Paleo—Greek for "ancient"— means different things in different contexts. When used in the term "paleo-Christian" in this part of Italy, it generally refers to Christian relics and sites dating back to well before the year 1000. Naples has a number of these to offer, though, as is the case with many ancient things, they have been covered over by the handiwork of later centuries.
To begin with, the catacombs of San Gennaro, on the way up
to Capodimonte, are the most extensive and
interesting examples of early Christian cemeteries
to be found in Italy south of Rome. Also, a number
of churches in Naples that now seem 'merely'
medieval have their origins in the middle of the
first millennium well before the beginning of the
great age of church building. For example, the
church and vast monastic complex known as San Gregorio Armeno located
on the street of the same name goes back to the
eighth century when refugees from the iconoclast
controversies shaking Byzantine Christendom in the
east fled to Italy, in this case bringing with them
to Naples the remains of their patron, Gregory of
Armenia. (The photo, above, shows
the entrance to San
Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa, a small Byzantine church that
housed the Basilian monastic order. It is now
incorporated into the massive church of San Domenico Maggiore,
but was built centuries earlier.)
(#12 on this map)
Another relic of early Christianity is hidden within the Church of San Paolo Maggiore (#33 on map) on via dei Tribunali, one of the three original east-west thoroughfares of the Greek city of Neapolis. The modern church stands above a spectacular stairway, and, in the form you see today, was built at the end of the sixteenth century. However, it was erected on the ruins of a preexisting eighth-century church built to celebrate a Neapolitan sea victory over Saracen invaders. That church, by the way, was built on the site of —and even incorporated part of the structure of—a Greek temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. Also, the Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina on vico Donnaregina is on the site of an ancient monastic complex dating back to the eighth century.
The best-known example of a paleo-Christian
church in Naples, of course, is in the Duomo (across from #31 on map), the cathedral of
Naples, itself. Incorporated in the cathedral is the
Santa Restituta basilica, which used to be a church
in its own right, built in the 6th century. Its
present three aisles divided by 27 antique columns
are what is left of the original church after the
main body of the massive cathedral was built around
it, so to speak, in the 13th century. They say that
Santa Restituta was a young African woman, who,
because she was a Christian, was abandoned to the
sea on a boat set ablaze. The fire, however, died
out and she was miraculously able to put ashore on
the island of Ischia. In the eighth century her
remains were brought to the church in Naples, which
then took her name. The baptistery of San Giovanni in fonte
beneath Santa Restituta claims to be the oldest in
Western Christendom and contains a number of mosaics
of extreme interest.
Still on via Duomo and not far from the Cathedral is the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Its proximity to the Duomo may account for the neglect that this house of worship has suffered over the centuries. San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in the city; indeed, it is truly “paleo-,” one of those churches built in the early centuries of Christianity in Italy and that disappeared or were covered over by newer buildings in the great age of cathedral building after the turn of the millennium.
You enter the church from a small square on the north side of the building, take a few steps and, at first, get the impression that you are in just another 17th–century Neapolitan church. Yet, when you turn, you see that your few steps have taken you through a primitive apse of unadorned masonry (photo, above), the small columns and vaulted dome of which are obviously much older than the rest of the building. Indeed, they are—by a thousand years. The original San Giorgio Maggiore is from about the year 500 a.d. and all that is left of it is that tiny bit that is so easy to overlook as you go inside.
The present large church is from the 1600s
when the decision was made to raze the older
building, incorporating a small token of it into the
newer church. Then, much of that newer building was
subsequently demolished during the urban renewal of
Naples in the late 1800s when via Duomo—the major
road outside the church—was widened.
San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the four
early basilicas in Naples that came into existence
after the so-called Edict of Constantine of 313 a.d.
that declared religious tolerance. The other three
are the churches of Santa
Maria Maggiore, San
Giovanni Maggiore and the Santi Apostoli.
(update Nov. 2014 - The Italian Touring Club (TCI) has announced that this church is one of the four in Naples--typically closed to visitors in the past--that is now regularly open (!) to visitors as a result of the TCI's cultural heritage initiative called Aperti per voi (open for you). The program enlists volunteers throughout Italy to act as guides and, in general, help with the necessary work in keeping such sites open. In Italy, the volunteer organization has sponsored some 60 such cultural sites. See this Miscellany link for the others.)
One of the most fascinating examples of early Christianity in Naples is, however, one which for some reason doesn't get a lot of press or tourist attention. Yet, if what tradition says about this church is true, then it is most certainly the site of the earliest instance of Christian worship in Naples—or, for that matter, one of the earliest anywhere. Hidden away off of Corso Umberto near Piazza Garibaldi is the church of San Pietro ad Aram. "Pietro," of course, refers to the apostle Peter, the "rock" upon whom Christ said He would found His church. "Aram" is the biblical name for parts of Mesopotamia and Syria. The word is still found today in reference to the Aramaic language of that region. Neapolitan tradition says that Peter left Antioch on his way to Rome nine years after the death of Christ. He stopped in Naples and held a worship service on a rudimentary make-shift altar. Twenty centuries later, beneath the countless changes wrought during all those fleeting human ages that we flatter with such names as Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc., that altar—again, according to tradition (and the plaque on the outside of the church—is still there.Is it true? I haven't the slightest idea, but 2,000 years doesn't seem like such a long time to me any more. After all, I can reach over and touch bits and pieces of stone walls and buildings near my house that were put in place 500 years before that. Traditions, however, do have other functions than simply being true; they serve as a means to bring religious and social values into focus, and they help us appreciate our past and evaluate what we believe. In those terms, true or not, the tradition surrounding San Pietro ad Aram is a worthy one.