Mystery, superstition, and creepy atmosphere run deep in this 2,500-year-old city.
Strange alchemy, eerily lifelike statuary, creepy catacombs, and superstitious cults venerating the dead seem to be around every corner in Naples, and the Bay of Naples delivers extraordinary, uncanny, and downright spine-tingling moments aplenty. There’s something about the city’s rich, turbulent history and the Campania region’s combination of natural fecundity and deadly volcanic threat that creates such esoteric and uncanny experiences.
Delve Deep Into the Catacombe di San Gennaro
Emerging out of the dank gloom of this creepy underground warren glows Paleo-Christian art that takes your breath away. Guided tours start outside the domed Chiesa di Madre di Buon Consiglio, exploring the captivating spaces first hewn out of the volcanic tuff rock in the 2nd century. In the dark recesses and niches, spotlights illuminate naive frescoes, fifth-century mosaics, and graves including a tomb venerating the haloed patron saint and protector of Naples, San Gennaro. A ticket includes entrance to the San Gaudioso catacombs in Sanità.
Experience Pompeii’s Ghosts
Among the most poignant echoes of the AD 79 eruption that buried Roman Pompeii are the chilling plaster casts of some its victims. After the first deluge of volcanic debris, many of the town’s inhabitants stayed put. When the roofs collapsed under the enormous weight of ash and the mixture of gas and rocks that swept down from Vesuvius, everyone was entombed. Pioneering 19th-century archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a technique to reveal the death throes of 103 tragic figures: by pouring plaster into the cavities left by decomposing matter in the hardened ash and pumice, their contorted shapes and expressions revealed haunting relics for all to see, displayed among the ruins today.
Be Bewitched at Cappella Sansevero
Down a side street off Napoli’s Spaccanapoli is the entrancing family chapel of the mysterious and much-mythologized Prince Raimondo di Sangro (1710–71). He had esoteric interests and tastes and commissioned the uncannily lifelike sculptures on display here. People are drawn to the centerpiece, among the most impressive marble statues in Italy, the Cristo Velato by Sanmartino: a prostrate, veiled Christ that communicates personal and human suffering. Descending into the basement vault, two gruesome anatomical exhibits reveal what lies below the flesh in lurid detail. Even the renowned philosopher Benedetto Croce talked of the sorcery encircling infamous Raimondo; he wrote that Neapolitans believed that the prince “had two of his servants killed, a man and a woman, and had the bodies strangely embalmed so that they showed all the viscera, the arteries and the veins.”
Stare Into Lifeless Eyes at the Ospedale Delle Bambole
Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll’s Hospital): just the name sounds like the title of a horror movie. Indeed, this very curious workshop/museum may have sweetness at its heart, but the disquieting, staring-eyed, limb-strewn visions that await may induce nightmares. Along atmospheric Via San dei Biagio dei Librai, passersby stop to peer in the windows. Those with a stout sensibility enter this strange world to meet the friendly surgeons who care for the mountains of dolly limbs. It all started in the early 1800s when Luigi Grassi turned his attentions from theatrical scenography, prop making, and mending marionettes to the needs of mammas and bambini with their injured bambole.
INSIDER TIPWhy not pack your own broken dolly and bring it along so you too can add to the Doll’s Hospital history?
Retrace Aeneas’ Descent Into the Underworld
To the west of Naples is Cumae, on the edge of the steaming and bubbly landscape of crater lakes that inspired Roman writer Virgil’s Greco-Roman myths of the Underworld. Amid these picturesque ruins is a curious 430-feet-long trapezoidal tunnel associated with magic deeds and ancient soothsayers. Here you can walk through the so-called Cave of the Sibyl, experiencing its otherworldly acoustics and chiaroscuro menace, imagining strange ancient ceremonies. In Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, the Cumaean Sibyl falls into a reverie “deep in her cave” and enables the Trojan hero Aeneas to descend into the Underworld. Evidence of such prophetesses does exist in ancient texts. Some scientists even believe that if mind-altering volcanic gases circulated here, tales of psychoactive trips and supposed sorcery are not so far-fetched.
INSIDER TIPBefore your trip, read Seamus Heaney’s entrancing translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid Book VI.
Feel Tingles in the Temple of Echoes
Shivering spines are often the result of moments spent in the so-called Temple of Echoes. Exploring the now eerily empty Roman resort spa ruins of Baia can be a highly charged experience. This was once the lavish playground of pleasure-seeking emperors and scene of juicy plots and multiple murders, as documented by Roman biographer Suetonius. Standing or floating under the ancient 71-foot-diameter dome (the world’s oldest large-scale dome structure), light streams through a central oculus and skylights, sparkling the central frigidarium pool. It’s not surprising that the baths’ transcendental acoustics and magical light make it a favorite of musicians and performers.
INSIDER TIPUse your phone to record the incredible echoes here.
Explore the Tomb of the Diver
After a pilgrimage to Paestum, with its ancient lost-civilization columns amid wild meadows, make time to stand before the archaeological area’s most reproduced artistic find for more goose-bump moments. Within the austere Fascist-era museum are the frescoed panels of the Tomb of the Diver, buried within a funerary box in about 475 BC and unearthed almost 2,500 years later in 1968. Eyes are drawn to the arresting scene of a youth gracefully diving into water. Without even knowing its origins or the interpretations of its supposed meaning meant by the ancient Greek artist, its gorgeous simplicity and serenity draw the viewer in. Is it a mysterious image of transcendence or something else? Many interpret it as a metaphor for the transition from life to death, diving into the unknown, and hope of an afterlife.
INSIDER TIPAfter enjoying the ancient sights, head to Tenuta Vannulo for the best mozzarella on the planet and to pat a buffalo’s head.
Feel the Chill of Mussolini’s Megalomania
Looming over Piazza Matteotti, the gargantuan post office of Palazzo delle Poste seems more like an evil space station than a place to pick up some stamps. Its inhumane scale can leave you both cold and stupefied. Mussolini savagely swept away the centuries-old community in the Rione San Giuseppe-Carità quarter and imposed war-mongering totalitarianism on the Neapolitans. The curvilinear facade, simple forms, and imposing scale are examples of razionalista–funzionalista architecture. Toward the end of World War II, as Italian Fascism collapsed, these post office marble steps were the scene of deadly skirmishes between Nazis and Neapolitans, before the arrival of Allied troops from Salerno.
Wander Among the Graceful Dancers of Villa dei Papiri
Among the most spine-tingling sights in MANN (arguably the most impressive museum collection of Roman artifacts anywhere on the planet) is this set of lifelike bronze sculptures. Buried but preserved by the 80 feet of volcanic debris that engulfed the lavish Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, they are some of the most soulful yet eerie Roman examples of an idealized human form, inspired by ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics. Walking among these gracefully posed figures and peering into their piercing, concentrated expressions is uncanny—they seem almost poised to come to life at any moment.
Creep Through a Cathedral of Skulls and Bones
Living in a city with an ever-present threat of death has made Napoletani suckers for the superstitious. A visit to this cavernous underground ossuary may not only pull at the heartstrings, it could inhabit your dreams. In 1654, during the calamitous bubonic plague outbreak, some 250,000 bodies (out of a population of 400,000 Neapolitans) had to be deposited away from the living, and this spot outside the city walls was chosen. Further plagues, wars, and volcanic disasters made it necessary to carve out a cathedral-like space in the malleable tuff rock to house the mounting bones. Walking around today, you can stop and reflect by numerous coffin-like shrines made by devotees of the cult of the dead: Neapolitans would adopt anonymous remains and pray for the deceased in exchange for favors.