Ipogeo dei Cristallini of Napoli

the color cult of the ancient Greeks


by Luigi La Rocca
Soprintendente Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per il Comune di Napoli
The uniqueness of the Crystalline Hypogeum among the precious decorations, bright colors and luxury furnishings.

The Vergini area, which represents the current Sanità district, was in ancient times located to the north of the walls of Neapolis, from which it was separated by a large valley on which piazza Cavour and via Foria stand today and was characterized by the presence of tufaceous ridges that gradually ascended towards the Capodimonte hill, used since the Hellenistic period for the construction of funerary monuments of considerable importance. Some of these were found during the construction of the buildings which, starting from the mid-18th century, led to the progressive urbanization of the area.

These are tombs that were probably located along a road axis that ran close to the tufaceous slope and which originally had to present a façade with false architecture and doors that led directly into the burial chamber or, in the case of more complex solutions, into a chamber superior in which funerary rites took place from which one entered the room intended for the burial of the dead. The traces and memories many tombs, although documented in the chronicles of the time, have been lost, while some are still preserved under the modern building fabric and constitute a precious testimony of the historical stratification of the city.

Among these the best known and, also thanks to the foresight and care of its owners, best preserved, is the Ipogeo dei Cristallini, which was discovered in 1889 and in which, together with the benches made of tuff, sometimes decorated in the form of beds, with quadrangular recesses intended to host the bodies of the deceased, the entire decorative apparatus is still preserved and develops with very bright colours as well as incredibly refined trompe l’oeil effects imitating architectural decorations and furnishings.

Many years after the last restoration interventions, thanks to the synergistic relationship between the Superintendence, the ICR and the Martuscelli family a new path of analysis, study and recovery of the complex has begun which, starting from the knowledge deepening of the entire archaeological schedule of the area of the Virgins, through the analysis of historical and archaeological documentation, the study of architecture and funerary contexts, the reconstruction of the topography and the ancient landscape, the use of avant-garde technologies for monitoring and documentation, the objective is to make the virtual visit of the funeral contexts possible and, therefore, the safe physical use of the Crystalline Hypogeum. 



by Angela Pontrandolfo e Ida Baldassarre
The first experience of hellenistic painting and architecture.

The Neapolitan monumental tombs represent an important architectural and pictorial testimony of the Hellenistic period. The 1985 Ancient Naples exhibition has largely and definitively eliminated the chronological evaluation error of the first edition of some of these tombs. This type of error was the result of the confusion among the available data with regard to stages of re-use, that placed those between the end of the IV and the III. sec. to. C.

The complex located via dei Cristallini represents a site of major interest. It consists of four contiguous tombs, dug into the tuff, each with an independent entrance. Every one of them consists of two overlapping chambers but not in axis with each other. The upper chamber’s floor is almost completely occupied by the staircase leading to the lower room, the real burial chamber. Hypogeum C is the best preserved in the structural and decorative apparatus. The high entrance door, delimited at the top by a molded architrave, is framed by two fluted columns on an Ionic-Attic base, which rest on a high parallelepiped nut with a molded upper edge. Although the upper part was destroyed, it is possible to assume that it had a gable.

This monumental entrance gives access to a room on the same level, an open vestibule dedicated to the cult of the dead. The feature is underlined by the counters that run along the three walls and by the profile of a trapeza carved on the front face of the back counter. The painting completes and emphasizes the architectural articulations, both in the moldings that identify the coffered roof with double sloping, carved into the tuff, and in the Ionic frieze painted in perspective in red, blue and two tones of white.

This ones mark the meeting of the walls with the roof, under which runs another exceptional frieze painted on a bluish-black background depicting, in modular sequence, two retrospective griffins facing a fl ower and each separated by male or female heads. Each wall of this upper room is also decorated with three wreaths of flowers made in stain and hung on nails depicted in perspective. The lower room, which that can be accessed via a staircase carved into the floor of the upper room, is covered by a barrel vault and the walls are marked by relief pilasters with figured capitals. In each of the spaces below there are beds-sarcophagi carved into the tuff, shaped on the outside in the form of klinai, with mattresses and double pillows carved and painted in yellow, blue and red.

