The Catacombs of San Gennaro are among the most mysterious and intriguing historical sites in Naples. Just a few meters below the surface, this subterranean cemetery has conserved the religious history of the city since the second century AD.
Like underground Rome, Naples is an urban layer cake – a burger-like stack of civilization. Almost 2,000 years of life, death, and memories are preserved within the city’s volcanic Neapolitan Yellow Tuff.
From patron saints and martyred bishops to trail-blazing Christian women and terrifying revelations in the darkness, the guides at the Catacombs of San Gennaro have plenty to get through during their award-winning tours.
But there’s much more to the catacombs than stories of the past. Through its non-profit organization and a good deal of community spirit, Cooperativa La Paranza has turned the catacombs and other sites into hubs for local regeneration, while reconnecting neighborhoods to sacred spaces.
We spoke with Antonio Della Corte, Head of Training at the Catacombs of San Gennaro, to find out more.
Meet Your San Gennaro Catacombs Insider
Morning, Antonio! Tell us a little bit about your role and what you do for the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
So I started about 14 years ago as a guide in the Catacombs of San Gennaro. I’m one of the oldest guides in the group, and over time I began to train the new guides.
We started as guides of just the catacombs, this very old early Christian cemetery in Naples. We then started managing tours around the neighborhood, where we are from and where we all live.
We take care of the places, and at the same time we try to help the people living in the area benefit from the existence of these ruins. So not only the Catacombs of San Gennaro, but also the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, which are located in the same area but have different entrances, maybe 700 meters apart.
It sounds very rewarding. What do you enjoy the most out of being involved in the project?
When I started, I was first impressed by the place and the history. The catacombs in Naples are very, very different from all the others you can see the world. They’re wider than all the others. They’re underground, but not very deep. They’re not as claustrophobic as other catacombs.
So this was what first caught me when I started. Over time we started trying to connect the cultural heritage with the community. That’s what I’ve been involved in for the last five or six years.
Providing benefits for the community, for the people, and making them benefit from the existence of the heritage is what we’re trying to do now.
That’s probably the future of our cultural heritage. Otherwise they’re important ruins but just dead stones and nothing else. For us, creating links between people and heritage is the most important thing to do now.
Can you give us a brief introduction to the history of the Catacombs of San Gennaro?
Yes! The Catacombs of San Gennaro are the oldest Christian cemetery in the city of Naples. The first rooms date from the second century AD. Then they were extended over the third, fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. They cover a huge period of the history of the church and city of Naples.
They are dedicated to San Gennaro now, but originally they started as the catacombs of another saint called Agrippinus, who was the first patron saint of Naples. He was Bishop of Naples, and died in 272 AD.
Around this time, the first galleries were created. San Gennaro was only buried here in the fifth century, so about 300 years later, and around his grave new galleries and tombs were created.
Both Agrippinus and Gennaro are patron saints of Naples nowadays. Naples actually counts 52 patron saints, one for each week of the year, but San Gennaro is the most important.
We have lots of frescoes, starting from the second century AD, and there are lots of pagan images, adopted by the Christians and adapted to the Christian tradition. We also have Byzantine paintings, frescoes from the Roman culture, and images of saints like San Gennaro, St. Peter, and St. Paul.
There are also three underground churches. This is something very interesting – you can’t find churches in other catacombs of the world. The catacombs of San Gennaro are both a burial place and a place of worship.
In the ninth century the catacombs were redecorated by some Benedictine monks who built a monastery beside it. Then, they were abandoned around the 13th century.
They were used again in the 17th century to welcome the victims of the Plague, and later as a bomb shelter in World War Two – you can see graffiti from people during those times, and part of the catacombs became a hospital.
We know there was a surgery room in the catacombs – a delivery room in fact, right over the grave of San Gennaro. The grave of San Gennaro was only discovered in 1973 so they had no idea where the grave of the saint was.
How poetic! So it sounds like there’s a wealth of artifacts and artworks to see. What are the highlights?
If we wanted to show all the frescoes we would need much more than the hour-long tour!
One of the most famous frescoes is from the sixth century, and depicts the family of Theotecnus (below). What is crazy about that fresco is that we have three layers of plaster, indicating it was repainted after the death of each family member. We have the three family members – Theotecnus, his wife Ilaritas, and his daughter Nonnosa – with their names and ages written beside their heads.
