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 go beyond the most popular tourist sites, there’s so much more to do and learn! Let me share with you a few ideas to add to your itinerary…
1- Learn about the cult of the dead
One of the aspects that fascinate me most about Naples is its relationship with the afterlife and that intriguing blend of sacred and profane that characterized everyday life. A tangible example of this is the cult of the dead, better known as the cult of the “anime pezzentelle” (literally poor souls). This is a spontaneous cult of devotion to the remains of indigent, unnamed dead that developed in Naples in the XVII century as a way to pay respect to those who had had none in life 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 special favors.
This cult became so intense that the Archbishop of Naples banned it in 1969; however, it is still very much alive in the city’s culture. There are two places where Naples honors these “anime pezzentelle”: the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco and the Fontanelle Cemetery.
The tiny church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco was built in the XVII century by the Opera Pia Purgatorio ad Arco, an organization that helped the poor, and this is were it is believed that the cult of the dead started. You can join a guided tour and explore the crypt where the skulls of the poor souls are kept. The rockstar here is a skull nicknamed Lucia, known also as the “Virgin Bride”, which has become kind of a beacon for women searching for marital help or couples trying to have a baby. It’s amazing to see all the gifts, bridal bouquets and baby birth ribbons that people still leave at her shrine!
The Fontanelle cemetery is 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
Taking the metro in Naples is so arty! 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, which is ofter referred to as the most beautiful station in Europe, travelers ascend into a tunnel of sparkling blue mosaic resembling an underwater sea cavern designed by the Catalan architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca, while in the atrium there is a beautiful mosaic depicting a scene that recalls the works for the construction of the subway.
Università, designed by Karim Rashid, is one of the city’s most colorful stations with its fuchsia-pink and lime-green tones, and hosts a sculpture reflecting the nodes and synapses of the brain.
Materdei platforms are decorated with beautiful coloured silkscreens.
I loved the neon light installation with a quote from Dante Alighieri’s Convivium at Dante station, where you can also enjoy colorful mosaics and Janni Kounellis’ eerie shoe installation.
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 it quickly became my favourite place in town… what a gem! Located in the headquarters of the Fondazione Banco di Napoli, in via dei Tribunali, this is a treasure trove of historical certificates and giant accounting books documenting each and every expense of private citizens and social institutions from 1500 to present days.
The beautifully handwritten payment descriptions contained in these books tell the stories of hundreds of thousands of people and offer a fascinating and invaluable view over the history of the city and its role in the rise of the modern banking system.
I strongly recommend to join a guided tour, the guys are really knowledgeable and will share with you lots of anecdotes and interesting stories hidden among the pages of these amazing books, such as the the story of the Croatian merchant Radolovich Altarpiece 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 prominent 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 where they used the first catheters and did pioneering work in forensic medicine and autopsies.
Inside the complex you will find the Museo delle Arti Sanitarie, a small museum that retraces the city’s medical history through an amazing exhibition of historical surgical instruments and medical tools, including a 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-like installation where traditional statues are replaced by the representations of diseases and medical treatments.
The masterpiece of this complex is the Farmacia Storica degli Incurabili (Pharmacy of the Incurables), a fascinating place where science meets art. It is one of the oldest apothecaries in the world, dating back to the XVIII century, and seems to have been frozen in time. The first thing you’ll see is the reception hall with tens of majolica vases and jars containing an array of medicinal stuff (even kidney stones!) surrounded by lavish walnut wooden furniture and frescoed ceilings. Rich paintings and elegant vases decorate also the second, larger room you’ll visit that 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.
To visit the complex you must book one of the guided tours run by the volunteers of the Il Faro di Ippocrate association, you can find all information and their email address on this website (unfortunately only in Italian!).
4- Immerse yourself in the soul of the city
One of the first things I do when I’m in town is taking a walk 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. Here below a few examples…
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 you will learn all about the draining practice that took place here. Basically, the bodies of the deceased were placed in niches so that they would lose their fluids, while skulls were displayed on the walls with the rest of their bodies frescoed, representing the clothes and professional tools that symbolized the social status of the deceased.
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.
And then you should 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!
I know what you’re thinking – Sanità is too dangerous – but please don’t let your fears or bad reviews 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 like guided tours, then contact the guys of La Paranza a social organization born in this neighborhood.
Until next time,