Naples, between saints and superstition

Naples, between saints and superstition

"Being superstitious is a sign of ignorance, but not being superstitious brings bad luck." This celebrated saying by the Italian actor and playwright Eduardo De Filippo encapsulates the spirit of his native Naples, a city rife with contradictions where religion and superstition live comfortably side-by-side.


This duality can be seen as soon as you jump in a cab in
this southern port city. Nine times out of 10 a wooden rosary cross will be lying on the dashboard, while a red “cornicello”, or little horn, will be dangling from the mirror. The gently twisted amulet wards off the evil eye and is a must-have accessory on Naples’ chaotic, narrow streets. The alleys of the old town are full of shops selling horns of all sizes and for any pocket, sometimes becoming works of art in their own right. Often, in the same store window, you will see busts on sale of the patron saint of Naples — San Gennaro. Gennaro was believed to have been beheaded by Roman pagans for sheltering Christians during a fourth century purge. Legend has it that when he died, a Neapolitan woman soaked up his blood with a sponge and preserved it in a glass phial.
In the most obvious marriage of ancient superstition and Roman Catholic ritual in Naples, thousands of faithful gather three times a year to see if the dried blood liquifies, with a small group of women, called “the relatives of San Gennaro”, reciting long litanies in local dialect to invoke the “miracle”. First recorded in 1389, the miracle of liquefaction almost always happens, but very occasionally the blood doesn’t stir, striking fear into the heart of the city. Disaster has struck on at least five such occasions, including in November 1980 when some 3,000 people died in an earthquake that struck southern Italy. The relationship between saints and superstition is also deeply entrenched in the streets of the old Spanish Quarter, where every year thousands of women make a pilgrimage to the house of Santa Maria Francesca — Naples’ only female saint. A nun signals to the women to sit on a wooden chair that once belonged to the saint and is believed to have magical fertility powers that will facilitate much-wanted pregnancies. After the pilgrim gets up from the chair, the nun touches her belly with a reliquary containing a lock of hair and bone shards from the 18th century saint. The walls of the apartment are covered with baby trinkets — small offerings of thanks from women whose prayers for children were answered. While the cult of Santa Maria Francesca focuses on births, Naples also embraces the cult of the dead, nowhere more so than in the Fontanelle cemetery, an ancient tufa quarry which offers a last resting place for the skulls and bones of thousands of anonymous victims of the plague, popular revolt and famine.
The man-made caves became a makeshift burial ground in 1656 when a virulent outbreak of the plague ravaged the region and rapidly filled all the established, consecrated graveyards. It remained a dumping place for bodies and bones for the next two centuries, but in 1872, a Catholic prelate, Father Gaetano Barbati, started to catalogue and order the remains, encouraging others to help him with the Herculean task. And so began the cult of the “abandoned souls”, with local women adopting the unidentified skulls, adorning them with gifts, flowers and even names that allegedly came to the guardians of the dead in their dreams. In return, the devotees asked for favours and fortune, swiftly discarding skulls that brought no luck. The hunt for good fortune and divine protection pervades the city, hence the proliferation of votive shrines that dot the streets, showing all kinds of saints and madonna.
Some are ancient, some modern. Predictably, some mix the sacred and the profane, such as a tiny shrine in the Spanish Quarter where the face of Christ strongly resembles the Scudetto soccer trophy that the city team, Napoli, won in 1987 and 1990. That Napoli side included the Argentinian soccer great Diego Armando Maradona, who is still revered by Neapolitans for having inspired their team to its sole two Serie A triumphs. Pictures of the stocky Argentinian are stuck to walls and shop windows throughout Naples alongside more traditional images of saints — a modern day miracle worker in a city always eager to look for evidence of the hand of God.

© Tony Gentile Photographer – all rights reserved

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