Visit the San Gennaro Catacombs, Naples

February 19, 2020

The Bay of Naples has a fascinating history that spans hundreds & thousands of years. One thing that has been on my bucket list for the last few years when I've visited the Campania region of Italy, are the San Gennaro catacombs of Naples. I've always had an interest in funerary archaeology - my undergraduate dissertation was focussed on Ostia's necropoleis, and my first ever dig was in a medieval chapel graveyard. The San Gennaro Catacombs are an eerie and atmospheric place to visit and understand a part of Naples history.

Entrance to the San Gennaro Catacombs
image source

The San Gennaro Catacombs

The San Gennaro catacombs houses an underground graveyard dating back to the 2nd century AD. The tombs started as the burial place for a noble family before expanding to a Christian burial place in the 4th century.

The deepest part of the catacombs contains a grave and basilica of Sant'Agrippino. The upper parts of the catacombs became the burial place of bishops - when San Gennaro's (the patron saint of Naples) remains were moved here in the 5th century, consecrating the catacombs as a site of pilgrimage.

The San Gennaro CatacombsI booked onto an afternoon tour, where there was a small group of us shown around the different levels of the catacombs by a tour guide. She was amazing at explaining different points of significance, and answering any questions we had.

My favourite thing to see in the catacombs was the beautiful frescoes that adorned some of the tombs. Most interesting was the story of the Thoetecnus family. The fresco dates back to the 6th century, and shows high status family. What's really cool is that there are three layers of plaster on the fresco, showing that each time a family member died, they were able to repaint the fresco to include each person.

Frescoes in  The San Gennaro Catacombs

There are so many beautiful frescos and mosaics to look at throughout the catacombs, including lots of Christian imagery.

Frescoes in The San Gennaro CatacombsFrescoes in The San Gennaro Catacombs

It was such an interesting tour to take, and something I would highly recommend to anyone who's interested in something a little bit different for their visit to Naples. All of the remains are removed from the catacombs now, so you won't be seeing bones when you're down there. However, the visit is so atmospheric, you really get the sense of how sacred this place is. What I find really incredible, is that Mass can still be observed in the underground basilica.

If you do want to visit remains, then the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle is a fascinating ossuary with skulls and long bones on display - find out more about it here! 

They have a really fantastic website - here - which tells you of the history of the catacombs and shows some of the restoration work, and how they've opened the site to be accessible for the public!

Tours are offered in English, and the guides are so helpful. Some tips to bare in mind if you visit: you're underground, so of course it gets a little chilly. For a Brit on holiday this might not seem too cold (my Scottish body still had me sweating throughout), but taking a jumper / shirt would suffice for those who may feel the cold at 15 degrees. Also, the tour finishes at another end of the catacombs, leaving through a modern church and at a hospital. Have a map handy, or be prepared to call upon a taxi, as you're no longer in the tourist area of Naples and you may get lost.

Visiting Naples and wanting to know what sites to visit? Check out this post with the top things you should do in the Bay of Naples! 


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