There can be no overview of the legends of Naples without starting from the city’s own name, its name of myth: Parthenope – a name that connotes music, or actually song. Parthenope was in fact one of the three Sirens that Homer placed in the waters of the Gulf of Naples to fatally entice seafarers with their melodious voice. But shrewd Odysseus resisted their song, and the Sirens died of desperation, hurling themselves from the rocks and perishing in the water. Parthenope’s remains came ashore on the island of Megaride. Here, her body dissolved, giving life to the city: her head is the Capodimonte hill, while her tail is the hill known as Posillipo.
Today, the island of Megaride is home to one of the city’s symbolic monuments, the Castel dell’Ovo (or “Egg Castle”). This name derives from one of the most celebrated legends, which also involves the Roman poet Virgil. The figure of Virgil is shrouded in mystery, and throughout the Middle Ages Neapolitans attributed magical powers to him. Thus began the legend that an egg kept in the castle’s foundations ensured its stability and fortress: so long as the egg remained unbroken, the city of Naples would be kept safe.
For the city’s inhabitants, there is no figure richer in meaning and supernatural powers than its patron Saint Januarius. The Neapolitan people has always been accustomed to coexisting with a sometimes destructive nature. The saint is the city’s bulwark, showing his benevolence every year with the miracle of his blood liquefied in the ampoule. Between devotion and folklore, the rites connected to the adoration of St. Januarius are many, and very ancient. Here’s just one of them: the saint’s “relatives,” women who boast kinship with him and thus display a certain “confidence.” They, in fact, are at the front lines in the church on the day of the miracle, 19 September, pursuing the saint with bitter reproach if the liquefaction of the blood is late in manifesting itself.
Popular devotion also claims another place of significance to Neapolitans: the Fontanelle cemetery. A former ossuary in the old Sanità neighbourhood, it covers more than 3,000 m2 and holds the remains of an unspecified number of people, “pained souls” with no one to pray for them. This is why it is considered a particularly commendable gesture to adopt a skull – an abandoned soul – and to take care of it. There is no counting the anecdotes and interesting facts connected to this place, and a visit there will certainly be interesting if guided by a local.
Beyond the legends connected to the folklore and devotion peculiar to Neapolitans, some mysterious stories are shrouded in a darker allure. A city with such an ancient history cannot be without anecdotes, places, and people connected to ghosts and alchemy. One of the places most representative of this vein is the so-called Palazzo degli spiriti – a building strongly marked by the passage of the centuries, annexed to the nymphaeum and within the Posillipo archaeological park. Local children love it and fear it, with that blend of prudence and boldness coded in the Neapolitan DNA.
Without question, the most prominent figure in Neapolitans’ imagery of the world of magic and the occult is Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of San Severo. The universally famed Veiled Christ by sculptor Giuseppe Sammartino on display at the Cappella San Severo in the city’s historic centre is one of the world’s most well-known and admired artworks. The veil of marble covering Christ’s body is so light and astounding in its transparency that it gave rise to the myth that the Prince had found a way to transform fabric into stone.
The figure of Raimondo di Sangro is in some ways a disturbing one, nourished for centuries by a macabre tale of his infamous “anatomical machines” now housed at the chapel’s museum. These are two skeletons – a man and a woman – encased in their circulatory system. Legend relates that the Prince of Sansevero created a mercury-based substance that he injected into the unfortunate subjects to “metallize” the blood vessels. The revealed truth that the system of veins and arteries is artificial does nothing to impact the disturbing allure of the “anatomical machines.”
Contact Russo Agency to organize an alternative and fascinating tour of the city of Naples, in order to discover its secrets and curiosities and experience the most authentic face of an age-old city that never fails to leave an impression on the many visitors who choose it every year as a must-see destination on their holiday in Italy.