Postcard from Naples, Italy: The most bejeweled saint

164 rubies, 198 emeralds and 3,326 diamonds adorn the gold mitre created by Matteo Traglia in 1713 for a bust of San Gennaro

Gennaro, or Januarius, ascended through the ranks of early Christians to become Bishop of Naples. Unfortunately for him, this was during the time period when Emperor Diocletian was at his most testy. In the year 305, the bishop and some of his fellow practitioners were sentenced to be thrown to the bears awaiting them in an amphitheater. Legend claims the bears refused the proffered meal, so the emperor was forced to change their sentence to beheading, which proved more successful in achieving their martyrdom.

Later, San Gennaro’s remains were moved to catacombs in Naples that bear his name. But his remains no longer are found there. At some point, his body went elsewhere while his head remained in Naples. Finally in 1497 a cardinal in Naples, where Gennaro is the city’s primary patron saint, managed to regain the body and reunite them in a handsome crypt below the cathedral, which bears the name of San Gennaro as well.

Back in 305, one of San Gennaro’s followers salvaged two ampules of his blood after his beheading. Their whereabouts for the next thousand years or so are uncertain, but they surfaced and were secured in the church. Not surprisingly, the blood had dried up by then. But soon after, its caretakers observed it spontaneously liquifying.

Creating much excitement among the faithful, the liquification supposedly occurs to this day three times a year – on the Feast Day of San Gennaro, September 19; on December 26, the celebration of his patronage of Naples; and finally in May to mark the reunification of his body parts. Sometimes one of the ampules liquifies when visited by popes. This miracle failed to occur when Pope Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI arrived at San Gennaro, but supposedly an ampule half-liquified for Pope Francis, demonstrating San Gennaro’s strong support for his reign.

Survivors from several 16th-century disasters wanted to show their gratitude to the city’s patron saint and decided to erect a chapel adjacent to the cathedral to honor him. Citizens stepped forward to donate huge numbers of gemstones to commission appropriate tributes. One is a stunning necklace created by Michele Data in 1679; another is the jewel-encrusted mitre at the top of this post.

Additional treasures were accumulated to add to San Gennaro’s treasures. Major silver statues of saints among them.

The unusual aspect of the Treasures of San Gennaro is ownership. They belong to the citizens of Naples themselves, not the Catholic Church. They escaped confiscation by the state of Italy when it was unified. Periodically rumors spring forth the Vatican is trying to get control of them, sparking major protests in Naples, one as recent as 2016.

Sorry, so distracted by the shimmering jewels that have neglected to make much mention of the Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, itself. The initial construction of the cathedral was commissioned by King Charles I (see earlier post) but was not completed until the 14th century. Mosaics from the 4th century are found in an adjacent baptistry predating the cathedral.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: Frisky gods frolicked in the buff

Artemis of Ephesus, Goddess of Fertility, 2nd Century

In the mid-1700s, Charles III of Bourbon (1716-1788), King of Naples, began exploring the towns buried by Vesuvius and combined some of those finds with works of art he moved from palaces in Rome and Parma he inherited from his mother, Elisabeth Farnese (1692-1766), Queen of Spain. His son, Ferdinando IV (1751-1825), moved the treasures into a building that originally was a 16th-century riding school and later the university. Today the structure serves as the National Archaeology Museum or Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN).

The mosaics from Pompeii were my favorite part of the museum, but, unfortunately the galleries containing the largest mosaics were closed temporarily for renovation. No photos appear here of the outside of MANN because it was completely covered by scaffolding, possibly removed by now.

While ancient Romans favored wearings togas, tunics, stolas and pallas, many of their gods tended to frolic shamelessly in a bacchanalian existence, cavorting and coupling in fashions far from puritanical.

This is evident throughout the impressive museum, but even more so in the Gabinetto Secreto, or Secret Cabinet. In this gallery clearly marked with a warning as to its mature content, one finds the more pornographic-seeming artifacts from Pompeii and erotic objects of the Borgia Collection. The only one of the above images shot in the Secret Cabinet is that of the enormously endowed god Priapus, kind of an X-rated scarecrow threatening evil-doers with rape.

Postcard from Herculaneum, Italy: Hot volcanic ash buried town for centuries

View of Mount Vesuvius from Vomero neighborhood in Naples

Although a gorgeous backdrop on the Sea of Naples, Mount Vesuvius is not sleeping. The only active volcano on the mainland of Europe erupted as recently as 1944, showering ash and rocks upon the Allied forces establishing an airbase nearby.

But the volcano is most known for its spectacular explosion in the year 79, an event reputed to have killed as many as 16,000 citizens of the Roman Empire.

From “Visiting Pompeii” on World Archaeology:

At peak intensity, the eruptive column reached a height of 30km (about 18 miles) or more as the mountain ejected 150,000 tons of material per second…. The air-fall of ash, pumice and occasional rock fragments, accumulating at about 15cm an hour, eventually covered Pompeii to a depth of almost 3m (close to 10 feet)….

The mountain had not finished its work, however, and only now, in the final six hours or so of the eruption, did it became truly lethal….

“A fearful black cloud,” Pliny reports, “was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. …Soon afterwards the cloud sank to earth and covered the sea ….”

It took perhaps five or six minutes to reach Pompeii from the lip of the crater: a dense, rolling, ground-hugging mass of gas, ash and rock (the pyroclastic flow), preceded a few seconds in front by a scorching blast like that from a flamethrower…. At its hottest, where temperatures reached anything from 400 ° to 800 ° C, the ‘black cloud’ carbonized wooden timbers, doors and shutters, and killed those it struck instantly, as brains boiled and skulls exploded in the flash. Others, where the heat was less, were asphyxiated as they breathed in hot gas and incandescent ash….

In the 24 hours plus that the eruption had lasted, it is estimated that Vesuvius had unleashed thermal energy 100,000 times greater than that of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima.

Strangely, the destruction of Pompeii and other towns around the base of the volcano preserved the ruins for thousands of year.  Ancient cities frozen in time.

I was fortunate to have visited Pompeii in college, but much has been uncovered, restored and opened to public since then.

The flaw is that the 163-acre archaeological park is no secret. The number of tourists swarming through the treasured ruins is creeping toward 4-million annually. Photographs such as the lead one for an October story in the New York Times, “Can a Restored Pompeii Be Saved from ‘Clambering’ Tourists?,” scared us away. Paige McClanahan writes that nearly 450,000 people overwhelmed Pompeii in the month of July.

In contrast, only about 300,000 tourists visit Herculaneum a year. So instead, we opted for the much smaller town, a little closer to Naples, not as spectacular but not over-crowded.

The first official explorations at Herculaneum were begun in 1738, yet only a small portion of the once-wealthy port town has been excavated. While the archaeological zone is modest in size compared to Pompeii, the affluence of its residents is evidenced by abundant use of marble throughout.

For centuries, it was believed that almost the entire population of the town had been evacuated by sea before the worst of the eruption. But in the 1980s, digs uncovered skeletal remains of hundreds, huddled together under the arcades of the then-seaside boat houses, buried under ash while waiting ships that failed to save them.

We left them unmolested, as the hoards of tourists in Pompeii left us unmolested to explore Herculaneum at our own pace in peace.