The taxi driver shouted, “Tell us! Tell us!” when his other passenger, a local journalist, announced that she’d had a fascinating dream the night before. She had dreamt of a large room in which there was an eagle. The driver shouted out a number. The eagle was accompanied by a lion. Another number. And so I received my first lesson in the Neapolitan interpretation of dreams and the Neapolitan relation to the dead.
In Naples, few things seem as important as the winning numbers in next Saturday’s lottery. It makes sense that the dead would wish to give their friends and relations the winning numbers and that they do so in dreams—but they speak in a difficult language, and it’s not easy to find a reliable interpreter. A fat dictionary called La Smorfia has dream symbols and images on one side of the page and corresponding numbers on the other—though all too often it offers alternative numbers for a given symbol, which only gets you so far.
And thus you need magic. You need the wise man, the assistito, who will ask all the subtle questions—what time of night, what was the mood and the lighting, was the dream in black and white or in color—so that he can tell you if it was one of those dreams and, if it was, guide you to the right answer. How does he know? The most common explanation is that he is in touch with the spirits of purgatory.
Since the dead are very much involved in luck, if you are on good terms with them, you have an excellent chance of success in everything from love to the lottery. The dead are a vital part of that chaotic network that connects past and present in Naples, and they are ubiquitous and hyperactive, as befits a place that was once a Greek necropolis. For a short period after death, it is believed, the spirit hovers close to the living world and may be able to intercede with the Divine to get favors or even miracles for those left behind.
If you go to a Neapolitan church, there’s a good chance you’ll find one of the parishioners making deals with the local Madonna (Cure my son, and I’ll work at the orphanage for five years) or demanding attention. I once heard a woman in one of the most important churches in town yelling at the Madonna: “My husband’s got a broken leg, my daughter does God knows what every night, we have nothing to eat. . . . Do something!”
Neapolitans take great care to ensure that their loved ones and their neighbors die well and are properly mourned so that their spirits will lie in peace. There is a gradual passage from earth to the Great Beyond, and contact continues between the two realms for some time. Naples has well-established rituals and prayers for family members to perform, all aimed at easing the suffering of the dying person and encouraging him to accept his destiny.
If a person dies well, he will find peace, and the survivors can hope to join him in a better place when they die. But if he dies badly, he may be doomed to lurk in the world of the living: haunting houses and disrupting everyone’s life. Spirits who do not find peace lurk at the margins of the world. Sometimes they are picturesque, sometimes helpful and lovable, sometimes destructive and annoying, like the playful little monk (monaciello) who haunts houses and creates noise and confusion. One family tried to escape him by changing houses, only to find the monaciello in the new place asking “Why did we move?”
Neapolitans want to die at home, and, if someone is unlucky enough to die in a hospital, most doctors will falsify a document, proclaiming the person “very close to death” so that the family can avoid having him taken to the hospital morgue, as the law requires. The body of the dead person is quickly cleaned, clothed, and laid out on a bed with its feet facing the door, to enable the spirit to leave easily. Lights and candelabras are constantly lit to prevent shadows in which the spirit might hide; mirrors are covered for fear that the spirit might recognize itself and get trapped. It’s important for the spirit to enter the next world easily and quickly.
When mourning is complete, the body is placed in a coffin with a picture of his patron saint and a piece of paper with his name and the dates of his birth and death, thereby guaranteeing that he will retain his identity forever. Only then can the coffin leave the house and move to the church, in a procession whose size depends on the resources of the family. (One writer tells of a Neapolitan who made a decent living renting himself out as an “uncle from Rome” at such events, and it seems such practices are not uncommon.)
The body is exhumed one year after death, and once again cleaned and wrapped in a white sheet. If it is intact and dry, the soul has gone to the next level. The body is then placed in its final resting place and the family and community can cease mourning. If it is not intact, a new round of rituals and mourning are required.
