''What is culture for? With culture you DO NOT eat''. I have heard this sentence many times. My ears had to hear it, but my heart didn't want to listen to it. Culture, in all its forms, is the care of our existence. If at first the pandemic seemed to have united us in the name of a newfound brotherhood, now the poison of anger, intolerance, uncertainty, selfishness and dissatisfaction is taking over. That phrase has often returned to my mind in this last period. Looking at social media and listening to people, I was afraid. Many people, too many, are forgetting that culture is inscribed in our DNA. They are forgetting that it has made us successful in far worse situations. Surely it will not be a virus to attack the culture existence, but we could be the ones to deny it if we are not able to give it the right value. We cannot allow the taste of curiosity, amazement, trust and the thrill of crossing borders to be forgotten. We must fight for our freedom, at least the mental one at the moment, of which culture is the main author. We have already seen its many powers in previous interviews, but today I want to bring a concrete example of how culture offers food not only to the heart and mind, but also to the stomach. To succeed in this goal, I turned to a boy who, together with his parish priest and a group of partners, has given life to a project that for over ten years has shown every day that with culture you eat, hope, dream, grow and win.
The boy in question is Vincenzo Porzio, communications manager of the La Paranza social cooperative, manager and promoter of the Catacombs of Naples. The territory is Rione Sanità, an area of Naples known in the crime news for its drug dealing squares and organized crime. The project for the development, protection, enhancement and opening of the Catacombs are an ever-current example of how cultural heritage can be an instrument for economic, social and human development.
Vincenzo, how was your project born and how has it evolved?
The project was officially born in 2006 with the foundation of the La Paranza Cooperative. However, the idea was born much earlier. Don Antonio Loffredo arrived in the Rione Sanità in 2001, but even before his arrival, the neighborhood had other far-sighted parish priests, including Giuseppe Rassello, who had the merit of identifying what was the natural vocation of this area. Rione Sanità is a welcoming neighborhood, rich in art, history and humanity. These were the great resources that could counteract the black news pages. My partners and I grew up in this context, in the spaces of Santa Maria della Sanità. The basilica has always been our meeting point. Since his arrival, Don Antonio began to sow in us the awareness that what we had under our eyes, could also be a profession. We were just of age and the reality of the Rione Sanità presented us with the great problem of our future work. Did we necessarily have to change cities or could we come up with something here, in Naples, in the neighborhood where we grew up? From that personal need to invent a job and the collective need to see the heritage that we had under our eyes enhanced, we decided to invest our time and begin to enhance the Catacombs of San Gaudioso and the basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità. Thanks to the first guided tours and the first evening cultural events, we were able to weave the network with the first stakeholders. From 2006 to 2008 it was a phase of know-how, and in 2008 we participated, winning it, in the announcement of the CON IL SUD - with the south - Foundation. The victory allowed us to begin the process of enhancing the Catacombs of San Gennaro and then, gradually, to reach the current situation.
How much effort did the consolidation, restoration and functional adaptation interventions require?
At the beginning it took about six months to regulate the way it is used inside, especially for the work of breaking down the barriers and the lighting system. Then, to protect the flooring, we put the fireproof carpet. So, in the first phase, we dedicated ourselves to the adaptation interventions. Later, over the years, we have made other restoration interventions, mainly thanks to the collaboration of private individuals.
Were your sponsors only private entities? Have the local and public administration supported you economically?
No, they haven’t. Public administration have not supported us. Private entities supported specific projects, such as the restoration, recovery and demolition of barriers, but did not support contracts, for example. The business model we created is economically sustainable because it is centered on the services that the La Paranza cooperative offers and sells. The sale of these services, mainly guided tours and events, is enough to support the project.
Let's talk now about a certain type of information. Rione Sanità, Totò and camorra - name of Naples organized crime, like mafia in Sicily. This is the image that before your intervention described your neighborhood. Camorra has more audience ... Do you think that a certain type of media narrative has influenced to increase the negative reputation of the neighborhood?
Well ... yes. The journalistic rule, unfortunately, is 'bad news is good news'. This is why they speak of camorra in a forced manner even when camorra has nothing to do with it. I take a recent example. When the pandemic broke out, the Catacombs were closed to visitors, but we decided to engage in other ways, for example in the distribution of food parcels. We received calls from some journalists asking us if it was true that camorra was distributing food aid to the inhabitants of the neighborhood. Communication in general, unfortunately, rides opportunistic waves. This was, and still is, a cultural challenge. If we organize a positive event, we make a lot of effort to make it emerge from the point of view of communication. On the contrary, the images of a murder committed ten years ago are still current and then the news of a revival comes out. For us, camorra is a consequence of educational and cultural poverty. Today we are certainly in a better phase compared to the past. The Italian Government has intervened quite heavily in recent years within the Rione Sanità and in fact the historical clans are no longer there.
Why has Rione Sanità, after the construction of the Maddalena Cerasuolo bridge that dominates it, become a place synonymous with crime, degradation and social exclusion? How did you circumvent the problem?
