It's hard to imagine life without these little metal boxes that speed us back and forth, shorten distances and save us precious time. On the other hand, if time is so precious my partner in adventure and I, indeed, are wealthy because we have a lot of it, and so we allow ourselves the luxury of walking from place to place and taking pleasure in the journey as well as the goal.
We would like to dedicate this sunny morning to our ancestors and return to a dark and mysterious underground world. It was frequented for centuries by the most serious Neapolitans we know, those of both sexes and all ages, citizens of a realm where there are no longer social barriers. We descend into the labyrinths of stone where those citizens tried for the last time to find some meaning in the steps they had taken here above.
At a certain point on the Capodimonte hill, we branched off down the side, a bit like rebel rivulets of lava towards Moiariello, leaving behind us the splendid gardens and ancient villas, to reach the lower part of the city and then onto the path of no return to the “Valley of the Dead.”
We are in the quarter of the city known as Sanità, the area that from ancient times was used for burials. That choice was not random. Neapolitans could not bury their dead within the city walls, so they looked elsewhere. The sea was on the south, swamps protected the city in the east but were otherwise useless, and the living were rushing headlong to expand into the areas in the west, leaving no room for the dead. That left the north, an area already exploited for the precious yellow rock called tufa. There they could build their final resting places that over time would become an underground network so intricate and spread out that legends grew amidst them. Daring tales speak of presumed connections among the various Parthenopean catacombs. These mysterious paths that never see the sunlight, they said, led out to Nola and Pozzuoli. We know, of course, that the soil beneath Naples has always been fertile ground for the wildest fantasies!
Our first stop was at the church of Santa Maria della Sanità beneath which we find the second largest and second most important cemetery in Naples: the catacombs of San Gaudioso, going back to the 5th century.
And here we can only imagine the adventurous journey of the bishop of Abitine (North Africa) and his companions aboard a leaky vessel, destined to sink not long after setting sail. They were in the throes of terrible storms and the midday sun, fleeing persecution and violence in search of a land that would give them refuge—the same old story of the human condition with little or no variation!
Thus did Gaudioso and his companions come miraculously to these shores, bringing with them the symbols and colors of Africa. It was 439 AD. Tradition says that the sainted bishop is interred in one of the cubicles of the catacombs named for him.
The suggestive entrance to the underground cemetery opens below the raised presbytery of the church. The sides of the large space, called “succorpo”, were once lined with various cubicles, but they were walled over to make room for twelve small altars mounted by frescoes depicting the deeds of the saints whose remains were contained therein. It's like standing before the jaws of Orcus surrounded by the monsters that torment our human lives: Remorse, Sickness, Old Age, Fear, Hunger, Death...
On the left of the cubicle of S. Gaudioso you reach the central passageway; it's about 30 meters long and contains 13 cubicles, some with frescoes and mosaics. Skulls have been mounted into the side walls; only the crowns of the skulls remain, with frescoes depicting the remainder of the skeleton. It was a very special burial that only the wealthy could afford. The right-hand wall is for men, and the wall on the left is for women, as evidenced by the ample gowns that cover the remains. One side facing the other, as if in one last, fatal, eternal minuet. Standing out from the central wall is a figure that presides over this danse macabre, a terrifying Master of Ceremonies built of various skeletal remains!
Beneath the “succorpo” we find the area with “scolatoi” [lit. 'drainer'], places cut into the tufa rock where cadavers were placed temporarily to dry out while their internal liquids drained off. There used to be men whose job it was to pass among this display of swollen naked bodies with a large pin and, amidst the sickening stench of decomposition in those dark rooms, puncture the abdomens. An enviable trade, indeed, that of the “schiattamorti”...[lit. 'body-bursters].
At the end of the 1500s an ancient image was found in the “succorpo”. It was of the Madonna with Child and is probably the oldest image of Mary in Naples (5th-6th century). It was an icon of formidable therapeutic power! Just staring at it intensely would heal. That healing image is the origin of the name of the church and of the quarter [Sanità=health].
Outside the church again, we are accosted by the din of the quarter, voices, colors, life on the surface. But we're still hungry for darkness. We have one more trip to make before returning home. We'll descend once more to the abode of Hades and the fearsome Persephone.
We head toward the Capodimonte roundabout. From a passage in the gardens of the basilica of the Incoronata Madre del Buon Consiglio we access the oldest (2nd-3rd century) and largest catacombs in Naples; at one time they housed the remains of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro, for whom the site was named.
It's an underground city, true and proper, with its north-south streets and east-west streets, extended over two levels. The guide tells us that we'll cover about 5,000 sq. meters, but there are apparently another 18,000 to discover! Make way...
In the oldest part of the cemetery complex, pagan art and culture is mixed with that of early Christianity. Apollo and (maybe) Diana are magically transformed into Adam and Eve, Bacchus lends his emblems to Christ and the good pastor starts to appear; as well, the deer, the lamb, the peacock, the cross. Angels and gods living together.
Everywhere the eye looks there are cubicles, niches, recesses. There are so many of them that we can imagine the oceans of the living that must have flowed through here to visit their loved ones, the way we still do in our own cemeteries. These catacombs underwent a spurt in development when the remains of San Gennaro were moved here from Pozzuoli in the 5th century. (They are now preserved in the Naples Cathedral (and that move took some doing, as well). The remains of St. Agrippino and of a swarm of sainted bishops were also moved to these catacombs. The people wanted a little place near their martyrs, maybe hoping for a good word, some intercession from the afterlife.
Tombs of the bishops and of citizens more in view were adorned splendidly by mosaics or frescoes. Their names were written on the walls and entrusted to eternity.
When it was all abandoned and completely surrounded by darkness, those painted figures with the large eyes impressed visitors in later times as ghosts “[...] their hands held high, trying to get out of their abyss and fly towards the light of day” (F. Gregorovius, 1853).
Today the underground chambers are well-illuminated and Rufina, Heleusinius, Cominia and the tiny Nicatiola, Proculus, Cerula, Bitalia, Marta and Alexander seem to want to welcome and not frighten you.
Finally, the guide took us to a cubicle that contained, he said, his favorite fresco. A woman, a little girl and a man peeped out at us from a lunette. You could still read their names and the years they had spent in life on this earth. It was the family of Theotecnus and Ilaritas. They must have been very wealthy. You could see three frescoed layers above them. Their little girl, Nonnosa, died first. She was two-and-a-half years old. The first layer of fresco was for her. Then the father died at age 65; the second layer possibly showed both father and child. Then Ilaritas, at the age of 45, depicted in the dark dress of the widow, went to be with them. The last layer of fresco showed all three, finally together.
Our journey into the bowels of Naples is over for now. In the fond hope that you have not yet had enough of mysteries and the regions of the underworld, here is some useful information for you:
Guided tours of the catacombs are carried out by the La Paranza co-op.Tickets cost 8 euros, are good for 12 months and let you into both sites.
Entrance to the catacombs of San Gaudioso is at Piazza della Sanità, 14 (Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità); guided tours are available every day and leave hourly, on the hour, from 10 am to 1 pm.
Entrance to the catacombs of San Gennaro is at via Capodimonte, 13 (Basilica del Buon Consiglio); guided tours are available every day and leave hourly, on the hour, from 10 am to 5 pm.
For more information: www.catacombedinapoli.it
Video: The Catacombs di of Naples
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