Thus, in Naples, the dead are all around, sometimes in spirit and sometimes in, if not the flesh, then certainly the bones. Starting in the late nineteenth century, pious Neapolitans began to adopt the skeletons of the dead who had not received proper burial and whose bones were collected in a large underground cavern called the Fontanelle. Between 1591 and the early eighteenth century, Vesuvius erupted five times and the city also suffered three famines, two sieges of the plague, and a series of economic disasters. None of the hundreds of thousands of poor souls who died in these catastrophes had a proper death and burial. Their anonymity guaranteed that they had not received the prayers that would send them to their final destination.
The faithful seem to believe that the souls that animated these bones are suspended between heaven and hell, in the Neapolitan version of purgatory, and they hope that, by tending the bones and praying for the spirits, they can enable the souls to find peace and reach their final destination. In such cases and in many others, the Neapolitans not only have an ongoing conversation with the dead but exchange favors with them.
These suffering spirits trapped in purgatory, for whom the only hope is to find a living person to pray for them, appear to the living in dreams. Sometimes the spirits tell the dreamer to look in a specific location in the cavern, where the skull or, more rarely, the entire skeleton lies on the ground. In other cases, the dreamer has already visited the cavern and noticed a particular skull or skeleton, whose spirit then contacts him during the night. More rarely, the dreamer hasn’t been to the ossuary and the spirit asks him for help and guides him to the remains.
This intrusion of the dead into the dreams of the living became more common when the spirits protested against the closure of the ossuary. Several Neapolitans say they dreamed of spirits who asked them why it had been closed, why nobody came to tend to them, why no one was praying for them anymore. The dreamers protested to the authorities, who eventually permitted the site to reopen.
The dream establishes a dialogue between the two realms, removes the spirit from anonymity, and gives it a specific human identity. Some of the spirits have become quite famous. One is the Captain, an uninvited spectral guest with the ability to send the living to the nether regions. Another is Lucia, a princess who either died before her marriage or took refuge in the crypts beneath the church of Santa Maria del Purgatorio during a bombardment of the city and never returned. The fame of these spirits is so great that flowers are brought to their skulls, and Masses have even been devoted to them.
Once the dead have established contact with the living, the dreamer starts to tend to the remains. The bones or skull can even be taken home. Prayers are recited so that the spirit can be released from purgatory. In return, the spirit is asked for favors, for a good job, a good marriage, a healthy child, and, above all, for intercession on the dreamer’s behalf to obtain grace. The happy ending is full reciprocity: The dreamer’s family is better off, the path to heaven is eased, and the spirit is freed from purgatory and joins its own family in heaven.
The dreamer’s relationship with the spirit sometimes takes material form in a small box in which the skull and perhaps some bones are placed, along with the date of the adoption. The boxes (called houses) are kept in the cavern. Most of the houses in the Fontanelle date back to the Second World War and immediate postwar period, suggesting that, when catastrophe strikes, poor Neapolitans unite with the victims of disasters past.
This is not always the sort of religion approved by popes and cardinals. The Vatican has always been ambivalent about the wildcat, highly entrepreneurial religious activities that characterize Naples. The suffering souls are important, but their powers are limited, and the Church has always opposed such cults, on the grounds that only the saints could intervene with God to obtain grace or a miracle. The Vatican has ruled repeatedly that the faithful are forbidden to honor “anonymous human remains.” It’s quite all right to pray for the lost souls but not to ask them to arrange divine favors. But the practice continues, and the Vatican continues to condemn it. The most recent such verdict was handed down by an ecclesiastical tribunal in 1969.
Not that enthusiasm for the saints was diminished simply because Neapolitans prayed for the souls in purgatory. Hundreds of new saints were created in the seventeenth century, and the miraculous abilities of some of the old ones were greatly expanded. New catastrophes gave rise to new holy figures capable of saving body and soul. The fame and fortune of the city’s leading patron saint, St. Gennaro, were ensured in 1631, when, after frantic prayers from the faithful, the lava flow from Vesuvius stopped short of the city’s boundaries.
