Naples in detail

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Saints & Superstitions

Naples is Europe's esoteric metropolis par excellence: a Mediterranean New Orleans with less voodoo and more Catholic guilt. Here, miracles pack out cathedrals, dreams channel lottery numbers, and horn-shaped charms ward off the dreaded malocchio (evil eye). Despite the contemporary feel of blaring pop and ring tones, Neapolitan streets are littered with well-worn myths and legends, from Santa Maria Francesca's miraculous chair in the Quartieri Spagnoli to an alchemist prince's bizarre anatomical models deep in the centro storico (historic centre).

Friends In High Places

Headlining the city's supernatural scene are the saints, who are veritable celebrities. Fireworks explode in their honour, fans flock to kiss their marble feet and newborn bambini (children) take their names. That Gennaro is the most common male name in Naples is no coincidence: San Gennaro is the city's patron saint. As in much of southern Italy, Neapolitans celebrate their giorno onomastico (name day) with as much gusto as they do their birthday. Forgetting a friend's name day is a bigger faux pas than forgetting their birthday because everyone knows (or should know) the most important saints' days.

For the religiously inclined, these haloed helpers play a more significant role in their spiritual life than the big 'G' himself. While the Almighty is perceived as authoritative and distant – just like many an old-school Italian papà (dads) – the saints enjoy a more familial role as intercessor and confidant.

Topping the list of go-betweens is the Virgin Mary, whose status as maternal protector strikes a deep chord in a society where mothers have always fiercely defended the rights of their precious sons. Festival days in honour of the Madonna are known to whip up mass hysteria, best exemplified by the annual Feast of the Madonna dell'Arco. Held on Easter Monday, it sees thousands of pilgrims called fujenti (Neapolitan for 'those who run') walk barefoot to the Santuario della Madonna dell'Arco, located near the village of Sant'Anastasia at the foot of Mt Vesuvius. The focus of their devotion is an unusual image of the Virgin Mary, in which her cheek is wounded. According to legend, the wound's origins go back to Easter Monday in 1500, when a disgruntled mallet player hit the Virgin’s image with a wooden ball. Miraculously, the image began to bleed, leading to the spoilsport's hanging and the construction of the sanctuary on the site of the event. As they approach the sanctuary, the fujenti run towards it. Some fall into a trance, with many more shouting, crying and walking on their knees towards the image in what can be described as a collective purging of guilt and pain. In Naples, the lead-up to the festival is an event in itself. From the week following the Epiphany (6 January) to Easter Monday, hundreds of neighbourhood congreghe (instrument-playing congregations) parade through the streets, carrying a statue of the Madonna, collecting offerings for the big day and playing an incongruous medley of tunes (think 'Ave Maria' followed by a 1970s Raffaella Carrà pop hit).

Exactly which saint you consult can depend on what you're after. If it's an addition to the family, chances are you'll head straight to the former home of Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe to sit on the saint's miraculous chair. It's the closest thing to a free fertility treatment in Naples. On the opposite side of Via Toledo, in the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, entire rooms are dedicated to Dr Giuseppe Moscati (1880–1927), a much-loved local medic canonised in 1987. Here, ex-voti decorate the walls, each one testament to the MD's celestial intervention.

Despite the Madonna's popularity, the city's ultimate holy superhero is San Gennaro. Every year in May, September and December thousands of Neapolitans cram themselves into the Duomo to pray for a miracle: that the blood of Naples' patron saint, kept here in two phials, will liquefy and save Naples from any potential disaster.

According to scientists, the so-called miracle has a logical explanation. Apparently, it's all to do with thixotropy, the property of certain compounds to liquefy when shaken and then to return to their original form when left to stand. To verify this, however, scientists would have to analyse the blood, something the Church has effectively blocked by refusing permission to open the phials.

