La Tomba di Virgilio

Whether the ancient columbarium, with its opus reticulatum and tripodal brazier dedicated to Apollo, perched eyrie-like above the eastern maw of the Crypta Neapolitana – a tunnel approximately six meters high, three meters wide, and seven hundred meters long that Cocceius Auctus engineered, at the behest of Agrippa, through the Posillipo tuff in order to connect conurbations by the bay with the Campi Flegrei; and used subsequently by inhabitants for pedestrian traffic between the city and its neighboring super-volcano into the 20th century – is actually the tomb of Publius Vergilius Maro, as has been the tradition here since the poet, dying at Brindisi (nineteen years before the renewal of that magnus ordo saeclorum he, ventriloquizing Deiphobe at Cumae, anticipated in his fourth eclogue), asked that his ashes be communicated back to Naples for interment and was afforded a hero’s rites in Piedigrotta by Augustus before commencing a second career, in the medieval Neapolitan folk imagination, as Virgilio Mago, a sorcerer who supposedly founded Naples, personally erected its walls, and then fortified it still further by his bright arts – either by hiding a magical egg in the foundations of Castel dell’Ovo that must not be found lest ruin be general; or else, with a delicate scale model of the city, minutely detailed, he had assembled inside a glass vessel with a narrow neck: undamaged, this palladium enabled the Neapolitans to repulse any siege, but someone – whoopsie – cracked it just as the forces of H.R.E. Henry VI were massing at the gates in 1191 – as well as contriving a variety of other ingenuities, including – palimpsesting Cocceius, or perhaps actually merging with him – the Crypta Neapolitana itself, which he is supposed to have dug in a single night with daemonic assistants à la Solomon (not the only curious, and curiously distinct, echo among the tales of Virgilio Mago and those another Neapolitan literary transplant, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who lived in Chiaia as an unruly teenager, would, centuries afterward, be the first to translate into English in a complete and unexpurgated form as The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night); and then a third career, mingling the previous two, as the eidolon who guides Dante to the threshold of the salvation he himself prophesied but, born too early, has no part of, by way of damnation and purgation, after leading them into a cave mouth in a dark forest (of Quercus ilex) that Cocceius – by different order of Agrippa – clearcut in 37-36 BC while constructing the Portus Iulius – now drowned by Bradyseism – within the huge crater complex lying on the other side of the passage he cut through the peninsula, is beside the point. It might as well be there. Or there. Or there. Through convections of geology and history, Virgil – ashes and otherwise – has long since been absorbed into the fabric of the city. All Naples is his tomb.

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