Kate Chisholm

Caring for Naples

On Blood and Lava (BBC World Service)

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A curious programme on the World Service on Friday reminded us that although we’re now embarking on a new kind of technological revolution, dominated by twittering, downloading, waking up to John Humphrys not in BH but Karachi, we’ve not quite lost our connection with the mindset of the Middle Ages. On Blood and Lava Malcolm Billings joined the Procession of San Gennaro in Naples. It’s an annual festivity, when the ornate silver bust of the saint and his Holy Blood, in two sealed glass bottles, is carried from the cathedral to the monastery of Santa Chiara. Once there it is supposed magically to transform itself from a dried powder into a living liquid; if it doesn’t, then Naples is doomed — either from the criminal activities of the Camorra, the local mafia, or the fiery eruptions of nearby Vesuvius.

The bottles of blood are kept in the saint’s chapel in the cathedral, along with several pottery storage jars filled to overflowing with the bones of the Early Christian priest, who was persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian in 305 AD. A tuneless band leads the procession as it gathers up the crowd — the Carabinieri in their black and gold uniforms, bishops, priests and deacons in heavily embroidered copes, and thousands of believers, led by the huge bust of the saint, the head of which contains, it is declared, fragments from the saint’s skull, brought back to Naples from his place of execution in the fifth century.

For a moment we left the church bells, the fireworks and the noise of the crowd chanting ‘San Gennaro’ and joined a chemist at the university of Pavia in northern Italy who demonstrated how the ‘miracle’ happens each year. Billings watched as he put 25 grammes of yellow granules of iron chloride into a glass beaker and added 100 millilitres of ordinary tap water. A white powder was then added to the beaker, the mixture started to fizz and gradually as it was being mixed gently with a long-handled spoon it turned a reddish-brown — just like blood. Soon, though, the mixture started to solidify. If you leave it alone, the chemist told Billings, it will remain solid, but as soon as you move the bottle around the mixture will become liquid again.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Naples is very careful to ensure that as the sealed bottles are carried in procession they are kept as still as possible so that the crowd can see that the blood is still solid. Only when he arrives at the monastery chapel does he begin shaking the bottle, and the miracle occurs again. ‘Jesus cares for Naples,’ he declares. ‘The Madonna cares for Naples. San Gennaro cares for Naples...His blood has liquefied.’ The crowd begins to clap.

But do Neapolitans still take all this seriously now that chemists have proved how it can be done? The miracle was only discovered in the late Middle Ages, long after Gennaro’s demise, when local artists in search of new pigments for use in religious frescoes discovered iron chloride on the slopes of Vesuvius and by chance discovered its chemical reaction with certain white pigments. San Gennaro, too, has not been kind to Naples, which has suffered more than its fair share of death and destruction through geological misfortune and criminal neglect. Yet many of the young students in the procession insisted, when asked by Billings, that they do still believe in its potency.

There’s something spooky about this willingness to suspend disbelief in the face of scientific reasoning. But it is the only salve for those who live in the shadow of the volatile volcano. As the great Dr Johnson knew, sometimes it is better to accept that there are more things on heaven and earth than can possibly be explained by one man’s philosophical questing. Throughout his life he always wore an amulet round his neck with the image of St Michael the Archangel on one side, as a protection against ill-health. It didn’t work.