Naples, what to see in Rione Sanita' district

Half day
December 2017
here's one of the best pizzerias in Naples!
Churches, buildings and old streets
Wide angle

We said so many times that Naples has a lot to offer. Every time I come back, I discover something new, that may have been there for centuries but I had never paid attention to.
This is the case of Sanita' district, a neighborhood considered dangerous and to be avoided at any cost for many years. I've always been told to stay away from Quartieri Spagnoli, Sanita', and Forcella. And that's what I did.
But maybe Sanita' is changing, it's opening up to tourism, it's showing its joy, art and history!
I'm lucky, to be honest: my friend Fabio has visited Sanita' several times and took me on a very interesting walk telling me stories, legends and fun facts about this district.

The image above shows our itinerary on Google Maps, done in a morning: as you can see the route is not very long, but there's a lot of stopovers to watch (and eat 😁).

Let's go deep into details.

Why is it called Sanita'?

The district was built in the late 1500s in a country valley outside the city walls, used as a burial place. The name Sanita' (=health) comes from the healthiness of the area, since it was then pure uncontaminated and home to miraculous recoveries taking place in its catacombs. People claim that the name also comes from the frequent floods caused by the torrent that, falling down from Capodimonte, purified the district.

Where is Sanita' district and how to get there?

Sanita' district, part of Stella district, is located north of the historic centre of Naples, next to Capodimonte hill. Getting there is easy: you can take the line 1 of the underground and get off at Museo, or line 2 and get off at Cavour. Or, as we did, take the Cumana or the Circumflegrea railways and get off at Montesanto: from there it's 20 minutes walk.

The visit to the district starts from San Gennaro gate.

San Gennaro gate and Vergini market

San Gennaro gate is on Via Foria, opposite Piazza Cavour: it was the only entry point from the north side of the city and the only one that led to the catacombs. Unlike the other gates of Naples, this one doesn't have two towers on the side but is surrounded by the buildings that were built around it.

Crossing the street you get into via Vergini, a cheerful and festive street, full of shops and market stalls, with the traders posing as soon as they see the camera 😊 The market is open all days until 8 pm, Sunday until lunchtime.

Street Art at Sanita'

Strolling around you cannot help but notice the plenty of street art painting the district alleys, made by unknown but also well-known artists, as I will tell you later on this post.

Straight after "Concettina ai 3 Santi" pizzeria, on the left of the curve, you'll find the entrance of a beautiful octagonal building with a double spiral staircase. It was once the headquarters of Alba private school; today it has residential purposes.

Palazzo Sanfelice

Straight after that, you'll get into Palazzo Sanfelice, built by the architect Ferdinando Sanfelice in 1728 as his own residence.
The building has an impressive façade, charmingly crumbling, highlighted by the openings of the windows decorated with stuccos. Due to its peculiar hawk-winged stairways, it looks like the building is collapsing towards the centre.

The stairs at the entrance are covered with blackboard stone, in honour of the architect's wife, originally from a city in Liguria called Lavagna(=blackboard).

Interesting fact: Palazzo Sanfelice has been the main set of some scenes of Gomorra 3. O 'Stregone, the old criminal dealing with the drug traffic in Sanita', lived in the building.

Piazza Sanita'

Eventually, we ended up in Piazza Sanita', perfect canvas for street artists Tono Cruz and Francisco Bosoletti.
Just opposite the church, on the façade of a residential building, Cruz has created, in collaboration with the children of the neighborhood, "Luce" (=light), a large round mural that reminds a beam of light: the faces of the children are painted as symbol of hope for the future for the whole community.

On the side facade of the church, there is "RESIS-TI-AMO" (a mix of "resistance" and "I love you"), created by the Argentinian artist Francisco Bosoletti. The work is inspired by a true story and describes a Neapolitan couple who has overcome a terrible illness with care and love These two lovers are a symbol of resistance to violence, disease and offences.

S.Maria alla Sanita' church

The church stands at the centre of the square and was erected at the beginning of 1600 over San Gaudioso catacombs. The feature that struck me the most, and I've never seen in other churches, is that the presbytery is higher than the central aisle, accessible via a beautiful marble staircase above the crypt.

You can also find a sculpture of San Vincenzo, called "O Munacone", guardian of the district.

Sanita' district used to celebrate its protector every year on the 5th of July, with a street party featuring music stars and celebrities. The celebration was suspended in 1975, when the Camorra irrupted asking for bribes. The church is therefore also known as "San Vincenzo church".

Sanita' bridge

Sanita' bridge rules the district connecting two streets, Santa Teresa degli Scalzi and Corso Amedeo di Savoia, and came up from the idea of a Neapolitan architect to connect the Royal Palace of Capodimonte to the city.
A convenient lift lets the locals get up the bridge and therefore to the higher part of the city. It's funny to see how some houses were built right under the bridge!

Shortly after the bridge, you'll find the shape of Toto ', one of the many installations dedicated to the actor decorating his native district.

