Raising Naples: how the catacombs of saints transformed Sanità | Naples holidays

“If you walked round Sanità 15 years in the past along with your digital camera in your shoulder like that it might’ve been stolen,” says native shopkeeper Antonio Vitozzi, pointing at my battered Nikon. Greater than doubtless I might’ve been nowhere close to this neighbourhood again then. Riven by city decay and excessive unemployment, Naples’ poorest district was once a harmful place the place the Camorra held sway. It wasn’t simply Italians afraid to return right here however Neapolitans too.

Not lately, although. Sanità has undergone a fairly miraculous transformation due to La Paranza, a cooperative of idealistic younger mates who started working guided excursions to Italy’s most interesting catacombs in the early 2000s. At the time, the solely entry to the catacombs was granted by the Catholic church for educational examine.

Sanità avenue murals. {Photograph}: Mark Stratton

At this time, after vital restoration funded by La Paranza, the catacombs, alongside Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum, are a must-see Neapolitan attraction, and tourism to Sanità has impressed new guesthouses, eating places and employment. In its fifteenth yr, the cooperative is launching a brand new above-ground strolling tour this December known as Luce (gentle), that includes specifically commissioned modern artwork in neighbourhood church buildings.

Sanità lies north of Naples’ historic centre. The stroll there takes me alongside through Santa Theresa degli Scalzi, an extended, straight street working in direction of the 18th-century Bourbon palace of Capodimonte. En route, I cross a towering bridge in-built 1806, which got here to symbolise the neighbourhood’s decline, as a result of its development noticed this as soon as prosperous suburb slowly bypassed by retailers and dignitaries who may journey extra straight between historic Naples and Capodimonte.


San Gennaro’s catacomb is discovered close to a sugar-white church, a Sixties reproduction of St Peter’s in Rome. It’s right here that Cooperativa La Paranza started guided excursions to Naples’ two most vital catacombs, Gennaro and Gaudioso – the solely strategy to see both. Enzo Porzio, 36, one of La Paranza’s founders, tells me that by 2019 the catacomb excursions had been attracting 160,000 guests a yr.

As an adolescent with poor employment prospects, Enzo and his neighbourhood mates in Sanità had been galvanised by the arrival of a progressive clergyman, Antonio Loffredo. “We had been younger when Father Loffredo permitted us to begin excursions in the catacombs,” he says. “Presently, we had been asking ourselves what we may do as adults: ought to we go away Naples to work, or do one thing to assist our neighborhood? There was a lot prejudice towards Sanità.”


After a number of years spent guiding as volunteers, earning money solely from suggestions, they established La Paranza in 2006 to formally launch paid excursions. “As vacationers got here, the challenge began to alter the neighbourhood. The Camorra’s affect weakened. We created a brand new surroundings for arts, theatre, tradition and archaeology to flourish. From a no-hope neighbourhood, native folks noticed new alternatives.” The cooperative now employs 40 guides and in 2014 was a founder member of the San Gennaro Neighborhood Basis, which funds social enterprises throughout the neighbourhood.

Catacombe di San Gaudioso.
Catacombe di San Gaudioso. {Photograph}: Adam Eastland/Alamy

Guided excursions to the catacombs final an hour. I’m led underground into San Gennaro’s by Antonio Iaccarino, who now trains kids becoming a member of the challenge.

Gennaro is Naples’ patron saint. Beheaded for his Christian beliefs in AD305, his stays had been delivered to Naples in the fifth century and his catacomb turned a pilgrimage web site. His bones had been stolen and brought to Benevento 400 years later, earlier than being returned to Naples in 1491. His sainthood was reaffirmed in 1631 when the parading of his relics had been stated to have halted an eruption of Vesuvius that threatened Naples.

Carved from Naples’ smooth volcanic tuff, this catacomb dates to the second century and expanded as soon as Gennaro was interred right here. Coming into the higher stage, I really feel lilliputian strolling by a forest of toadstools – the rounded stems of tuff supporting the ceiling of the Basilica Adjecto, the place pilgrims as soon as shuffled previous empty tombs minimize into the partitions and arcosolia with luxurious murals for the rich elite. All bones had been eliminated in the Sixties to a close-by ossuary.

Skyline of Naples.
Skyline of Naples with Vesuvius in the distance. {Photograph}: Ivan Nesterov/Alamy

One ornate mural depicts a sixth-century dignitary, Theotecnus, along with his spouse and daughter, who died aged two years and 10 months. “He would’ve been wealthy, as a result of the mural was altered all through as the household died,” says Antonio. San Gennaro’s personal tomb is marked by a crosier, or bishop’s criminal. It was rediscovered in 1973, lengthy after the catacomb had fallen out of use.

The catacomb’s exit purposefully directs guests in direction of downtown Sanità, the place I’m instantly struck by its genuine depth. Little outlets and tenements fill each area. The lights twinkle on votive shrines. Conversations are suspended mid-air, shouted between balconies of buildings adorned with murals, graffiti, and infrequently piles of garbage. Sanità’s centrepiece is a colossal Dominican basilica, Maria della Sanità, in-built 1610, which bodily fuses with the brick uprights of the overhead bridge. The basilica’s facet chapel hosts La Paranza’s first ever lodging, Casa del Monacone (doubles from €50 B&B). The six rooms are so in style I couldn’t get a mattress.

