Naples: Sacred and Profane Part 1

Naples is worth more than just a visit. To understand the real essence of this peculiar city, you shall enter the right mood, avoid any judgement and expect the impossible. Follow my friend Benedetta Appiano (aka Donna Concetta) in her discovery of what is uniquely sacred and profane around the Vesuvius Volcano.

A while ago a friend who knows well my love for the city of Naples, gave me a book by Benedetto Croce with an ambiguous and curious title: Naples is a paradise inhabited by devils.
Such definition, whose origin is attributable to a 14th-century author, speaks volumes, in my opinion, about the Dionysian, ambivalent and eclectic character of a city that is unique in its natural configuration, with the Vesuvius Volcano dominating the earthly paradise looking gulf of Naples.
The city is an open-air theater where beauty and degradation, sacred and profane, energy and indolence coexist in an attractive and fascinating disharmony, to be discovered by avoiding judgment and stepping out of the various cliches which are, at the same time, confirmed and disregarded by the visit. It is a place that arouses strong passions, unfit for lukewarm souls or for those looking for glamorous atmospheres and glossy landscapes which, however, are well represented in the coastal areas and in the extraordinary islands of Ischia and Capri.
In these few lines I will tell you anything about the 3000 years of history of the city or the infinite architectural and artistic works that have earned UNESCO recognition in the historic center. I will not even venture sociological analyzes on the problems of such a complex metropolitan reality and I will not attempt a literary description because competing with Stendhal or Nietzche would give too much anxiety. I will limit myself to
telling some curiosities of Naples, a city that I love so much, an esoteric and mysterious place where the most authentic faith joins pagan and profane traditions.

At number 13 of Vico Tre Re in Toledo area, the heart of the so called Spanish Quarters, you’ll find the tiny monastery of Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe (aka the Santerella) a pilgrimage destination, especially for young women looking for a pregnancy that is late. Inside this place of worship there is, in fact, the fertility chair that would have the miraculous power to facilitate the pregnancy of the women who sit on it. Every day Sister Giuliana, energetically and resolutely, welcomes dozens of women and, after listening to the requests of each, she blesses them with a reliquary containing a backbone disk and a lock of hair of the saint, who confidently asks for grace that is often granted as evidenced by several pink and blue ribbons that decorate the walls of the sanctuary.
Santa Francesca is the saint of the districts, born and raised in this tangle of alleys and steps, a familiar figure who does not inspire reverential fear but who is the object of a genuine and popular faith that, however, has transcended the borders of the province.

The cover of the Tarantina auto biography

Tarantina lives a few meters away from the Santerella house. A much loved figure in the city, being witness of a world that is gradually disappearing: that of the Neapolitan “femminielli”. These figures were integrated in the social context and, for a millennial tradition of tolerance and openness, were really perceived as the symbolic union of male and female. They were considered mythical creatures and luck bearers so that they were constantly invited at weddings or baptisms where babies were placed in their arms as a sign of good omen. Sacred and profane figures at the same time they often practice prostitution without this making them the object of reproach or disapproval.
 Tarantina is the last of the Neapolitan femminielli and she told us about such a lost world in her biography in which she recalls the stages of her troubled and wonderful life by offering an insight into the life of Naples and its evolution over the past decades. She has been the lover of important Italian intellectuals, a friend of Pier Paolo Pasolini, an inspiring muse of Novella Parigini. A documentary by director Fortunato Calvino funded by the University Federico II was recently filmed.
 She is old now and she opens the doors of her home to anyone who wants to listen to her story.

Pope Francis holds the ampulla that contains the blood of San Gennaro at the Duomo as part of his pastoral visit on March 21, 2015 in Naples. Photo Courtesy of ANSA

Everyone knows how much the Neapolitans are devoted to their patron saint, however, what many may not know is that San Gennaro still has a family. Let’s proceed in order into this intricate story.
Legend has it that San Gennaro was beheaded near Pozzuoli in 305 BC and that his nurse Eusebia, together with other women, collected some of his blood at night in two ampoules that became the subjects of the miracle of liquefaction that, since the XIV century, is repeated three times a year. The Neapolitans take such miracle very seriously, even those who are non believers. In fact, superstition works even where faith fails, turning the lack of liquefaction into a bad omen for the city and its inhabitants.
Since the birth of this rite, some self-assumed descendants of the Saint gave birth to a very suggestive preparatory ritual that has come down to the present day and which, according to some, is credited with the success of the miracle itself.
On the day of the liquefaction, the descendants of San Gennaro go early to the Cathedral to take their seats in the front row and start singing propitiatory songs. If the Saint does not respond with diligence and the liquefaction does not happen, such pious women start reciting inquisitorial songs worth of the most grumpy of wives.
This unorthodox and non reverential attitude should not be surprising because San Gennaro is the saint of the people, an entity to trust and, why not, even sometimes to clash. He is a sort of powerful friend, who is recommended to intercede to the “upper floors”. A friend to whom the Neapolitans are so loyal that when the Vatican Council II decided to downgrade San Gennaro in 1964, depriving him of a dedicated day on the calendar, all around the city billboards appeared that rather explicitly summarized the reaction of the Neapolitans in this regard: San Genna ‘futtetenne (San Gennaro, don’t bother)”.

See you tomorrow for some more curiosities about Naples.

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