Virgilio, the magician of Naples

Virgilio, the “quiet” man, lived in Naples for many years, after his death he was venerated by the people as “holy” protector of the city. Unpopular from the Catholic Church, his mortal remains were transferred from Posillipo and hidden in Castel dell’Ovo by the Norman kings.

He was born in Andes (today Pietole, small town of Borgo Virgilio – Mantova) on 15 October of 70 BC .; his father Stimicone Virgilio Marone was a landowner; his mother Polla Magio was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Virgilio lived a happy childhood in the family campaigns, he studied grammar in Cremona and then continued his studies in philosophy and rhetoric in Naples and in Rome where, from 53 a.c. he attended the school of eloquence Elpidio, going to the legal profession. Virgilio, shy and reserved, could not utter a word at his first experience as a lawyer; this negative experience marked him for all life.

In 44 a.c. Julius Caesar was assassinated by Brutus; a power struggle took place between Octavian and Mark Antony against Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius as a result of this crime. The troops of the imperialist faction pro-cesarea guided by Octavian and Mark Antony clashed with pro-republic troops led by the adopted son of Caesar and Cassius, at the Battle of Philippi in Macedonia in 42 BC, after two clashes happened on 3 and 23 October Marco Antonio got the better; Brutus and Cassius committed suicide because of the defeat.

Following the victory plots of land were distributed to the army veterans that were taken from their owners; estates were requisitioned in this operation of redistribution around Mantova. Even Virgilio’s possessions were involved in the division. Virgilio went to Mantua hastily, where his friend Asidio Pollio was in charge of the distribution of the veterans fields. At first he was able to avoid the seizure of his property, but in the following year, because the land already requirements were not sufficient to satisfy all veterans, also the ownership of Virgilio Marone family were requisitioned.

This loss of his property, in which Virgilio was particularly fond because there he spent his childhood and youth, deeply affected him so much that he decided to move to Naples with his family in 42 a.c.

He abandoned the legal profession, in Naples he continued his philosophical studies as a student of Filodemo and Sirone, epicurean masters. Among 42 and 38 a.c. he composed his first opera the “Bucoliche”; in the past, some previous minor poems called “Appendix Vergiliana” were considered as written by Virgilio, today most of the critics do not recognize the paternity of Virgilio.

In the “Bucoliche” composed of 10 “eclogues” the poet spoke of the life of cattle farmers, not lacking in the same autobiographical references of the poet’s life in his beloved lands in Mantova; he described in the first “eclogue”, through the story of the events of Melibeo farmer, its ups and downs with the division of land to veterans; he sang the exploits of Gallo, Pollio and Varo, administrators of the Cisalpine province, in the last three “eclogues”, perhaps to ingratiate them with the hope for the return of his property.

Virgilio met Horace and knew Maecenas in Naples,he was a frequent guest in the various estates in Campania of Maecenas. He was presented by Maecenas to Augustus, who appreciated the poetic gifts of Virgilio. He was several times host of Augustus in Rome.

Some historian say that Virgil urged at the Emperor Augustus some civil works to improve the lives of Parthenopeans. The Serino aqueduct was built with his impulse, the aqueduct conveyed water from Avellino to Naples, providing the city with a water supply and also it supplied water to the pool Mirabilis of Bacoli continuing through a tunnel in the hills of Posillipo.

According to popular voice Virgilio built in one night the Posillipo cave, which was called “grotta di Virgilio” (even Neapolitan Crypt) until the Middle Ages, it connected Naples to Pozzuoli, situated between present districts of Piedigrotta and Fuorigrotta. In truth, the cave had already been present from a century previous Virgilio. This cave was used until 1884, when the new grotto nomed “tunnel del tram” was built, parallel to the old cave of Posillipo. In 1940 it was expanded and renovated (now called “the four days tunnel”). The new tunnel replaced the old “Crypt” crossing the hill to reach new districts of Fuorigrotta and Bagnoli, continuing as far as Pozzuoli; there was an elevator that carried to Posillipo, nearby Via Manzoni, within the “tram tunnel”, at a public transport stop called “Lift”, This elevator was suppressed after the modernization works of the “tunnel”.

The grotto of Posillipo is now closed as unsafe in some of his points, the Mergellina entrance is located within the Vergiliano park, behind the church of Piedigrotta. In the park is the tomb of Leopardi, whose remains were transferred from the church of San Vitale, and the tomb of Virgilio, construction of Pythagorean inspiration, in which there are no remains of the poet, as they were transferred to the Norman period .

The construction of two huge statues was also made for iniziative of Virgilio; this statues represented a cheerful man and a sad woman (auspicious and inauspicious), arranged on either side of the old “Porta di Forcella”. They were removed during abatement thereof and transferred to the Royal Villa (Poggioreale), they went missing during the transformation of Villa in the town cemetery.

In 30 a.c. Virgilio completed his second literary work: “Le Georgiche”; it was a collection of poems in four books, it was a perfect guide to the agricultural work. This Virgilio work would describe in the minimum details the rural life, with information on the various aspects of arboriculture, apiculture and breeding of livestock. Virgilio faced also a topic in monograph form in each of the four books: Civil wars, The praise of rural life, The plague in animals in Noricum, The story of Aristeo and its bees.

