From Block to Block in Naples

A fancy caffè in a fancy cafè. A famous literary meeting place of intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen since the 1800’s. Congested, loud alleyways of strung up laundry, flags, and merchandise, complete with musicians and dancing puppets. A church covered in a diamond stone facade with a silent, exquisite interior. Another church, much darker, crossing the threshold of Neapolitan culture between life and death. An intense experience to walk through a place that practices helping the departed leave purgatory for heaven. Crazy portions of fried street food and some of the richest gelato from a historic and well-known chocolate shop. Only in Naples can you go through so many emotions and so much history within just a few blocks of each other.

Lying in the very central Piazza del Plebiscito, Cafè Gambrinus has been regarded at the society-hall of Naples for more than 150 years. In 1890 it was wonderfully restored by Antonio Curri, one of the greatest architects of that time. The rooms were adorned with statues, lunettes, precious stuccoes and paintings by most renowned Neapolitan artists of that time (Vincenzo Migliaro, Attilio Pratella, Giuseppe Casciaro, Pietro Scoppetta, Vincenzo Caprile and other masters). This high-class meeting place, elegant and imposing in style, was a lively center for Neapolitan artistic and cultural circles. Since the Italian Unification, chiefs of state, politicians, intellectuals, tourists, and common people have visited Gambrinus. They can recall those like Giorgio De Chirico, Enrico De Nicola, and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Also, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Matilde Serao, Benedetto Croce, the Savoy Family, Luciano Pavarotti, and Angela Merkel have been among its famous customers. On New Year’s Day, the President of the Italian Republic always has breakfast at Gambrinus!


There is a unique tradition here in Naples, known as the “suspended coffee,” and I love it. This cafè honors that Neapolitan tradition, a practice which boomed during WWII, has found a revival in recent years. In 2009, the managers began displaying an old, oversized Neapolitan coffee pot, a local version of the kind found in almost all Italian homes. They leave the lid open, with explanations in six languages -and in Neapolitan- of what a suspended coffee is and how clients can contribute to it. Of more than 1,500 espressos it serves on average every day, about 10 are left suspended by customers. According to one of the owners in a newspaper article, about 5 people come every day and stick their hands in the coffee pot to take a receipt. It’s a number that has begun to increase each year. 



“The church of Gesù Nuovo , or Trinità Maggiore in Naples, is a singular example of a noble residence (Palazzo Sanseverino) transformed into an ecclesiastical building. The Church opens onto the square of the Gesù Nuovo , one of the symbolic squares of the historic center of Naples, crossed by the famous Spaccanapoli. Next to the Gesù Nuovo there is the Church of Santa Chiara, an ancient building both a little gothic and a little baroque. The palace, built in 1470 at the behest of Roberto Sanseverino, prince of Salerno, was confiscated by Pedro di Toledo (in 1547) and donated to the Society of Jesus. The renovation, which began in April 1584, leaves only the ashlar facade (pointed stones) and the base intact. Over the years various chapels and works of art are added, creating a unique blend of architecture and art. The church opened for worship in 1597 , while the consecration took place on 7 October 1601. Even though it’s dedicated to the Immaculate Madonna, it is called “del Gesù Nuovo”, to distinguish it from an existing church, which for the occasion became “del Gesù Vecchio.” The Gesù Nuovo over the centuries has suffered various damages, but it has always done well. During a bombing in the Second World War a bomb fell on the ceiling of the central nave and remained miraculously unexploded. Today the bomb is displayed inside the church.”

The facade of the church of Gesù Nuovo holds the key to a mystery that was a complete enigma until 2012: some of the diamond-point projections that decorate this facade are marked by incisions about 10cm long which have been variously interpreted. According to one theory, these marks were thought to have the power to attract positive energy and were part of a secret language known only to the medieval master builders and their descendants. But in justification of the number of natural disasters suffered by this building over the centuries, it is said that the diamond points were installed facing in the wrong direction, which would have distorted the benevolent influence of the incisions. In 2010, after 5 years of research, an art historian along with two Hungarian researchers suggested that these marks are actually letters of the Aramaic alphabet, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, which correspond to musical notes. If read from right to left and bottom to top, they would form the extraordinary exploded score of a 45-minute concerto that its discoverers named Enigma. However, this theory is not widely accepted by art historians. 

