A mural of Saint Gennaro wearing a face mask in Naples
Saint Peter’s Square on a grey, rainy day in March. The pavement is wet and reflects the street lights just as they are being lit. On the steps of the church, at a distance, a tiny little figure clad in white appears: the Pope. In front of an empty square, he is praying. His lonely prayer, virtually joined by thousands of people in livestream, has been advertised all over television across Italy. The day after, newspapers, even those supposed to be secular, are giving full coverage to the event. Pope Francis, in an unprecedented move, is not only praying and blessing urbi et orbi (the city and the rest of the world) but granting what the Catholics call ‘plenary indulgence’ to all those watching the event, or those who just ‘spiritually connected’ with it. A plenary indulgence is basically an absolution from all sins committed in life—it is usually granted in very special occasions and under very strict circumstances and stringent rules—usually during jubilees, and only after visiting the four main churches in Rome and after confession and communion, or after pilgrimages.
In the old times, selling indulgences was one of the ways the popes used to finance the construction of Saint Peter’s Square. It was also one of the main reasons for the Lutheran schism. But that is another story. This extraordinary coverage of the Pope’s prayer and the livestreaming of the Mass every morning by the most important state channel is not taking place in ordinary times and ordinary rules do not apply.
What seems to apply, instead, are the ancestral rules based on fear and emotions. We’ve already been here, in fact, many times in history: the Black Death, plague, Spanish Flu. Epidemics are not new in history. But at the end of the day, when logic and science seem to fail, mostly because rationalism and science take time to work, we seem to go back to the place that, according to the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, was the ‘child of a subaltern culture’—an odd mix of religion and superstition. Karl Marx wrote, in his most famous and quoted sentence: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ And, in time of pandemic, you need opium more than ever. Fear does strange things to people. And since science is apparently unable to stop the contagion and the numbers of the dead, fear is crawling into people blowing away the rational and pushing back centuries of Illuminism into the hole of Dark Ages beliefs. Because I’m sure we will not take that long, if the curve does not flatten soon, before seeing in the streets saints and holy virgins paraded like we used to do in the past, in the hope of taking away the contagion. After all, we have a saint for everything and an amazing number of virgins related with pandemic. One of them is the patron of my hometown, Cosenza—the Virgin of Pilerio, which most probably means the Virgin of the Pillar and is a version of the Spanish Virgen do Pilar. Don’t forget, we were part of the Bourbons’ domain for centuries.
The Virgin of Pilerio is a beautiful 12th century painting with some oddities. There is a mark on her cheek which, according to the legend, appeared in 1576 during a plague. People believe she took the plague on herself, saving the city and its inhabitants. The same thing happened in 1854, when an earthquake hit the place and on the Virgin’s face appeared a net of cracks: people thought the Virgin had taken on herself the devastating consequences of the earthquake. Those who died must have been sinners and miscreants.
There’s a similar story in Venice, of course, much more famous. The festival dedicated to the Madonna della Salute (the Virgin of Health) is the most famous in town. The story follows the usual lines—During the Black Death of 1630, the Virgin took away the disease. There’s also a side story to it. There’s a red pavement stone, between Corte Nova and Calle Zorzi, in Venice, where you are not supposed to walk because it will bring misfortunes. The legend goes like this: a woman named Giovanna, who lived in Corte Nova, had a miraculous vision of the Madonna, who told her that, to avoid the plague, the inhabitants of the place would have to paint a picture representing her image and that of saints Rocco, Sebastiano and Giustina, and hang it on the wall at the entrance of the area. In order to infect the inhabitants of Corte Nova, the plague would therefore have had to cross that sacred place—it did not, apparently. They say in fact the image stopped the disease that ‘fell to the ground’, among the gray slabs of the pavement, right where the red stone still appears today symbolising the defeat of the plague. According to the legend, the inhabitants of Corte Nova were unscathed from the terrible contagion which, suddenly, disappeared, finally leaving the Serenissima. Since then, all Venetians who cross the place have been careful not to step on this red stone fearing it will bring them bad luck and misfortunes.
Many authoritative newspapers and magazines have been, in the past days, publishing in their cultural section, articles featuring the saints one must pray to in times of epidemics. Saint Rocco, for one, was a pilgrim saint who in the 14th century was traveling all over Italy to heal people afflicted by the Black Death. Then there is Saint Rita with no connection with the plague, but she can make the impossible possible. Usually, she is worshipped by women who cannot bear children. My cousin, born with Saint Rita’s intervention, is dressed up as a little nun for a week every May by her devoted mother, as a token of thanks to the Saint.
