Chinese in Naples, September 19 1823

December 5 2008

In the cathedral of San Gennaro.

“The miracle of the liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius [bishop and patron saint of Naples and a victim of the Diocletianic persecution, like Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro], which is exhibited on the 19th of September every year [also on the first Sunday in May], presents one of the most extraordinary examples of superstition that it is possible to imagine in the present time, when education has so much dispersed the mists of error and ignorance. I witnessed this ceremony to-day, and was little edified by the exhibition. A small portion of the blood of the saint having been preserved by a pious spectator of his martyrdom, it was long after consigned to the custody of the church named after him, of which it constitutes the pride and treasure. It is kept in a vial placed in the tesoro, which is a press formed in the wall, with an iron door of great strength, secured by no less than three locks; the keys of which are entrusted to three different bodies of the state, and a deputy from each is sent with its respective key, on the annual occasion of the door being opened. The glass vial which contains the blood is of a circular shape; and the blood beheld through it appears like a morsel of glue. In this state it is exhibited to the spectators, who all examine it. At eight o’clock, mass is celebrated in the different chapels of the cathedral, and at the grand altar, which is mostly richly decorated: a priest officiates, holding the glass vial in his hands, occasionally displaying it to the crowd, and praying with the utmost fervour, and apostrophizing the saint with exclamations interrupted by his tears and sighs. [If the blood didn’t liquefy, bad things would happen to Naples.] A large wax candle, equal to at least a dozen of our English ones, is placed on the middle of the altar; and I observed that the holy father generally held the vial very near to it.

“It was about ten o’clock when we entered the chapel; and as the priest had then been two hours invoking the saint to consent to the miracle, the spectators were becoming very impatient. On the left side of the altar, a place was assigned to about one hundred women, who are said to be descendants of the saint; and therefore have this place of honour on the occasion. When, half an hour after our arrival, no symptom of liquefaction was visible, the cries of these women became really terrific, resembling more the howlings of savages than of Christians. Their shrieks were mingled with exclamations uttered with vehemence, and accompanied with the most violent gestures. They abused the saint in the most approbrious terms, calling him every insulting name that rage or hatred could dictate. Through the influence of a friend we were permitted to approach near the grand altar, where we maintained a gravity that ought to have conciliated the good opinion of the worshippers of St. Januarius: but after his unnatural descendants had exhausted every term of vituperation on him, they began to direct sundry glances of mingled suspicion and rage against us; and at length avowed their conviction that it was the presence of the English heretics that prevented the liquefaction of the blood. The priest made a sign to us to take off our bonnets and to kneel, which we immediately did. This compliance appeased the anger of the relatives of the saint against us; and once more they directed their abuse to him, calling down imprecations on him for resisting the prayers of his descendants. Briccone! Birbone! and other terms of abuse were showered on him, for what they termed his obstinacy; but, fortunately for their lungs and our ears, the blood began to liquefy! the vial became filled in the course of two or three minutes after the first symptom of dilution.

“No sooner was the fulfillment of the miracle announced than the whole congregation prostrated themselves, and after a few minutes’ thanksgiving, gave way to the most lively joy; uttering a thousand ejaculations of love and gratitude towards the saint to whom, only a short time before, they had addressed every term of abuse with which their vocabulary furnished them. Men, women, and children, now began to weep together; and never previously had I witnessed such an inundation of tears. Several soldiers, Austrians as well as Neapolitans, were present in full uniform, and appeared as equally impressed as were the rest of the congregation with the wondrous miracle that had taken place. The vial was paraded about by the priest, and pressed to the foreheads of the pious, who were also suffered to kiss it, a ceremony performed with enthusiastic devotion. During this operation a number of priests, young and old, were industriously plying their vocation of levying contributions on the strangers, who were told, that in honour of the saint and the miracle, it was hoped that they would not deny their charity. A group of juvenile Chinese, who have been sent to Naples to study, and take priests’ orders, were most demonstrative in their enthusiastic admiration of the miracle, and their sallow plain countenances were not improved by their smiles and tears. It is melancholy to see superstition extending itself to such regions as China: and I could not help breathing a wish that these youths had studied religion in a more enlightened school, that they might have carried back to their country the pure principles of Christianity, instead of those of superstition.”


The miracle still takes place, now to vulgar applause, but more Japanese tourists watch it than Chinese seminarians. I assume, however, that the blood did not liquefy in September ’07, given what happened to Naples.

The young Chinese will have been at the Collegio dei Cinesi which Matteo Ripa had founded in 1732, with the sanction of Pope Clement XII – after the 1721 banning of Christian missions by the Kangxi emperor.

Edith Clay, editor; Sir Harold Acton, Introduction; Lady Blessington at Naples [her Neapolitan journals, 1823-26]; Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

Porta San Gennaro, one of the city gates

5 Responses to “Chinese in Naples, September 19 1823”

  1. It’s strange that the saint gets insulted when there’s a delay in miracle. One would think that a humbly pleading attitude would be more in order…

    It would be nice to have a directory of 19th-century travel narratives and expatriate memoirs in the public domain. Stuff like the Memoirs of Baron de Tott. Maybe it exists already, but I haven’t found it.

    • davidderrick Says:

      There’s an excellent and detailed list of travel memoirs at the Hakluyt Society website. I have a permanent link to this on the left. Go to the section called Complete Bibliography. But this is nearly all travel outside Europe and covers several centuries. Still, plenty of Baron de Tott-like material. As to other memoirs and journals, I also wish there was a directory, especially of 18th-century court memoirs. GP Gooch’s Courts and Cabinets is about some of the people who wrote them.

  2. […] Chinese in Naples, September 19 1823 […]

  3. […] Edith Clay, editor; Sir Harold Acton, Introduction; Lady Blessington at Naples [her Neapolitan journals, 1823-6]; Hamish Hamilton, 1979. […]

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