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“The interior is in Baroque style with a Greek cross plan and divided into three naves; here everything is majestic and lively both for the polychrome marble coating of the walls and the richness of the altars. In all there are eleven side chapels with as many altars, also rich in decorations. In the chapel of the Visitation is celebrated the cult of St. Joseph Moscat the researcher, physician and university professor, who was canonized by John Paul II on October 25, 1987. Inside the Basilica it is possible to admire works by important artists such as Giovanni Lanfranco, Cosimo Fanzago, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena. Furthermore, numerous craftsmen, carvers, stonecutters, brass makers and plasterers participated in the finishing of the church. What completely captures the eyes inside the Church of the Gesù Nuovo is the high altar, a work of art from 1854.”

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“There are countless monuments in Naples wrapped in an aura of mystery. Among these is the Obelisk of the Immaculate which stands in the center of Piazza del Gesù in front of the ashlar. The monument, with a spire on top representing the Madonna , is considered one of the greatest examples of Neapolitan Baroque sculpture. There is a disturbing legend about this work. It is said that in certain hours of the day, especially with the light of sunset or sunrise, the appearance of the statue of the Madonna changes. If you look carefully from behind, after a few turns around the spire, you get the impression of being menacingly watched. You have to go a long way to stop feeling this unpleasant sensation. The veil that wraps the head of the Virgin, seen from behind, appears, in fact, as a stylized face with a fixed gaze downwards and, according to legend, it depicts Death himself with a hump and scepter in his hand. Some think that the mystery is linked to a Masonic origin. For others the matrix is ​​only religious. For others it is a peak “devised” by the Sanseverinos, owners of the building later transformed into the Church of Gesù Nuovo . The noble family was, in fact, condemned to the confiscation of all assets for having participated in the conspiracy against King Ferrante of Aragon. Whether it is reality or simple suggestion is not known, yet many art historians and scholars are ready to confirm that the statue actually changes its face.”

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The church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco (phew, what a name!) is dedicated to the cult of the Souls of Purgatory. The term Arco (Arch) refers to a medieval structure once standing next to the church which was removed. The project was entrusted to architect Giovan Cola di Franco whose idea it was to build the church on two levels in order to represent two worlds: the earthly and the spiritual dimension on the first level and the concrete representation of Purgatory on the lower one. It was consecrated in 1638. The care for the Souls in Purgatory was a crucial issue of the new Counter-Reformation Church, therefore the whole decoration of the complex was conceived so as to recall to believers and passersby that the souls awaited their prayers to get themselves free from the fire of Purgatory and ascend to Heaven. Both the façade and the interior show symbols alluding to Purgatory and the necessity to remind that we are all destined to leave this world. This cult was so strongly felt by the believers that in certain periods of the year more than 60 mass services a day were celebrated. The very passage from Purgatory to Heaven is the subject of the whole decoration: Transito di S. Giuseppe (1650-51), by Andrea Vaccaro, Morte o Estasi di Sant’Alessio (1661), a masterpiece by Luca Giordano, and above all, the baroque decoration of the presbytery.

The theatrical aspect, typically baroque, is concentrated in the area of the Presbytery. The various elements of the decoration seem to act a play on a stage. The inlayed marble pieces (1651-69) are a work by Dionisio Lazzari, also responsible for the two balconies. On the left, the statue representing Giulio Mastrilli by Andrea Falcone, dated 1672 invites to look at Massimo Stanzione’s painting on the high altar, showing the Virgin with the souls in Purgatory (1638-42); the statue seems to ask the Virgin to intercede for the believers. In the painting, the Madonna stands on big clouds supported in turn by angels is pointing at the souls who deserve salvation: skinny and naked bodies hold onto the angels who pull them from the flames. Above the painting, a work by Giacomo Farelli: Sant’Anna offre la vergine bambina al Padre eterno (1670). The marble winged skull by Dionisio Lazzari, hidden by the 18th century altar, represents a border between the living’s and the dead’s world.


