'Ha fatto il miracolo?'
he perform the miracle?'
|Statue of S. Gennaro
at the entrance
to the port of Naples
Neapolitans have asked themselves that question any number of times throughout their history. A few days after Giuseppe Garibaldi entered Naples (thus ending the 800-year history of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and creating modern Italy in the process), San Gennaro (St. Januarius), the patron saint of the city, indeed, performed the wonder right on schedule. Solid remnants of the martyred saint's blood, contained in a vial in the Cathedral of Naples, miraculously and mysteriously liquefied on September 19, 1860, and, thus conferred, according to popular belief, divine benediction on Garibaldi's victory.
On the other hand, there is a story they tell from the days of the Neapolitan (or Parthenopean) Republic, the sister Republic of revolutionary France, and one that lasted a mere five months in 1799. On the first Sunday in May, the other time when the miracle is said to occur, it didn't. This provoked the French commander, who was desperate to win popular support for his troops occupying the city, into the interesting move of threatening to kill the Archbishop of Naples if the sign from Heaven were not forthcoming. A short while later it came forth, thus lending, at least in the mind of the French general — and notwithstanding skeptical popular charges of pseudo-divine hanky-panky — credence to his claim that God was on the side of the Revolution. (This led to the temporary displacement of Gennaro as the patron saint of Naples in the hearts of loyalist Neapolitans. There are a number of paintings showing St. Anthony at the head of the army of the Holy Faith, the Sanfedisti, as they enter the city to retake it from revolutionaries in 1799. )
San Gennaro was the Bishop of Benevento and was beheaded at Pozzuoli in 304 during Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. They had to chop his head off, the story goes, because when they had thrown him to the lions once before, the animals had refused to attack him and had simply crouched in submission at his feet. His remains were taken to Napoli to be conserved. The "miracle of San Gennaro," then, refers to the liquefaction of the clotted blood of the saint. It is said to happen two times a year at the Duomo (Cathedral) of Naples and at the Church of San Gennaro at Solfatara in Pozzuoli, virtually on the spot where he was killed. September 19 is the anniversary of his martyrdom. It is, thus, the saint's name-day, as well, and Gennaro is the most common name given to male babies born in Naples. Besides September 19 and the first Sunday in May, some sources say the miracle may also occur on December 16, in commemoration of a violent explosion of Vesuvius, which spared the city in the 1600s.
The granting or withholding of the miracle by the saint is, in the minds of many believers, intimately connected with the fortunes of the city — a prediction, perhaps, of traumatic occurrences such as war, pestilence and natural calamity, or even something not so earthshaking, such as whether or not Napoli will win the football championship. It might also be a general notice of solidarity or disapproval from on high, as in the cases noted above. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church, which can, if it desires, make a pronouncement, on the validity of claims of miraculous occurrences, is one of neutrality. Of course, in this our 21st-century Age of Skepticism, one expects to find skeptics, even among otherwise faithful, practicing Roman Catholic Neapolitans. But just as Christian scriptures remind us that we do "not live by bread alone," there are those who would remind us that the same goes for a people and a city; they couldn't have survived as long as they have without a little help. If you are out and around on one of the dates when "it" is supposed to happen, keep an eye on the reactions of those around you. Notice how even the skeptics cannot conceal their relief upon hearing that "San Gennaro ha fatto il miracolo!"
[If you want to read Mark Twain's less benevolent view of the miracle of San Gennaro, click here.]
|Silver bust of S. Gennaro donated by
Charles II of Anjou in 1305, in the Naples
Yesterday, of course, was San
Gennaro, the feast day of the patron saint of Naples. On
this day, the faithful anxiously await the miraculous
liquefaction of a vial of the saint’s clotted blood. This
“Miracle of San Gennaro,” if it comes to pass, is regarded
as a good omen for the city of Naples in the year to come.
Yesterday, the faithful who waited in the Cathedral of
Naples, where the ceremony surrounding the event takes
place, were rewarded early in the day. At 9.57 a.m.
Cardinal Michele Giordano held up the vial and announced
that the miracle had, indeed, transpired.
One newspaper headline
reported “A lightning miracle in a fortified cathedral,”
referring to the security measures in place to avoid
potential disruption by a nearby demonstration of the
unemployed, all of whom would have liked to get in and
bend the ear of the mayor of Naples, Rosa Russo Iervolino,
or the president of the Campania Region of Italy, Antonio
Bassolino, both of whom were in attendance.
