Different ways of seeing
Those arriving in Naples, by plane or train, seldom pass through the heart of its ancient acropolis. Caponapoli is a peak hidden by the convulsive traffic of Piazza Cavour, which distracts, along with the prestigious bulk of the Archaeological Museum, the visitor and the rows of tourists who occupy the low decumans of the historic centre, Via San Biagio and Via dei Tribunali.
However, the Naples that has been sacred since the time of the Greek colonists, the Naples of the religious women, is up high, all in this decumanus, the third, which runs from the old hospitals and ends in via Duomo, just above the Cathedral. This is the Anticaglia, so called because the ancient walls, the theatre where Nero sang, the houses of the Alexandrians stationed in the city during the Empire, the Byzantine towers of the Duchy, the hypogea and the tombs are nothing but the bases, remixed and used, of the buildings that sprang up like creepers between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries on this millen-year-old base.
It is therefore no coincidence that the Ospedale degli Incurabili [Hospital of the Incurables] and its three womens’ monasteries founded by Blessed Maria Lorenza Longo, along with other similar institutions such as Jean Antihide Touret’s Regina Coeli monastery, were built on this line. Here they flourished with Magna Graecia and then the Roman temples, dense with churches and houses, exposed to the wind from the summit that only the Capodimonte hill shadows in the distance.
The valuable book by Adriana Valerio, who is both a historian and theologian, Un tantillo di fe' mi ha salvata! (Edizioni Paoline), retraces and clarifies this prestigious story, with a previously unpublished appendix of the first biography of Blessed Longo. This text was written in the 17th century by Mattia Bellintani da Salò and transcribed by Sr Rosa Lupoli the current abbess of the only one of the three surviving monasteries, the one known as and called by the “Covent of the thirty-three”.
In the first half of the 16th century, Naples was an effervescent city. This was first due to Don Pedro da Toledo, the first Castilian viceroy, who promoted its secular and religious construction and baptized it a cultural centre for poets, architects, writers and painters, the beacon of a viceroyalty shaken instead in the following two centuries by revolts, famine, pestilence and taxation. Second, because an extraordinary spiritual growth occurred in parallel with the foundation of an ingenious welfare that was both religious and secular, which provided for all kinds of social needs, from indigence to illness, from delinquent containment to accompaniment to death.
In addition, in this ante litteram welfare it was women who played a central role. It was in fact Spanish and Neapolitan noblewomen who took up the demands of the spiritual reform that was moving in the Catholic area in directions similar to those of the Protestant reform, that is, calling for a return to poverty and a faith that favoured interiority.
Maria Longo, Giulia Gonzaga, and Maria de Ayerbe, were among the religious nobility, and Caterina Cybo, Vittoria Colonna, Costanza d’Avalos, Maria d'Aragona, among the intellectuals. These were just some of the sensibilities that gathered around the alumbrados of Juan Valdès and Bernardino Ochino; women who would be followed in the following century by many, including Orsola Benincasa.
As Adriana Valerio writes, “These women felt that the experience of faith did not necessarily have to pass through the monastic choice: even in secularity it was possible to encounter God. The spirituality of these protagonists was an implicit alternative to the Renaissance Church, hierarchical and masculine, which offered the image of an all-powerful and judgmental God and based its power on the clerical management of the sacred, strong in a structural invisibility of the feminine”.
It is impossible to tarnish the strength of a work that in just a few years had put together the largest hospital in Europe, intended for all without selections by census, and at the same time founded a bank that represents the basis of modern banking in the world, the Banco di Santa Maria del Popolo, which deals with microcredit to protect the most needy.
It is impossible to ignore the revolution set in motion by a woman who, in order to solve syphilis and plague epidemics, launched herself first into the recovery of adequate space. She moved the sick from the very old hospital of San Nicola on stretchers to the new houses purchased to build the Hospital of Santa Maria del Popolo degli Incurabili (an epic procession that took place March 23, 1522). Then, she asked for and obtained permission for the relocation of the Compagnia dei Bianchi. This entity was founded to assist the condemned and imprisoned, from the old church of San Pietro ad Aram to the hospital. Not content to stop there, she involved the powerful orders of the Capuchins and the Theatines in a weekly rotating assistance. Then, with Gaetano da Thiene, she imagined the constitution of the female cloistered monastery of Santa Maria di Gerusalemme, to this day the only one to have survived the Napoleonic reforms, and even put the Convertite and Pentite, or prostitutes who, having left the trade, worked in a nursing capacity in a second monastery, at the service of the hospital. Finally, she created a third monastic pole, that of the Reformed.
Without this extraordinary impetus, Viceregina Maria Zuñiga would not have helped the foundation, towards the end of the 16th century, of the Mothers of the Well-Dying, repentant nuns entrusted with the care of the terminally ill, a decision widely contested by the male world, i.e. how can women once dedicated to vice accompany the dying to their passing?
How can “women” be fit for such delicate tasks? For biographers, theologians and critics, women are considered unreliable, obstinate, wrathful, proud, and vindictive.
That the Maria Lorenza Longo’s exceptional overall vision and the women who helped her encountered obstacles was therefore foreseeable. Over time, the male religious counterparts withdrew or took over places and conduction; spaces proved inadequate, so much so that in 1728 the noble nuns of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the former prostitutes of the Pentite clashed; the Incurabili became an institution in its own right and competed for prestige with the monasteries.
It was inevitable, in a world so rarely attentive of female genius and to the recognition of the value of women, that Maria Lorenza Longo would therefore take three centuries to become Blessed, as it only happened in 2021.
However, the Capuchin nuns established according to the rules inspired by St Clare and defined by Blessed Longo soon spread throughout Italy, Spain, France and Portugal, and today there are as many as two hundred monasteries scattered throughout twenty-seven countries around the world that still follow her dictates.
If you walk through the Anticaglia with Adriana Valerio’s book under your arm, the walk that takes you from Sant’Aniello to Caponapoli along vico Settimo Cielo that holds the remains of Sant’Andrea delle Dame, burnt down in 1799, now under glass, like Snow White’s coffin, and stop at the beautiful Regina Coeli church and then at the magnificent Santa Maria di Gerusalemme, the secret threshold to the Monastery of the Thirty-Three, you will, after all, be taking only a few steps. And yet, as magnificent as the splendour of the Incurabili, the 18th-century Pharmacy and the Health Museum are kept there, you will feel the warmth of the courage, which women never lack, of Maria Longo: the courage to believe, invest and operate.
by ANTONELLA CILENTO
A Neapolitan, a Strega Prize finalist in 2014 with Lisario o il piacere infinito delle donne [Lysario or the infinite pleasure of women] (Mondadori), author of novels, including Isole senza mare [Islands without sea (Guanda, 2009), Morfisa o l'acqua che dorme [Morfisa or the Sleeping Water] (Mondadori, 2018), short stories and reportage. She runs the writing school Lalineascritta and coordinates the master's degree in writing and publishing in Southern Italy, SEMA. Her teaching is recounted in La caffettiera di carta (Bompiani, 2021). Her latest book is, Solo di uomini muore il bosco [Only of men does the forest die] (Aboca, 2022). In addition to the above, she directs the literature review Strane Coppie