of the Agro Nocerino Sarnese area, this being one of the most important projects of the Patto Territoriale per l'Occupazione dell’Agro Nocerino Sarnese.

At San Marzano itself part of an antique flood bank has been identified buried under the Plinian eruption. A further tract of the river course in Roman times is defined to the west.

The river maintained its course and its bed unaltered for a long time at least as far as Scafati, as demonstrated by finds which testify the presence of the Pons Sarni. With the change in the quantity of water, it ceased to be navigable for a period. However the Greek geographer Strabone, writing of Pompeii, recalls it as being a ... near the river Sarno which receives and sends goods ... ".

The frescoes of the Casa del Larario del Sarno remain to show us a ship full to the boards, pulled in front by two mules, while the river, in the guise of a god, pours its waters from an amphora. Thus, the river also brought the cycle of life to San Marzano, as it did to all the centres of the plain, a cycle of life, testified by the necropoli found in the area.

These are also trench-tomb culture with, however, more modest ceramics. These comprise a few repeated forms, often associated with imitations of Greek products and also sometimes an amber necklaces, faience and glass.

In the shop window of the Antiquarium, an annex of the Palazzo di Citta and a sober building from the middle of the 19th century small amphoras, pyx and lekythoi (containers for body oils) coming from some deposits excavated in recent years are on display.

Further downstream, at Scafati, centuries after protohistory, the Sarno would lap upon the rustic villas which were part of the western suburb of Pompeii, with their great extensions of terrain exemplifying the strictly agricultural vocation of all the Valley, as it was up to recent times. At the beginning of the eighteenth century full use of the land and the cultivation of tomatoes gave a new economic impulse, leading to the creation of a centre for canning which is still a driving force for development.

Where there is today's modern town centre, in antiquity there was the Pons Sarni, situated on the road from Nuceria Pompeios, the great artery of communication between the two famous citites. While Lucio Giunio Moderato Columella, in his De re rustica, evoked the sweet soft gentle Pompeian marshes, near the salt beds of Hercules, Anneo Lucano also makes mention of the night mists which rose from its waters; both, though, remain relegated into the limbo of commonplaces of literature and fantasy without any morning breeze ready to chase them off.

From "Itinerari culturali della Valle del Sarno" Patto dell'Agro S.p.A. 2003


Realizzato dalla Soprintendenza Beni Archeologici Salerno-Avellino e Benevento, nell'ambito del progetto pilota per la gestione dei beni complessi della Valle del Sarno di cui all'Intesa Istituzionale di Programma, finanziata dalla Regione Campania nell'ambito dell'Accordo di Programma Quadro - II atto integrativo all'APQ 'Sviluppo Locale'.

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