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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

In Naples, Faith Substitutes for What Science Can’t Foresee

Bishop Januarius I of Benevento, a town near present-day Naples, is believed to have been beheaded in the year 305 during the persecutions of Roman emperor Diocletian. Catholic hagiography says that a sample of Januarius’s blood was supposedly preserved by a woman named Eusebia, who gave it to the local church authorities for safekeeping. Beginning in 1389, the martyr’s dried blood—preserved in two small glass ampoules—was observed to spontaneously liquefy on certain occasions, such as papal visits.

The Miracle of San Gennaro was later codified into a thrice-yearly ceremony in which Catholic priests exhibit a reliquary containing the ampoules to the Neapolitan public. If the dried blood liquifies, it means good fortune; if it stays solid, it means disaster. In the 20th century, the blood failed to liquify in 1939 (the year World War II broke out), 1980 (the year of the Irpinia earthquake, which killed around 2,500 people) and 2016 (the year a series of earthquakes killed hundreds in central Italy).


This supposed miracle provided the title for French photographer Julien Mauve’s new series Il Miracolo, which he shot in Naples during multiple visits over the course of 2019. For Mauve, the ceremony of the blood is a perfect symbol for the peculiarly Neapolitan combination of piety, superstition, and fatalism. First settled in the 2nd millennium BC, Naples is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited urban centers. Today it’s the economic powerhouse of southern Italy, but its location between two major volcanoes, Mount Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei, also puts it at risk of destruction. Residents need look no farther than Pompeii, a 30-minute drive to the southeast, for a glimpse at their possible fate.

“I was interested in this mixture of good and bad things in Naples,” Mauve explains. “The volcanoes are dangerous, but they are also the reason the soil is so fertile, which is one of the reasons people live there.” (The ash and lava deposited by previous eruptions are rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.) Some Neapolitans credit the volcanoes for the city’s famously fast pace. “They believe the volcanoes create a specific energy that makes the place so special,” Mauve says. “There’s a lot of noise, a lot of activity.”

To capture the full range of Neapolitan life, Mausve photographed the volcanoes, the urban streets, and even a research facility where scientists monitor seismographs to detect earthquakes and volcanic activity. Last July, around a week after he photographed at the facility, an unusually large volcanic eruption on the Italian island of Stromboli sent a mile-high column of ash into the sky. It was one of the volcanoes monitored by the facility, but scientists had failed to predict this particular explosion.

Given the unpredictability of nature and the occasional unreliability of scientific forecasting, it’s no wonder many Neapolitans continue to place their faith in rituals like the Miracle of San Gennaro. There’s good news in that regard: On September 19, the last time the ampoules were publicly exhibited, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples, was able to announce that the blood of San Gennaro had indeed liquified. The city was safe—at least until May 2, the next time the blood is scheduled to be shown.

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