It surprises people to learn that so much of Neapolitan religion and culture revolves around death, because death has been banished to the margins of most of Western civilization’s contemporary culture. Still, it has not proved possible to banish death from Naples, which has seen so much of it, and whose people have lived in intimate contact with the dead for a very long time.
I think the vagueness of the boundary between the living and the dead has a lot to do with the ongoing creativity of the city. It eases anxiety about death—in the contemporary world, an enormous and largely unspoken fear that stifles the range of thought and art. The Neapolitan ease with the dead reminds the living that they are part of a continuum, and it gives them the faith to believe that their own identity and their own endeavors will continue after they have passed on. It makes it easier for them to maintain their connections with their own history—which so many contemporary Europeans and Americans increasingly ignore or falsify in the interests of current political fashion.
The great divide between Naples and the rest of Europe came in the second half of the nineteenth century, following the unification of Italy. For several hundred years, the continent had seen enormous religious and political wars, culminating in the Napoleonic war that came to an end at Waterloo in 1812. From then until the outbreak of the First World War, there was no continent-wide war. In that remarkably tranquil century, the Western attitude toward death underwent a striking evolution. Previously, death had been understood as altogether normal. In the nineteenth century, it came to be viewed as a violent intrusion into human affairs. The thought of leaving the world of the living became unbearable, and the requirement to remember the dead became a social imperative.
Those who could afford it sought to ensure they would not be forgotten. The dead became part of society, and the preservation of their memory in collective festivals was one way of ensuring their active presence. The nation was henceforth conceived of as an enormous community of past and present.
Predictably, much greater attention came to be paid to the location and care of cemeteries. Before, cemeteries had served a largely utilitarian function, and few Parisians got upset when, in the years just before the French Revolution, the five-hundred-year-old Cemetery of the Innocents was totally destroyed to make room for urban renewal. Just a century later, there were riots in Paris at the mere suggestion of doing the same to other cemeteries.
It would require a greater understanding of the human spirit than we possess to explain why the passionate Western embrace of the dead emerged at the moment when, for the first time in hundreds of years, so few people were actually dying in combat or in violent epidemics of the sort that had ravaged Naples so many times. But the new vision of death—and the importance of the dead—undoubtedly had something to do with the rise of modern nationalism, which incorporated religious rituals into secular political ceremonies. As religion was driven out the front door of respectable thought, it crept back in through political cults of the sort that eventually destroyed the heirs of the Enlightenment in the mass movements of the twentieth century. The core beliefs of the Enlightenment were unable to satisfy human passions, and, the more vigorously the intellectual elite asserted that science and logic could explain everything and eventually solve all problems, the more passionately people believed in otherworldly forces. The dead insisted on intruding into the otherwise ordered universe of the scientists and the philosophes.
There was no such dramatic change in Naples. The Neapolitans never lost contact with the dead and were not inclined to ask them to play a political role. For one thing, the residents of Naples resented the new nation-state of Italy (and in many ways still do) as yet another foreign conquest, this time by the kingdom of Savoy. Further, it was a particularly humiliating conquest, achieved as much by guile and corruption as by military accomplishment.
For Neapolitans, the unification of Italy was a catastrophe. It permanently deprived the city of its historic status as a major European capital. The Neapolitans were never tempted to honor their dead by linking them with a despised state. Furthermore, religion was alive and well in Naples—where the Enlightenment never fully took hold—a fact lamented by generations of progressive Neapolitan writers.
Popular beliefs, in fact, proved resilient. The vigorous response to catastrophe had placed the dead among the living, and it was not just the lost souls of purgatory who were referred to as our saints. Neapolitan saints are very active, and the ceremonies that celebrate these martyrs powerfully link the faithful with life and death, sin and redemption. Neapolitan saints remain deeply involved in the life of the city, from grand affairs of state to the outcome of the soccer championship.
