After a two-week research trip to Naples, I have returned with a new appreciation for this amazing city, which is filled to the brim with innumerable souls. It’s Italian, yet its beautiful dialect and some of its architecture serve as reminders of places far from Italy, unchanged witnesses of its glorious past. Nowadays Naples extends from the sea to the Vesuvio, but even by the end of the sixteenth century, it was the most populous city in Europe, followed by Paris and London.
At its height, it was one of the greatest ports in the Mediterranean sea serving as a cultural hub of people that not only passed through for business, but who also decided to stay and ‘become Neapolitans’. An account of Naples written in the seventeenth century by Giulio Cesare Carpaccio gives us an idea of Naples in the 1630s: ‘I go about the city and in addition to the artisans selling their numerous goods, and those who rather stay at home, I see in every street, alleyway and corner, so many people . […] I go in the churches at time of preaching, and they are so many, and they are always packed with people […].’ [Vado per la cità & oltre a gli arteggiani che assistono che sono innumerabili, oltre a quei che rimangono nell’habitationi, veggo per ogni strada, ogni vico, ogni cantone, tanta frequenza di popolo […]. Vado nelle chiese dove si predica, che sono tante, e le ritrovo pienissime di popolo, e per la cità; par che non manchi alcuno.]- G.C. Carpaccio, Il Forastiero (Naples, 1634), p. 847.
Not much has changed in Naples. As I learned while observing the sights and sounds of the via dei Tribunali, via San Biagio dei Librai, and via San Gregorio Armeno, weaving your way through the ancient decumano maggiore can still be a struggle.
With a goal of finding testimonies of domestic devotion in the city, I spent my time between the State and the Church Archives, looking amongst sixteenth-century manuscripts. Eager to spot any little trace left by those that could write and ‘be’ the voice of those that could not, such as notaries, I combed through these archival documents. I owe these notaries for their meticulous testimony. I was rewarded with detailed inventories of robbe, or things, which populated the homes of the Italian middling sort. Amongst ‘old tablecloths’ (Item uno panno de tavola vecchio) and ‘beloved white bed sheets’ (Item amata de lenzola biancha), I found a treasure trove of devotional objects—paternosters, rosaries, Agnus Dei, as well as images of ‘Our Lady’ (una cona della nostra Donna), and so much more.
While leafing through these inventories, the occasional broken red seal wax reminded me of the people who once received this same inventory. As I read through it, I imagined the owner praying with those very objects that now are retained solely by the words on paper. I could just imagine Antonia, wife of Joanis, as she clutched her rosary for her daily prayer.
However, as Carpaccio expressed in the seventeenth century, the true Neapolitan spirit seems to be at its best out-of-doors. Devotional shrines to the Virgin Mary occupy almost every street corner.
The old ladies of the quartiere, or quarter, still care for them today. Grates protect them and modern light fittings ensure that they are always visible. Flowers are left by random passersbys to honour these sacred images.
In some cases, however, where the shrine occupies a very narrow alleyway, and where houses are so small that the outside walls host washing lines, these shrines, and streets, acquire a somewhat domestic value.
If it was, people must have been constantly reminded of their faith. But was their faith left outside, at the shrine? Did the activities of attending Church services, seeking intercession at street shrines, and praying at home somehow tie devotional practices together while simultaneously unifying these diverse spaces? My quest is to go further inside the homes of Renaissance Neapolitans by following contemporary written traces to discover if Neapolitans, together with their daily shopping, brought their devotions back home, and unpacked it in the company of their family.
-Irene (Galandra) Cooper