So I thought its about time I got round to finishing up writing about my highlights of Naples from this summer before it stops being summer! These are personal highlights and to some they might appear a little bit on the morbid side however the Neapolitans themselves make my interest in cemeteries and catacombs look tame. Naples was after all home to a now banned cult of the poor souls where skulls from the early Roman cemeteries where adopted, decorated and prayed for, although this tradition still continues unofficially. And unfortunately in a city where death notices are plastered on street walls, often showing individuals who died tragically young due to the city’s high crime rate, it is easy to see why death is constantly on the mind of Neapolitans. However it was weddings that were most evident in my first highlight:
5. Basilica di Santa Chiara
I finally got inside this gothic basilica on my third visit, as on every previous occasion the church had been home to a wedding (the director of my excavation had even recently got married there). The church itself is comparatively plain especially compared to the baroque creations in the city and also due to suffering from bombings during WWII. However whilst the church itself is not visually stunning, it is home to the bodies of major Neapolitan saints alongside tombs of 14th century nobility. Tragically however the church is covered in graffiti. The attached monastic complex is however much better maintained with majolica collonade and cloisters painted with early frescoes including one of St Jerome being “harassed” by the devil in the form of a floppy eared armadillo creature. Not the most scary depiction.
4. Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco
Whilst the upper church here is nothing out of the ordinary, descend some steps and you reach Naples’ home of its cult of poor souls (anime pezzentelle); corridors riddled with niches of beautified skulls, peeling walls and a thick layer of dust. The most famous skull is that of Lucia – complete with a white veil and tiara, supposedly belonging to a teenage bride and the most popular to adopt.
3. Catacombs of San Gaudiso and San Gennaro
These two late Roman catacombs both have distinct characters. The smaller San Gaudiso contains corridors with inlaid skulls alongside depictions of their skeletal owners, niches where bodies were left to dry out with the help of the schiattamorti (literally corpse squashers) before being placed in narrow slots in the floor and walls. Lovely stuff. Whilst San Gaudiso is more ghoulish, San Gennaro shocks with its size, as well as the quality of the remaining Byzantine style wall paintings. The myriad of deceased individuals buried here were removed however by Napoleon to outside the city walls and are now in my second favourite site…
2. The Fontanelle Cemetery
Forgot grey tombstones surrounded by neat shrubbery, the Fontanelle cemetery contains the jumbled up bones of those buried in the catacombs in rock-cut subterranean chambers. Around eight million cob-web covered bones alongside peeling statues of saints bedecked in rosaries and missing the occasional limb due to wood rot. This is a cemetery like no other I’ve ever seen.
1. Via San Gregorio Armeno
This street was hands down my favourite in Naples, unusual as usually I hate streets lined with souvenir shops, however here the usual tourist tack was replaced by carved nativity statues, painted tambourines and good luck charms. The courtyard of the street’s eponymous golden church was where I tended to retreat to when the chaos and heat of the city got too much at the weekend. It’s not a major tourist destination or even an area of much historical importance but to me it summed up Naples.
Also an honourable mention must go to Pizzerie Vesi in central Naples who kept me stocked up on highly affordable cheesy tomatoey goodness and was hands down the best of the worryingly large quantity of pizza purveyors I ate from whilst out in south Italy. One downside is I can now no longer look at a frozen Hawaiian pizza with the same amount of joy again.