When I first came to the Villa Arbusto, on the island of Ischia, four or five years ago, I was on the Homer trail. I had been to Troy and sailed in the Aegean. I had sailed to Ithaca and walked there too. I had tramped around Crete and Mycenae and the other Bronze Age palaces in the Peloponnese. I was privately obsessed with Homer. The only time I have ever missed a plane was when I was sitting in Barcelona airport that year, reading the “Iliad”, too absorbed to notice that my flight was closing.
The Villa Arbusto had long glowed in my mind as one of the radiant Homeric places, far out on the western edge of the Greek world but containing objects reaching straight back to the Odyssean moment. What I hadn’t expected was the sheer beauty of the place, high on a hillside overlooking the Bay of Naples. The scene laid out in front of you from the edge of the terrace is one of the world’s dream visions—and smells, as the scent of umbrella pines drifts up in the sunlight. Only 25 miles (40km) away, the pudding basin of Vesuvius presides over Naples itself, a cloud cap around its summit. A milky haze hangs all morning over an almost motionless sea. On Ischia, the woods spread up on to the stiff folded skirts of Mount Epomeo, the volcano whose lava has made the whole island. Bougainvillea and mounds of ipomoea tumble down towards the restaurants and beaches.
I had never got Homer as a boy, even as it was rammed down our throats at school, largely, it seems now, because I hadn’t seen these sea- and landscapes. They might as well have been something that took place on a stage, or a rugby field. Only when you smell the scent coming off the sun-heated rosemary or the wafting drifts of pine resin, and only when you know what light and heat and shade feel like in the Mediterranean, can you really take in what these epics mean.
The Villa also has more recent layers to it. The giant magnolias were planted here in the 19th century, brought from the garden of a ducal holiday villa. Here in the 1950s and 1960s the great showman, publisher and film producer Angelo Rizzoli paraded the stars he brought down to Ischia: Elizabeth Taylor, Maria Callas, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Giulietta Masina, Monica Vitti—all of them passed through and strolled these now-deserted paths. There is a little pavilion in the garden, a kiosk filled with photographs of the great man and his trophies, Sophia Loren smiling like the dawn as he kisses her hand.
Those glory days are gone. The beautiful people go to Capri, if they go to southern Italy at all. And the Villa Arbusto has evolved into something more private, scarcely visited, but with astonishing links to the deepest levels of the European past.
The hero is a German archaeologist, Giorgio Buchner, born in Munich in 1914, the son of a German biologist and an Italian painter. Buchner père’s research was at the Zoological Station in Naples. As a boy Giorgio was entranced by the deep past, poring over the pages of one of the great early books about the romance of archaeology, Julius Beloch’s “Campanien” (1890) on the wonders of the ancient Italian south. Beloch described how on the north-east corner of Ischia, at Monte Vico, “The surface of the hill is strewn with fragments of tiles and vases, and intact layers of them are revealed when the ground is scratched with a walking stick.”
It was invitation enough. Every summer the Buchners holidayed on Ischia and Giorgio was set on discovering what those layers held. It was a lifelong fascination that would revolutionise the world’s knowledge of the Greeks, of the early Mediterranean and the seas in which Odysseus sailed. The discoveries he made revealed just how far west the Greek colonisers had come, and how early—in the 8th century BC. This little island in the Bay of Naples, with some excellent harbours, became the first Greek colony. Called Pithekoussai, it was a trading post shared with the Phoenicians, dealing in ceramics and weapons, drawing in copper and iron from Elba and Tuscany.
Only in 1952 was Buchner able to begin his excavations. Year after year through the 1950s, he dug in the cemetery of the settlement there and on the acropolis above. More than 700 tombs emerged, an astonishing mixture of cultures from the 8th century BC: Greeks from Euboea, Phoenicians from Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Carthage, peoples from the Italian peninsula, Aramaeans from modern Syria, all clustered side by side.
It is the contents of those tombs which, in 1999, were finally put on show to the public at the Museo Archeologico di Pithecusae, in the cool marble halls of the Villa Arbusto. Buchner lived not just to see the day but to supervise the operation; he died in 2005, aged 90. I had thought when I first came here that it would be a struggle to get close to what I wanted to see. But then, as now, the place was virtually empty: the museum has maybe ten visitors a day. It gets by on volunteer labour and state subsidy, and charges only €5 ($5.63) entrance. The director of the museum, living in Naples, had not been seen for a month when I was there. You have access to Buchner’s discoveries, and you are almost alone. Being there is as enveloping as reading a novel. That is what I love about it: the unbroken silence, a magically intimate engagement with these ancient objects, each glass case a window on the world of Odysseus, warrior-king of Ithaca.
In Homer, he is “Odysseus the crafty”: the mark of the man is a kind of mental mobility (portrayed as slipperiness by Virgil, siding with the Trojans). Mobility, fusion, was also the identifying mark of this little city. Pithekoussai gathered the Mediterranean to its shores. Much of the citizens’ pottery came from Corinth and Rhodes, and what they didn’t import they copied. Small Egyptian scarabs were often worn as amulets by the children and went to their graves with them, along with stone seals from northern Syria and one or two Egyptian faience beads. There are fine red pots made in the Phoenician city of Carthage on the north African coast, and silver pins and rings from Egypt. A young woman buried in about 700BC was found surrounded by little dishes from Corinth and small ointment jars, 17 of them, enough to fill a dressing-table. Some pots are decorated with griffins from patterns that had their distant origins in Mesopotamia, others with swastikas—variously interpreted as holy signs, or charms against death—that probably date back just as far, to the proto-Indo-European cultures of the Caspian steppe.