And while many locals acknowledge the scientific line, the fact remains that when the blood liquefies the city breathes a sigh of relief. After all, when the miracle failed in 1944 Mt Vesuvius erupted, and when it failed again in 1980, a catastrophic earthquake hit the city.

Beware The Evil Eye

The concept of luck plays a prominent role in the Neapolitan mindset. Curse-deterring amulets are as plentiful as crucifix pendants, and the same Neapolitan who makes the sign of the cross when passing a church will make the sign of the horns (by extending their thumb, index finger and little finger and shaking their hand to the ground) to keep the malocchio (evil eye) at bay.

A common belief throughout Italy, though particularly strong in the country's south, malocchio refers to misfortune cast upon an individual by a malevolent or envious person. In fact, Neapolitans often refer to this bad luck as jettatura, a derivative of the Italian verb gettare (to throw or cast).

Ready to deflect the negative energy is the city's most iconic amulet-souvenir: the corno. Usually red and shaped liked a single curved horn, its evil-busting powers are said to lie in its representation of the bull and its sexual vigour.

Another traditional, though rare, deflector of bad luck is the 'o Scartellat. Usually an elderly man, he can occasionally be spotted burning incense through the city's older neighbourhoods, clearing the streets of bad vibes and inviting good fortune. The title itself is Neapolitan for those suffering from kyphosis (over-curvature of the upper back), as the task was once the domain of the posture challenged. According to Neapolitan lore, touching a hunchback's hump brings good luck, as does stepping in dog poop and having wine spilt on you accidentally.

Scandalous Souls

One figure who could have used some good luck was Donna Maria d'Avalos, who in October 1590 met a gruesome end in the Palazzo dei Di Sangro on Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. Her murderer was Carlo Gesualdo, one of the late Renaissance's most esteemed composers, not to mention d'Avalos' husband. Suspecting her of infidelity, Gesualdo tricked his wife into thinking that he was away on a hunting trip. Instead, Gesualdo was waiting in the wings, ready to catch d'Avalos and her lover, Don Fabrizio Carafa, red-handed. According to eyewitnesses, Gesualdo entered the apartment with three men, shouting, 'Kill the scoundrel, along with this harlot!' Officials investigating the crime scene described finding a mortally wounded Carafa lying on the floor, covered in blood and wearing a woman’s nightgown adorned with ruffs of black silk. On the bed was d’Avalos, nightgown drenched in blood and throat slit.

Gesualdo's jealous rage would not have been helped by Carafa's enviable good looks – it's said that the younger nobleman was so devastatingly handsome that he was known around town as l'angelo (the Angel). As a nobleman himself, Gesualdo was immune from prosecution, though a fear of retribution for the murders saw him flee to his hometown, Venosa.

In the decades that followed Gesualdo's own death, the Prince of Venosa became a semi-mythical figure, his name associated with ever-more lurid tales of bloody revenge. Some say that 'the Angel's' death wasn't enough for the betrayed husband, who subsequently murdered his own infant son for fear that he really belonged to Carafa. According to other accounts, Gesualdo's victims included his father-in-law, who had come seeking his own revenge.

And then there is the beautiful Maria d'Avalos herself, whose scantily dressed ghost is said to haunt Piazza San Domenico Maggiore when the moon is full, desperately searching for her slaughtered sweetheart.

The Palazzo dei Di Sangro was built for the noble Di Sangro family, a member of which, Raimondo di Sangro (1710–71), remains one of Naples' most rumour-ridden characters. Inventor, scientist, soldier and alchemist, the Prince of Sansevero came up with some nifty inventions, among them a waterproof cape for Charles III of Bourbon and a mechanical land-and-water carriage 'drawn' by life-size cork horses. He also introduced freemasonry into the Kingdom of Naples, resulting in a temporary excommunication from the Catholic Church.

