Why These Catacombs in Naples Might Be the World’s Creepiest

Catacombs of San Gaudioso, Naples

I’m constantly telling people to visit Naples, and I’ve finally written about one of my favorite reasons why: the catacombs of San Gaudioso. While Rome has no dearth of spine-tingling sites (hello, Capuchin crypt), these catacombs — which include a gallery in which desiccated heads were attached to the walls… and portraits of the dearly departed frescoed around them — are, hands-down, the creepiest place I’ve ever visited.

The run-down: Like the spectacular catacombs of San Gennaro, the catacombs of San Gaudioso were first dug out in Greco-Roman times. They were used as an ancient necropolis and then — later — an early Christian cemetery. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the catacombs in Rome have similar backstories, too). But after being inundated with the lave dei vergini (literally, the lava of the virgins; great name, right?) and abandoned in the 9th century, they were forgotten about. Until, that is, some enterprising Dominican friars decided to build a church here in the 17th century… and pay for it, at least in part, with their really gruesome fancy-schmancy burial practices. (So fancy, in fact, only nobles and high-level officials got the benefit of it. Really, who doesn’t want to be drained, beheaded and put on display for all eternity?!).

Read more over in my story on the catacombs of San Gaudioso for BBC Culture, and remember: You have been warned.

If you’re already sold and just need the details:

The catacombs of San Gaudioso are located in the Naples neighborhood of Rione Sanità. (If you go, don’t miss the equally creepy Cimitero delle Fontanelle). The entrance is at the Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità in Piazza Sanità. The catacombs are open from Monday to Sunday, 10am-1pm, but visitable only with a tour, which leaves every hour; the guides (who are super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable, by the way — not always the case in Italy!) speak English, so you can ask for an English-language tour. More info here. It costs €9 per adult, which also gets you entrance to the catacombs of San Gennaro (also a must-see).

Also: two facts about ancient Rome you probably didn’t know, why you should visit Rome’s only pyramid and some other reasons to visit Naples.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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Books About Italy I’m Compulsively Reading (and Re-Reading)

No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do every couple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.

While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.

What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.

So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.

The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.

Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.

The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.

Why take a day trip from Rome to Naples?

And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…

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Two More Art Opportunities in Rome

Manzu piece in Rome museum of municipal modern art

A fan of art? And of Rome? Then you’ll be happy to know that two new opportunities for viewing some of the city’s best pieces have just opened up—on both the modern and Renaissance sides.

Check out my two latest pieces, “Palazzo Farnese Now Offers English Tours” and “A Home for Art Reopens in Rome,” for the New York Times. (Photo: Massimo Siragusa for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale).

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The Rome Palazzo You Have to Visit… By May

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Farnese for its once-in-a-blue-moon opening to the public yet, then go — by April 27.

Here’s why: The palazzo is an architectural gem, designed in the 16th century by Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and that guy everyone’s heard of, Michelangelo. It’s a treasure trove of art, including Annibale Carracci’s world-famous frescoes of romping gods and goddesses (pictured above — since no photos were allowed in the exhibition, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art).

And Palazzo Farnese is a key piece of juicy Renaissance history: It was built by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after he got his start in the Church thanks to his sister, Giulia. Why was she so influential? Well, she was sleeping with Pope Alexander VI. That helps.

Did I mention the travesty fact that this lovely papal palazzo is closed to the public? Since 1874, it’s been the home of the French Embassy. That means you can’t just wander in off the street. Unfortunately.

Now, you can… or almost.

Since December, Palazzo Farnese has hosted an exhibit titled, quite simply, “Mostra Palazzo Farnese.” Because that’s exactly what it is: a rare display of the palazzo’s gems, not least of all its rooms and galleries themselves. The gorgeous courtyard alone boasts ancient sarcophagi and sculptures, many on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum; for those who can’t get to Naples, the exhibit also has copies of the fabulous Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull, both just too big to be moved. (Darn them for being so impressive!)

My favorite? The Venus Kallipygos, a 1st-century B.C. marble (based on a 3rd-century B.C. Greek bronze), as much because I get a kick out of its name — literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” — as because it is, well, beautiful. From top to, er, bottom.

Venus Kallipygos in the Naples Archaeological Museum, currently at Palazzo Farnese, rome

That’s not to mention the glittering tapestries, Renaissance paintings and portraits of the Farnese family that make up the rest of the exhibition.

As far as rooms go, though, there’s nothing quite like the salon frescoed by Annibale Carracci, the famous High Renaissance painter from Bologna. Now, his frescoes are little-recognized compared to, say, those by Raphael or Michelangelo in the Vatican, but that’s a shame: Art historians always have considered them an incredible blend of both styles, and they’re usually seen as the best frescoes of the High Renaissance. What Raphael lacked in power, muscularity and dynamism, Carracci’s got. And what Michelangelo didn’t quite grasp in terms of harmony, beauty, and elegance, well, Carracci’s covered that part, too.

Don’t believe me? Just check out this image (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art):

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Here’s a close-up of that great fresco you see at the far end, the Cyclops Polyphemus:

Cyclops Polyphemus in Annibale Carracci's frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Pretty great stuff. But if you don’t get your bottom there before April 27, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to see any of this again.

The cost of the exhibit, which includes a (unsurprisingly dry, but informative) audioguide, is €12, plus reductions. Don’t wait in line for your ticket — book your spot in advance. (Especially since the lines will probably get longer as the exhibit nears its end date!). Call 0632810 to book, or — easier still for those already in Rome — stop by the Feltrinelli bookstore at Largo Argentina. There, they have a “box office” where you can buy your tickets for one of the available time slots.