It appears the child died first, and originally it was just the image of the child in the center. Then they replastered the wall and added a new fresco with the mother and father who died later on. The child in the center is praying with her hands up, the typical early-Christian prayer pose, and the mother and father have a hand on their hearts.
In 2011 we discovered a new fresco, one of a woman called Cerula. It’s interesting because we think this woman was a very important Christian of the city.
Above her hands we have two open books with the names of the Evangelists. So it means those books are the gospel books. We think she knew the Word of God, and could read the Word of God. She probably had a very important role in the church of the city of Naples in the fifth century. Some people even think she was a bishop.
This discovery opened a door to understanding the role of women in the early Christian communities. My opinion is that they had very important roles, and this is a very interesting perspective. It is something we don’t fully understand.
I personally rediscovered that fresco with a colleague of mine. And during the restoration of that work, we discovered something new. On the arch of that fresco, we have the remains of images of Peter and Paul. We think they were painted on the sides of the grave to protect the woman, but also to highlight her importance.
So that discovery was something amazing, because we discovered it ourselves, and because it can also tell the visitors how the community is taking care of the place. Not only maintaining what we have, but trying to go deeper.
And as someone who knows the catacombs inside out, what are your favorite parts?
The architecture is amazing. As you enter you go straight into a big basilica, which is something you don’t expect, especially under the ground.
There is a very interesting place, the Crypt of the Bishops, an area of the catacombs where eight bishops were buried. It is a place where we still have mosaics, and four of them are very well preserved.
Another highlight is something on the lower level of the catacombs. The catacombs were used as a cathedral, and you will find on the lower level a baptismal font which is really unique. People were baptized in the catacombs. It adds something new to people’s perspective of the place.
It was a place where people celebrated death, but also the beginning of Christian life. Here you also get a really great view of the lower levels in front of you – three amazing galleries with tunnels going 40 to 50 meters in front of you.
When we’re there, we enter with the lights off and then reveal the galleries. People don’t expect it, it has a real wow effect. The visitors’ faces are amazing.
So San Gennaro is obviously a pretty big deal in Naples. What was his story?
We do not have lots of information about San Gennaro. What we have now is a mixture of legend and tradition.
We know he was not a Neapolitan man. We don’t know where he was born. What we can tell is that he was a bishop. He was probably born in 270 or 272. He was a bishop of Benevento, a city not far from Naples.
In 305 he moved to a little town near Naples called Pozzuoli, which was the most important Roman seaport. The fleet of the Roman Empire was in Pozzuoli, and they trained their soldiers there.
San Gennaro went to Pozzuoli to Christianize the community there. There were still Roman persecutions by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and San Gennaro was arrested in Pozzuoli.
Together with six more people, in what is now a very important volcanic area in Campania called Solfatara, San Gennaro was beheaded, and buried nearby. Around 100 years later, his remains were moved to Naples and they were buried in our catacombs.
He was in the catacombs for 400 years. It was during this period he became the patron saint, because by the end of the fifth century Vesuvius erupted and the Neapolitan people prayed to him, asking for his help to protect the city. They said the eruption stopped. He became the protector in that period. His importance grew and the catacombs became bigger and bigger.
In the ninth century, his relics were moved to Benevento again – the people from Benevento wanted him back. Then 300 years later his remains were moved again, to a Benedictine Abbey nearby the city of Avellino.
Finally, in 1497, the cardinal of Naples moved the bones of the saint back to the city. They were kept where they are now, in the cathedral, in a very beautiful white marble crypt under the main altar.
San Gennaro’s remains are no longer in the catacombs?
No, and the remains of the bones of all the others who were buried in the catacombs were removed in the 1960s to make excavations easier. They’re collected in Fontanelle Cemetery, inside the Catacombs of San Gaudioso. It’s a very big ossuary, a mass grave where all the bones are. It’s something like the catacombs in Paris.
As part of our work we reopened Fontanelle in 2010. We occupied it and forced the council to reopen. They spent lots of money to restore the cemetery, and then it was closed because they did not have resources to keep it open.
