NAPLES—Naples has been my city of escape and refuge for much of the 22 years I have lived in Italy. I rarely send people to Naples without me. I’d rather take them myself to make sure they aren’t distracted by the pandemonium or sidetracked trying to figure out where Elena Ferrante lived.
Visiting Naples should instead be like going to see an old friend whose company you enjoy but whom you feel no obligation to constantly talk to. The cadence of its chaos is at once soothing and exhilarating. Neapolitan opera, architecture, and art are experiences unto themselves, as is the city’s struggle with the Camorra, as the local mafia is known, and the population’s perseverance both because of and in spite of it. But there is much more to this exotic city than its obvious charm.
It’s easy to just check off the extensive list of castles and royal palaces and feel that you have conquered the city. But the most alluring side of Naples is one you can’t see at all, in the ghosts that haunt many of its picturesque alleyways and open spaces.
One in particular is Parthenope, a seductive siren after which Naples is nicknamed. According to myths and legends, the volcanoes of southern Italy were created by Demeter, the goddess of harvest and earth’s fertility. She made them erupt with fire to help the sirens of the sea find their way after she granted them wings in a feeble attempt to locate her missing daughter Persephone, whom she birthed after a night of passion with Zeus, and who had been kidnapped by Pluto, king of the underworld. One of the Persephone’s sister sirens was Parthenope, a particularly seductive creature who still symbolizes the intersection between beauty, danger, attraction, and repulsion.
Parthenope and the other sirens used their seductive song to lure sailors to the coastal rocks where sea nymphs would then drown them. When the sea captain Ulysses, as depicted in Homer’s Odyssey, foiled the temptation of the siren’s sweet song by blocking his sailors’ ears with wax and tying himself to his ship’s mast, Parthenope killed herself in despair. Her body washed up on a tiny peninsula off what is now the city center called Megaride which is where romantics believe Naples was founded.
The 12th century Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg) now stands on the site where Parthenope’s body washed up, which is why the city’s nickname is Parthenope. The 12th Century castle is so named because the Roman poet Virgil is said to have buried an egg there as a tribute to the siren. If the egg were ever to break, the legend goes, the castle would crumble into ruins and Naples would be destroyed. The castle (and Naples) is still standing, and the little outcropping still marks a perfect starting point to get acquainted with the city. There isn’t much to see inside, but the views from the panoramic terrace are the best vantage point to look at the Naples waterfront and skyline, or look out to Mt. Vesuvius, which often belches a threatening stream of smoke.
Not far away is the Spaccanapoli, the only straight street in the entire city, so named because it slices through the historical center like a knife (spacca means slice, Napoli means Naples). Two importantly haunted churches mark this area.
One is Santa Maria della Anime ad Arco (Saint Mary of the Souls of Purgatory) which is the central gathering point for the ancient rituals of cult of the dead that many old Neapolitan women still practice today. They worship the skulls of the departed as an attempt to tend to the souls of those they believe are stranded in purgatory by lighting candles in the eerie church basement. Old votive candles are piled high in the corners, and the smell of incense and wax often drifts to the cobbled streets outside.
Further afield the Fontanelle Cemetery inside a tufa cave has an even larger collection of decorated skulls that have been adopted by these elderly women. There the skulls are lined in formations that depict flowers and royal crests, or stacked on shelves. The women move them around depending on the seasons and religious holidays. Throughout the city of Naples, take note of all the skulls that adorn cloistered gardens and church fronts. Touching them wards off the fate of purgatory.
The other important church in this area is the Sansevero Chapel, which has a famous life-sized sculpture of a veiled Christ in the main apse. The sculpture is a stunning work of artistry, carved from one slab of marble with such intricacy that the veins of Christ’s forehead and wounds from the crucifixion are somehow visible under the stone veil, but go down the spiral stairs to visit the ghost of Raimondo Di Sangro, the prince of the Sansevero dynasty whose so-called “black legend” still haunts the city.
The prince was an alchemist and the head of the Neapolitan Masonic Lodge in the 1700s for which he was eventually excommunicated after heinous crimes were discovered under his guidance. The crypt of the chapel still has two anatomical figures built on the real skeletons of a man and a woman who may have been deveined alive. Di Sangro commissioned the works to recreate the entire arterial and vascular system of each specimen, which he apparently researched through mad experiments on living servants who worked for the Sansevero family. The female figure once had a perfectly preserved fetus, but it was stolen from the crypt in the 19th century. Di Sangro’s spirit is still said to roam the city center, and has often been tied to the illicit crimes of the Camorra mafia clans.
One of the most haunting experiences in Naples lies underground where visitors can easily escape the stifling summer heat to explore the extensive labyrinth of ancient streets, aqueducts, and bomb shelters. The narrow, dark passageways aren’t suitable for the stout or claustrophobic, and can only be lit by hand-held candles. The bomb shelters are there, too, littered with children’s toys. And it is common to see the foundations of illegally built structures jutting into the ancient ruins that have long been buried below the modern city.
It is also common to see stray dogs roaming around the city and suburbs of Naples which are said to represent the many canines that were suffocated as entertainment in the Cave of Dogs just outside of town along the Phlegrean Fields volcano. While the practice was abolished in 1870, it was a common practice to demonstrate the high ratio of carbon dioxide from the live volcano overhead by leading dogs into the depths of the cave, where they would perish almost immediately. Luckily the practice ended, and Neapolitans are still adverse to culling the packs of dogs, which has led to a healthy population of strays.
Twice a year, in May and September, a religious ghost appears in the central cathedral in the center of Naples. A vial of coagulated blood of St. Gennaro, the patron saint of the city who protects Naples from Vesuvius and its many demons, is taken out of a locked cabinet and brought out during high mass attended by Neapolitan elite and curious onlookers. As the priest says mass, the congregation eagerly waits for word about the saint’s blood and whether it has yet turned to liquid. It almost always does, and those few years it has not have been marked by disasters like earthquakes, fires and losses suffered by the local soccer club. It is perhaps the most important of all Neapolitan spectacles to attend.
It’s little wonder that Naples is still known as Parthenope (and still associated with guilty pleasures) to those who have given into the city’s distinct charms and temptations. The best way, by far, to witness them is to abandon reason and believe they are there.