Naples is a beautiful city (actually one of my favorite!) packed with amazing places to see, but today I want to go beyond the usual routes and share 5 unique experiences.
Many people say that Naples is one of those places that you either love or hate, but to really understand this amazing city and its incredible character you should really go beyond the usual tourist routes. Let me share with you a few ideas to add to your itinerary…
1. Learn about Naples’ cult of the dead
One of the aspects that fascinates me most about Naples is its relationship with the afterlife and the intriguing blend of sacred and profane that characterized everyday life. An example of this is the cult of the anime pezzentelle (literally poor souls). This is a spontaneous cult of devotion to the remains of the indigent, unnamed dead that developed in Naples in the XVII century as a way to pay respect to those who died alone and had been too poor even to have a proper burial. According to this cult, the skulls of these anonymous people are considered orphans and devotees adopt them and give them a name. They clean the skulls, bring flowers and gifts and pray for their abandoned souls in exchange for protection and special favors. This cult became so intense that the Archbishop of Naples banned it in 1969, but it’s still very much alive in the local culture.
It is thought that this cult of the anime pezzentelle started in the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco. It’s a tiny church on the central via dei Tribunali, which was built in the XVII century by the Opera Pia Purgatorio ad Arco, an organization that helped the poor. You can join a guided tour and explore the crypt where the skulls of the poor souls are kept. Women come here to worship a skull named Lucia, or the “Virgin Bride”, which is thought to help find a husband or have a baby. It’s amazing to see all the gifts, bridal bouquets and baby birth ribbons that people still leave at her shrine!
Another key center for the cult of the anime pezzentelle is the Fontanelle cemetery, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. It’s an ossuary located in a cave in the historic Sanità district, with piles of bones and skulls of hundreds of anonymous victims of the plague. Many skulls have been enshrined or embellished with rosaries and flowers and are surrounded by small slips of paper where devotees wrote their requests and prayers.
If you are looking for places out of the ordinary, don’t miss these sites!
2. Admire Naples’ underground contemporary art museum
Using the metro in Naples is such an artistic experience! Many stations have been revamped by international architects and for 1.30 euros (the price of a metro ticket) you can hop on and off the train and admire beautiful murals, sculptures, and installations. Here are a few examples:
At Toledo station, which is often referred to as the most beautiful metro station in Europe, you will ascend into a tunnel of sparkling blue mosaic that resembles an underwater sea cavern. And once you reach the top, you’ll see some beautiful mosaics depicting works for the construction of the subway.
Università is one of Naples’ most colorful metro stations with its fuchsia-pink and lime-green tones. It’s also home to a sculpture that represents the nodes and synapses of the brain.
Platforms at Materdei station are decorated with the super colorful wall drawings realized by conceptual and minimalist artist Sol LeWitt.
3. Explore the world’s largest collection of existing bank records
I stumbled upon ilCartastorie, the museum of the Banco di Napoli Historical Archives, by chance and now it’s one of my favorite places in Naples. It’s located in the headquarters of the Fondazione Banco di Napoli, on Via dei Tribunali, and it’s a treasure trove of historical certificates and giant accounting books documenting each and every expense made by private citizens and social institutions from 1500 to present days.
The beautifully handwritten payment descriptions contained in these books offer a fascinating and invaluable view over the history of Naples and its role in the rise of the modern banking system. If you can, join a guided tour: the guys are really knowledgeable and will share lots of interesting stories hidden among the pages of these books, such as that of a Croatian merchant who commissioned a work of art to a certain Mr. Caravaggio…
4. Take a fascinating journey through the history of medicine
Naples played a key role in the development of medicine and the Ospedale degli Incurabili (literally Hospital of the Incurables) is a great example of this. It is a hospital complex founded in the XVI century to care for those afflicted by syphilis, a deadly disease that was considered incurable (hence the name). The complex grew to become a modern hospital with a leading medical school attended by innovative doctors, researchers, and experimenters. For example, it is here that the first catheters were used and pioneering works in forensic medicine and autopsies were carried out.
Inside the complex, you will find the Museum of Sanitary Arts that retraces Naples’ medical history through an amazing exhibition of ancient surgical instruments and medical tools. Highlights include an XVII-century ivory enema and an original flagello della peste, a beak-like wooden mask worn during the plague. There is also a huge nativity scene installation where traditional statues are replaced by the representations of diseases and medical treatments.
The masterpiece of this complex is the Historic Pharmacy of the Incurables, one of the oldest apothecaries in the world. It dates back to the XVIII century and consists of two rooms that seem frozen in time. There is a reception room with lavish walnut wooden furniture and frescoed ceilings, filled with stunning majolica vases and jars containing an array of medicinal stuff (even kidney stones!). The second room is even more stunning and used to serve as the assembly hall for medical experts and authorities. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the pharmacy, so I don’t have any to share.
Visits to the complex are allowed only with guided tours run by volunteers, more details are available on Il Faro di Ippocrate website.
5. Immerse yourself in the soul of Naples
One of the first things I usually do when I’m in town is strolling through the Sanità district, one of Naples’ most vibrant neighborhoods, and I strongly recommend you to do the same. It’s loud, colorful, messy and charming at the same time and is home to a number of fascinating sites that shouldn’t be missed on your itinerary.
Underneath the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità you can explore the Catacombs of San Gaudioso that served as the burial site for aristocrats and the clergy in the XVII century. Visits are allowed by guided tours only and will take you to the bowels of the neighborhood. Along the corridors underneath the church, you will see that the skulls of the dead were displayed on the walls, while the rest of their bodies were frescoed, with the clothes and professional tools that symbolized the social status of the deceased.
While walking through the streets of Sanità you will stumble upon superb palaces such as Palazzo dello Spagnolo, named after a Spanish aristocrat that lived there in the XIX century, and Palazzo Sanfelice, both with impressive flights of stairs punctuated with arches and vaults. If you are a fan of Gomorrah, then I’m sure these will sound familiar. Also, these palaces may look intimidating from the outside, but go inside and explore each flight of stairs, there are hidden murals and architectural gems to discover.
Apart from these highlights, my suggestion is to just throw away your map and get lost in these magical streets, browse the local market, stare at the beautiful street art and taste the local delicacies. Oh, and the Fontanelle cemetery is here! You may think that the Sanità district is too dangerous, but please don’t let bad reviews or prejudices stop you from exploring this area.
You know that I mostly travel alone and I always felt perfectly safe here. Petty crime can happen anywhere in the world, just take normal precautions and enjoy the sights! If you enjoy guided tours, then contact the guys of La Paranza a social organization born in this neighborhood.
Until next time,
What great finds in Naples! The subway is so fancy with all the art work. That banking museum is so unique too, easy to spend hours there. Just shows that when you have so much history, you have a fascinating culture that appreciates so much, even the after-life.
Thanks so much! I hope you’ll have a chance to see all this for yourself soon, Naples is incredible!