Journey to the Catacombs of Naples: seven things to know

Journey to the Catacombs of Naples: seven things to know

Naples is a city full of history, suggestions and mysterious atmospheres. Under the frequented streets of the city, there is a labyrinth of tunnels, chapels and rooms: a real underground city steeped in history and spirituality, and highly significant for the Neapolitans. We are talking about the catacombs, whose name derives from the Greek expression “kata kumbus“, translatable as “near/under the caves”, underground cavities used in antiquity for the burial of the dead: the most ancient date back to the third millennium BC.


Fresco of San Gennaro in the catacombs

1. The Catacombs: Not everyone knows that there are over 10 Catacombs still existing in Naples, and the most famous of which are the Catacombs of San Gennaro, dating back to the 2nd century, the ones of San Gaudioso, of the fourth century, and the ones of San Severo.


San Gennaro catacombs, upper vestibule

2. Catacombs of San Gennaro: The Catacombs of San Gennaro, under the Santità district, are the best known for two reasons: they are the largest in Southern Italy – they cover about 5600 square meters dug into the tufa and present about two thousand loculi and 500 arcosoli – and contains the remains of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro. The Catacombs of San Gennaro were born from the enlargement of a noble chapel, after the deposition of Sant’Agrippino, the first patron of Naples, and they are arranged on two levels, lower and upper. The lower one is the oldest and dates back to the first and second centuries, the superior is known for the frescoes and for the “crypt of the bishops”, where some Neapolitan bishops are buried. In the “maior basilica” there are the remains of San Gennaro. Access is possible from Capodimonte and from the Basilica of San Gennaro extramoenia.

3. San Gaudioso: The Catacombs of San Gaudioso, located in the Stella district in the northern part of the city, can be reached from the church of Madonna della Sanità. The characteristics of this complex are the skulls embedded in the tunnels, deriving from the custom of the seventeenth century to keep the head of the corpses and fit them in the walls, painting below a body with characteristics that refer back to the life of the dead.


San Gaudioso catacombs

4. San Severo: The catacomb of San Severo is a cubicle belonging to a system of caves of very ancient extraction. It is located under the bottom of the church and the convent of San Severo Fuori le Mura. The bishop of Naples, Severo, was buried there in 410 AD.

5. Fontanelle cemetery: The Fontanelle cemetery is an ancient tufa cave used as an ossuary, located under the Santità district. It was founded around 1650 to accommodate the deaths of plague epidemics in 1956, and cholera from 1836, the year in which the cemetery was closed. It is known for the particular cult of “pezzentelle souls”, a custom that included the adoption by the faithful of the dead of Purgatory, called precisely “souls pezzentelle”, in exchange for graces and favors. The adopter chose a skull, called “capuzzella”, at the cemetery, cleaned it and visited regularly, placing it on a cushion and surrounding it with flowers and rosaries. If the “capuzzella” began to sweat, it meant that he was working in favor of the devotee: this phenomenon was actually due to the high humidity present in the quarry today. In 1969 the cardinal of Naples Ursi forbade this form of devotion considered as pagan and superstitious.


Catacombs of Naples

6. Naples Underground: The subsoil of Naples is not just Catacombs. The tunnels of the “Napoli Sotterranea”, more than 2 million m² excavated over 5 thousand years ago to obtain the blocks of tuff needed to build the city, were also used for aqueducts and water reserves, with the aim of feeding fountains and houses . During the Second World War, the undergrounds, equipped with lights and furnishings, were used as air-raid shelters to protect themselves from bombing. An excursion in the underground part of the city allows you to admire the remains of the ancient Greco-Roman aqueduct and the anti-aircraft shelters of the Second World War. Also, visit the War Museum, the Hypogeum Gardens, the “Arianna” Seismic Station, and more.

7. Underwater cities: Remaining in theme, at the end of the Gulf of Naples and along the coast of Posillipo, is the submerged park of Gaiola, consisting of two islets that host the remains of the Imperial Villa of Pausilypon; on the surrounding seabed are numerous archaeological finds frequented by particular species of marine flora and fauna. Not only that, a few kilometers from Gaiola, there is another marine area that once was a city on the surface: it is the submerged Park of Baia, called the “underwater Pompeii” for the aristocratic villas, the ancient harbor and the sculptures still preserved below sea level.

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