We need look no farther than the most important patron saint of Naples, St. Gennaro, whose dried blood famously liquefies. (The miracle is mirrored in Pozzuoli, at the western edge of town, as the stone on which St. Gennaro is believed to have been martyred turns red.) He was decapitated by the Romans early in the fourth century, a victim of Diocletian’s repression of the Christians. The dramatic quality of the miracle is not merely putting the glass vials in sight of the silver bust of St. Gennaro, in which his severed head is said to lie. The vials are held up by the cardinal of Naples in sight of observers, who then begin to talk animatedly to the saint, and then, as time passes, to yell at him, demanding that he perform. The believers have always considered a speedy liquefaction as a portent for a good year, while a long delay suggests difficulties ahead, and disaster if the miracle does not occur.
The intimacy between St. Gennaro and the Neapolitans is more the kind of relationship one expects between good friends than between mortals and a saint. The faithful don’t so much pray to the Almighty for the miracle as demand it directly from the saint—and if he dawdles, they get angry with him. Indeed, popular rage at the saint is not unusual, and there is a distinct political, even democratic, element in his status. He has to earn his position, and if he performs badly he can be replaced.
In 1799, General Championnet went to the cathedral to obtain the saint’s approval for the French occupation of the city. For several hours, the blood remained congealed. Finally Championnet threatened the clerical authorities with death if the blood didn’t bubble within a few minutes. Ten minutes later the miracle occurred, and the Neapolitans, enraged at what they took to be an act of betrayal, carried the bust of St. Gennaro to the port and threw it into the sea. They then recruited St. Anthony to replace him, but he proved incapable of stopping another Vesuvian eruption. The bust was fished out of the bay, the lava flow stopped, and Gennaro was restored to his patronal status.
His is not the only such Neapolitan miracle. St. Patrizia’s blood liquefies every Tuesday morning around eleven o’clock in a convent just a few blocks from the cathedral. The blood of John the Baptist in the same convent liquefies on August 29. St. Lorenzo’s blood liquefied on August 10, the date of his martyrdom, though the miracle stopped in 1886. St. Stefano’s blood liquefied on August 3 and December 26, with the curious exceptions of the final years of World War I and of World War II, when the miracle ceased altogether, while St. Pantaleone’s blood liquefied for many centuries but stopped in 1950. St. Alfonso dei Liguori’s blood liquefied on August 2, starting in 1851, though the vial containing his blood was stolen in 1980. Luigi Gonzaga’s blood began to liquefy in 1841 and liquefied entirely for the last time in 1950, when, on May 19, it liquefied. (Ever since, it changes color on June 21.)
As you might expect, many Neapolitan intellectuals hate the tenacity of these old beliefs, which they consider superstitions. The greatest living Neapolitan novelist, Raffaele La Capria, wrote an impassioned book, The Lost Harmony, bemoaning the tragedy of his city, arguing that such Neapolitans were members of a vast cult of the past, because contemporary Naples remains undefined. To be Neapolitan means “not to have fulfilled one’s destiny.”
He is a great writer—Ferito a Morte is truly a masterpiece—but I think he’s too hard on his own people. His own creativity, and that of an entire generation of writers and artists, was driven by the lack of definition he so detests. Like most European intellectuals, La Capria loves the French Revolution, but that great event had a mixed progeny, including fascism and communism. Like most European intellectuals, he is a secularist, but Neapolitan religion has enabled its believers to understand their place in a universe that is far richer and, paradoxically, far more realistic than the Enlightenment vision of history as the march of Reason.
Neapolitans inhabit a realm outside the mainstream of Western history, and they are often viewed as oddities, impossible to understand and dangerous to live among. Their souls are severely tested in purgatory, and their bodies have a lot to endure. And yet, at the same time, Neapolitans have been spared, at least somewhat, the ravages of twentieth-century Europe. Their energies are intact, in no small part because their vision of life and death permits them a unique capacity for intellectual and spiritual creativity.
Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of more than twenty books, including Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and Tocqueville on American Character.