Via Fontanelle

Francisco Bosoletti strikes again a few meters from Sanita' bridge, with the piece of art I liked the most in this visit to the neighbourhood, "Hidden Hope". The face of a homeless is portrayed negatively on the outside wall of "La Tenda", a non-profit organization providing shelter and food to more than 100 people who have lost everything, those "hidden" from our society. The work is together brilliant and highly delicate; you cannot see the face unless you "convert the negative", willing to go beyond the appearance. And that's how all the features suddenly appear, on a face clearly marked by the problems a homeless person lives on a daily basis. In the first picture, you can see the image in negative and positive 😊

We walk a little bit more, between graffiti, "bassi" and clothes hanging out to dry on the street: "bassi" are those ground floor flats, whose only door and source of light are at street level. Once they were used as storage or carpenters and artisans workshops. We are on via Fontanelle, that takes its name from the sources of water typical on this area ages ago.

Fontanelle cemetery

And so we get to Fontanelle cemetery, one of the most suggestive places of the Sanita' district and the whole city. Soaked with history, faith, rituals and legends, Fontanelle cemetery is an ancient ossuary dug into the tuff rock of Materdei hill.

Its first purpose was to bury the bodies that found no place in the public churches burials, then the victims of the great plague in 1656 and cholera in 1836. Today the cemetery hosts about 40,000 remains, but it looks like bones are kept underground for at least four meters deep!

The cemetery is also famous for a special ritual, called "anime pezzentelle", held for many years. The ritual consisted of the adoption, in exchange for a grace, of an unknown skull (capuzzella) corresponding to an abandoned soul (so-called "pezzentella"). Worshippers claimed that the identity of souls, with their name and their history, was revealed to them in a dream. The tormented souls needed care and attention, so the worshipper cleaned and polished the chosen skull, decorating with embroidered tissues, cushions and rosaries. If the grace was granted, the skull was placed in a protective case, craving the sentence "for the grace received" and the worshipper's name; otherwise, it was abandoned and replaced with another skull.

We have said that most of the skulls are unknown, but some of them became famous thanks to some mysterious legends.

One of these belongs to donna Concetta, known as "a capa che suda" (=sweating skull). Donna Concetta's skull is kept in a glass case, in a cavity on the left of the cemetery; According to the worshippers, the sweat is caused by the struggles and sufferings of the afterlife. The real reason is that this skull gathers moisture better than the others :)

Shortly after, in another quite dark cavity on the left, you'll find the disturbing statue of ** Monacone ** San Vincenzo Ferreri, decapitated and dressed up with the typical black and white Dominican dress.

Your attention will definitely be caught by the Court, a cave illuminated by natural light ruled by three huge crosses. According to what has been said for at least a century, the bosses of the ancient Camorra met here to decide about death sentences, to take blood oaths and other membership rituals.

To the right of the three crosses you'll find another skull covered by flowers, rosaries, coins and candles: it's the Captain' skull, that has two versions of the same legend. In short, it seems that a young groom triggered the Captain' soul making fun of him, saying ton to be afraid of a dead person and inviting him - ironically - to his wedding. The Captain went to the wedding indeed, disguised as a dark, silent and severe character; by revealing his true identity, he scared the young couple to death.

Apologies for dwelling, these legends are so fascinating! 😍

Pizzeria Concettina ai tre Santi

We left Fontanelle cemetery at 1 pm, just in time for lunch. We went back to via Arena della Sanita' to find pizzeria Concettina ai tre Santi: the queue was pretty long, but we left our names two hours before and we managed to have a table within twenty minutes only.
When I tasted that pizza I realized that the long queue was well worth: it's one of the best pizza in Naples! Soft, light, with a high and airy crust. I took a classic margherita and had a slice of Fabio's one: crust filled with provola and salami, topped with crumbled tarallo: insanely delicious!!!

The sign of the pizzeria names Ciro Oliva, but don't worry: he's nobody but Concettina's grandson 😉
Furthermore, if you pass by when there is no queue, you'll find the votive shrine where the famous three saints are kept: San Vincenzo, Sant'Alfonso and Sant'Anna.


Happy and satisfied we took the alley opposite the pizzeria: via Santa Maria Antesaecula. This is the place where Prince Antonio De Curtis, also known as Toto', was born in February 1989. You cannot go wrong: the house is characterized by a beautiful portrait by Fabio Borrelli, a well-known and appreciated Neapolitan illustrator and tattoo artist.

Palazzo dello Spagnuolo

Back to the beginning of the district, we visit the last building, called "Palazzo dello Spagnolo" because it belonged to a noble Spanish family in the nineteenth century: this is attributed to Ferdinando Sanfelice, too. It's very similar to Palazzo Sanfelice, but better kept: the colours are lively, the apartments doors are decorated and have half-length portrays of the family who owns the apartment.

Our beautiful walk of the neighbourhood was over.

I was happy and relieved to see groups of tourists and guided tours visiting Sanita' District, taking photos and listening to its stories, paying the right tribute.
I was glad to feel a breeze of change and positivity. After all, Sanita' is one of the districts of Naples richer in history and tradition, a place of art and culture, full of faith and hope.
It's well deserved, isn't it?

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