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
(#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
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. [BUT
see note* directly below.]
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.
*[note on Aram -added
August 2018: Suzanne Toll,
a retired Latin teacher (so I am listening!)
writes: "I suggest that Aram here means "altar"
and is not a reference to Mesopotamia. Aram
is the form of the Latin word ara ("altar" in
English) used following the preposition ad.
The translation of the church's name, therefore, would
be "Saint Peter at the Altar," which makes sense in
the context of the story about the founding of the