For those unfamiliar with Naples, this bridge is an imposing structure 118 meters long, which connects via Santa Teresa degli Scalzi and Corso Amedeo di Savoia. The need of building the bridge arose in the early 1800s following the start of the construction of Corso Napoleone, a road intended to act as a direct link between the Royal Palace of Capodimonte and the rest of the city. Until that moment, the palace could only be reached via a tortuous uphill path. So arose the need to build a bridge that passed over the valley of Rione Sanità. This imposing flyover (the longest in Naples), acquired such importance that it was even targeted by the retreating Germans in 1943 who, defeated by the popular revolt, tried to destroy it to cut the connections between the two parts of the city. The insane gesture was prevented by a group of partisans, including Maddalena Cerasuolo, to whom the bridge was dedicated in 2011.
The bridge actually closed the neighborhood. Before its construction, the district was a mandatory access route to Naples for those coming from the north. It was very popular because there were catacombs and noble palaces along the pilgrimage route. After 1810, the year the bridge was built, the neighborhood was a ghetto cut off from city life. Everyone passed over it, but no one through. That's why it became an abandoned and self-managed neighborhood. Nobody cared more about the conditions of the quarter and the consequence of this neglect was a great poverty both work and cultural. This determined the effects that became known in the pages of crime news. We have tried to counter this phenomenon by reopening the catacombs. In fact, the reopening of the catacombs meant the reopening of the district - the tourist entrance to the catacombs of San Gennaro is in Capodimonte and the exit is located at the San Gennaro hospital called ‘’dei Poveri’’ off the poor, in the heart of Rione Sanità. With this opening, the district began to be attractive both from a cultural and a productive point of view because, thanks to the meetings with the new stakeholders, all third sector organizations have received a benefit.
In a beautiful interview, father Antonio Loffredo said: ''Here, you meet forms of art and design everywhere. But the most interesting design are these guys who want to hope.'' What did it mean for you to receive the trust of a man like father Loffredo? Can hope materialize without trust?
Father Antonio's trust has turned into a bunch of keys. It was therefore a concrete act of trust, very stimulating both for creativity and for motivation. In the first two years we put the maximum effort in terms of time and resources, aware of the dream we were going to realize. His trust was a great stimulus because from that moment on it would no longer be a success or a failure for father Antonio, but for the whole group.
The enhancement of not only cultural but also human heritage, requires passion, enthusiasm and dedication. What were the ingredients of your success?
It takes faith and love to do everything. Passion and enthusiasm are two of the success factors of our work because they concretely translate into an exciting guided tour. The guide informs, intrigues and makes you fall in love. This is achieved because the commitment is daily and constant. As a cooperative we feel that we are involved in a process of change that starts from us. We are in love and we truly believe that good can win over evil.
Staying on the subject of faith, did the Church, understood as an institution, support you or did the help come only individually, from father Antonio Loffredo?
No, the Church did not help us. It was above all father Antonio. The words of Pope Francesco confirm our line of action, but between Antonio and the Pope there is bureaucracy. However, one of the pillars of Pope Francesco’s reform, namely the principle of subsidiarity - "a double dynamism: from top to bottom and from bottom to top" - confirmed the trust we have received.
In 2018 you were the subject of a media case for the "dispute" between the Vatican and the Archdiocese of Naples. How was the matter resolved?
Officially it is not yet resolved. The case in question was linked to a change of office in Rome which resulted in a lack of understanding of our project which had been developing for over nine years. The controversy began without our knowledge, following an interview, very negative for us, by Msgr. Pasquale Iacobone, secretary of the Pontifical Commission. We were not aware of anything and we learned the news from the newspapers. This interview was triggered by the visit to Naples of Msgr. Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. No one was aware of his arrival. The reporters immediately began to wonder why he had visited Naples and why they had not been notified. They waited for him when he left the archdiocese, but they were unable to speak to him. This failure raised an alarm bell among journalists, who asked to be able to interview Msgr. Iacobone. In that interview, he declared that the Catacombs of Naples were to be treated like all other catacombs, exceptions were not foreseen. Msgr. Iacobone referred to the economic part of an agreement that provides that all the catacombs of Italy - about 120 open on the national territory - pay 50% of the proceeds to the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology - a department of the Roman curia, established by Pius IX in 1852 "to guard the ancient sacred graveyards, to preventively care for their conservation, further explorations, investigations, study, to protect also the most ancient memories of the early Christian centuries, the famous monuments, the venerable Basilicas, in Rome, in the Roman suburbs and soil and also in the other Dioceses in agreement with the respective Ordinaries ". However, the model of our catacombs is different from those of the rest of Italy. In those cases, the accompaniment and guidance service is often provided by members of the clergy, while in our case are the guys of the cooperative who have this role. Ours was an experimental model and, as such, had always been exempted from having to pay 50% of the proceeds. Logically, that interview with Msgr. Iacobone sparked a very strong media controversy. We have never taken any action against the Vatican. For example, the petition circulating on the internet - 130,600 signatures collected on change.org - did not originate from us, but from the community of both the Rione Sanità and our visitors. Some journalists said that it was the first time in over thirty years that the Neapolitan people had finally agreed to fight together against an injustice.