The museum is situated into the church’s sacristy and it includes the Oratory of the “Immacolata” (the Virgin). The museum hosts a collection of paintings and objects made between the 17th and 19th centuries, which represent the evidence of over 400 years of life and liturgical activities of the Congregation, as well as of the social morality and piety of the Neapolitan people from the 17th century and onward. Noteworthy are the precious vestments made of a black material and fine embroideries in silver thread used for suggestive funeral processions which took place along the Decumanus. Wardrobes of classical taste were made in 1827 and they are decorated with skulls and bronze vases containing flames which resemble those in Purgatory. The pieces of the museum are extremely varied (silverware, manuscripts, paintings, etc.). A copy of the famous 17th century painting by Luis de Morales is also exposed, representing the Madonna of Purity. The original is preserved in the convent of San Paolo Maggiore. 


The lower church (hypogeum) is composed by one nave and two chapels on both sides, where there are a few niches. At the bottom of the nave an imposing black cross is over the altar. At the center of the floor, four lights and a chain decorated with skulls enclose a large mass grave where, from the 17th century, lots of anonymous remains were buried. Those people could not afford a burial in the church or no families asked about them. This practice ended in the early 19th century, after the promulgation of the Edict of Saint Cloud, signed by Napoleon, that forbade the burials within the city borders. The presence of anonymous human remains, towards the end of the 17th century, produced an intense and spontaneous worship that was expressed by the adoption of a skull. It used to be mainly a female worship. After a dream, the women chose a skull among several human remains to take care of and then they put it in a little altar on a pillow. People cleaned and washed it with alcohol and cleanser (the so-called “Refrisco”), and they prayed for reducing the time the soul had to spend in Purgatory. In return, the soul can intercede for them to obtain a grace. In 1969, Cardinal Corrado Ursi imposed a decree for the ban because the cult was considered superstitious and unacceptable. 


On the left side of the altar, a narrow corridor starts. This area is considered sacred so you are not allowed to take any photos, but it is absolutely worth walking through. Immediately on the right there is the tomb of the Count Giulio Mastrillo and his wife. The Mastrillo Family was one of the most important benefactors of the congregation and its coat of arms is often represented in the upper church. This tomb is followed by a series of exposed niches honored with flowers, holy pictures, and interesting tiles that Neapolitans used to decorate the niches, reminding the ancient 17th century cult, still alive in the Neapolitan people. As you exit out of the small corridor you will enter a room with other exposed niches and several earth burials, known as the Holy Land, assigned to the members and benefactors of the congregation. On a lower level that you can only view through a grate, there are other charnel house areas.

On the other side of the room, on the right, there is a shrine. There, on a pillow, is a skull covered with a bridal veil and a tiara, surrounded by candles, votive silver offerings. There is no document which tells who this skull belongs to, but it is correlated to a real event that occurred in the 18th century. Here in the same district of the church, a Neapolitan nobleman, Domenico d’Amore, Prince of Ruffano, used to live. His 17-year-old daughter died of tuberculosis, just after her wedding. The father, very devoted to the souls of Purgatory, decided to bury the girl in the Holy Land of Purgatory Hypogeum; however, there is no record of this in the burial logbooks that are kept in the historical archive of the complex. People said that the event produced a great commotion in the neighborhood, so probably this story that was repeated over the years, produced a legend about this skull now known as Princess Lucy. She is considered as the patron of young brides. Since then a lot of tales appeared. In some of them, she is a noblewoman who dies because of her love for a poor man. All versions, however, have a young female protagonist who dies for the lack of love. This is the reason why Lucy was elected as a mediator for prayers and invocations, in particular from spinsters. 


Lindsay View All →

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!

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