We told them it was crazy, and that we could open the place. We spent two nights there. The mayor of the city came there to meet us and we signed an agreement to open it up.
It was something incredible, sleeping among the bones. It was a very good experience for us. It’s something that also made the group stronger. We started as a group of friends, and we’re trying to keep that identity. So we’re not people just working together, but we have to be a family.
I can’t tell you every single minute of our lives, but we spend 15 hours a day together. Our children are growing-up together. It’s more than a place where we go to work.
When people think about catacombs in Italy, they often think of those in Rome. What makes those in Naples so different?
Firstly, the spaces are huge. They’re wider than the others. There’s a big Basilica within the catacombs. You can’t find – in other catacombs, galleries or churches – 15-meter wide spaces. In some catacombs in Rome you have to walk sideways!
As I mentioned, they’re not really claustrophobic because they’re not very deep under the ground. We enter the catacombs of San Gennaro from the top of a hill. But what we use now as an entrance was a window in the sixth century, like a big skylight.
It was only in 1969 that they discovered this new entrance. Once inside you are on a street level – not the street level of the top of the hill, but the street level of the valley that is between the hill of Capodimonte and another hill called Materdei. So the catacombs were really carved into the side of the hill.
It sounds maze-like. How are the catacombs structured?
The catacombs consist of galleries and lots of graves. We have three kinds of graves. There are earthen graves that are called forma, or shape in English. They have a trapezoidal shape following the shape of the bodies. They can be very deep. Some graves could contain up to five bodies, and they were only wrapped in sheets and separated by marble tiles.
We have graves in the walls, and then we have some graves, more exclusive than all the others, that are arched, which have frescoes and mosaics. These are called arcosolia. A family would have owned this type of crypt, similar to the kind you have in cemeteries now.
But something that makes a difference between these catacombs and others is the quality of the frescoes. Lots of catacombs are decorated, but the quality of frescoes we have here in the Catacombs of San Gennaro is very high. We met lots of experts in frescoes from the third, fourth, and fifth century, who said the quality of these frescoes here is amazing.
Protecting and maintaining the catacombs and the artwork sounds like a full-time job.
Yes, we monitor the frescoes and the architecture everyday. The guides, mostly, since they are really involved in the project and are in the catacombs more than anyone.
It’s very hard to look after these places, and also very expensive. Restoring a fresco, for example, isn’t cheap. In the last few years we were able to restore frescoes with the help of private donations. So we do a lot of work in fundraising. We’re trying to involve local people, local entrepreneurs, but also people from other parts of Italy and around the world to support these projects.
The catacombs are owned by the Vatican in Italy, so even if we do fundraising activities, we need their permits to restore the frescoes.
It’s something very, very hard, particularly if you want to keep them as they are. Just making the catacombs open to visitors can damage them due to the pressure. We monitor the gasses, monitor the light, everything.
With our engineers, we developed an app to control the lights. So the lights are only on when we are in the catacombs. If I want to show you a fresco, I turn the lights on, then I turn the lights off. This can make the life of the fresco longer. If you have the lights on everyday it’s not good for their conservation. We take care of the spaces like they are our homes.
What are the best stories to come out of the catacombs? So much has happened down there, there must be some fascinating tales.
I think my favourite story comes from the discovery of the mosaic of the North-African bishop, Quodvultdeus, which is also something amazing to be seen in the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
The crypt in which it was found was sealed off, full of mud and debris that had come through one of the sky lights. It was completely buried. The legend of that discovery is that in the 1970s a team of archaeologists were working in that area, and the first part of the portrait they discovered was the eyes.
Imagine, you’re in the darkness, and in front of you you see those eyes coming from the wall! The boss of that team was working on another fresco at the time, and heard voices coming from that room.
It turned out his team was so scared, they escaped and didn’t go back for a week. This is something logged in their diaries. It’s funny, but it also shows you the power of the place.
There are actually lots of interesting stories. By the end of the 1700s, lots of poets, writers, and artists came from northern Europe to the south of Italy to discover the ancient ruins.
The American author Herman Melville visited, he described the catacombs and was really impressed by them. I read pages from the diary of Charles Dickens, who entered the Catacombs of San Gennaro. He said they were dirty and full of bones!
