Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

           ErN 70, entry Oct 2009          


   Church of Santa Maria ai Vergini     

There, now that I have your attention, this is not about what you want it to be about (but please keep reading!). I have just asked a number of my Neapolitan friends about the grammar of the name i Vergini, as in Borgo dei Vergini [quarter of the virgins] an area of Naples adjacent on the east to the area known as the Sanità. The quarter is near the National Archaeological Museum, north of the main street, via Foria; you enter just in back of the metro entrance across from the old city gate, Porta San Gennaro. I wanted to know why “virgins” in this case was grammatically masculine instead of feminine, which would make the name Borgo delle vergini; that would the most common context, especially in a Roman Catholic country —maybe nuns in a convent or something like that. No, this is, literally, the Quarter of the Male Virgins. The most complete answer I got from my friends was, “Gee, you’re right. I never thought of that.”

When the ancient Greeks settled the area as Neapolis, they brought with them the concept of the fratria, an extended family group, a clan, headed by the fretrarco, the clan patriarch. In Naples, the term expanded to mean something more like “association” or “those with common interests,” not necessarily related by blood. The members of a fatria lived in the same area and even had their own unique rituals and festivals; it was the beginning of the sedili of the Middle Ages, the small administrative units of the city, each with its own town hall. Ten names of Greek fratria have come down to us: Aristei, Artemisi, Ermei, Eubei, Eumelidi, Eunostidi, Theodati, Kretondi, Kumei and Panclidi. Focus on Eunostidi; it was a group dedicated to the god, Eunosto, in Greek mythology, the god of temperance and chastity. (I am as bewildered as you are as to just how a group in which the men worshipped the god of chastity could survive.) In 1787 a group of Eunostidian tombs was found right in the area called the “the male virgins”, so that, indeed, seems to be the most-likely etymology. (There are a few other candidates, but they're boring.)

The area itself (including the adjacent Sanità area) was originally the site of Greek tombs, then Roman and Christian catacombs and then medieval cemeteries, some of which may be visited today. [see catacombs (1)  (2)] Both the Sanità and Vergini sections of Naples are at the bottom of hills on all sides and slope up to the north to the Capodimonte hill. This has led to countless devastating floods from rain run-off (including floods that washed corpses out into the streets from their cave cememteries—see this entry on the Fontanelle cemetery). The area is on what, according to geologists, was once a volcano and the subsoil is virtually all volcanic tufa rock, easy to dig (tombs for example), but also easily channeled by running water. Thus, the streets are uneven and crooked, following, as they do, paths sculpted into the rock eons ago. During the urban expansion under the Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s, the area was home to a number of large monastic complexes. In the 1700s it became the site of some elegant private villas by the likes of Ferdinado Sanfelice (1675-1748), including his own family residence as well as his Palazzo dello Spanguolo.

The Crucifixion, anon. 14th century, in chamber
beneath the church of Santa Maria ai Vergini.

The area was the site of the old Jewish quarter of Naples (called Terra dei Giudei in documents from as late as the 1500s) and contains significant religious architecture: the paleo-Christian church [see paleo-Christianity (1)  (2)] of San Gennarello Spogliamorti (the oldest in the area, built around 800 during the Duchy of Naples), Sanfelice’s church of Santa Maria Succurre Miseris, and the church of Santa Maria ai Vergini, the original version of which goes back to the year 1326; it was rebuilt in the 1500s, and the old church became a crypt and even a dumping ground for victims of the great plague in 1656. (This habit of using churches for burial continued until the reign of Murat in the early 1800s.) Santa Maria ai Vergini was also the home of a prominent medieval religious order of “hospitallers,” that is, those who care for the sick. The order was dissolved in 1652 after a number of hospitals were founded in the area, primarily Sant’Antoniello, Santa Maria della Misericordia, and San Gennaro dei Poveri. Other high-and lowlights of the Vergini: the quarter was the home of Saint Alfonso Maria De Liguori; Pope Pius IX visited here in 1849 (when he was forced to flee Rome during the short-lived Roman Republic); the area was modernized (with a modern sewage system in the 1870s); it was the home of Italy's best-loved comic, Totò; the church of Santa Maria ai Vergini, itself, took a direct hit in an air-raid on August 4, 1943; there was a major earthquake in 1980, and since the 1980s there has been a lot of emphasis on restoration.

Interesting to students of art history is the fact that, in spite of the overwhelming presence of art and architecture from the 1500s and 1600s, the Vergini quarter of Naples still contains remnants of churches and art from as early as the mid-1300s. Some of these, such as the church of San Antoniello, were not discovered until the 20th century because they had been built over with—and incorporated into—newer structures (in this case, the church of Santa Maria Succurre Miseris). The fragments that remain are almost all beneath more recent churches (note image, above) and are of the school of the influential painter and mosaic designer, Pietro Cavallini (c. 1250-c.1330), a Roman who lived and worked in Naples at the Angevin court for over ten years.

The Vergini quarter started to go downhill when a new road was built over it in 1800 in order to connect the heart of Naples to the Royal Palace atop the Capodimonte hill beyond both the Vergini and the Sanità It was quite a piece of engineering, but it by-passed and cut off both of those areas. Perhaps from the fact that it is indeed now off the beaten track, the Vergini corresponds to what many people would like to find in Naples, colorful street life and market-place bustle still untouched by tourists looking for colorful street life and market-place bustle. (They are wandering around the historic center of town.)


—Ricciardi, Emilio. La Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Vergini, Naples, 1998.
Ruggiero, Maria Rosaria. Persistenze trecentesche nel borgo dei Vergini di Napoli.  ISSN 1827-8868

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