Another story takes us to the south of Italy where a peculiar mix of superstition and religion prevails. Naples houses the ‘Crucifix of Miracles’, an image of Christ that is said to have protected the city several times against many evils. However, at the beginning of this month, a new image of Saint Gennaro, the protector of the city, has appeared. The image portrays San Gennaro, rigorously equipped with a face mask, in the act of giving the city his blessing. In a nutshell, the image leads us to Naples’ classic sentence San Gennà, pienzace tu (Saint Gennaro, take care of it) used in almost any circumstance of life which goes beyond one’s control. It shows the complete entrustment of Neapolitans to the patron saint who, they believe, has protected the city from external threats and from the lava-spewing Mount Vesuvius. The image depicting Saint Gennaro manages to snatch a smile from those who, by necessity, circulate in the area. And while it might be considered almost blasphemous by the official religion, in the city, it is perfectly normal. San Gennaro is considered almost a relative by Naples’ citizens and much closer to their hearts than God Himself. The Neapolitans pray to him, they yell at him, they threaten him when they don’t get what they want—they have a number of affectionate nicknames for him. Saint Gennaro is where official religion and superstition converge and melt. In Naples, a vial with the blood of the Saint is kept—twice a year, the city converges into the main church to witness an amazing phenomenon. The blood of the Saint, held by the bishop of the city, melts into the vial. If it melts, everything is going to be all right for the city and for the rest of the world. If it does not, some kind of calamity is going to happen. The last time the blood did not melt, they say, was when the Second World War started. In Naples, and in all of south Italy, religion borders and often merges into something else—something older and deeply imbued into our culture. Call it witchcraft, call it the old science belonging mostly to women, call it the reminiscence of old religions and old traditions. It is summarised in a short article that appeared days ago in a Calabrian online magazine. This is the text: ‘The Ministry of Health has decided—reinforcements are coming! After 10,000 new doctors who have been hired without going through the qualifying examination, it is now the turn of the Calabrian grandmothers. Old women who are experts in rites against the evil eye, affascino and iettatura, will now be in the trenches against the coronavirus. Knowing the ancient rite of removal of the evil eye will from today be considered in Calabria as qualifying for the medical profession. “It’s time to join forces and appeal to everything,” is the comment from Germaneto [a village]. Between the sacred and profane, between science and pseudoscience, between magic and medicine, Calabria clings to every type of remedy. Meanwhile, the grandmothers obviously answer ‘yes, sir’ to the appeal and leave en masse for the Calabrian hospitals. At the forefront of the pandemic emergency.’
For the non-south Italians, affascino and iettatura are two different kinds of evil eye. The article is satirical, but a likely one. An attempt to laugh on a real emergency, the need of doctors, and the call to work of 10,000 new graduates who, without training, could be as good as Calabrian grandmothers in treating patients. But it is also an acknowledgement of the fact that we, people of the south, starting from Naples, take these things quite seriously. So seriously that even the philosopher Benedetto Croce, who was born in the south, talking of evil eye and the surroundings, is supposed to have said: “It is not true, but I believe it.” So seriously that years ago, the mayor of Naples had proposed to build a monument depicting the main tool against evil eye, an unofficial symbol of the city—a red horn.
As I said, at time of pandemics more than ever, fear crawls into human beings and make them cling to any kind of belief and resort to any kind of remedy. And when your heart and your body hurt more, that’s when you need more opium. That’s when you need to believe that there must be somebody or someone able to protect you against all odds. Not by chance, in many places from South Korea to Pakistan, the most affected by the virus are members of religious sects or believers who refused to give up on their worship places despite the lockdowns. Churches are not celebrating Mass in Italy, they do it online, but there are news of priests celebrating underground Mass at home or in other places: a behaviour stigmatised as ‘criminal’ by many other priests, but a behaviour which has deep roots in the ancestral fears of people. Everywhere in the world, we see temples, mosques or churches full of people defying the lockdown in the name of god. And this is where Ernesto de Martino was totally wrong—studying the south Italian mix of religion and superstition, being a Marxist, he thought that it was the result of illiteracy and would automatically cease with development and education of the masses. It clearly did not. As soon as something we thought belonged to the Dark Ages, a pandemic, returned to hit our globalised, connected world, we tend to have little faith in science and rationalism and, Benedetto Croce style, even if we don’t believe in it, we resort to the opium of the masses.