Above the sarcophagi, between the pilasters, festoons of laurel wreaths are painted, with narrow intervals of golden bands, painted with delicate variations of the green color and with overlapping of black brushstrokes as a function of shadow. On the back wall, crowns painted as stains are depicted, hanging on painted nails and represented in a wise perspective with the shadow. This wall is further enhanced by the extraordinary decoration of the lunette in which a Medusa head is represented, carved and inserted in a recess in the wall itself.

To complete the extraordinary decoration of this room, two painted candelabra are added to the two sides of the entrance, of which only the lower part remains, with silver shafts and animal paw feet. Moreover, a large gold patera with two handles is depicted on the left of the door hanging from a nail with the employ of brown and black shaded on the ocher of the metal; the group of Dionysus and Ariadne which depicts Dionysus paired with Ariadne, a scene of hierogamy with symbolic implications. On the right of the door, a silver oinochoe is depicted.

by L. A. Scatozza Höricht
Dionysus and Ariadne. A historiated couple and its context.​

An exceptional detail is highlighted on the left wall of hypogeum C: to the left of the candlestick a large golden patera is depicted in life size, on a low foot, upside down and illusionistically hung on the wall: four concentric circles define the foot, the tub and bottom. The outside of the cup has a decoration under the handles, rendered with shades of yellow and brown, of which only the scene under the lower handle remains visible, which becomes decipherable by overturning the image. Two semi-reclining and opposing figures can be seen, with their gaze turned towards each other, in a nuptial attitude: in the male one (on the left) Dionysus is recognizable in youthful features, semi-naked, with the cloak falling from his left arm, with which he holds the thyrsus and in the female one (right), Ariadne, with small traces of the drapery, who raises her left arm and props herself up with the right.

The most precise and compelling comparison for the iconographic motif occurs on a series of cusp tiaras in gold leaf with molded decoration found on the European and Asian banks of the Dardanelles in funerary contexts of the second half of the fourth century BC, among which particularly well preserved is a diadem at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, where on either side of the divine couple Muse, intent on playing, sit on acanthus shoots.

The origins of the iconographic motif present on the painted historiated cup of the Crystalline hypogeum, in keeping with the Macedonian ancestry of the architectural structure and the decorative apparatus, lead back to the figurative culture of the unitary area created by Philip II (359-336), for whose diffusion in southern Italy the political role played by Macedonia was decisive, together with Epirus, from the time of Alexander the Molossus (342-331 BC), up to that of Pyrrhus (297-272 BC), who intervened in defense of the element italiota.

There are many Macedonian influences that Taranto especially welcomed and then passed them on to other centers of the peninsula, including Neapolis, as documented above all by architecture and funerary painting and above all by Tarantine toreutics.

On the symbolic level, the privileged position of the cup with the divine union immediately at the entrance of the Neapolitan hypogeum makes it an identity sign, also considering the totally exceptional presence of the figurative element in the hypogea of ​​Neapolis, where the ornamental elements of structural and vegetal character.

In the geographical areas of diffusion of the iconography in question, uniquely attributable to a funerary environment, the cult of Dionysus in its chthonic dimension is well attested epigraphically.

Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, consoled and beatified by the love of the god, participates in the gift of immortality and becomes a symbol of mystical union with the god and of her salvation. The allusiveness of the theme of the hierogamy of Dionysus and Ariadne becomes explicit in the extraordinary funerary crater in gilded bronze from the tomb B of Derveni (330 BC) near Thessaloniki, which can be compared to the series of diadems mentioned: Dionysus in heroic nakedness and Ariadne lifting the veil in the nuptial attitude sit at the center of the thiasus of the orgiastic maenads, which welcomes an initiate who is likely to be identified with Astion of Larissa, whose name is inscribed in silver letters on the crater, to be understood as a Bacchic initiate, perhaps a Thessalian officer who had taken part in the campaigns of Philip II.

