Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe holds the vials containing the blood of San Gennaro during the rite of its dissolution (Photo by Paola Magni/CC BY 2.0)

(This is the first of a two-part article)


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Naples is a city of eccentricities and ironies, to be sure. Though the city is notorious for its urban plight including political corruption, high unemployment, awful traffic congestion, and petty crime, Neapolitans are fiercely proud of their city.

Not only do Neapolitans excuse their city’s reputation as one of Italy’s most chaotic cities, they appear to revel in it. Whether it’s the frenzied roads, the graffiti-covered buildings, or the overcrowded apartment buildings, Neapolitans don’t seem to mind. One would think that the presence of its homegrown crime syndicate, la camorra, would be a mark of shame. Yet, Neapolitans seem to even take pride in their criminals’ cleverness in bilking the government in so-called white-collar crime.

On the other hand, Neapolitans have ample positive reasons to take pride in their city. Its list of accomplishments are impressive. Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was a main hub of Magna Graecia, and it played a key role in the merging of Greek culture into Roman society. The Sirens from the Greek Odyssey lured their victims to the rocks near Naples.

In more modern times, Naples can boast nothing less than the invention of the pizza. Other contributions include music, and the invention of the romantic guitar and the mandolin. There is the mask, Pulcinella, and so on. So much has the historic city center of Naples contributed, it is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Naples reached its golden age in the 18th century. As the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Naples was on par with Vienna, Paris, London, and Florence, as one of Europe’s most regal cities. Its royal palace in nearby Caserta – the residence of the House of Bourbon – was the largest in Europe eclipsing those of Versailles, Buckingham Palace, Vienna, Prague, and Madrid.


As such, Naples boasts spectacular palaces, museums, and castles. Its churches – constructed and embellished by Naples’s most noble families – offer plenty for visiting pilgrims.

Additionally, Naples’s popular religious traditions and devotions – especially to saints – is legendary. The lore of the “treasure of San Gennario” has lent itself to countless films and legends. In a city that has no less than 52 patron saints (yes, fifty-two), many Neapolitans are just as loyal to their saints as they are to their soccer team. Naples’s blend of royal history and popular devotions make it an unparalleled city for pilgrimage.

The only caveat is that visitors need to be able to hustle their way through the crowds, see beyond the graffiti-covered facades, and avoid getting pickpocketed or otherwise gypped off somewhere along the way.

The Duomo

The first stop on the pilgrimage itinerary in Naples is the Duomo, the cathedral. Originally built in the fourth century as an ancient Christian basilica over a pagan Greek temple dedicated to Apollo, the present edifice is in the French Gothic style from the High Middle Ages. Only the baptistery, from the fifth century, has been preserved.

Apart from its notable artwork, impressive nave, funerary tombs, and numerous side chapels, the cathedral is known throughout the world for the miracle of the blood of San Gennaro, the city’s main patron saint.

San Gennaro

St. Januarius (San Gennaro) was a bishop martyred under Diocletian around 305 AD. His body was brought to Naples around 400 AD. Few details are known about the saint’s life, though legends abound.

Off the right aisle of the nave is the Chapel of St. Januarius. The chapel also functions as the cathedral treasury (Tesoro). A tabernacle behind the main altar contains a silver reliquary bust containing the head of St. Januarius.

There are two vials containing San Gennaro’s coagulated blood that liquefies three times each year. The most important day takes place on September 19, the saint’s feast day. The archbishop of Naples presides over a Mass and ritual marking the liquefication. After the blood liquefies, the bishop places the vials on the altar for eight days so the faithful can venerate the relics. A 21-gun salute then sounds off from the 13th-century Castel Nuovo. It is said that if the blood fails to liquefy, a calamity will take place in or around Naples.

Naples Underground

For your next stop on the pilgrimage route, a visit to Naples Underground may be worth a detour. Though not a religious site, a tour of the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the city provides an interesting and educational experience of the history of Naples.

Hidden forty meters below the bustling streets in the heart of Naples is a series of passageways. Ancient Greeks carved the soft underground tufa limestone in the fifth century BC to build the city’s first edifices. In later epochs, the tunnels were used for purposes as diverse as cisterns and bomb shelters. (Other shadowy activities that took place over the centuries in the dark tunnels below are described during the visit.)

To get there, exit the Duomo and turn left on Via Duomo. In just eighty meters, turn right on Via dei Tribunali. In 200 meters, you will see the large basilica of San Paolo Maggiore on your right. (It’s worth a peek inside for its ornate interior). Turn right just beyond the church, walk the length of the nave, and you’ll come to the entrance to Naples Underground on the left.

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(This is the first of a two-part article)

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