A whirl of ghosts and angels

Rione Sanità is one of the most ancient areas of Naples’ center. The neighborhood has become home to a large piece of the city’s street art heritage, which has played a major role in urban renewal and social inclusion.

Nestled in a valley between the two hills of Capodimonte and Arenella, Naples’ central district of Rione Sanità takes shape in a maze of narrow streets governed by a sense of overwhelming frenzy. 

Entering the lower part of the neighborhood, known as Borgo Vergini, visitors are welcomed by a large mural painting whose caption exhorts the viewer not to confuse ghosts with angels (Nu ‘mmescà ‘e fantasme cu ll’angiule). Loosely based on the figure of the local Madonna from the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, the mural was painted by Collettivo FX and represents a virgin holding a curly-haired child Jesus removing a demon (or a ghost) from the head of a baby angel. (Top photo, Nu ‘mmescà ‘e fantasme cu ll’angiule, Collettivo FX)

Rione Sanità epitomizes the deeply contradictory relationship that we Neapolitans have with religion and death: one of awe and respect, as much as of irreverence and denial. Although the actual district was only established in the 16th century under the Spanish Viceroyalty, the area’s history dates to the Hellenistic and Roman era, when it was an extra moenia (outside the walls) section of Neapolis, mainly serving as a burial ground.

Nowadays, the ghosts haunting this rough yet fascinating part of the city are poverty, unemployment, and the constant threat of organized crime, the latter allowed to flourish in recent decades due to the lack of opportunities for local youth. As widely reported in the Italian media, one of them, 17-year-old Genny Cesarano, tragically died in September 2015 after being mistakenly shot by Camorra hitmen in Piazza Sanità, the main square of the district.

It is to all these children of the Rione that Spanish artist Tono Cruz has dedicated a mural on the façade of a building in Piazza Sanità: his work depicts the smiling faces of a few young participants in a workshop that took place in the local branch of Save the Children and represents the brightness of their hope for a better future.

Luce, Tono Cruz

From here, Via Sanità unfurls deeper into the district, leading to one of its spiritual staples: the Fontanelle Cemetery. As described by the region’s agency for tourism and cultural heritage, it is a former ossuary housed in a tuff cave, containing the remains of almost 40,000 victims of the 1656 plague and of the 1837 cholera epidemics. The cemetery hosts one of the most notorious death cults in Neapolitan folklore: the rite of the anime pezzentelle (derelict souls), whereby a skull is “adopted” and taken care of by a worshipper in exchange for earthly rewards. 

On the way to the Fontanelle Cemetery lies a very peculiar mural by Argentinian-born artist Francisco Bosoletti titled Speranza Nascosta (Hidden Hope). Painted on the façade of a refuge that accommodates homeless people, it represents an old woman’s face painted in negative, thus distinctively visible only through inverting tones and luminance.

Speranza Nascosta, Francisco Bosoletti

Another South American artist, Brazilian Alex Senna, has pasted several stencils around the district: one of these, characterized by a melancholic and gloomy undertone, features the members of a stylized black-and-white family who embrace one another in mourning.

Untitled, Alex Senna

Aside from the pieces produced by artists or groups of artists, the district hosts many murals that are anonymous or works of collectives, such as those by football fans of SSC Napoli. On match days, the Rione Sanità ultras congregate in the Curva, a stand of the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, and – just like any other group supporting the local football team – they assert their presence by making a mark in the streets through a wide variety of murals and stencils. One of the most visible examples of the widespread diffusion of the ultras’ subculture in the district is featured on the pillar of the notorious Ponte della Sanità, the bridge overlooking the district.

Rione Sanità Ultras

Just behind the bridge, the local Basilica di Santa Maria della Sanità hosts the crypt that gives access to the San Gaudioso Catacombs, which – alongside the San Gennaro Catacombs and the Basilica of San Severo fuori le mura (outside the walls) – testify to the ongoing connection of the district to burial practices that, throughout the centuries, have shifted from pagan to Christian liturgies. 

The profound involvement of Rione Sanità with religious death cults has remained unceasing over the centuries. The ghosts of the past have found some rest through rites such as the one of the anime pezzentelle, whereas the demons of contemporary social issues are exorcised by the grassroots work of local social aid associations, which have often overseen the creation of these murals as part of an ongoing commitment to promoting different forms of social inclusion; to continually remind residents and visitors alike that ghosts ought not to be mixed with angels, in a place where life speaks of death, and death speaks of life.

Images by Cristiano Capuano