It is not certain where Virgil’s remains are now: the area where they were buried has been wasted over the centuries by wars and earthquakes. But to the west of Naples, near the entrance to the old tunnel built in Augustan times to carry the road through the mountain to Puteoli, there is a well-kept park, the Parco Vergiliano, with a custodian. At its high point, reachable by a rocky path and steps, there is a kind of man-made cave: a place of pilgrimage, where people visit to pay their thanks to Virgil. Some couples go there to make their betrothal; people go to ask Virgil for help; and there is a metal bowl on a tripod, where people leave letters to him. Here are some letters left in the spring of 2017:
The top one is signed and dated 25 May 2017. It says:
We have come here to your resting place to extend a small tribute to you. A small greeting to the one who has contributed to making our world great. You, who have been a source of inspiration and a guide to many, be the same for us. As you guided Dante on his journey, so guide us on this journey which is life—and which sometimes is like a hell. See you soon… great poet, R.I.P.
Donatus, in his Life of Virgil:
Anno aetatis quinquagesimo secundo impositurus Aeneidi summam manum statuit in Graeciam et in Asiam secedere triennioque continuo nihil amplius quam emendare, ut reliqua vita tantum philosophiae vacaret. Sed cum ingressus iter Athenis occurrisset Augusto ab oriente Romam revertenti destinaretque non absistere atque etiam una redire, dum Megara vicinum oppidum ferventissimo sole cognoscit, languorem nactus est eumque non intermissa navigatione auxit ita ut gravior aliquanto Brundisium appelleret, ubi diebus paucis obiit XI Kal. Octobr. Cn. Sentio Q. Lucretio coss. Ossa eius Neapolim translata sunt tumuloque condita qui est via Puteolana intra lapidem secundum, in quo distichon fecit tale:
• Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope. cecini pascua, rura, duces.
¶ In his fifty-second year, he decided to retire to Greece and Asia to put the final touches to the Aeneid and to spend three years doing nothing more than removing blemishes from it, so that the rest of his life could be free for philosophy alone. He started on the journey, but at Athens he encountered Augustus, who was returning to Rome from the East. Virgil decided not to retire, but actually to return with him. While he was visiting the neighbouring town of Megara under a blazing hot sun, he became sick. By not interrupting the journey he made it worse, so that he landed at Brundisium quite seriously ill. There, a few days later, he died, on the 21 September, in the consulship of Gnaeus Sentius and Quintus Lucretius. His bones were taken across to Naples, and buried in a mound, which is on the road to Puteoli before the second milestone. On it a couplet said something like:
• Mantua gave me birth, Calabria took me away,
now Parthenope* keeps me: my poems
were of pastures, countryside and leading men.
—Donatus, Vita Vergilii 35
*Parthenope is the old name for Naples, after one of the Sirens who was discovered drowned there.