Two of Buchner’s objects bring this ancient world especially alive. One is a late 8th-century BC crater made in Attica, a bowl for mixing wine and water. On it, a ship floats upside-down, turned over in a gale, its curved hull now awash, its prow and stern pointing down to the seabed. Everything has fallen out. Wide-shouldered and huge-haunched men are adrift in the sea, their hair ragged, their arms flailing for safety. Striped and cross-hatched fish, some as big as the men, swim effortlessly in the chaos. A scattering of swastikas does little to sanctify this fear-filled waterworld. One man’s head is disappearing into the mouth of the biggest fish of all. This is a disaster, fuelled by the Greeks’ fear of the creatures of the sea.
It is one of those objects that radiate the private excitement of connection with the past. Here is an Odyssean horror story, vividly depicted, painted as you might tell it, quickly, almost sketchily. The men are little more than stick-men, not the muscle-modelled figures of classical Greece, but painted in a way that is both instant and restrained, like Homer itself, so that rough notations convey the whole.
Buchner’s other transforming object lies in a case deep in the museum. He discovered it in the tomb of a boy, perhaps 14 years old, who died in about 725BC. The boy was Greek, and unlike most of the children he was cremated, an honour paid to his maturity. In his grave his father placed many precious things: a pair of Euboean wine-mixing bowls from the famous potters of their home island, jugs, other bowls, and lots of little pots of oil. None of these is particularly grand, but the sight of them in their glass case fills me with one thought—that the father loved his son.
The greatest treasure looks insignificant at first: a broken and mended wine cup from Rhodes, about seven inches across, grey-brown with black decoration and sturdy handles. Scratched into its lower surface on one side, not visible at first but dug away a little roughly with a burin, are three lines of Greek, the second and third of them perfect Homeric hexameters. This is the oldest surviving example of written Greek poetry, dating from the moment Homer is first thought to have been written down.
It is also the first joke about a Homeric hero. In the “Iliad”, the old warrior Nestor has a giant, golden, dove-decorated cup. “Another man could barely move that cup from the table when it was full, but old Nestor would lift it easily.” The Ischian cup plays with that inheritance: “I am the cup of Nestor,” it says,
good for drinking.
Whoever drinks from this cup, desire for beautifully
crowned Aphrodite will seize him instantly.
The Pithekoussaian trader was turning the Homeric scriptures upside down. This little cup was obviously not like Nestor’s cup, the very opposite in fact: all too liftable. Its wine was not there to cure wounds received in battle. It was for getting drunk at a party. And drinking it would not lead on to an old man’s interminable reminiscing over his heroic past. No, the cup and its wine would lead on to the far more congenial activity of which Aphrodite was queen: sex.
This elegant little wine cup, treasured far from home in Pithekoussai, a place well supplied with beautiful slave girls from the Italian mainland, was for drinking aphrodisiacs. The inscription was an 8th-century invitation to happiness, or at any rate pleasure. Look at it and time folds up like a fan.
Last time I was here, I left for a delicious lunch of spaghetti allo scoglio down at Il Delfino on the beach in Lacco Ameno, dreaming of the distant past. This time, I got an e-mail from a friend of a friend, an Englishwoman married to an Italian antiquary, who knew I was in Ischia. Had I seen Odysseus’s star chart? No? The one the priest Don Pietro found when he was excavating under Santa Restituta? No?
Slowly another story emerged, set in the 1950s. At the top of the hill, the professional archaeologist, Herr Buchner, is discovering the earliest Greek colony in the west; at the bottom, the much-loved parish priest, Don Pietro Monti, decides to start digging under his own church. A rivalry, perhaps a kind of enmity, develops between them. All science in the official dig; all romance and chaos under the church.
Buchner discovers the graveyard of the colony, Don Pietro its working quarters, where the Iron Age potters made the pots that were then exported to the Italian mainland. The archaeologist begs the priest to stop, as he knows nothing of stratification and is destroying the archaeology. The priest digs away, claiming the stratification is all confused anyway, looking for prizes, discovering kilns and buildings from the potters’ quarter. There is no way he can allow the archaeologist to see his underground workings, let alone supervise them. They have now become so vast that they are in danger of collapse. There is, of course, no money to make repairs. The Curia insists that the priest alone should do the work. Buchner tears his hair out. Then, in a moment of triumph, he finds the Nestor cup, the earliest reference to Homer anywhere in the world. It seems the priest has been defeated.
But then Don Pietro comes up with something even more amazing. On the inner face of a random shard from an 8th-century Euboean pot, exactly the same age as the Nestor cup, he finds, scratched into the glaze, a depiction of the constellation Boötes. This is precisely the constellation that Homer describes Odysseus steering by in the great passage when he sails away from Calypso’s island. Maybe the whole of the inside of the pot was decorated with the stars, so that when turned upside down it represented the heavens by which the sailors could plot their course.
Don Pietro died seven years ago, aged 93. His underground workings and archives are now closed, on the ground that they are dangerous. Only after many shenanigans did I get access to them. It took two people: a local archaeologist, and a lady called Immaculata, a parishioner of Don Pietro’s, who seemed as much in love with him as when he was alive.
She showed me his many finds, still housed in and under the church. And there, among endless dusty remains, was one marvel: a fragment of the traveller’s pot, made in the Aegean, found here on an island in the Bay of Naples, decorated with the stars by which the Greeks navigated the Odyssean seas—“slow to set” as Homer calls Boötes, which is the reason it is drawn right on the rim, the last constellation to sink beneath the horizon at the end of the sailing summer. It’s Odysseus in a shard.
I held it in my hand like a holy thing. If you want to do the same, you can go to Santa Restituta and ask nicely. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to the world of Odysseus.
Museo Archeologico di Pithecusae open daily except Mon. Oct to May 9.30am-1pm, 3-6.30pm; June to Sept 9.30-1, 4-7.30