Neapolitan Culture: Religion on Steriods

Extreme Religiosity ~ 

Naples has a frenetic energy that surges throughout the narrow, bustling streets & alleys of the various quarters of the city.  This energy is palpable in the colorful, lively Neapolitans themselves. The first time I arrived in Naples, I stepped off the train into Piazza Garibaldi and felt like I was hit in the face.  It was taxis, scooters, shouting vendors, and many other characters hard to label all mixed up into a soup of noise and chaos. Fifteen minutes later, with Garibaldi behind me, I had entered a different Naples — Spaccanapoli, the “heart” of Naples.   This is the area you’ve seen in films: loud, colorful, and musical. This is where laundry hangs from balconies across narrow streets and vendors sell their wares from tiny stores spilling into alleys like a scene from a Turkish Bazaar.  To me, a photographer’s dream.

Every alley, every corner offers something to my lens. Naples is real, gritty, authentic.  In contrast to cities like Rome or Venice, which have become tourist-centric cities that many locals can no longer afford to live in, Naples is still a lived-in city.  Neapolitan families continue to live and work here as they have for generations.  Naples’ unique culture is misunderstood by many who see only the surface, but if you do want to experience authentic Italy, this is where you can do it.  For those who take the time to dig deeper into the essence of Naples, you will find that the Neapolitans possess a deep religiosity that is quite remarkable, even in Italy. You can see it and feel it when you are here; it is literally all around you. And regardless of your beliefs, it can be exhilarating.  There is a saying, “If Rome is the heart of Italy, Naples is its Soul”.   

“If Rome is the Heart of Italy, Naples is it’s Soul”

The Sacred and the Profane

Naples’ unique form of religion is ingrained in its culture and appears to be a mix of influences including Catholicism and Paganism intermingling in a seemingly macabre dance.  Entering the older districts of the city you are quickly surrounded by manifestations of this religiosity, such as the ubuquitous number of churches present, the plentiful neighborhood votive shrines, and the distinct street art that combines the sacred and the profane with other elements of this art. It is religion on steroids.

“La città delle cinquecento cupole” 

Naples is indeed a city of churches. Called “La città delle cinquecento cupole,” the city of 500 Cupolas, there is a place of worship down every street. The relationship between Neapolitans and the divine can be difficult for Americans to understand. The ornate Italian Catholic churches stand in stark contrast to the plain auditorium-style places of worship found in the USA. Many are also taken aback by the practice of relics, which involves the physical remains of a saint housed in a church. Indeed, Luther himself was opposed to the veneration of Saints, as well as the worship of their relics as being Pagan in nature. Today the practice continues in many churches like the Basilica of San Domenico, built by Charles of Anjou in 1283 and known for its illustrious student, St Thomas Aquinas. The remains of the famous saint’s arm still reside in a hand-shaped reliquary in one of its chapels, albeit in a considerably diminished state.

San Domenico – The Arm of St Thomas Aquinas

There are several credible witnesses who claimed to have seen St. Thomas levitating in prayer with tears in his eyes before an icon of the crucified Christ in the Chapel of Saint Nicholas in the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore. What is left of the Saint’s left arm is housed in the church as it’s most sacred relic.

Pray on every Corner

Naples is a city of urban shrines, particularly, votive shrines. These can be found on just about any street or alley in the city, but they are particularly common in the older quarters of town such as the Spanish Quarter and the Rione Sanità. These small structures contain religious images such as a crucifix or a statue or image of the Madonna or a saint. Many list the date they were erected as well as an inscription stating the votive was offered “for grace received “, or in fulfillment of a particular vow. This is a living tradition. Indeed, these are not simply decorative in nature, but are acting places of devotion, with locals maintaining them regularly with fresh flowers, candles, and prayer.  

Why are these urban shrines so common in Naples? While they do exist in other Italian towns, Napoli is the Queen of shrines. The story goes like this: 18th century Dominican Friar, Gregorio Maria Rocco, hoped that the creation of these street shrines, lit by oil lamps, would make Naples safer at night by illuminating the city and infusing the streets with sacrality. The Neapolitans’ devotion to the Madonna and the Saints made this an easy sell. To this day, the elaborate and well-lit Catholic shrines adorn the streets and alleys.

And, according to legend, crime decreased dramatically! Practical success or divine intervention? We can guess what most Neapolitans believe . . .

Neapolitan Street Art

In its pure form street art is available for all people –young and old, rich and poor. No galleries and no admission charge; it’s not for sale and everyone can view it anytime. This is the beauty of the art form despite the fact that many street artists have made a healthy profit from their work. Not surprisingly, angels & saints are common subjects for several world famous street artists who have brought their images to Naples.


Zilda – Angels & Sensuality

Zilda is a French artist who was very active in Naples for years, and his art can still be found in various parts of the city.  His work, much inspired by Classical Renaissance art, is mostly religious and allegorical in nature. Plenty of wings and sensuality for the lucky ones who hunt it down in the dark corners of the city.


Banksy – Madonna with the Gun

Naples is home to the most famous piece of street art in Italy, by the most famous and enigmatic street artist in the world. The “Madonna with the Gun” is located in the Piazza dei Girolamini, and is one of the few authentic works in Italy by world-renowned street artist Banksy. The Madonna, now behind glass, is painted with a gun in place of a halo, which many speculate as a metaphor for the dichotomy of religion and crime in Naples.


Let’s Pray

Shooting in Naples, for me, has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had while traveling. I came with certain ideas of what I wanted to find, but left with so much more. Many are surprised when they hear me talk about the spirituality of the Neapolitans, but here is where perception splits from reality. I’ve always felt safe here, not to mention welcome. Naples is certainly the soul of Italy.

It’s been said in recent years that the Italians have lost their religion –that this predominantly Catholic country is “losing its faith”. Statistically speaking, the number of Catholic adherents have been steadily dropping. But I wonder if this tells the whole story. Particularly, the story of the south of Italy, a region so different from the North that many believe the concept of “Italian unification” is a farce.

The Madonna, saints, shrines, and prayer do not seem to be disappearing in this ancient Mediterranean city, at least over the 25 years that I have been spending time here.

The Neapolitans still have plenty of soul.

Text & Photography by Rob Haff

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