An Unfamilar Naples

Italy is full of the unvisited. The average tourist seldom gets beyond Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, if even he sees as much as that. Add those who go to Siena, Perugia, Palermo, or who see Tivoli, Pisa, Assissi, Capri, Amalfi, Verona, and the list of the visited is nearly complete. There are cities and provinces almost unknown; there are ancient carous hill towns, the color of old bones, that never see a stranger.

And there is so much that is unvisited even in the cities that are largely visited! Take Naples, that marvel of a city-most visitors are satisfied with the hotel district along the bay, and see but little of the real city except perhaps for a hasty drive along the Toledo.

An American friend, a widow, who loves to travel and must perforce travel frequently alone, said to me:

“Every time I go to Naples I so much want to see the true city. And every time I drive out I tell the cabman to take me through the old streets.

But every time, although he says, `Si, si, signora!’ he drives me to Posilipo!”

I could only tell her that it was because there is only one way to see the real Naples, the real Naples both of the past and of the present, and that is on foot, for the city is built against a mountain-side, and the old streets that are not narrow flights of stone stairs climbing endlessly in score after score of steps, are almost equally narrow and unbelievably cluttered.

The old part of the city, with canon streets and towering tenements, is full of marvelous life and bustle and endless gayety. Naples lives out of doors! Out of doors women cook on little charcoal stoves or comb their hair in elaborate coiffures, neighbor assisting neighbor, or make upholstery fringe, or chocolate, rolling it primitively in a stone trough, or they pick chickens, wash the children, sew-and always and endlessly gossip. Men and boys work at making shoes and slippers and carving wooden heels, or twist hemp rope and string, and make a hundred other things, and, like the women, always and endlessly gossip. And there are innumerable tiny shops and outdoor stalls, and in and out among the people seated at tables or benches, there move continuously a gay and noisy throng, vivid in costumed colorings; and there are panniered donkeys, and now and then comes a flock of reddish-brown nanny-goats, milked from door to door! and there are life and gayety and the hum of buzzing talk, and street singers and mandolin players, and innumerable street cries of the strangest, of those who sell charcoal or pumpkin-seed or fresh water or snow! And people carry everything imaginable or unimaginable, as a man that I remember who carried a coffin on his head! He walked so jauntily, letting the coffin gyrate with equal jauntiness, that it was evident that it was empty, and indeed a bystander told me that it was. “It is loaned for the funeral,” he said; “it is often so, and will be returned unused! It is a pauper’s funeral, but the dead man’s friends are following him, for it is honorable to be followed to the grave”-himself forgetting thus, as he spoke, that the coffin was empty and that the body was to be quietly taken away without spoiling anything so expensive! And the friends were a tail of men trying their shuffling best to keep up with their jaunty leader, and each had somehow acquired for the occasion a gleaming patent-leather hat-probably rented from the undertaker. And even all this was not gloomy; even a funeral seemed only to add to the gayety of Naples.

I have often, in the old streets and courtyards, in the narrow stairs of stone, in the theaters, where I was the only one who was not an Italian, had all the feelings of an explorer.

Yet these people are not always gay; they are impressionable, temperamental, excitable, devout, and can change to a deep or passionate earnestness.

They love pageantry; they love the theatrical; at times they achieve a splendidly beautiful effect, as when they carpet a long street thick with roses for the passing of their King. And some of their funerals, with stately catafalque and masked and hooded and white-robed men, are weirdly impressive.

The particular patron saint of Naples is San Gennaro-St. Januarius-and the city has preserved some of his dried blood for sixteen hundred years, and three times a year this blood liquefies; if rapidly, it is good for the city, but if slowly (or if, rare and terrible occasion, it fails to liquefy at all!) it is an omen of great evil.

I went one night-it was a Saturday, April 30 to see this greatest of Neapolitan events, and it was a memorable experience.

In the course of the day, the silver statue of the saint, with the priceless precious stones that adorn it, gifts from the dying and the devout of centuries, had been taken to the ancient church of King Robert of Sicily-what romantic thoughts the very words conjure up!-and at night was to be returned, through the heart of the oldest part of the city, to the cathedral.