How rude! So do you think there’s still more history to be discovered within the catacombs?
I think so. In some records they mention a third level, but we don’t know. I’m not sure about it. Maybe there are more rooms under the current lower level.
There is also a wall in one of the lower galleries. We think there’s something beyond the wall. And then at the side of the upper level, you can see the entrance of a big gallery but you can’t enter it. There were probably big rooms behind there.
I think we have lots to discover. It’s something our visitors ask about, they’re impressed and come back every few years to see something new. There’s always a level of mystery.
It seems like the people of Naples have a strong connection with the dead in their everyday lives. Is it something that goes hand in hand with what you’re doing?
Ultimately the catacombs are a cemetery, so there’s a very great importance in the care of the dead people. The kind of “cult” for the deceased people is still very, very strong in Naples.
In the past, even until about 50 years ago, there were people going to Fontanelle Cemetery and praying for those anonymous, unnamed people.
Now, in one of the churches we manage, we were able to restore an old crypt, an old church from the fifth century AD. And in that space, we still have some altars from the 17th century.
Our priests allow the local people, the people joining the activities of the church, to leave their vessels with ashes of those who decided to be cremated. So actually we are trying to connect the people, the modern generations, with these places.
The catacombs themselves are important because they are dedicated to San Gennaro – the name is important. But they also represent a project of value, an archaeological place but also somewhere that is creating employment for the people.
The catacombs are not only a kind of museum, they are more than that. We meet people and tell the story of the project to our visitors. You can only enter through a guided tour, but we don’t only describe the history of the place. It’s also a chance for us to tell people what’s happening in the neighborhood, thanks to the cultural heritage, and thanks to the strength of the people who want to change the place.
When we started, there were just five of us, all teenagers. We were not archaeologists, we were not art historians. But following the local priest of the area we started discovering the history of this place, step by step. We studied, trained, and made our work more professional.
We also started taking care of the gardens around the catacombs. We started activities for children and teenagers. We were able to restore churches in the neighborhood. Some of these churches are places where children and teenagers can play music.
We tried to reopen areas to promote this heritage. Tourists started to come. We had around 6,000 visitors a year when we started. In 2019, we counted 170,000 visitors in a year, and the number of people employed is up to 40.
Our neighborhood is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Naples, so an area you couldn’t go to until ten years ago. We are changing the reputation of the neighborhood through this project.
And you hold more than just guided tours down in the catacombs too, right?
Yes, we do. We’ve done theater tours and we had a concert with violins once, which was beautiful. We can’t do these things all the time. It’s not good for the conservation to have large groups in the catacombs for long periods of time.
Sometimes we organize evening tours of the catacombs with snacks and drinks in our bookshop-bar. It’s a community event called Aperivisita where we serve local products like taralli and draft beer.
These things are great, but you can’t do them all the time. What you realize being inside the catacombs is that it’s a very holy place. Also, it belongs to the Vatican, so we don’t want to do anything that’s not respectful to the place.
So to finish, what is it that you would like people to take away from their experience in the Catacombs of San Gennaro?
What we actually want people to remember is not just the experience in the catacombs as a kind of museum. We want to explain what the catacombs represent to the neighborhood and to the city.
We give an opportunity to the local people. We want our visitors to feel part of this project. When you buy a ticket, you are supporting the project. We pay our salaries with the ticket sales, but, since we are a non-profit organization, if there are profits we reinvest them to restore frescoes and conserve the space.
We want people to spread the message of what you can do and how it’s possible to change the life of people in a neighborhood. People don’t remember names and dates, but if you feel part of that project, you remember that feeling.
Mondays to Saturdays: 10am to 5pm (last admission 5pm)
Sundays: 10am to 2pm (last admission 2pm)
How to get to the Catacombs of San Gennaro:
You can take the bus (168, 178, C63 or R4) from the National Museum and get off at stop no. 3250 – Basilica dell’Incoronata.
Take the Naples Tangenziale and come off at exit no. 5 – Capodimonte. Take a right turn onto Via Capodimonte and the Catacombs are 200m ahead on the right. Free parking is available on-site.
Address: Via Tondo di Capodimonte, 1380136 Naples, Italy