Yet even a papal rethink couldn’t quell the salacious stories surrounding Raimondo, which included castrating promising boy sopranos and knocking off seven cardinals to make furniture with their skin and bones. Even fellow freemason Count Alessandro di Cagliostro – who went on trial before the Inquisition court in Rome in 1790 – confessed that everything he knew about alchemy and the dark arts he learned from di Sangro. According to Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), who wrote about di Sangro in his book Storie e leggende napoletane (Neapolitan Stories and Legends), the alchemist held a Faustian fascination for the centro storico’s masses. To them, his supposed knack for magic saw him master everything from replicating the miracle of San Gennaro’s blood to reducing marble to dust with a simple touch.

For centuries rumours surrounded the two perfect anatomical models in the crypt of the di Sangro funerary chapel, the Cappella Sansevero. One popular legend suggested that the bodies were those of his domestics. Even taller was the tale that the servants were far from dead when the Prince got started on the embalming. It's cruel fiction, undoubtedly, but even today the models' realistic detail leaves many questions unanswered.

Feature: Death & the City

It makes sense that Neapolitans – rattled by earthquakes and the odd volcanic eruption – are a fatalistic lot. Indeed, the city's intense passion for life is only matched by its curious attachment to death. Here, contemporary culture's death-defying delusions are constantly undermined, whether by death notice–plastered walls, shrines dedicated to the dearly departed or edible treats with names like torrone dei morti (nougat of the dead), the latter merrily gobbled on All Saints' Day. Carved skulls decorate churches and cloisters, such as those found in the Chiostro Grande (Great Cloister) inside the Certosa di San Martino – a constant reminder of one's mortal status.

Feature: Lottery Dreams

In every visible aspect the Neapolitan lottery is the same as every other lottery: tickets are bought, numbers are marked and the winning combination is pulled out of a closely guarded hat. It differs, however, in the way that some Neapolitans select their numbers. They dream them – or rather they interpret their dreams with the aid of La Smorfia, a kind of dream dictionary.

According to the good book, if you dream of God or Italy, you should pick number one. Other symbols include dancing (37), crying (21), fear (90) and a woman's hair (55).

Some leave the interpreting to the lotto-shop expert by whispering their dreams into the shop owner's ears (no-one wants to share a winning combination) and letting them choose the numbers. According to the locals, the city's luckiest ricevitoria (lotto shop) is the one at Porta Capuana. Run by the same family for more than 200 years, the current owner's grandmother was considered a dream-theme expert. To this day, people bring their dreams here from as far afield as the US, Spain and Switzerland.

While La Smorfia's origins are obscure, links are often made to the number-word mysticism of the Jewish Kabbalah. The term itself most likely derives from Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, suggesting that the tradition is linked to Naples' ancient Greek origins and to the Hellenic tradition of oneirocriticism (dream interpretation).

Feature: Victory Of The Shrines

It only takes a quick stroll through the centro storico, Quartieri Spagnoli or Sanità district to work out that small shrines are a big hit in Naples. A kitschy combo of electric votive candles, Catholic iconography and fresh or plastic flowers, they adorn everything from palazzo facades to courtyards and staircases. Most come with an inscription, confirming the shrine as a tribute per grazie ricevute (for graces received) or ex-voto (in fulfilment of a vow).

The popularity of the shrines can be traced back to the days of Dominican friar Gregorio Maria Rocco (1700–82). Determined to make the city's dark, crime-ridden laneways safer, he convinced the Bourbon monarch to light them up with oil lamps. The lamps were promptly trashed by the city's petty thieves, who relied on darkness to trip up their victims with rope. Thankfully, the quick-thinking friar had a better idea. Banking on the city's respect for its saints, he encouraged locals to erect illuminated shrines. The idea worked and the streets became safer, for even the toughest of petty thieves wouldn't dare upset an adored celestial idol.