The iconographic motif of the nuptial couple of Dionysus and Ariadne could evoke forms of mystery and initiation religiosity to which the other elements of the iconographic system of pictorial decoration refer, attributable to the higher classes of the social structure of Neapolis, to whom the monumental hypogea were intended and it seems connote the same mystery horizon and manifest the same soteriological aspirations present in contemporary ceramography.

In all the Neapolitan hypogea the decorative choices relating to both the components of the painted metal furniture in the funeral chambers and those relating to the plant elements alluding to a possible new life are homogeneous: symbols with ritual value (expressed by the precious metal pottery) and allusive to a possible life that is reborn (flowers, plants, wreaths, eggs, which were symbols of life and rebirth after death). Particular objects of the funerary equipment, such as statuettes of Maenads, and of the pictorial decoration, such as masks and even grapes, seem to indicate Dionysian beliefs and rites.

It is conceivable that the hypogea of ​​Neapolis originally welcomed characters from the urban elite involved in the wine economy, to which the Dionysian cult alludes.

After all, Dionysism in its mysterious aspect seems to be attested in Cuma, the mother city of Neapolis, already during the second half of the 5th century BC. and even at the end of the sixth century. According to the data of recent archaeological research, the foundation of Neapolis can be traced back to those same years, probably by the Cumaean oligarchs – whose sources recall the forced exodus to Capua – motivated by the desire to found a new Cumae in all similar to the city that had expelled them, as evidenced by the faithful recovery of the organization in phratries and the continuity of the cults.


See L. A. Scatozza Höricht, Dionysus and Ariadne in a hypogeum of the Cristallini: the Dionysian religiosity of the chariestatoi of Neapolis, in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 130/2, 2018 (2020), pp. 427-450

by Raffaella Bosso, Luca Di Franco, Giancarlo Di Martino, Simone Foresta, Rosaria Perrella
Archeologie borboniche. La ricerca sull’antico a Capri e nelle province di Napoli e Terra di Lavoro.

This paper focuses on the first discoveries of the Greek chamber tombs of the Hellenistic age, carved in the tuff hill and scattered in the Neapolitan district north to the ancient city wall, now named Vergini-Sanità. Nowadays these monuments are located at a big depth, due to the orographic changes of this area through the centuries, but they were originally situated along a suburban road. Some of them preserve a beautiful painted decoration; they were re-used until the 1st century A.D., as witnessed by inscriptions, reliefs and ceramic objects dated in that period. The tombs were first explored in the last decades of the 17th century and then, in different times, through the Borbonic and Napoleonic age: the discoveries were always accidental and connected with building works. The aim of this article is thus double: through the analysis of the attention devoted to these monuments between the 18th and 19th centuries, we will consider how the Royal Court and the antiquarians, who were facing in that period the big challenge of the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, dealt with these first experiences of “urban archaeology”; on the other hand, the data coming from the descriptions of these first excavations can be profitably studied together with the surviving archaeological evidence, in order to help the reconstruction of the ancient suburban landscape.

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Actes de la table ronde organisée par l'École française de Rome
L'Italie méridionale et les premières expériences de la peinture hellénistique
Lucia A. Scatozza Höricht
Dionysos and Ariadne's wedding in a wall painting inside an hypogeum of Neapolis (via dei Cristallini): the Dionysian belief of the "chariestatoi".

The paper examines the iconographical motif of Dionysian hierogamy painted on the entrance wall of the best-preserved hypogeum of Neapolis in its allusive potentialities, as a privileged sign for decoding the symbolic system expressed by the other elements of the pictoral decoration. This system refers to the Dionysian cult, in its initiatory dimension, professed by the Greek-Samnite “élite” of Neapolis (chariestatoi) to which the monumental hypogea belonged.

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Mons. Gennaro Aspreno Galante
The Greek burial ground found in Naples under the Palazzo Di Donato in via Cristallini ai Vergini
Texts by R. Bosso, B. Balbi, G. Giordano
The wonders of Crystallines, in "Archeologia Viva", year XLII, n. 219, may/june 2023