And if you’re still not convinced the Palazzo Farnese is worth beelining too — let me repeat, before it closes to the public once more — check out The Economist’s enthusiastic take on the Mostra Palazzo Farnese. (After all, if The Economist says it, it must be true).

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The Week of Free Museums Across Italy… Is Here!

Raphael's Entombment at the Borghese Gallery, Rome

Hurrah — the "week of culture" is here!

From now until April 17, Italy's state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael's beautiful "Entombment," above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!

Here's a complete list of sites with free entrances this week, from Pierreci (click on the drop-down beneath the map on the right to choose your region — Rome, of course, is Lazio).

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Through May, Naples Museums Come Free

Although I usually focus on events in Rome, I came across some news today that — especially since I just posted on Naples as a great day or weekend trip from Rome — I can't not share with you all.

From now until May 30, some of Naples' top museums will be free. The fantastic Archaeological Museum, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be included, but the museum at Capodimonte (remember, the one with all of those famous pieces by artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio) is. That's €7.50 saved. You can buy two whole pizzas with that kind of change.

The Capodimonte, as well as the museum at Castel Sant'Elmo and the Certosa and Museum of San Martino, are free from 8:30am-10am and 4pm-7:30 through May. The museum Duca di Martina is free all day (8:30am-2pm). Click here for information on Naples' free museums from Pierreci.

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Venetian Masters Come to Rome

Bellini's Madonna and Child, currently at Rome's I Grandi Veneti exhibit From Titian to Tintoretto, Bellini to Bassano, some of Italy's greatest masters of painting have been Venetian. But without going to Venice, it can be a little tough to get a sense of the various shapes that Venetian art took on during its peak from the 15th to 18th centuries.

That is, until now.

Through January 30, the Chiostro del Bramante is hosting an exhibit called, simply, "I Grandi Veneti" — the Grand Venetians. More than 80 Venetian paintings are on display, set up chronologically, so you can actually feel how art shifted in Venice over the centuries.

For enthusiasts of Renaissance art, the exhibit has some true gems. Pisanello's Portrait of Lionello d’Este (about 1441) revolutionized portraiture, blending Gothic traditions while giving a nod to the shape that Renaissance portraits would take. There's also Bellini's lovely Madonna and Child (about 1460) (at top), with its mixture of serenity and sumptuousness that the artist would be renowned for, and a gorgeous series of Madonnas by masters like Jacobello di Antonello, Marco Marziale, and Bartolomeo Veneto (1505). The exhibit traces the rest of Venice's 15th and 16th centuries, taking in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Lotto along the way. (Below, Lorenzo Lotto's Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, 1523). Lorenzo Lotto, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, at I Grandi Veneti in Rome

The rest of the exhibit — Venice's 17th and 18th centuries' output — has paintings that are probably a little less familiar. That is, except for the ever-ubiquitous Canaletto, whose scenes of the Venetian canals are just as precise and just as lovely in this exhibit as ever. My favorite of this section, though, had to be the simultaneously creepy and tongue-in-cheek Il Ridotto (Maschere Veneziane), done by Pietro Longhi in 1757 — just as criticism of Venice as a "dead" city clinging to her past were ramping up (below). (They still haven't gone away).

Il Ridotto by Pietro Longhi, at I Grandi Veneti in Rome

I Grandi Veneti is at the Chiostro del Bramante until Jan. 30. The Chiostro is at Arco della Pace 5, a stone's throw from Piazza Navona. The exhibit costs €10. For more information, click here.

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Romeing, On Newsstands Now

Finally, Rome has an answer to "Time Out": Romeing, a free mini-magazine that publishes a full calendar of events, plus articles and reviews, each month.

Although there are other print publications like this in Rome, none are in English. (One exception: "Where Rome," but its calendar isn't exactly exhaustive). Aimed at expats or travelers looking for something to do beyond the Vatican or Colosseum, whether a new modern art show at the Maxxi or a rugby match viewing at Flaminio Stadium, it's small enough to slide into your back pocket or purse.

Check it out…plus my contributions, including my monthly "Tips & Tricks" column (inspired by the same section in this blog!).

You can pick up Romeing at a variety of hotels, museums, bars, and embassies around the city, including the Galleria Borghese, Maxxi, Bibli (Trastevere), Mimi e Coco (Piazza Navona), Magnolia (Campo dei Fiori), the British embassy, Australian embassy, and Leonardo da Vinci language school, among others.

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This Week, the Eagle and the Dragon in Full Force

Two Empires: Eagle and Dragon teaser in the Forum, Rome Anyone who's visited Rome's Curia in the Forum over the past month has seen China's terracotta warriors, strutting their stuff across the 1,700-year-old Roman marble and porphyry floor.

But as I wrote in early October, that exhibit comparing the Chinese and Roman empires was just a taste. This weekend, the full exhibit opens at Palazzo Venezia.

[Update, Nov. 18: It's also free on its opening day on Friday and is open from 10am-7pm. Very cool!]

Opening on Friday, Nov. 19, the exhibit boasts more than 400 different pieces from the ancient Roman and Chinese empires. It's the first time the two empires have been compared in an exhibit, and it's about time: both empires were extraordinarily influential, as well as contemporaries, with their heights from about the 3rd centuries B.C. to 4th century A.D. 

It's bound to be a fascinating game of compare-and-contrast. As soon as I see it, I'll report back. In the meantime, if you can, go yourself.

The exhibit is at the Palazzo Venezia from Nov. 19 daily until Jan.9, except for Mondays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. It's open from 8:30am-9:30pm daily. Entrance to the exhibit is at Via del Plebiscito 19; for a map, click here.

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