“Naples is one of the clearest examples of cities where history can be traced through its “layers”. The Greek Neapolis and the present-day city are not separated by millennia but by metres of soil under the ground. The past is not placed in a glass case or forgotten, but peeps out in some parts of the present-day city.” The underground world of Napoli is the place of their ancestors. Not only in terms of archaeological remains but that their souls are also inhabitants in all respects because the relationship with the afterlife is part of everyday life. Communications with those already passed have always accompanied life in the city. This can be seen through idioms, devotions, and ancient rituals. Likewise, the saints are always present in the daily life of Neapolitans, however large or minor. Small sacred images are still faithfully kept in wallets, while the votive aediculae scattered among the alleys are like little altars.
Descend a few steps and you’ll reach the roots of Naples’ relationship with faith. The Catacombs of San Gennaro are arranged on two levels that are not superimposed, both characterized by much larger spaces than the more famous Roman catacombs. This is due to the workability and strength of the tuff. The original nucleus of the Catacombs of San Gennaro dates back to the 2nd century AD. It was probably the tomb of a noble family, who then provided spaces for the Christian community. The expansion began in the 4th century AD following the deposition of the remains of St. Agrippinus, the first patron of Naples, to the underground basilica dedicated to him. The upper catacomb was the burial place of the bishops. It originates from an ancient tomb, dating from the third century AD, which preserves some of the earliest Christian paintings in southern Italy. The imposing lower vestibule, with ceilings measuring up to 6 metres high, houses a large baptismal font commissioned by Bishop Paul II, who took refuge in the Catacombs of San Gennaro in the eighth century during iconoclastic struggles. From the characteristics of the tombs, it is possible to obtain a cross-section of the society of the time, especially the social class of the deceased. There are in fact different types of burials: the humblest were dug on the ground or along the walls of the ambulatories or peripheral corridors. The tombs of the wealthiest people, the arcosoli, were arched in shape. The decorations of the tombs contributed to underline the importance of the families, they could be frescoes or mosaics.
From an eighth-century homily and a passage from the Chronicon of the bishops of Naples, it was discovered that the tomb of San Gennaro was in a cubiculum, identified as the one below the basilica of the bishops. San Gennaro’s origins are still uncertain, but he was probably born in 272 AD and was bishop of Benevento. He was arrested in the 4th century for professing the Christian faith and beheaded in Pozzuoli in 305 AD. The martyr’s blood was preserved in two vials and his remains were buried in Agro Marciano. In the 5th century he was brought to Naples by the Bishop John I and buried in the catacombs, which became a pilgrimage site. The remains were stolen by the Lombard prince Sico I in 831 AD and brought to Benevento. They were later moved to the sanctuary of Montevergine, where they remained almost forgotten for over two centuries. After many years of negotiations with the monks of Montevergine, the bones were returned to the city of Naples in 1497. Despite being the city’s most loved and popularly acclaimed patron, San Gennaro is not the only one. Naples has 52 patrons. The only Italian city that comes close to having such a large number of patrons is Venice, which has 25.
The fact that we get to see Italia, let alone live here, is still so incredibly surreal. However, I still can’t seem to find the appropriate words to describe what it’s like to be able to experience ruins, churches, and villages without the normal hoards of people… to be left completely alone among paths and tunnels that those before us once touched and used. Pompeii and Ercolano for example, and now this- the catacombs of San Gennaro, one of the most revered patron saints of Napoli. Besides the tour guide, we were entirely alone! We had the unique opportunity to get lost in history and really take in the vast spaces carved throughout the tuff. Walking through two levels of catacombs that date back to the 2nd century AD is…. fascinating, chilling, unbelievable… utterly remarkable!
The upper catacombs
The lower catacombs
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!