In the end, did you have to pay 50% of the proceeds? What about future?
No, we didn't pay anything. Also from the newspapers we learned that they would not ask us for anything on the receipts regressed. However, in fact, there has not yet been talk of a new future convention.
Now let's talk about a more pleasant topic: the WOW effect. The fourth edition of the "Global Remarkable Venue Awards 2020" was held at the beginning of December, the prize that the online booking platform Tiqets assigns to the museums and attractions that, during the year, were able to offer visitors the best discovery experiences. You have won the award for best Italian experience. What are the appreciations and criticisms that are most moved by visitors?
Everyone congratulates us on the project. The visitor who comes to the Catacombs of Naples comes to discover the history, archeology and an underground site. They expect to see more bones, but in the end they are still involved in an enhancement project that is much more.
Did the increase in the number of visitors coincide with the decrease in the number of crime episodes?
No. The increase in the number of visitors has sparked interest from the institutions. When three years ago the Rione Sanità was plunging back into a state of fear, due to a resumption of the phenomenon of ‘’stese’’ - a term used in the jargon of the camorra to refer to acts of intimidation implemented by the new clans as a sign of taking over the territory instead of the historical families - there was a response from the government. Unfortunately a boy died with a stray bullet. Camorra has not diminished. Neighborhood cohesion and job opportunities have increased.
Have you ever felt the need to leave Naples to see how other social, museum and archaeological realities work?
Our project was born from the awareness of our value. It came with the trips we made at the beginning with father Antonio. When we returned home, we became aware of our heritage. Then we thought ''well, I can do it too''.
You were invited to Japan at the University of Fukui to tell and share your project. How important was this exchange?
They called us to witness our experience. Leaving our context, we realized how unaware we were of our value. This comparison has given us many confirmations.
Do you think you can be a model that can be re-proposed, with the right adjustments, also in other Italian, European and world realities?
Sure. We have operated with these objectives in mind: creation of jobs, enhancement of the good understood as protection and enjoyment, involvement of both the community and visitors. The availability of the goods and the type of owner certainly helped us a lot. In partnership with two other entities in the Bacoli area, we won the tender for the enhancement of the Mirabilis Pool. This announcement was proposed by the Archaeological Park of the Phlegraean Fields and is very pioneering in Italy on the theme of public-private partnership. The idea is to replicate the management model of the Catacombs. So yes, we can be a repeatable example. Culture is social. Culture is an instrument of emancipation, of contrasting inequalities, but it is also a right. In our case, culture was the lever to redesign the destiny of a territory.
Can you tell us about the initiative "Let's keep the past alive"?
It is a fundraising campaign for the adoption of the frescoes. In 2014, the San Gennaro Community Foundation was born, which includes all the entities in the territory of the Rione Sanità, including the network of current and potential traders, entrepreneurs and foundations of Milan who have always supported us over time. This campaign, which involved, among others, the Italian Post Office, many industrialists of Naples, the former prosecutor Gargano, donated funds that were used for the restoration of some works, frescoes or areas of the catacomb. Since 2014, donations have been diverted to the San Gennaro Community Foundation which aims to take care of the restorations.
How are you coping with this period? What consequences did it have on an economic and, above all, psychological level?
It is a topic that we are talking about in these days because we lack the activity, the satisfactions, the achievement of objectives. We miss the routine we were used to. From a psychological point of view we begin to suffer because we have been standing still for a long, too long time. One of our strengths is the group. Our operational staff is made up of around 40 people and it is becoming increasingly difficult to see us only virtually. We are not yet aware of the damage. We will find out when we return to the rhythms of before. For now, we try to plan the future and imagine the recovery but unfortunately, we have no idea when the recovery will take place. Unfortunately, even in the funding, no proposals arrive that serve to change the situation.
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I thank Vincenzo for his time and for sharing his experience with us. If you want to discover the fantastic world of the Catacombs and return (hopefully soon) to visit them, you can visit the official website of the Catacombs of Naples. I wish Vincenzo and his partners much luck for the future.
This is a challenge within a challenge. I fear this pandemic is driving people away from everything that has no utilitarian, immediate, simple ends or purposes. So what to do? Well, we have to keep believing in culture. We all have something to tell, no one excluded. Energy, enthusiasm, exchange, communication, sharing, respect, empathy, awareness are created around culture. Everything and everyone is culture. Culture will live if we continue to narrate it and it will repay, making us come back to live - not just survive - and to be proud of being part of a world that - outside parliaments - is not so bad, on the contrary ...
And after this Neapolitan interlude, in the next interview we will leave Italy again to push ourselves into a world where culture struggles to compete with a nature of ''bulky'' beauty: Oman. To welcome us will be Hassan Meer, a famous contemporary artist and photographer who has traveled the world as an ambassador of Omani artistic reality. An unprecedented face of Oman that deserves to be discovered and explored.