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The real Narnia

Today I fulfilled a childhood dream, and explored Narnia. Really.

There is something appropriate in the fact that i entered through a train platform, no less.

For years, taking the train up to Assisi or Florence, one of the stations you pass is Narni-Amelia, and inevitably one thinks of Narnia. But it looks like a small town with little to recommend it, so i have blithely passed on by, spending my rare travel days in more exotic locations. I have always chalked up the similarity to coincidence. Silly me.

Narnia walking

The first clue

Narni is the Italianized name, of course, for a mid-sized town perched on a hill 800′ above sea level, and rising over the Nera river from which it probably got its original name. Settled by the Umbri – neighbors of the Etruscans – sometime before 600 B.C., the village was called Nequinum. As they were wont to do, the Romans showed up a few centuries later, and in about 300 B.C., it became a proper Roman municipality, and, as the original name sounded something like “unable/worthless” in Latin, the name was changed to, you guessed it, Narnia.

As you enter town, remains of an Augustan bridge still straddle some of the valley, built in 27 B.C.. Around the time that Jesus of Nazareth began his itinerant ministry in the Galilee, the future emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva (96-98) was born here. Pliny the Younger (whose description of Vesuvius gave his name, ‘Plinian’, to that manner of volcanic eruption) recommends the baths here. Near the Ponte Cardona is a marker and a sign in several languages indicating that you are now at the geographic center of Italy.*

According to a 2002 biography of C.S. Lewis, by Lancelyn Green,

When Walter Hooper asked [C. S. Lewis] where he found the word ‘Narnia’, Lewis showed him Murray’s Small Classical Atlas, ed. G.B. Grundy (1904), which he acquired when he was reading the classics with Mr Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham [1914–1917]. On plate 8 of the Atlas is a map of ancient Italy. Lewis had underscored the name of a little town called Narnia, simply because he liked the sound of it.

There is no record of Lewis actually visiting Narni, but the name is not the only connection. There is also a Blessed Lucy of Narnia, a 16th century mystic, whose remains were restored to Narni at about the time that Lewis began to think up his Chronicles.I cannot help but think that the fact that a mystical creature is the city’s symbol and coat of arms couldn’t hurt, either.

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Rocca Albornoziana (Cair Paravel?)

If you want to go both higher up and further in, two of the features of the town are the Rocca Albornoziana at the highest point, and the relatively recently rediscovered rooms of the Narni Sotterranea, excavated underneath the deconsecrated Church of San Domenico.

As one walks up through the city toward the 13th century castle – built to defend against Saracen invaders – one can imagine inspiration for Cair Paravel. In good shape, with a lot of modern construction to support a small museum, this is the site of some serious summer medieval fair experiences, it seems. Named for Cardinal Egidio Albornoz, apostolic vicar responsible for restoring the military influence of the Avignon popes in the Italian peninsula in the 1350’s and ’60’s.

On the other hand, the history of the underground reads more like Grossman’s The Magicians than Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In the late seventies (more than a decade after Lewis’ death) a small band of young people from Narni had formed a kind of spelunking club, and discovered a small crack that lead into an underground chamber, which turned out to be the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, a twelfth century chapel. Along with the chapel are a series of rooms that turn out to be cells and a torture chamber, used by the Inquisition for a period of about three centuries. Extensive graffiti in one of the cells left by prisoners from about 1745 to 1854. archives related to the activity of the tribunal based in Narni were part of the collection stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte from the Vatican and related to Paris; when the collection was possible to be returned, Vatican authorities at the time sought to preserve only a handful of the Inquisitions records (such as the trial of the Templars) and let the rest to be recycled. One box found its way to Trinity College, Dublin, including some from the Narni tribunal.

Certainly, worth the day trip from Rome!

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View of Narni from Rocca Albornozania, complete with trebuchet and battering ram

*Apparently at least a couple other places also claim to be at the geographic center of Italy. The Italian Military Geographic Institute does not endorse any of them, as “”the (Italian) boot is not a geometric design and therefore it is impossible to determine the exact position of the centre of Italy”

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