I came upon the parade about nine o’clock, just as it was starting on the return. All Naples seemed to be out, and the cross-streets and little squares were packed with people, and the doorways and windows and balconies were jammed, and the very roofs were thronged. The narrow streets were kept clear, practically from house to house, as a precaution against any concerted rush by robbers, for an immense fortune in jewels was under convoy.

Following a detail of soldiers, a long line of priests in full canonicals marked the way; then came San Gennaro, surrounded closely by soldiers with drawn swords; then two sedan chairs, each with a great church dignitary; then lines of soldiers and police.

Under a baldachin of rose-silk was the silver statue-or, to be precise, silver bust, for it ended at the waist line. An ancient piece of silver-work this, for it was made six centuries ago. Upon the head was a bishop’s mitre, set with jewels, and upon the body was a garment heavily embroidered with gold, and at the shoulder line a collar, glowing with precious stones, held a pendant and a cross, and all over the figure there was the sparkle of myriad diamonds and the gleam of emeralds and the soft glory of pearls.

Four sturdy priests bore the bust, on a base upheld by poles, at shoulder height, and it so swayed as they walked as to look like a living man. And also there was to be seen, carried under the baldachin, the phial of dry blood.

I was at a crossing, and had planned merely to get a general idea of the street scene and then make my way to the cathedral by some open route, but the procession halted, and I asked some questions of an officer who for the moment was standing beside me, and he courteously answered, and then said, entirely to my surprise, for I had not asked or suggested it, “Come inside the lines; you are a stranger.”

I did so-thinking how differently an Italian would be treated at an American parade!-and went on with the priests and soldiers, close behind the swaying silver bust.

The little shops had small glares of red light along their fronts, there were lights in the windows, there were little lights strung along the houses, there were lights on the balconies and roofs. And yet there was no brilliant illumination, and there was almost more of shadow than of light.

Looking up the fronts of the tall houses there was a curious impression as of faces in the air, for in story above story the people were leaning outward and looking downward from windows and balconies, and the streets were so narrow that these faces seemed to be directly above. And ever there came rose petals fluttering down in a soft and continuous shower.

With two bands playing stately music, the procession went in slow and stately fashion along, and the glow of light touched the blackness of the narrow side-streets and lit dark passages into houses and courtyards. We passed the old, old church where Boccaccio first met Fiammetta, and it gave an odd feeling to realize that I, an American, was in a religious pageant that had gone through these very streets not only before America was discovered, but long before Boccaccio lived and loved. Always there was the shuffling sound of footsteps on the big, flat stones of the street, and always a murmurous stir of cries that were emotional, but never loud; always there was an impressive air of solemnity; always there were hands stretched out toward the swinging silver figure with ejaculations or prayer.

At length we turned into the Via del Duomo, and reached the cathedral, and the procession moved to the great center doors, and here I would have drawn off to one side had not the officer said to me: “Stay with us.”

So through the mighty doorway the saint and the priests and a few of the soldiers entered the immense cathedral, and the great doors were closed, leaving the bands and the greater part of the police and soldiers on the outside, with all of the throng who had massed along behind.

Down the center of the cathedral was a broad space kept entirely clear, but every inch along the sides was packed with massed humanity. There were thousands there.

The priests who had led the line fell behind, and the baldachin and the statue headed the line, and down that central space, an immense length, we slowly went, the officer still beside me, and as we neared the chancel I saw that it would be far better to go on as if I were an intended part of it all rather than to disturb the quiet orderliness of the ceremony by leaving the baldachin and trying to find a place beyond the guards at the side. And I was glad of the opportunity to see everything in such a way, so long as I knew that I was not intruding, and I looked forward with keen anticipation to a closerange view of the miracle.

