Naples looks good from the harbor.
But we had plans, having visited Pompeii, plus seen the Archaeological Museum, where the goodies from Pompeii are housed. [Everything in situ is a copy]. This was to be the second highlight of our trip for me. We were bent in seeing 5 Caravaggios in one day.
The city of Naples had parked our ship so far from the terminal buildings, that they provided a free shuttle bus to get us to the hub [and the hubbub]; we easily found the Hop On-Hop Off [HoHo] bus from there. HoHo busses are all over the world and are a great value for money. You get earphones that tell you what you’re looking at in the language and volume of your choice.; you get off at the stop you want and re-board at that or any other stop. They are especially nice when you need a long air-conditioned sit-down, but are not ready to call it a day. And you get to keep the earphones.
Strange 12th century castle with neo-classic entryway.
“Are you here?” the conductor said loudly to me.
“I’m here!” I responded happily. I then realized she meant, “Can you hear?”
Our first hop off was at the top of Capodimonte [means top of the hill]. We knew that the St. Gennaro Catacombs had limited tours and might be crowded later.
So we took a scenic [sadly ugly] trip on the HoHo. We had remembered Naples fondly as a wonderful town. We had been treated courteously; after the museum, we walked all the way down Capodimonte, taking photos all the way and dropping into a bakery for some truly amazing bread, which we munched for the rest of the walk. We noticed people were not gregarious with strangers, but not rude. https://carolbuckles.livejournal.com/22085.html
Notes on the current scene:
- The buildings are only held up by the torn, glued on handbills.
- Too much graffiti, and not enough paint on the buildings otherwise.
- Terrible driving. Vespas, skidding on the decorative cobblestone streets, follow no known rules of the road.
- The symbol of Naples [and chief tourist bait] is called the horn. It is in fact a Priapus, dating from pagan days when the male organ was considered by the Greeks to be protection from evil. These were then made of red coral and were given to babies as a birth present. They could teethe on them and be safe from curses! You can find these in any number of child portraits, for the last 3000 years or so. But the Neopolitans4 have forgotten the history and now these horns are available in any medium, size or color. If I’d have found one of coral, I would have bought it for the sheer pagan connection. But they were all CTC3.
- Trash and garbage were everywhere and had even washed down into the harbor. This was especially shocking, since the world’s oceans have been cleaned up to an amazing degree over the years.
So very Naples: trash as planters + graffiti + handbills
However, Naples has many things that can be found nowhere else.
Among the treasures are the catacombs. Ron and I haven’t visited true catacombs before, only a few funerary cellars in churches. So we were well past due to go. The Catacombs of San Gennaro [yes, he’s buried there] are intriguingly inside the hill of Capodimonte. Since the tours are hourly and limited, we bought our ticket and sat around in a very nice room with drinks, WiFi and shopping. Right on time, our young guide came to lead us down [down, down] dozens of meandering steps and through charming courtyards, all being re-habbed.
This is one of the reasons I love to travel—the unexpected, the charming, the unlikely, the beautiful, the stunning, all on the way to where you’re going.
The catacombs were opened in the 2nd century AD. At this time, Christians were still persecuted and had to be careful. Then, Capodimonte was still out of town and off the beaten path. But, both to be cautious and because Christian art was new, pagan symbols were used to paint frescoes in the catacombs. So,
The nude male and female gods became Adam and Eve.
Grapes, the symbol of Bacchus, god of wine, came to mean the blood of Christ.
The shepherd of Hermas in pagan terms, became The Good Shepherd, symbol of Christ.
The peacock of Hera was taken to mean rebirth in heaven.
Family tomb with Apostles
The tombs were cut into the soft volcanic tufa, making hallways, chapels, floor burials, columns, all going back many hundreds of feet. Light was provided by oil lamps placed on tiny jutting shelves left on the walls. The excavators, who removed all the human remains, found that the floor tombs were like lasagna, layer upon layer, bodies laid on top of each other over the years. The wall tombs were cut into the hallways, or made into family chapels, often with devotional space, altars and frescoes, with the graves sealed with rock and plaster. The catacombs struck me as a simple and beautiful statement of faith. “Here we lie and wait for you, Jesus.”
The Catacombs of San Gennaro
There was one large marble baptismal pool, large enough to lie down in, but round [room for the baptiszer?], from the 2nd century also. Next to that was a 3rd century chapel, cut from the living rock and quite spacious. The roughhewn altar had an 18” square window cut into the vertical face, called a “confessional hole” through which a penitent might touch holy relics and pray.
Slowly climbing our decrepit way from the carvern-like, dark and dry catacombs to the street above, windy and humid, was a walk from the early days of Christianity to a shockingly complex world.
But we had to find Caravaggio’s magnificent painting “The Seven Mercies.”
The painting is chronicled wonderfully in a recent non-fiction book [The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting by Caravaggio Changed an Ordinary Life Today by Terence Ward.] I bought the book because we were already planning to see the painting, but the story made our quest imperative.
“The Seven Mercies”, seen from a private box high above the chapel
The Pio Monte della Misericordia is an ongoing charitable organization set up in 1601 by seven rich young men. The chapel was built as their private place of worship, but is now open to the public for a modest fee. The rooms in the large, court-yarded building above and around the chapel are still in use by members of the organization, as is evidenced by the modern computers on lavish Baroque furniture. We learned that the catacombs are also maintained by this group, who also run a theater group, orchestra and sports facilities for the under-privileged children of Naples.
Finally, after being gob-smacked by Caravaggio and enjoying the rest of the art in the building, we were driven into the street by hunger [one of the mercies is feeding the poor. See Mat. 25:31-46]. We wandered looking for a nice sit-down, but wound up returning to the chapel area to dine in a courtyard bistro. The waiter had to drag out a table and chairs for us. We couldn’t read enough Italian to decipher the menu and the English menu was only pizza. We ordered the Margherita pizza, made in honor of the visit of that Queen in 1889, with the colors of the Italian flag: green [basil], white [mozzarella] and red [tomato sauce]. By the way, the term pizza evolved from the word for flatbread in the Near East = pita. Amazingly, we got a whole pizza for €5!
We laughed out loud when we realized this little place was named Trattoria Caravaggio. It is just the sort of place he would have loved. Especially the tables lined up to seat 20+ young German students on tour. Since the painter like to work with live models, often street people, those sleek, healthy faces would have wound up as angels in one of his paintings.
Our quest for further Caravaggios was thwarted. We went to a church where there were supposed to be 2 paintings, but they had been moved to the Capodimonte Museum, where we had read there were 2 more. We enjoyed a very nice Raphael and a so-so Titian.
Utterly worn out, we were unable to even consider going to the museum. We returned to the HoHo, which retraced our path through town, and finally to the ship. But not in despair: we had done a new thing [catacombs] and seen a nearly perfect thing [Seven Mercies] and lived to tell!
N4: 131 Naples Italy edition
1 Cousin Vinny’s: a stop on a bus tour that involves a store, often with a demo of what they make there and a long opportunity to purchase. Always includes restrooms.
2 Trough: an all –you-can -eat buffet. Always looks more delicious than it is.
3 CTC is Cheap Tourist Crap. It is not necessary inexpensive. Often to be found in Cousin Vinny stores. One must sort through and can sometimes find treasures.
4 Neapolis was the original Greek town, now slurred into “Naples”. It merely means “New Town “ but Americans retain the name in Neapolitan ice cream. Can we have some now?