Miracle destination

Three times a year, Naples' faithful wait for the miracle of San Gennaro. Jeremy Atiyah tries to stay sceptical
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

No wonder the Neapolitans love him so much. This is the city where a red traffic-light means "go" and green means "proceed at risk"; where the payment of tax or the wearing of a car seat-belt is tantamount to betraying your people. Give me shambolic municipal services, unrepaired roads and a tragic football team, and I will show you Naples. But the thrice-yearly liquefaction - on time - of a block of congealed blood belonging to a local saint? No problem.

No wonder the Neapolitans love him so much. This is the city where a red traffic-light means "go" and green means "proceed at risk"; where the payment of tax or the wearing of a car seat-belt is tantamount to betraying your people. Give me shambolic municipal services, unrepaired roads and a tragic football team, and I will show you Naples. But the thrice-yearly liquefaction - on time - of a block of congealed blood belonging to a local saint? No problem.

It was 17 centuries ago that the man later known as San Gennaro was beheaded for daring to express Christian beliefs in pagan Rome. The Emperor Diocletian gave the order, thus securing the place of Gennaro's name forever in the annals of Neapolitan martyrs. But not until 1389 - 1,000 years later - do the first reports emerge of the repeated "liquefaction" of his congealed blood, by now contained in a sealed vial.

You don't have to be crazy to believe in this medieval mumbo-jumbo, but it certainly helps if you come from Naples. "It seems miraculous," a Neapolitan friend assures me, "but the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood is not an officially recognised miracle." It turns out that the church is keeping an "open mind" on the matter, and will not submit the vials for inspection, partly on the grounds that opening them might destroy them.

Might, then, this whole liquefaction malarkey be a trick of the church, designed, say, to keep the ignorant masses in thrall? In Naples I stumble across a pamphlet speaking of "valueless hagiographical sources" giving excessive credence to the miracles surrounding San Gennaro. The rational rejection of miracles, I presume.

Until I turn a page to find an analysis of the behaviour of this "unpretentious blood clot", so "anxiously longed for" by the people of Naples. And if the following isn't obfuscation, the Pope is a communist: "Colloidal substances have their own viscosity, rigidity and particular adhesion qualities... Coagulation is the possibility to separate the large colloidal particles from the solvent colloid ... fibrin, serum, coagulum, celluli-lamina ... the presence of natural anti-coagulative substances like antithrombin and heparin..."

It so happens that I find myself in town on one of the three dates in the year on which the miracle is due to occur. According to my guidebook, the action starts early, but I arrive at the Duomo at 7.30am to find talk of jostling, fighting crowds somewhat overblown. Eventually a priest with a key as large as his forearm comes to open the church but inside I find no one save for two blonde French girls in the front pew. Moustachioed carabinieri are patrolling that pew with interest.

I stroll the side chapels, noting that one of them is lined by shelves and drawers resembling my grandmother's front room, except that these are stuffed with the bones and skulls of saints. In San Gennaro's chapel, meanwhile, the curious baroque-style candelabrum designed to contain the vials of his chocolate-solid blood is getting a polishing.

"At what time does San Gennaro's blood liquefy?" I ask the manager of my hotel later that day. He gasps as though I have asked a stupid question, and retorts that miracles do not occur to fit timetables. In fact it turns out that the liquefaction sometimes fails to occur, hence the "anxious longing" of the people of Naples. Such failures have included 1944, the year of the last eruption of Vesuvius, and 1980, the year of a disastrous earthquake in the Naples region.

Back to church. It is late afternoon and there is a crowd standing outside. I muscle my way in, following a crowd of stubbly youths with their girlfriends, photographers, godfathers in suits, coiffured dames, friars in robes, curtseying nuns. We weave and shove between massive columns to the front, where city dignitaries, priests, prelates, monsignors and cardinals mass like bumble bees round the altar. To one side a man in white robes appears to be fiddling with the vials of San Gennaro's blood - and presto! before I know it, the solid chocolate in the vial has taken on a fluid appearance.

Did I miss something? Applause breaks out. Friars and nuns are punching the air. A Sophia Loren lookalike clutches a hand to her mouth. The vial is picked up on a litter, shaken, and shouldered by a long line of chanting choristers. The procession out of the church and through the city begins.

Outside people are jabbing each other and pointing joyfully to see that the saint's blood has indeed become liquid. The procession proceeds at a snail's pace, comprising, first, the urn said to contain the saint's bones, then the vial of blood, then a silver bust, dressed, somewhat preposterously, in a papal cape and hat. Up ahead a priest is chanting a long litany of saints in ethereal tones while we, the people, straggle behind in a vast queue.

Public discipline is maintained by carabinieri who are now wearing not merely red stripes on their trousers, but epaulettes like cabbage leaves, ceremonial swords, three-cornered hats and plumes. The whole apparatus of the church and Italian state are operating magnificently in tandem.

On we go, down the narrow street of San Biagio dei Librai. We slide past the red and ancient stucco of the church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo. Near me I notice the city mayor, Antonio Bassolino, sun-bronzed and sporting a well-coiffed head of hair, surrounded by besuited men. "Ciao Antonio!" shout affectionate grannies from upstairs balconies, before showering us with rose petals. No pushing or impatience mars our progress, only beaming shopkeepers and restaurateurs, waving from doorways.

Up ahead, the litany of saints is over and the prelate is now intoning about the blood of martyrs - a subject designed to appeal to young men willing to risk death for their inalienable right to ride motorbikes without helmets. A mother beside me is in tears; she hugs her small son who asks why she is crying.

Meanwhile, at the entrance to the Church of Santa Chiara, pandemonium has broken out. The bust, the bones and the blood are being ushered forward through closed lines of carabinieri, and through the entrance I glimpse the full power of the Catholic Church on display. Cardinal Michele Giordano, the Archbishop of Naples, sits staring sideways, aloof from the vast congregation. The pews are packed. Plumed carabineri guard the altar area. But entering the church I am confronted by dozens of people trying to force their way out, against the flow of traffic. What are they trying to escape from?

Eventually I understand. The cynics have got out in a hurry. The docile families inside will yawn and sigh beneath his feet, but Cardinal Giordano will exercise no mercy when it comes to the length of his speech, in describing the contemporary social significance of the miracle. And why should he worry? San Gennaro's liquid blood stands on the altar. It is the visible, undeniable, reliable proof - of the existence of God.

Comments