The Subterranean City

Sacred shrines, secret passageways, forgotten burial crypts: it might sound like the set of an Indiana Jones film, but we're actually talking about what lurks beneath Naples' loud and busy streets. Subterranean Naples is one of the world's most thrilling urban other-worlds: a silent, mostly undiscovered sprawl of cathedral-like cisterns, pin-width conduits, catacombs and ancient ruins. Speleologists (cave specialists) estimate that about 60% of Neapolitans live and work above this network, known in Italian as the sottosuolo (underground).

An Action-Packed History

Since the end of WWII, some 700 cavities have been discovered, from original Greek-era grottoes to palaeo-Christian burial chambers and Bourbon royal escape routes. According to the experts, this is simply a prelude, with another 2 million sq m of troglodytic treats still to unfurl.

Naples' dedicated caving geeks are quick to tell you that their underworld is one of the largest and oldest on earth. Sure, Paris might claim a catacomb or two, but its subterranean offerings don't come close to this giant's 2500-year history.

And what a history it is: from buried martyrs and foreign invaders to wife-snatching spirits and drug-concocting mobsters. Naples' most famous saint, San Gennaro, was interred in the Catacombe di San Gennaro in the 5th century BC. A millennium later, in AD 536, Belisario and his troops caught Naples by surprise by storming the city through its ancient tunnels. According to legend, Alfonso of Aragon used the same trick in 1442, undermining the city walls by using an underground passageway leading into a tailor's shop and straight into town.

Conversely, the 18th-century Bourbons had an escape route built beneath the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte. A century later they commissioned a tunnel to connect their central Palazzo Reale to their barracks in Chiaia: a perfect crowd-free route for troops or a fleeing royal family.

Even the city's underworld has got in on the act. In 1992 Naples' dreaded Stolder clan was busted for running a subterranean drug lab, with escape routes heading straight to the clan boss's pad.

From Ancient Aqueduct To Underground Tip

While strategic tunnels and sacred catacombs are important features of Naples' light-deprived other-world, the city's subterranean backbone is its ancient aqueduct system. Naples' first plumbing masterpiece was built by Greek settlers, who channelled water from the slopes of Mt Vesuvius into the city's cisterns. The cisterns themselves were created as builders dug out the pliable tufo sandstone on which the city stands. At street level, well shafts allowed citizens to lower their buckets and quench their thirst.

Not to be outdone, the Romans wowed the plebs (abbreviated term for 'plebeians', common Roman citizens) with their new, improved 70km aqueduct, transporting water from the River Serino near Avellino to Naples, Pozzuoli and Baia, where it filled the enormous Piscina Mirabilis.

The next update came in 1629, with the opening of the Spanish-commissioned 'Carmignano' aqueduct. Expanded in 1770, it finally met its Waterloo in the 1880s, when cholera outbreaks heralded the building of a more modern pressurised version.

Dried up and defunct, the ancient cisterns went from glorious feats of ancient engineering to handy in-house rubbish tips. As refuse clogged the well shafts, access to the sottosuolo became ever more difficult and, within a few generations, the subterranean system that had nourished the city was left bloated and forgotten.

The WWII Revival

It would take the wail of air-raid sirens to reunite the city's sunlit and subterranean sides once more. With Allied air attacks looming, Mussolini's UMPA (civil-defence program) ordered that the cisterns and former quarries be turned into civilian shelters. The lakes of rubbish were compacted and covered, old passageways were enlarged, toilets were built and new staircases were erected. As bombs showered the city above, tens of thousands took refuge in the dark, damp spaces below.

The fear, frustration and anger of those days lives on in the historic graffiti that covers some of the old shelters, from hand-drawn caricatures of Hitler and 'Il Duce' to poignant messages like 'Mamma, non piangere' (Mum, don't cry). Many families spent weeks living underground, often emerging to find their homes and neighbourhoods nothing more than rubble. For the many whose homes were destroyed, these subterranean hideouts became semipermanent dwellings. Entire families cohabited in cisterns, partitioning their makeshift abodes with bedsheets and furnishing them with the odd ramshackle bed. Traces of this rudimentary domestication survive to this day, from tiled 'kitchen' walls and showers, to evidence of DC battery power.