A special section of the
daily, il Mattino, dedicated a series of short
articles to various aspects of the phenomenon of San
Gennaro, including items perhaps not generally known to
Neapolitans, themselves. For example, San Gennaro was made
the patron saint of Naples in 472 a.d. during an eruption
of Mt. Vesuvius as powerful as the one that had destroyed
Pompeii 400 years earlier. Naples had always had a history
— even before the advent of Christianity — of making
appeals to the gods. Naples had so many temples to Greek
and Roman gods that Quintilia, a figure in the Satyricon
(written in 60 a.d.) says: “We have so many gods that
they’re easier to find than people.” San Gennaro, himself,
was preceded as patron saint of Naples by, among others,
Saint Agrippino, but when the eruption hit and thousands
of Neapolitans crowded into the catacombs where San
Gennaro was entombed, and beseeched him to save them from
the impending disaster, he — well, he apparently did. The
eruption stopped and Gennaro has been the patron saint
With one exception. He
expressed approval of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799 by
performing his miracle at the behest of the French
commander of the forces supporting the Republican cause.
In retaliation, the Army of the Holy Faith, the Royalist
Neapolitans, later retook the kingdom under the banner of
Saint Anthony. But that was a temporary lapse.
The first mention of
the miracle of blood liquefaction is from 1389. The paper
reports on attempts of skeptics to fabricate (using 1389
technology) a liquid that looks like solid blood and will
liquefy when shaken (yes, it can be done). Also, there is
an account of the adventures of Giuseppe Navarra, the
so-called King of Poggioreale, a hustling junk merchant,
who in 1947 took it upon himself to go to Rome and bring
back the treasures of San Gennaro from the Vatican, where
they had been moved for safekeeping during World War II.
These treasures, by the way, include a collection of gold, silver, and diamond artifacts of incalculable value. They will all be on display shortly in a brand new museum of The Treasures of San Gennaro to be inaugurated later this year by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
Elsewhere, in a book
entitled Napoli Antica by Vincenzo Regina (pub.
Newton and Compton, Rome, 1994), I came across a strange
tale of San Gennaro. It used to be the custom for a
“relic” of the saint (in this case, part of the skull) to
be transported from the Cathedral to a local seggio,
a seat of local government within the city, a small town
hall, as it were, on one of the days when the miracle was
supposed to occur (there are a few other days besides
September 19.) At day’s end, the relic would be duly
transported back to its place in the cathedral.
Representatives of the local seggio always
provided transportation. They would show up at the
Cathedral, pick up the relic, take it away and bring it
back. In 1646, however, the good folks in the Cathedral
refused to hand over the relic and insisted on doing the
moving, themselves. During the procession, they were
assaulted by the locals and a good-sized fistfight broke
out over who had the authority to escort San Gennaro’s
I would have thought that a city so
devoted to its Patron Saint would have his birthplace —
at least the site traditionally regarded as such —
marked in some way other than with a simple plaque in a
rundown building. "Rundown" is probably not fair, since
that condition is hard to combat in a section of town
where all the buildings are from the 1400s and 1500s.
There is only so much money to spend on religious and
cultural relics, and what there is normally goes
into keeping the larger well-known sites in shape: the
Duomo, the church of Santa Chiara, etc.
Within, then, the courtyard
of a —let's say "old and non–descript"— building,
precisely, via San Gregorio Armeno 41, just off
the corner of via San Biaggio dei Librai (see the
map of the historic center of Naples;
the house is adjacent to number 27 on the map), there is a
plaque (photo, left) identifying the site as the home of
the family of San Gennaro (St. Januarius) and the
birthplace of the saint. The building is appropriately
called Domus Januaria. The plaque was put in place
The entire area is in the heart of — better, over the heart of (since that part of Roman Naples was buried in a mudslide in the sixth century a.d.) — the historic center of Naples, and, indeed, is only about 70 yards downhill from the entrance to the excavated Roman market place that now lies beneath the church of San Lorenzo. If you could dig straight down within the courtyard of via San Gregorio Armeno 41 or any other building in that area you would run into the buildings that were next–door neighbors of the Roman market place in the days of San Gennaro, who was martyred in 304 a.d.