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Along via Popilia

Itinerary: Along via Popilia

Along the southern ridge of Monte Sant'Apollinare, above the tunnel of the autostrada which connects Caserta to Salerno, a clean break in the naked rock is what remains of the route of an antique road, Via Popilia: an important Roman artery built in about the 2nd century BC to allow travel between the economic centres of Capua, Nuceria Alfaterna and with Calabria. The locus, from time immemorial defined as the Orco Pass, today neglected and abandoned, constitutes the ideal departure point for discovering the Apudmontem, that is the land of the mid-Sarno Valley, surrounded by the corona of mountains around the communes of Castel San Giorgio, Roccapiemonte and Siano.

At the centre, the Solano rises, "... a mountain in the form of a sugar loaf (...) topped by the castle of Materdomini”, as described in the mid-19th century by our anonymous English traveller of the first itinerary. On the right ridge of the pass there is a funereal monument, datable to the 1st century BC, long believed to be a lookout tower, to guard from the raiders in antiquity.

Moving on from here, we shall seek a different excursion, in contrast to the itineraries over land and along the river, this time we shall go by horse and on foot, "... the easiest and cheapest means".

On 11 September 1847 the writer and landscape painter Edward Lear noted in his diary: "We set off, therefore, by railroad to Nocera, and thence take a 'caratella' (price two ducats) to Avellino, the chief town of Principato Citeriore (...). To how few spots on the map of Italy can one turn, and yet be disappointed in finding beauty and interest!". From Avellino, Lear continued his journey towards Basilicata, on foot, in the company of Lord John Proby and, as Vincenzo Pepe stresses in the excellent Italian version of the text, with a single horse to transport the baggage. Their trip lasted a little less than two months and they took the train again at Nocera on 4 October of the same year.

Have no fears, dear reader. Our walk will be shorter, among buildings, churches, hermitages and castles.

Descending the valley, the presence of ruins of rural villas, in the localities of Cappella di Paterno, at the boundary of the communes of Sarno and of Castel San Giorgio, confirm the great agricultural nature of the site, witnessed by the stupendous baroque building of the barons de' Conciliis, a sort of fortified farm.

Other significant remains belong to the Augustan acqueduct: This crossed a fair part of Castel San Giorgio, bringing the water from the source at Pelosi del Serino to Puteoli and to Misenum. Its traces are visible in many points at Paterno where blocks of grey tuffstone cover the inspection openings. The remains of an extraurban sanctuary, perhaps of the Hellenic period are seen on the summit of Sant'Apollinare, where, around the year 760, Prince Arechi had the fortification of Santa Maria a Castello built, an authentic defensive barrier against the Saracens. According to the historian, Federico Cardella, having been paid off the Dukes of Naples during the war against the Princes of Salerno towards the end of the 9th century, they had invaded these mountains with frequent and terrible raids. Soon losing its military purpose, the complex was transformed into a hermitage and the palatine church was placed under the jurisdiction of the nearby Monastery of Materdomini. The ascent to the hermitage, enlarges the horizon, up to the bulwark of Monte Liberatore at Cava de' Tirreni, to the south, to open out onto the Gulf of Salerno and, to the west, to the eccentric sinus of Naples, where, the uncontrasted sterminator Vesevo dominates picturesquely.

To the north-east, on the top of Montecastello, there is what remains of the keep of Castel San Giorgio, which from the year 1087 belonged to Roberto, the son ofTorgisio de Cripta. In these years the castles which distinguish the sharp mountain peaks started to appear, determining the history and the fortunes of the valley lying at their centre throughout the medieval period. Three boundary walls, embrasures and small square towers defended the locality up to the time of the Aragonese, when the construction of a round tower and the new structures represented an updating of the fortifications to more sophisticated and modern techiniques of warfare.

On the slopes of the mountains one finds numerous noblemen's palaces which have used these natural slopes for planting terraced gardens and citrus groves. This is the case of Palazzo Calvanese, recently returned to the collectivity, thanks to the sagacious restorations, which has a special gravity based system of irrigation for the entire garden, thanks to its position.

Although the array of windows and balconies along the facade has lost the sinuous lines of the baroque decorations belonging to the old structure, nevertheless, the garden behind, which is arrived at through a small internal courtyard, preserves the original calligraphic and romantic design. A minute fountain is found on the axis, placed on sloping ground, and departing from it are decorations full of aromatic essences, among fake classical ruins - authentic architectural backdrop - and the jumble of small asymmetrical stairways, leading to arcadian battlements, with wide openings and pointed arches. Two marble lions, guarding a steep pathway, look onto the woods, towards other, more secluded and secret pathways.

We are now at Lanzara, a small fraction of the extensive commune. In its eighteenth century dwellings, often unviolated by successive building, this elegant township has preserved the aura of aristocratic detachment which we still note today in its streets and in the discretion or the grandeur of the buildings, among which Palazzo Lanzara, stands out.

