Until a decade ago, the Catacombs of St. Gaudiosus, a system of underground caves where early Catholics would gather to honor their dead, was largely unknown to the general public. Today, it is a tourist spot attracting curious visitors from all over the world. The stunning frescoes preserved in the catacombs are now for everyone to explore thanks to the inspiring work of local cooperative La Paranza.
Cooperativa La Paranza was founded in 2006 in the Rione Sanità area of Naples as a social cooperative to create job opportunities for young people through cultural heritage regeneration. At the time, the area was struggling with decades-old problems such as youth unemployment and criminality.
The founders of La Paranza decided to change the tide by restoring the long-abandoned catacombs that lie underneath the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità. “We needed to see our cultural heritage valorized,” Vincenzo Porzio, communications director of La Paranza, told Atlas Obscura.
In order to do so, Porzio and his co-founders mobilized a local network of public administrators, archeologists, restorers, and local volunteers to turn the abandoned crypts into a state-of-the-art cultural attraction. In 2008, they won a grant from a non-profit interested in restoration projects in Southern Italy (“Fondazione con Il Sud”) and started their catacombs regeneration project.
“Our activities have involved many locals from non-profit organizations and businesses and created greater awareness within the community,” Porzio explained on Google Arts and Culture webpage. “The process is generating a sense of participation and ownership within the locals, and many more people are working hard to get involved with this so-called ‘renaissance’ of the entire area.”
The Catacombs, accessible from the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, were originally built by the Romans as an underground water storage system. During the 4th and 5th century, they were used as Christian burial sites and places to honor the dead.
When St. Gaudiosus, a bishop who had arrived in Naples from Northern Africa, died in 452, he was buried inside one of the catacombs — hence the name “Catacombs of St. Gaudiosus.” Some of the catacomb’s cubicles contain extremely well preserved frescoes dating from the 5th and 6th centuries depicting St. Peter and St. Sossius, among others.
Today, this treasure trove of early Christian culture is accessible via one of the guided tours offered by La Paranza’s young employees. “Our passionate, expert staff take you back through thousands of years of history from the Catacombs to the Basilicas and the Rione, as well as highlighting the great work some of the community has done in these years” Porzio explains in Google Arts and Culture webpage.
All proceeds from guided tours are used to fund the maintenance of the 1,500-year-old catacombs and to pay for tour guides who are recruited among the many unemployed youths in the area.
As of 2019, an estimated 160,000 people visited the catacombs in a single year, an incredible achievement for an area that until recently was completely missing from visitors’ radar. On top of impressive photos of the catacombs and equally impressive statistics about job creation and visitors numbers, the organizations’ website hosts an inspiring quote by St. Augustine:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage, to see that things do not remain the way they are.”