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Not So Miraculous

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San Gennaro (St Januarius) has a chapel in Naples Cathedral to himself, a church within a church, a bombastic Counter-Reformation affair of precious metals and rich marbles, encrusted with busts and frescoed to the rafters. The decoration celebrates his status as protector of Naples against pestilence, disaster and Vesuvius. The volcanic eruption on 16 December 1631 was the most severe since the one that entombed Pompeii.

Since at least the 17th century, Neapolitans have been giving the saint three chances a year to prove himself, through the miraculous liquefaction of his blood, encased in two phials within an ornamental glass reliquary. In May and September there are processions and week-long events around his relics but on 16 December the process is a desultory affair, in which even the prayers and chants of the zie (the aunts), a Greek chorus of ten middle-aged and elderly women, and the repeated tipping and turning of the precious blood by a succession of distracted looking priests, combine to absolutely no effect. The material behind the glass remains stubbornly resistant to gravity, like dried silt. I’d heard that when the blood fails to liquefy it’s considered a terrible augury only now to be told that it almost never does in December. The blood remained on display all day and as a trickle of people filed up to kiss the glass, a guardian was on hand to wipe it. They didn’t want San Gennaro to give the faithful swine flu.

The next day, fresh blue and white posters had gone up all over Naples: ‘Long live Berlusconi.’ The prime minister was still in hospital after being whammed in the face with a model of Milan Cathedral on 13 December (the souvenir shop at the base of Vesuvius had opportunistically unearthed a glittery blue replica of their own, though I can’t imagine why they had it in the first place). But he had let it be known that he shared the pain of those who despised him and loved those who loved him. At least until Vesuvius stirs again, San Gennaro seems to have lost the attention of Neapolitans – but Berlusconi has understudied the role with care. On top of everything else, il Cavaliere has now transformed himself into a martyr. On the plane home I read the new independent paper Il Fatto Quotidiano (‘the daily fact’): moves were in train to curtail political demonstrations and block critical internet sites, though President Napolitano was holding the line, for now.

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