Alas, once rebuilding began, the aqueducts once again became subterranean dumpsters, with everything from wartime rubble to scooters and Fiats thrown down the shafts. And in a case of history repeating itself, the historic labyrinth and its millennia-old secrets faded from the city's collective memory.

Speleological Saviours & Rediscovered Secrets

Thankfully, all is not lost, as a passionate league of professional and volunteer speleologists continues to rediscover and render accessible long-lost sites and secrets – a fact not overlooked by the likes of National Geographic and the BBC, both of which have documented the work of these subterranean experts.

Indeed, speleological associations like NUg (Napoli Underground group) play a vital role in uncovering and preserving Naples' heritage. Each new passageway or cistern discovered unlocks another piece of the city's complex historical puzzle. In one case, an unusual-looking staircase behind an old chicken coop in Arenella led speleologist Fulvio Salvi to discover frescoed depictions of the ancient Egyptian deities Isis, Osiris and Seth. The site is believed to be part of the Secretorum Naturae Accademia, the laboratory used by scholar, alchemist and playwright Giambattista della Porta (c 1535–1615) after the Inquisition ordered an end to his experiments.

Yet even such rare and fascinating finds are not enough to secure the protection and preservation of the city's sottosuolo. The golden era of the 1990s, which saw the city council provide generous funding to speleological research, has since been supplanted by standard Italian bureaucracy and political bickering. As a result, many precious sites uncovered by the city's speleologists remain indefinitely abandoned, with little money to salvage and restore them.

The easiest way for visitors to experience the city's buried secrets is on a guided tour at Galleria Borbonica or Napoli Sotterranea. The latter takes a steady stream of visitors below the centro storico for a look at remnants of a Roman theatre frequented by madcap Emperor Nero, as well as to a cistern returned to its original, water-filled splendour. Meanwhile at the Galleria Borbonica, visitors are led on a tour of the Bourbon tunnel running beneath Mt Echia (home to Naples' earliest settlement). Aside from easy walking tours, the Galleria Borbonica also offers thrilling 90-minute speleological tours for adults, which take in unexplored nooks few locals will ever see. The speleological tour can be conducted in English for groups of at least five.

Across town is the Museo del Sottosuolo, a DIY ode to speleologists founded by veteran cave crusader Clemente Esposito, lovingly nicknamed il Papa del sottosuolo (the Pope of the Underground) in local speleological circles. Hidden away on Piazza Cavour, between the centro storico and the Sanità district, its series of restored underground cisterns can also be explored on a guided tour, booked ahead on the museum website. The space is also an evocative setting for theatrical performances.

To dig even deeper into the region's subterranean scene, check out the information-packed www.napoliunderground.org.

Feature: Myth Of The Little Monk

It's only natural that a world as old, dark and mysterious as Naples' sottosuolo should breed a few fantastical urban myths. The best known and most loved is that of the municello (little monk), a Neapolitan leprechaun of sorts known for being both naughty and nice. Said to live in a wine cellar, the hooded sprite was reputedly a regular sight in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some spoke of him as a kindred soul, a bearer of gifts and good fortune. To others, the municello spelt trouble, sneaking into homes to misplace objects, steal precious jewels and seduce the odd lonely housewife.

While a handful of Neapolitans still curse the imp whenever the car keys go missing, most now believe that the cheeky municello was actually the city's long-gone pozzari (aqueduct cleaners). Descending daily down the wells, the small-statured pozzari fought off the damp, cool conditions with a heavy, hooded mantel. Naturally, most would pop back up for a breath of fresh air, sometimes finding themselves in people's very homes. For some, the temptation of scouring drawers in search of valuables was all too strong. For others, it was a way of making new acquaintances – or of bringing a little company to the odd neglected homemaker. Regardless, it quickly becomes clear just how the tale of the 'mini monk' began.