Today I’m initiating a podcast to answer questions for my readers and trip consultation clients. The first in this series is for a client who asked about the unusual spirituality of Naples, which she knows very little about but finds intriguing.
The spirituality of Naples is a wild mix of pagan habits, superstitions, and Roman Catholic rituals. It’s what makes the culture of Naples unlike any other and one of many reasons you can never compare it to Florence, Venice, or Rome. The best place to experience this is the centro storico — the historic center — where the foundations of modern Naples are all playing a giant game of Twister over the ancient Greek and Roman cities immediately below ground. Underneath all the most important churches of the historic center is a temple. Below the cathedral of Naples is a temple of Apollo. On the facade of San Paolo Maggiore, you can see repurposed columns from a 1st-century temple of Castor and Pollux. Of course, ruins of the ancient world can be found everywhere in Italy, but in Naples, they live and breathe along with the rest of the city.
Santa Maria delle Cinque Piaghe, Vico Tre Re, 13
Early risers can enter the metaphysical world at 7 am on Vico Tre Re in an ordinary apartment house where a nun, now a saint named Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe, once lived. Neapolitans call her La Santarella. It is believed that if you sit in her chair, infertility can be cured. The ground-floor apartment is now a chapel; the first part of the visit is Mass. Immediately after, a nun opens a door behind the altar and invites the crowd upstairs.
The first room is like a museum with relics displayed in a large credenza, dark Baroque paintings, and a terrifying wax figure of the saint with a mystical gaze on her gaunt face. Personal items like a handkerchief that belong to the saint are framed and hanging on the walls. And then I see the old, ordinary-looking chair next to the large open window.
One by one, the same nun invites men and women to sit in the chair. She asks a question, murmurs a benediction in a low voice, then holds an elaborate reliquary first to the forehead of the person, then to their breast. They exit into a room filled with silver ex-votos, next to baby toys and pillows sent from around the world, many stitched with the name “Francesca.” Paintings of the saint’s miracles adorn the rest of the apartment, all joyful artifacts of graces received.
Santa Maria Francesca is considered a home saint. She fled an abusive marriage to join a sisterhood and dedicate her life to helping the poor. She suffered the stigmata (5 wounds) in this apartment, in a working-class neighborhood directly below Vomero hill, the wealthiest district of Naples. The Spanish Quarter refers to the narrow streets constructed during the 15th century when the urban grid of Naples was being reshaped by its new Spanish king. This district, formed by a grid of narrow streets in the city's heart, was home to the Spanish troops ready to quell any rebellions. It’s a fair guess that buried deep below Vico Tre Re is the temple of a fertility goddess.
Santa Maria delle Anime in Purgatorio ad Arco, Via dei Tribunali, 39
The Skull & Bones boys of the Ivy League have nothing on Naples. In Naples, there has long been a ritual of adopting the skulls of the unknown dead and caring for them to enact a relationship with the person on the other side. In return for the love given to their old bones, which held them up during their time in this mortal coil, that soul might visit their caretaker’s dreams and offer them winning lottery numbers. The Catholic church opposes this practice, but Neapolitans are masters of thumbing their noses at authority.
From Via Toledo, make your way to Via Tribunali, where you will find the church called Saint Mary of the Souls in Purgatory - a church from the 17th century dedicated to the souls of people who died with nothing and no one. The church has two parts — the upper, which represents life, and the lower, death, and the staircase between them is a meditation on the passage between. The Irpinia Earthquake badly damaged the church in 1980, and remained closed for over a decade. When it was reopened as a quasi-museum, with guided visits to explain all the history and mystery and show the famous skull named Lucia, who wears a wedding veil, as tradition says this skull was most effective in helping women find suitable husbands. Some say the museum was an effort by the church to dampen the active practice of skull worship which is alive and well at the cemeteries elsewhere in the city at Fontanelle and Poggioreale.
To book a guided visit, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Veiled Christ, Via Francesco de Sanctis, 19/21,
The upper classes of Naples are also believers in magic and superstition. If there is one do-not-miss work of art in Naples — dare I say in all of Italy — it is the Veiled Christ. From Via Tribunali, you will turn down the narrow, very easy-to-miss Via Francesco De Sanctis to the Sansevero Chapel. Designed by architect Raimondo di Sangro, the prince of Sansevero, it was a mausoleum and a temple specifically intended for the initiation rites of the Freemasons. (Buy tickets ahead of time because the word is out, unlike a few years ago.) There is much to marvel at, but it’s the marble sculpture at the center, which shows the dead body of Christ following the crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. Carved from a single piece of marble, it is so lifelike, so stupefying, that for centuries experts and academics insisted that it was cut not by hand but by magic. Raimondo was also an alchemist accused of using an alchemical technique called marbilisation.
Part of what was so unbelievable is that a sculpture of this caliber was created by a relatively unknown artist named Giuseppe Sanmartino. He was a creche artisan and had never made anything so special before (and never after). Scientific tools have been applied to dispute these claims and prove that no alchemical or other processes were applied to the marble to produce the illusion of transparency.
The Veiled Christ is meant to be a profoundly moving work of art that should make you wince as you walk slowly around the sculpture and observe the effects of torture on the human body. Thankfully, there is a strict policy against taking photos, so the Sansevero Chapel is still a place of contemplation, not just a digital souvenir to post on Instagram. If you
You may overhear local tour guides speaking verses of praise about Raimondo di Sangro’s alchemy and experiments. His command of so many disciplines is a point of pride for Neapolitans, and the associated legends fuel the experience of awe and wonder the Veiled Christ inspires.
I hope you enjoyed this first and every experimental episode of Tante Belle Cose, the podcast. Let me know what you think of it in the comments; your ideas and comments will be very helpful for what comes next.