Turning eastwards this time, going along the road for Siano, noting an "imposing painting, with God Eternal placed in a eyma above", in the Church of the Congregation of the Salvatore, at Aiello, the other inhabited centre of Castel San Giorgio.

Here in the small complex, in a magnificent gilt frame and protected on another relief, lies the Madonna of Loreto, in a group of angelic figures, with San Sebastiano, carnal and dramatically human, tied to a trunk, and San Rocco on the right, with his faithful dog beside him. The work dates from 1588, and is atributed to the Neapolitan painter Leonardo Castellano, active during and after the middle of the sixteenth century. The painting, in urgent need of careful restoring, has been likened by critics, to the preparatory drawing of the Madonna of Loreto and the Adoration of the Shepherds kept at Windsor Royal Library at London. Carmine Zarra, in an interesting work on the pictoral production of Agro Nocerino in the sixteenth century notes that "According to a tradition, documented from 1472, this holy place had escaped destruction by the Saracens thanks to the angels, who transported it to Loreto. The Holy House therefore became a place of ever more frequent pilgrimage".

Not far to the north we enter the valley of Siano which "... appears to the eye with the fascination of the intense green of its thick chestnut and hazelnut woods". The definition given by Ottavio Caputo, in the History of the Duchy of Siano, is confirmed bya ride in the Bosco Barbone, among durmast oaks and chestnuts, ferns, broom and blueberries: a coppice made for an enjoyable pause, along its pathways, protected from the summer heat, where the imposing stone ruins of the majestic Regi Lagni Borbonici, with their hydraulic engineering work for containing the spring and autumn flood waters, save the town below from ruinous landslides. At the end of the winter, the undergrowth takes on the mossy colours of the land: among the uncollected chestnut husks, there are wood anemones, cyclamens and lilies of the valley. Further down the valley, cherries blossom in the gardens and at the edges of the historical centre where we find noteworthy works of art in the Churches of Santi Sebastiano & Rocco and of Annunziata. On the main altar of the first, with a sober facade in neoclassical style, there is the painting of the Glory of the Virgin between the two patron saints, by the Neapolitan painter Michelangelo lannacci, made in 1794. The person of Costantino Desiderio, a painter native of Angri, also stands out, as having produced, in 1794, four canvasses, of which two, recently restored, remain: one of Sant'Antonio di Padova with the Madonna and Child and the other of the Madonna delle Grazie with the souls in Purgatory. However, the most exempletive work of art, because of its evocative force, is the fresco, detached and remounted on canvas, of Santa Maria della Consolazione between San Sebastiano and San Leonardo, coming from the hypogeum chapel of the Annunziata and positioned in the current Baptism chapel, inside the modern homonymous parish church. The fresco was part of a vaster painted surface. Datable to the late fifteenth century, at the moment it has not yet been exhaustively studied, but is striking for its compositional and chromatic freshness, despite some stylistic ingenuities.

From Siano, circling Castel San Giorgio, we stop at Casali, a small fraction of Roccapiemonte, where the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie holds the Madonna di Costantinopoli with San Bartolomeo and San Nicola di Bart, one of the masterpieces of Angelo Solimena, datable to about 1671. It is rivalled by a superb Madonna del Rosario, authentic eighteenth century pastiche, produced by uniting the figures used in two of Francesco Solimena's works: the anonymous Madonna - perhaps originally coming from Casali - taken to the Gemaldegalerie of Berlin in 1971, and the San Michele of the Duomo at Sarno.

From here, we return up the terracing of the hill back, on the slopes from which precious grey tuff-stone, with its silvery reflections, was extracted for centuries in antiquity, and towards the castle on the summit of Mount Solano. Built in 1042 by the Prince of Salerno, Guaimario IV, it was restructured in Angevin times and later, after various fortunes, sold, along with all the feud of Roccapiemonte, to Antonio Ravaschieri, Duke of Satriano a little after the middle of the seventeenth century. Ample traces of the three protective walls remain. These were concentric around the summit of the hill, and remains of the battlements and of the scea gateway testify the strategic importance the castle had during medieval times.

From the front, "nestling on the base of a massive rocky wall called Caruso" crops the Hermitage of Santa Maria de la Fracta, called the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Loreto, erected in about the twelfth century and reworked over the centuries. The complex is still, writes the eminent local historian Mario Vassalluzzo, the destination of devout pilgrimage "as relief for the weary spirit and for body saddened by its wanderings of the inhabited centres". Further down, in a position set back from Corso Mario Pagano, the real heart of the hardworking town, we encounter the last item of our itinerary, the residence of the Ravaschieri, Dukes of Roccapiemonte.

Immersed in centuries-old holm-oaks, plane trees and palms, the villa with a splendid neogothic profile, distinguished by the large single and double windows, has lost the polish of the years in which the building constituted the summer residence of the powerful family. Only the marble tombs remain, inside the annex of the Chapel of the Addolorata, planned about 7720 by the celebrated architect Ferdinando Sanfelice to testify previous and more distinguished times.

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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