“Sixteen years in the past, when this opened folks requested, ‘Who would wish to keep in a single day in Sanità?’,” shrugs Giuseppe Iaccarino, its supervisor. “However now Sanità has a number of hundred Airbnb. It helps locals get by renting rooms out and vacationers to remain longer and spend extra money,” says the younger entrepreneur, quickly to open his personal restaurant.

Monument to Genny killed in Sanita in 2015
Monument to 17-year-old Genny Cesarano, killed in a taking pictures by the Camorra in 2015. {Photograph}: Mark Stratton

One dealer benefiting from elevated guests is Antonio Vitozzi. His household butcher’s started in 1823. “Who would’ve thought just a few years again I’d be promoting fancy meat at €50 a kilo – locals simply didn’t have the cash. Now folks from the posher components of Naples come right here to buy,” he says. He invitations me to his Friday steak evening. I haven’t the coronary heart to inform him I’m vegan.

Antonio Vitozzi and wife.
Antonio Vitozzi and spouse. {Photograph}: Mark Stratton

But it surely’s the discount in violent crime that’s aided Sanità’s reputational change. Antonio factors me in direction of a memorial to 17-year-old Genny Cesarano, a lifelike depiction of the teenager adorned by the letters S.A.N (saint). He was murdered in 2015 throughout a drive-by Camorra taking pictures. “Issues had been getting higher, so the neighborhood was shocked by this. Subsequent day, 5,000 of us got here onto the streets to exhibit [that] we’d struggle to keep up the positive factors we’re making,” he provides. Subsequently, Camorra exercise in Sanità withered away.

These positive factors embody spectacular developments of the arts. Funded by the neighborhood basis, La Paranza is now hiring three extra guides for its new strolling tour, Luce, that includes commissioned modern artworks by famend artists in Sanità’s poorest subdistrict, Cristallini. It would function items in deconsecrated church buildings, the tour starting at Sant’Aspreno ai Crociferi, the place maverick Italian artist Jago will set up a sculpture entitled Pieta. One piece, Veiled Boy, is already put in in San Severo Church: a touching frieze of a toddler lined by a translucent shroud laid out on a tomb. The kid’s face is frozen in anguish. “Jago was influenced by the picture of a migrant boy’s physique washed up on the shoreline,” says Antonio.

Elsewhere, the native youth orchestra, Sanità Ensemble, practises in San Severo, and I meet budding actor, 24-year-old Ciro Burzo, at Teatro Sanità – one other church gifted by Father Loffredo. Rehearsals are beneath means for La Rosa del mio Giardino, a play about Dalí’s love letters.

Chairs set out for the a local youth orchestra rehearsal.
Chairs set out for the a neighborhood youth orchestra rehearsal. {Photograph}: Mark Stratton

“I’m a child of Sanità,” says Burzo. “There appeared just one means out of right here, to be good at soccer, and I wasn’t. The arrival of the theatre happened as a result of guests wanted night-time leisure. It’s modified my life, my self-belief,” he says.

Again on the tour, I return underground into San Gaudioso’s catacomb, which shouldn’t be missed. This Carthaginian bishop was pressured into exile by the Vandals, settled in Naples and died round AD450. The catacomb is entered by a portal minimize into the majolica-tiled flooring of the basilica. It dates again to the fourth century and possesses excellent historic frescoes, though it’s the later Seventeenth-century ambulatory that’s unforgettable. Right here, the tomb partitions painting the useless – as soon as rich patrons of the basilica above – as skeletons, with a void the place their heads would’ve been, which as soon as hosted their precise skulls. It jogs my memory of a danse macabre. The feminine murals put on skirts and one epitaph interprets: “Magnificence is just not immortal, time takes every thing”.

The view on exiting the San Gennaro catacomb.
The view on exiting the San Gennaro catacomb. {Photograph}: Mark Stratton

“In Naples now we have a bizarre cult worship of purgatory. Individuals revere the bones of the anonymous useless, the pezzentelle, to assist them depart purgatory for heaven, however in return anticipate their grace and favour. It’s like shopping for a lottery ticket,” laughs Antonio. “However in 1969 Cardinal Ursi deemed it idolatrous and such websites of reverence had been closed. The skulls at this catacomb had been minimize out. However the cult nonetheless continues in Naples.”

One other Neapolitan church, Purgatorio advert Arco, maintains cabinets of skulls in its crypt. However I finish my keep at Naples Cathedral, visiting the reliquary of Gennaro, a baroque chapel housing a bone fragment of his. Two sealed ampoules of his blood are saved beneath the duomo’s altar and produced 3 times yearly to be declared miraculous after they liquefy from their stable state. But San Gennaro’s true miracle is how his presence in loss of life has helped foster the resurrection of Sanità.
Guided excursions price €9 for a mixed ticket to the catacombs of Saints Gennaro and Gaudioso,

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