We went up the steps to the chancel, where stood a shifting crowd of rich-appareled ecclesiastics. A guard of splendidly uniformed soldiers formed at the chancel rail, and I noticed how the altar lights flashed from their helmets. I would certainly have remained, as inconspicuous as possible, among the many in the broad space inside the chancel rail, especially as here the friendly officer had to leave me, but one of the dignitaries motioned me forward, and there was nothing to do but step to the rail of the high altar and kneel with ten or a dozen whose privilege it was to be there. I think, looking back on it, that there was intent in having a close-at-hand spectator who was not of their faith; I had been in Naples for several months and had often gone about in the ancient quarters, and not improbably I was known as a stranger who was interested in the city, and who would, therefore, look impartially at the evidence of a miracle. In the first place, I was fortunate in chancing upon an officer of real authority, and he quite likely made some sign, in regard to me, to the churchman who invited me to the very front.

Now, with a quiet shuffling, the people moved forward from the side aisles-there were no chairs in the cathedral-and filled the central nave, and the doors were opened and many came crowding in from the street.

The blood of the saint was in a finely wrought receptacle that in size and shape was not unlike a rolling pin, except that it was three-sided. It was a case of what appeared to be silver, ending in two rod-like silver handles, and it had three faces of heavy glass or, what I supposed the material really to be, rock crystal. Through this crystal could be seen two vials, one about four times as large as the other, and each about one-third full of a dry and sticky-looking mass.

An old, old canon, robed in red and white, took the silver receptacle in a loving reverence of clasp. He held it up, and the priests and prelates knelt and watched, with upturned faces, and the immense audience sank upon their knees. The front rows showed faces eager, anxious, strained; behind them were faces dimly seen, and still farther behind there was nothing but a blackness of outline, vaguely marking massed humanity, far back to the great doors and under the lofty aisles. And from this massed humanity there came a curious, mingled, whispering sound.

The ancient canon, always holding the silver holder in plain view, turned it constantly around and about, so that the blood was seen through one of the crystals faces after another.

The suspense swiftly became extreme. The very atmosphere became a-tingle with it. Anxiety was on the edge of becoming excitement.

But in precisely three minutes there came the change. The viscous contents of the vials were flowing! There was no doubt of it-the stiff and gummy substance had become liquid!

At once there came a subdued ecstatic outbreak; it was really a thrilling moment; the huge building was filled with a curious murmurous sound of mingled gasps and cries.

I do not pretend to explain what had happened. There had apparently been complete openness. The canon was an old man of particularly fine countenance. The recurrent event had taken place, for there was the reddish liquid. No wonder it is sincerely looked upon as a miracle, and I do not know what to suggest in other explanation except that possibly it was the result of bodily heat, from the hands, or that the constant motion, the tipping and turning, may have had something to do with it. I watched it closely and did not see why it occurred. But it did.

The canon, his face aglow with happiness, walked back and forth, holding the receptacle in plain sight with its liquid, and a peripatetic attendant kept a lighted candle held constantly behind it so that none should be unable to see it or feel a doubt.

Then the canon went from one to another along the altar rail, and gently touched each man’s forehead with the holder and presented it to the lips to be kissed. And one cannot, in such a case, think of the germs of the centuries!

Each, as he kissed, arose and quietly stepped to one side, and the vacated places were taken by priests and church dignitaries within the chancel rail.

And the ceremony was not yet over. A passageway was -somehow cleared back though the center of the cathedral-this probably being made possible by some of the throng beginning to leave-and along each side of the passage there formed a line of clerics, dressed in black and white and standing shoulder to shoulder, holding great, thick, tall candles that stood on the floor and burned, in lambent yellow, at the height of their heads. It made an immensely impressive scene, and down this torch-lined passage the silver statue was slowly borne, with people eagerly holding out their hands as toward one they loved and from whom they expected benefits, and some spoke to the saint as if he were alive. And everywhere were happy faces because the liquefaction had taken place so soon.

The procession turned into the large chapel of San Gennaro, and through its great brazen gates toward where a garden of silver flowers blossomed on the solid silver altar. Here another priest took the relic and allowed relays of people to kiss it, while some old women called out, weirdly and excitedly, at the statue itself; these women being reputed to be of the family of Saint Januarius (celibacy not being called for in his day), who for centuries have held and exercised the prescriptive family right of calling out at him in angry tones!

I left the benignant saint, all aglow with the sheen and sparkle of his jewels, and the eager devotees, and the marvel and wonder of it all, and walked slowly back through the ancient streets, to the district of hotels, where every one was asleep.