Easter is just around the corner, and like Christmas, it's a festival that's very important in the Neapolitan life. That's why I thought it would be very interesting to write about religion in Napoli and how deep the connection is between religion and the city. As soon as you step into Napoli, it's everywhere, not only in the churches but also in the streets.
During the centuries, an incredible number of churches (over 448) have been built in the heart of the city, to control the criminality and to comfort and help the people against poverty and the plague. That's why today we have real treasures in every street which makes the city even more special. Many Neapolitans, are still very religious and express this sentiment in many ways as public and private devotion, not only in the churches, but also in their own homes and even in the street.
If you have a wander around the city, you will certainly bump in to an aedicule on a street, it's like a shrine but different. It's an architectural structure which might contain images, statues, flowes, lights and candles. Its origin is very old and can be traced back to the greeks who used to distribute images of gods along the old city of Neapolis. During the time of King Charles III of Bourbon in the 18th century, many aedicules were built, not only for religious purposes, but also to light up the narrow dark streets during the night due to the candles.
Some aedicules have statues in terracotta with the shapes of naked men and women burning in flames. They are the 'anime pezzentelle', the poor souls' of sinners in Purgatory waiting for absolution, in order to enter Paradise. These statues have the features of real people, made for the relatives from the workshops in San Gregorio Armeno, in order to ask the people to pray for their lost souls. You can find many of these aedicules in the Spanish Quarter, Pizzofalcone and in the inner city.
Another expression of devotion is the ex-voto, a votive offering to a saint or divinity in fulfilment of a vow, a gift of devotion or gratitude. For example, people used to and still do, offer a letter and a metal plate with the shape of a body part or organ to a saint, or the Virgin Mary in order to receive healing. Many of these plates can be found in churches around Naples, like at the Gesu' Nuovo in the centro storico.
The guglia is some of the most interesting religious structure in Napoli. It is a pinnacle or obelisk with saints, putti and angels raised to the sky. There are quite a few in the city. The most important is the Guglia dell'Immacoltata (Obelisk of the Immaculate Mary). Situated in piazza del Gesu' in the heart of the old city, it was commissioned by the Jesuits in 1743 and funded by donations. This theatrical obelisk dominates the square with its rich decorations of statues, reliefs and medallions. It was designed by the architect Giuseppe Genuino and decorated by Matteo Bottigliero and Francesco Pagano in the rococo style. At the top is the gilded copper statue of Mary. Still today, on the 8th of December every year, the day of the celebration of the Immaculate, the mayor and the cardinal place a ladder against the monument and climb up to place a crown of flowers on the head of the madonna.
The second most important and ancient guglia is the Guglia di San Gennaro, dedicated to the patron saint of Naples Saint Gennaro. It is situated in piazza Sisto Riario Sforza, near The Pio Monte della Misericordia (the church with Caravaggio's painting seven acts of Mercy, see my blog) and not far from the Duomo, where the celebrations of the saint still take place. This guglia was made by Cosimo Fanzago, one of the most important Neapolitan sculptors, a few years after the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631. The Neapolitans believed (and still do now) that Saint Gennaro protected the city from the eruption. A group known as The Delegation of the Treasure of San Gennaro decided to raise a statue to the saint. The guglia is a celebration of the baroque style. The base is decorated with volutes and sirens and at the top stands a bronze statue of San Gennaro, looking out watchful over his city.
The third guglia is the obelisk in piazza San Domenico, built in 1656 by the Neapolitans for the Dominican order to prevent the plague. For the importance of the work was called initially Cosimo Fanzago, whom was already working at the San Gennaro's guglia, and completed by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro in 1736.
It is so strong in our culture that even today we Neapolitans create new symbols of devotion. It is not a scandal to find in the old town the aedicule dedicated to Diego Maradona, the Argentinian footballer who played for Napoli in the 80s. Yes, why not?. For many Neapolitans he is the greatest football player they ever had, who made Napoli title winners. He is a little bit like Saint Gennaro who protected the city from the volcano, isn't he?
Very popular is jewellery inspired by the ex-voto. The Neapolitan artist Daria Cadalt is the designer of the La Petitpoup Accessories, a handmade collection of necklaces, made out of gypsum with the shapes of small body parts, arms and hands. If you are interested in Daria's work, have a look at her Facebook page or her youtube channel, La Petitpoup Accessories.