Naples: Sacred and Profane Part 2

As promised I will complete today an unusual path in the city of Naples, home of Pizza, the Pastiera cake, Coffee making and Sfogliatelle as well as of superstition, devotion, sacred and profane. Let’s keep on following my very good friend Benedetta Appiano along her exploration of the best kept secrets of the city and don’t miss to plan a visit to these recommended sites, off the beatn paths.

When you have a strong headache you usually take a pill, however if you are in Naples you can put your head in the hole of Sant’Aspreno. Aspreno was the first bishop of the city, and is the saint to invoke against headache. Inside the church named after him, close to the port, there is a rock altar with miraculous properties. In fact, it is enough to put your head in a cavity at its base and the sickness disappears.
Just by chance, many centuries after the beheading of Aspreno, a man from Naples, isolated the salicylic acid, which is the basic component of a medicine that Bayer released under the name of Aspirin in 1899.

The Icon of St. Aspreno and the world famous Headache pill Photo courtesy of Dagospia

Is it safe to stroll around in Naples?

Yes, it is. I have been roaming around with my old mother for days without any problem and felt very welcomed by the locals. The city center is very safe such as the area around Plebiscito Square and Via Toledo. As every big city, pitpockets might be around, thus in other areas, just pay a little more attention.

Benedetta Appiano

It might be the threatening presence of the Vesuvius Volcano or the sense of precariousness deriving from living on one of the most seismic territories in the world that supplies the Neapolitans with a very special relationship with death: they do not fear it, they joke and they play with it. This casual attitude finds expression in the cult of the “pezzentelle souls”, an entirely Neapolitan interpretation of devotion to the souls that are stuck in Purgatory. These humble spirits (pezzentelle) are represented by human remains with no identity, which however acquire dignity thanks to the veneration of those who literally “adopt” them. The temple of this cult, forbidden by the Church in 1969, is the ossuary of the Fontanelle, in the Sanità district, a huge tuff quarry where the remains of over 40,000 victims of epidemics and pestilences that hit Naples in the past centuries are collected … Thousands and thousands of skulls and bones stacked in meticulous order. Those who are looking for supernatural protection can adopt a capuzzella (skull), build her a small house of wood, marble, tin, bring her gifts, pray to her and ask for favors such as finding a job, pass an exam and so on… It is a relationship of mutual exchange between the venerable and the venerated: “I pray that your soul will find a place in paradise but you must fulfill my requests, otherwise I will abandon you and will replace you with a more effective capuzzella”.

Capuzzelle at the Fontanelle cemetery, Naples. – Photo by Andy M. from Pixabay

Donna Cuncetta is the most beloved and revered figure of the Fontanelle cemetery. You can spot her from afar for the large number of candles, messages and gifts that people present her. It is also called the “sweating head” for its shiny appearance that makes it different from the others skulls that are opaque and covered in dust.

According to the locals, such brightness would be the sweat of Donna Cuncetta due to the fatigue of the souls in purgatory. Tradition has it that Cuncetta also grants graces: just express the request, caress her and make a humble gift to alleviate her sufferings. If after touching the skull your hand is wet, then your prayers have been accepted. On the contrary, if your hand stays dry, the grace has not been granted.

Donna Cuncetta Altar. Naples, Fontanelle cemetery

The cult of the pezzentelle is still very strong in the city, especially in the Sanità district which is a difficult, beautiful and decadent neighborhood. However, Sanità is undergoing a social renovation process thanks to the activity Don Loffredo, the local parish, who created a cooperative company that manages the wonderful catacombs of San Gaudenzio and San Gennaro offering job opportunities to the youngsters of the area and the chance to visit a part of Naples that is usually kept out of the tourist circuits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.