In Rome, early Christians escaped persecution and buried their dead in catacombs. From the 18th century until the mid-twentieth century, tourists doing the “Grand Tour” of Europe escaped the heat of Roman summers in them.
Sophisticated travelers and pilgrims have visited the catacombs of Rome for centuries. Even the most sophisticated travelers don’t know there are catacombs in Naples — the catacombs where Naples’ patron saint, San Gennaro, was buried. (He was later moved to the Cathedral of Naples.)
My specialty is BEEN THERE, HAVEN’T DONE THAT — recommending sites around the world missed by most tourists — even missed by most natives. The San Gennaro Catacombs is a site that should be visited. The San Gennaro Catacombs, the most special in Italy (yes, including Rome), is accessible to all — literally.
If you’re squeamish about visiting tombs or you have claustrophobia, you must put the San Gennaro Catacombs on your sightseeing list. Comparing the catacombs of San Gennaro in Naples to the catacombs in Rome is like comparing a pre-war (WWII) Manhattan apartment to one built in the 1960s. The first thing you notice about the San Gennaro Catacombs is the height of the ceiling. The spaces look more like the naves of cathedrals than the crawlspaces of Roman catacombs. There is a dignified grandeur to these catacombs that all the Roman catacombs lack. These are catacombs even a claustrophobe can love.
Fresco of San Genaro e 2 women
These catacombs are the pride of Naples, which (to stick with religious lingo) have been resurrected since the last time I was in that city more than 25 years ago. Volunteer archaeologists keep on digging deeper — finding more levels (they’ve just unearthed a third level) — just as architects and lighting technicians find new ways to dramatically display the interior. Archaeologists now believe that the these catacombs date earlier than previously thought — from the second century AD through the tenth-century — the years of active burial. (An oxymoron, since if you’re still “active” you don’t want to be buried.) The total effect is — what it should be for a religious structure — ethereal.
Even the stone is a different color than the Roman catacombs — a yellow tufa. This yellow-orange-brown effect, with deep carving, makes me feel as if I’m in an “interior Petra”!
There are many differences with the Roman catacombs. In addition to high ceilings — and some barrel vaulting — and an overall feeling of spaciousness — here the actual burial slots are usually placed in arched niches. Some of the 5th-century decoration of these arched-tomb vaults have painted decoration that reminds me of the mosaic patterns in the tomb of Galla Placidia, also 5th century, in Ravenna.
San Gennaro Catacomb Barrel Vault
San Gennaro Lighting
Roman catacombs are adorned with many precedent-setting Early Christian frescoes, such as the first depiction of Christ as a shepherd. There are many astonishing Early Christian frescoes in the San Gennaro Catacombs, too. There’s a fresco of San Gennaro with St. Peter in which St. Peter is depicted, beardless — a rarity. There’s a fresco of San Gennaro with Mt. Vesuvius. And there’s even a fresco with San Gennaro with a woman on each side. (No, San Gennaro was not the Hugh Hefner of the 5th century.) Some scholars believe that the depiction of San Gennaro surrounded by women indicates that women probably participated in Early Christian services. So the San Gennaro Catacombs has both artistic and historic value.
While religious Christians believe that Christ healed the sick, every visitor in every state of mobility can visit the San Gennaro Catacombs. Naples’ San Gennaro Catacombs is the only catacombs that are accessible to all. The red carpet (literally a red carpet) welcomes all. This accessibility is a first in catacombs anywhere in the world!
How do you get to the San Gennaro Catacombs? Any set of wheels will do it. I recommend seeing the San Gennaro Catacombs in combination with another BEEN HERE, HAVEN’T DONE THAT site — Naples’ Capodimonte Museum — one of the most under-appreciated art galleries in the world. The San Gennaro Catacombs is just down the hill [behind the St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican) look-a-like church of Madre del Buon Consiglio] cut into the rock that underlies the museum.
And how to get to Naples? The easiest way is nonstop from the USA on Meridiana Airlines.
Prof. Barry GoldsmithTravel and CultureBarry.Goldsmith@nyu.edu