The island of Procida, jewel of the archipelago of the Phlegraean Islands, it’s a place capable of conquer the heart and the fantasy of the travellers. The most illustrious case is represented by one on the greatest women writers on the twentieh century, the great Elsa Morante, who right here set one of her masterpieces. The novel Arturo’s Island, thanks to which Elsa Morante in 1957 was the first woman to win the Strega Prize, is developed entirely within the 4 km² of extension of the territory of Procida. Here the young Arturo lives his childhood and his adolescence, hatching great dreams without ever setting foot outside the small island where he was born and who seems to live in symbiosis with him. Leaving Procida will mean for Arturo to abandon the illusions and sweetness of childhood and perform a rite of passage towards adulthood.
Although Elsa Morante warns us from the beginning that the description of the really existing places will be subject to the «will of the imagination», nothing prevents us to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere that the author delineates with such mastery. We discover together Arturo’s Island through an itinerary that winds along the recognizable places among those mentioned in the novel, as well as the views that inspired its creation.
Our itinerary in the places of Arturo’s Island can only begin where the novel was born, that is the place where Elsa Morante was inspired and began to write it. We are talking about the Eldorado Hotel, built at the end of the nineteenth century and know for having hosted illustrious travellers like Alberto Moravia, Vasco Pratolini and Toti Scialoja. His fame, however, remains inextricably linked to Elsa Morante, who in this gardens overflowing with the scent of lemons began to write what would remain some of her most beautiful pages.
The structure was taken over by the Municipality of Procida to open the Elsa Morante Literary Parl, a project that is still in progress. The gardens in which Arturo Gerace started to take shape on paper are only open to the public in september, on the occasion of the literary prize dedicated to the great writer.
Procida seen with Arturo’s eyes
One of the first pages of Arturo’s Island is entirely dedicated to the description of Procida. In this small chapter, simply called “The Island”, we can admire the mastery with which Elsa Morante captures in a few lines the essence of this places so loved by her:
«All the islands of our achipelago, here in the Bay of Naples, are beautiful. For the most part, the land is of volcanic origin, and especially near the ancient craters, thousands of flowers grow wild: i’ve never seen anything like it on the mainland. In spring, the hills are covered with broom: traveling one the sea in the month of June you recognize its wild, caressing odor as soon as you approach our harbors. Up in the hills in the countryside, my island has solitary narrow roads enclosed between ancient walls, behind which ochards and vineyards extend, like imperial gardens.»
Continuing in the description, the attention of Arturo focuses on Procida’s sea. Every islander can only have a special and privileged relationship with the sea, but in the case of Arturo, we are talking about a deep bond: the crystal clear sea is the backdrop to the childhood of our protagonist and, at the same time, it’s an impassable border that protects him from the outisde world. Arturo loves this sea, he knows it like the back of his hand and lives in symbiosis with him:
«[The Island] has several beaches with pale, fine sand, and other, smaller shores, covered with pebbles and shells, hidden amid high cliffs. In those towering rocks, which loom over the water, seagulls and turtledoves make their nests, and you can hear their voices, especially in the early morning, sometimes lamenting, sometimes gay. There, on quiet days, the sea is gentle and cool, and lies on the shore like dew. Ah, I wouldn’t ask to be a seagull or a dolphin; I’d be content to be a scorpion fish, the ugliest fish in the sea, just to be down there, playing in that water.»
The port and the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà
Landing in Procida, the first impact we have with the island is represented by the area of the port. Arturo describes it with picturesque features, showing it as a place resistant to fashion and protected from the rest of the world.
The fantasy of Elsa Morante has transfigured and added details to the port area, which makes it difficult to find precise matches . We can assume that the «statue of the Christ the Fisherman» is a reference to the Crucified Christ, also known as the Christ fo the Fishermen, which is located just near the port. The icon was built in 1845 by the fishermen of Procida and placed near the ancient Church of the Sailors of Procida.
This church is mentioned by Elsa Morante, who however never mentions its name and enriches it with details of invention. The church is now known as the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà and San Giovanni Battista. It is one of the symbols of Procida, which dominates the square of Marina Grande and welcomes visitors which land on the island.
The hill of Terra Murata and Palazzo d’Avalos
The hill of Walled Earth is the highest point of Procida. Here we find the oldest settlement of the island, a village of medieval origin. The main attraction is however Palazzo d’Avalos, the «castle» that will have an important role in Arturo’s life. Built in 1563 to host the homonymous family of the governors of the island, Palazzo d’Avalos was transformed into a prison in 1830 and maintained this function until 1988.
«…on Procida, the houses-from those densely crowded at the port, to the ones spread out on the hills, and the isolated country farmhouses-appear, from a distance, exactly like a herd scattered at the foot of the castle […] To passing ships, especially at night, all that appears of Procida is this dark mass, which makes our island seem like a fortress in the middle on the sea. For around two hundred years, the castle has been used as a penitentiary: one of the biggest, I believe, in the whole country. For many people who live far away the name of my island means the name of a prison.»
The penitantiary dominates Procida from above and awakens the curiosity of Arturo, who since he was a child fells a special “sympathy” for the prisoners and their tragic fate. The boy, grow up with the only company of his books, can only imagine them as romantic and manly heroes worthy of his total respect.
Today you can visit Palazzo d’Avalos booking a guided tour. We recommend to book in advance to not miss the tour of this iconic place.
The small island of Vivara, also part of the archipelago of the Phlegraean Islands, is today connected to Procida by a bridge. In Arturo’s time, however, the bridge did not yet exist, and Vivara was only accessible by boat. For Arturo the island of Vivara is inextricably linked to his childhood raids with the beloved dog Immacolatella. The boy spends his summer with her, sailing on his boat, the “Torpedo boat of the Antilles” heading for the wild Vivara:
«When, crossing the narrow strait, we disembarked on the uninhabited little island of Vivara, a few meters from Procida, the wild hares fled at our arrival, thinking that I was a hunter with a hunting dog. And she chased them a little, for the pleasure of running, and them came back to me, content to be a shepherd.»
This uncontaminated paradise is a protected natural oasis since 1974 and has benn declared a State Nature Reserve since 2002. The great-grandchildren of the wild rabbits chased by Immacolatella still populate the island of Vivara, whose rich seabed are an unmissable destination for lovers of diving.
Landscape of Corricella and Terra Murata: Elsa Morante’s Belvedere
Let’s go back to Procida and get ready to take back our ferry, but first enjoy a last intense panorama rich in all the exceptional colors of the island. We will start from a very special place: in 2017 the City of Procida decided to name Elsa Morante a belvedere located in Via Pizzaco.
During the ceremony that made official this tribute to the great author, the mayor of Procida Dino Ambrosino and the councillor for culture Nico Granito have so motivated their choice: «In the pages of her book Elsa Morante impressed her strong attraction to this land, and with the magic of her pen she celebrated and spread to the whole world the beauty of Procida.»
From Elsa Morante’s Belvedere you can admire the crystal clear sea that embraces Marina Corricella, the fishing village that has helped make the island of Procida famous worldwide: It’s here that Massimo Troisi shot some of the most beautiful scenes of his latest masterpiece, “The Postman”.