Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry May 2003

San Gennaro dei Poveri Hospital

s. gennaro dei poveri hospital, frontA few doctors and other staff of the San Gennaro dei Poveri hospital in Naples (San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples; dei poveri means "of the poor") cleaned up the ancient and purportedly original tomb of the saint near the hospital the other day. It's a catacomb-like affair in the side of a hill. The paper praised the good deed, which was done in the spirit of the city's annual "Monuments in May" display of historic treasures, but said that in typical fashion, the tomb will now no doubt remain closed for another 50 years, the time passed since the last time it was cleaned.

The hospital, itself, is interesting historically but totally neglected compared to the medieval and Baroque points of interest in the main part of the city. It is very much off the beaten track and not at all in a part of the city that you and I would choose to stroll around —the Sanità area of the city just beneath the Capodimonte hill. (The origins of the premises can be traced to the large Benedictine monastery built on the site in the late 800s. See The Basilica of San Gennaro extra moenia.)

Though it is now merely a hospital for the poor or indigent, historically it was the first Hospice for Poor. It was founded in 1667 and intended to be a great "poor house", a place for at least some of the city's 10,000 mendicant poor (that comes out to about six or seven percent of the entire population of the city of the late 1600s). It was a forerunner of the much more ambitious project along the same lines, the gigantic Royal Hospice for the Poor (Alergo dei Poveri) started by the Bourbons in the 1750s.

The reasons behind the desire to build the poor house, properly called Ospizio dei Santi Pietro e Gennaro, shed some light on the world view of people in that day and age, at least in this part of the world. The plague of 1656 had devastated the city, and a large segment of the population had died; those who could actually afford to do so simply moved out of the city; jobs went undone and the economy —not doing too well, anyway, in these late stages of the Spanish empire of which Naples was a part— was a disaster. The plague was generally viewed as divine retribution for the sins of the city, and one way to regain divine favor was to engage in votive building (such as the two large spires at Piazza del Gesù Nuovo and Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, both from the late 1600s) and the construction of charitable institutions such as the Hospice of San Gennaro. Many remembered the dying words of Orsola Benincasa (1547-1618), a Neapolitan nun, who predicted a severe punishment from God unless the city did something to help the poor. [For more on that period, see Naples in the 1600s.]

The hospice was never intended to accommodate the thousands of poor roaming the streets, but it did manage to handle about 800 persons at any given time. The plan was not just to build a gigantic soup-kitchen and flop-house; it was set up to provide shelter, food and education, including practical trade instruction, generally literacy and even music. Much of that philosophy was incorporated into workings of the larger Bourbon hospice in the 18th century. The plan, too, was to help clear the streets of the most obvious walking reminders of endemic poverty in the Naples of that period by making a distinction between the home-grown poor (that you could take care of in such an institution) and the wandering beggars from elsewhere (whom you could then keep —or try to keep— out of the city).

The San Gennaro hospice did not fail, but it was obviously not up to the task. That is the main reason behind the later Bourbon hospice. Yet, the San Gennaro hospice was a useful social institution through the entire 18th and even much of the 19th century. Times change and such things as "poor houses" are not part of modern Western society's way of handling social ills. The hospice became, officially, simply a hospital in 1939. But it still does a job.

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