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Naples: the Miracle of San Gennaro

September 19th, 2011 - 7:03 pm

Monday was San Gennaro Day in Naples, honoring the city’s patron saint.  The linked article is quite good, but there is a lot more you need to know, both about the saint himself, and about Naples.  I’ve just published a blessedly short book about Naples, and San Gennaro makes multiple appearances.  He’s an unusual sort of saint, like many of his Neapolitan cohorts.  His miracle, which takes place (or sometimes doesn’t, an omen of impending doom) three times a year, is typical of Neapolitan miracles.  His congealed blood liquefies and bubbles, in front of an assembly of the faithful who call upon him to get on with it so they can get on with their affairs.  If he dawdles, they shout, and sometimes even curse, until the deed is done.  Or not.

San Gennaro is one of several Neapolitan saints whose blood flows on certain days of the year.  Indeed, this sort of miracle is so common that you can buy a book called “Bloody City,” which tells you all about whose blood is liquefying on which day.  I’ve given some of the details in Virgil’s Golden Egg, and tried to explain the significance of the phenomenon.

The Vatican has mixed feelings about San Gennaro, and a few years back he was demoted in the saintly hierarchy.  The locals couldn’t care less.  “Don’t worry about it, San Gennaro,” they sprayed on the walls of the cathedral.  They remained faithful.  They had learned from an earlier abandonment that San Gennaro deserved their loyalty.

When French troops took Naples at the end of the eighteenth century, the Napoleonic general went to the archbishop and asked him to celebrate the miracle, thereby implicitly blessing the French conquest.  The faithful were not enthusiastic about this blackmail, especially because the battle for Naples had been very fierce and bloody.  Nonetheless, the audience gathered, the archbishop prayed…and nothing happened.  After a few hours, General Championnet gave the archbishop an ultimatum:  either the blood liquefied within ten minutes, or the archbishop would become a martyr and join San Gennaro in paradise.  A few minutes later, the miracle took place.

The Neapolitans were enraged, and they carried the silver bust of San Gennaro from the cathedral, down Via Duomo to the port, and dumped him in the bay.  A few days later they adopted San Antonio as their new patron.  But after some years, the great volcano Vesuvius erupted, and the lava flowed toward the city.  San Antonio was asked to save Naples, but the lava flowed onward.  In desperation, San Gennaro was fished out of the bay, and brought face to face with the molten lava, which promptly stopped.   San Gennaro was restored to his chapel in the cathedral, where he remains, except for “his days,” on which he is paraded through the city, accompanied by the civic leaders of Naples.

Many famous writers have been drawn to San Gennaro, and indeed one of the best descriptions of the miracle, and the crowd that gathers for it, was done by Charles Dickens (British writers often developed an intense affection for Naples;  my favorite is Mary Shelley, who went there to write Frankenstein).

As I say at the beginning of the book, Naples is all about magic (Virgil himself was a sorcerer, and his golden egg is a magical device protecting a beautiful castle from destruction, and guarantees Naples eternal life).  From San Gennaro to the pizza (which the Neapolitans invented).  It’s well worth your time;  whether you visit it physically or intellectually, it’s fascinating, beautiful and enchanting.

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