EGG AND A SKULL
Naples, 2020, Autumn. The second wave kicks in (and by now we all know what it means). There are crowds of people in the streets of Naples. Their faces are covered by masks. “This virus follows the trace of human sins,” thinks X looking at Dante’s sculpture. “It spreads through pollution,” whisper the inhabitants of the city. That night, X starts to read Inferno. Dante is thirty two. He goes out for a walk in a forest and meets Virgil, the poet, who takes him to hell. Seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth. This is the architecture of hell. Dante is writing The Divine Comedy… up until his death in 1321. And where exactly is Dante at the moment?
In the centre of Naples there is an ‘egg castel’: Castel dell’ovo. According to the legend, that same poet who took Dante to hell hid an egg underneath it. This egg is a symbol of the wellbeing of the city. VIRGIL’S EGG IS STILL UNDERNEATH THE CASTLE. “Virgil, show me what you have shown to Dante. Show me the hell and show me your egg,” X calls upon the poet. An egg stores creativity. Hell stores destruction. But what’s there, in the middle? “Do you know about Averno lake?” Giulia asks X, while holding a poetry book by Louise Gluck. Romans believed that the Averno lake is the gate to the underworld.
X finds herself at Santa Maria della Sanità, at the entrance to the catacombs of San Gaudioso. Underneath this baroque church there are Christian burial tombs, established in the 5th century. On the right hand side—bloody (literally) Jesus, not causing any major discomfort to anyone in particular. Naples has lived through quite a few pandemics. Not to mention the Vesuvius eruption which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum—the two Roman cities that are now cultural cemeteries. These beautifully sided natural and cultural monuments are reminders of a temporary life and existence. But, while we can, let’s go back to the church, to the catacombs of San Gaudioso, where the guide carefully warns the visitors: “Don’t touch the walls, they are covered in fresco. Frescos are there even when you can not see them.” In this moment, X becomes more and more comfortable with things that one simply can not see.
The story is a time machine. Now, the guide takes his tourists to the 17th century, the same Napolitan catacombs, but somehow different, as now there is also an artist involved, by the name of Giovanni Balducci. The mannerist painter refuses the fee for his frescoes in order for himself to be eventually buried alongside aristocrats and the rich. In 17th century Naples, this type of funeral is a huge luxury. The amounts paid forcantarelle(‘drying of the body’) and the ‘exhibition of skulls’ practice equal millions in today’s money. This kind of investment into corporeal preparation is also a direct ticket to paradise (one that allows the sinner to skip purgatory, for example). Through a hole carved in the church’s floor, dead men and women are lowered into catacombs, where schiattamuorto is performing his duties. His job is to place ‘the seated dead’ into small arches, above a pot, where the liquids of eroding bodies will drip. This kind of skeletonisation practice is called cantarelle. Schiattamuorto (who, very often, is a prisoner) won’t work for too long: he will get sick or even die due to exposure to illnesses, viruses, dirt and, most likely—horror. The bones of the dead will later be gathered and placed in small shelf-like gaps carved in rock. All except from the skulls, which will be plastered into the wall and frescoed around. By Giovanni, of course, an artist aiming to become an artwork himself after his own passing. “Giovanni… Have you been working for free for so long in order to go to heaven, or because you wanted to remain seen among the rich?” X asks Giovanni, but receives no answer.
It seems that here, in Naples, there is sufficient space for gaps: gaps of knowledge and experience. The architecture of this city is both solid and porous due to the building blocks made out of the volcanic rock tufo. The community has long established ways of dealing with the unpredictability of the future. Apart from Virgil’s egg, the city is also guarded by the miracle of St. Gennaro. Twice a year, the dried blood of the tortured saint turns into liquid: a performance witnessed by many, broadcast on TV, and talked about across the country. Dry blood turning liquid means a good year for Naples. Death here does not mean anything bad, unless it comes in uncountable plurals. The loss of a hero, such as Maradona, is lived communally and, at least for a split second, thwarts even the pandemic related fears. Naples has approximately fifty patron saints. Maradona has good chances of joining them. Death, rituals, games, and miracles are tangled together and performed/exhibited publicly. In Naples, fiction meets experience, fiction meets life.
The Fontanelle cemetery has historically stored the bones of pandemic victims. Unidentified, unblessed, and hence shielded from the heavens forever. People from the community, generally women, adopt those unfortunate skulls, pray for them, clean them up, and help the souls meet the god. Once in heaven, the soul mediates between the person and god, helping to fulfil the earthly needs of the sinner who passed. X would also like to perform an adoption. However, he is currently in a wrong era. The Fontanelle cemetery is closed for the duration of the new pandemic, and the practice of adoption is no longer officially performed. “Francesca, can you tattoo a skull for me please?” X asks her neighbour. Franci agrees and this is how imagination and blue ink fill in the pores of the skin and the gaps of possibilities. X thinks that the only issue with imagination is that it draws on past knowledge and experience. Plato’s cave metaphor is therefore the metaphor of madness. But is it really true that outside of our experience there is only madness?