In 29 a.c. Emperor Augustus, returning from the naval battle of Azio which had defeated the fleet of Antonio and Cleopatra, stopped in Naples a guest in the house of Virgilio. Here the poet read his latest poem. Augusto was enthusiastic and wanted to celebrate the poet naming him “poet” of the Roman Empire.

In the same year Virgilio began the writing of “Aeneid”, which included twelve “books” inspired by Homer and his two poems Iliad and Odyssey. he retraced the Homeric lines describing the story of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and Anchises cousin of Priam, he had fought the Trojan War with the Trojans. The poem is inspired by the Odyssey in the first part describing the journey that Aeneas made at the end of the war with the Achaeans from Ilium (Troy) to the shores of Lazio; the second part, inspired by the Iliad, described the terrestrial adventures of Aeneas with the various populations in the Lazio. According to Virgilio, Aeneas founded the “Iulia” gens, from Ilium hero’s native city, from which descended the Emperor Augustus.

In 19 a.c. the poet wanted to face a long journey in the Middle Eastern regions to verify the conformity of his poem to the sites described in it, in spite of his poor health . During the trip he met his great friend the Emperor Augustus that, considering the precarious conditions of Virgilio, asked to the poet to return to Naples for treatment. Virgilio got worse during the return journey because of a sunstroke, and came in Brindisi, died on 21 September of 19 a.c.

He recommended his Varo and Tucca disciples who accompanied him on the journey, on his deathbed, to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid, for he had not had time to review it; but the same delivered the manuscript to Maecenas, to whom the poem was dedicated, who supervised its spread.

Virgilio body was moved to Naples where he was placed in the tomb that was sited at the entrance of the Neapolitan Crypt, in “Parco Vergiliano” (not to be confused with the “Parco Virgiliano” at the Cape of Posillipo). On the grave, a construction of Pythagorean inspiration, was placed the inscription “Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope; Cecini pascua, rura, duces ” ” Mantova gave birth to me, Calabria (read: Puglia; in ancient times was called Calabria) killed me, Partenope (Naples) keeps me, sang pastures, fields and heroes (with reference to his three poems: “Bucoliche”, “Georgiche”, “Eneide”) “.

Tomba di Virgilio nel parco Vergiliano – Armando Mancini 2010 – CC BY SA 2.0

The myth of the poet Virgilio grew enormously after his death, he was loved in the following centuries up to now by the people and by writers who were inspired by his writings in their works; in Middle Ages he was even regarded as a deity by the Neapolitan people who saw him as the protector of the city. Silio Italico, who lived in the 1st century AD, bought the estate and the assets that belonged to Virgilio, including the place of his burial, setting up a feast on the day of his birth on the Ides of October, that was perpetuated throughout the Middle Ages. The people also considered him a magician who was entrusted with the salvation of the city; a legend tells that Virgil, at the beginning of the Castel dell’Ovo building, poses an egg in support of the foundation of the same and that, in case of egg breakage, in addition to the collapse of the castle also the city would be destroyed.

In the twelfth century the Normans were aware of the mith of Virgilio for the Neapolitan people. They hid his remains by transferring them from the tomb nearby Neapolitan Crypt, in which took place rituals in honor of Virgilio, to the dungeons of the Castel dell’Ovo, which are missing today, encouraged by the Church that saw a dangerous rival to its power over the people in the memory and in the veneration of the poet.

In 1370 an earthquake destroyed the isthmus that connected the Castel dell’Ovo to the ground; quickly the voice spread of the imminent destruction of the city as provided by the legend. Queen Joanna had it rebuilt in a hurry, to cope with the fear that was taking over the city’s population, even restoring the castle.

Dante Alighieri, in his greatest poem “The Divine Comedy” elected Virgilio as his teacher and guide. The language “vulgar”, in which his poem was written, was inspired to the refined writing of the Latin of Virgilio. Dante, in his journey through the supernatural world, appointed the poet as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, later replaced by Beatrice in the book of Heaven. The Neapolitan poet Jacopo Sannazaro was even dubbed the “Christian Virgilio” for his pastoral poem “Arcadia” inspired by the “Bucoliche” of Virgilio. Also Ariosto was inspired by Virgilio in his “Orlando Furioso” and the pastoral theme, so dear to Virgilio, returned in the “Aminta” by Torquato Tasso, also recalled in his “Gerusalumme Liberata”.


AAVV, Enciclopedia Virgiliana, ed. Enciclopedia Italiana, 1984-1991
Annagiulia Angelone Dello Vicario, Il richiamo di Virgilio nella poesia italiana. Momenti significativi, Napoli, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1981.
Karl Büchner, Virgilio. Il poeta dei Romani, Brescia, Paideia, 1986. [Stuttgart, Alfred Druckenmuller, 1955].
Domenico Comparetti, Virgilio nel Medio Evo, Firenze, “La Nuova Italia” Editrice, 1943 (II edizione).
Ettore Paratore, Virgilio, Roma, Faro, 1945.

Top photo: Virgilio tra Clio e Melpomene con l’eneide – Museo del Bardo -Giorces 2007 CC BY 2.5