Drain Away

October 31, 2013 / Art & Archaeology
Napoli, Campania

Puozza scula’… possibly, at the same time, one of the most colorful and most disturbing Neapolitan insults that one can wish upon another person. It literally means, “May you drain away.”

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The saying derives from the macabre burial practices of the seventeenth century Dominicans who painted brightly colored frescoes beside the crypts of wealthy patrons – and used their skulls for decoration.

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A tour of the San Gaudioso catacombs, located beneath the modern Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanita’, takes the visitor past these crypts and into rooms lined with tufo stone niches. Poorer people were laid to rest here in a fetal position, believed to help bring them back to the Father. The monks also punctured holes into the stomach of the deceased so the acids from the body ran down (or drained away) to the bottom of the niche, helping the corpse decompose more quickly. In this way, the same niche could be used for many family members.

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by Barbara Zaragoza

Barbara is author of “The Espresso Break: Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond” available on Amazon.com in print as well as Kindle versions.
Visit her website about Naples or check out Napoli Unplugged. Bonnie Alberts, Penny Ewles-Bergeron and Barbara have teamed up to create a new Naples travel guide, out in Spring 2014!

12 Responses to “Drain Away”

  1. Evanne Brandon Diner

    We laughed out loud when we read your note. Here in Italy the Italians are often into recycling as it relates to their dead relatives. If you visit an Italian cemetery, notice most of the burial crypts are raised about ten inches above the ground. When we asked why, we were told after thirty years, bodies were often removed, their bones buried in this “crawl” space, and a new spot was made for the next person to die in one’s family.The story gives “find your niche” a whole new meaning!

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  2. Wojciech

    In some African countries, e.g. Mali, bodies are either buried or are left in a cave to dry. Funeral ceremonies are held periodically about 3 years after the death, sometimes for a group of deceased during those years, when the bones are excavated and properly disposed. The belief is that the spirit of the deceased hovers in the village for a longer time until through the funeral ceremony it is released to join the ancestors. Indeed it takes time for us to reliquish the grief after the death of a beloved one. Family graves are next to dwellings in Tahiti, Kalimantan (Borneo) and elsewhere as signs of the family unity, continuity, ancestoral wisdom and participation in life through generations. Cemetaries in monasteries remind monks of “memento mori” (remeber that you will die). In some monastic orders devoted to silence monks greeted each other by this phrase as the only permissible words outside prayers to be said.

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  3. Find your niche indeed!
    What a timely report. I couldn’t help but notice all the evidence of moisture on the floor.
    Just when you thought it was safe to turn out the lights! Watch your step!
    Happy Hallow’s Eve!

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  4. Sylvia Flores

    I love Naples and really enjoyed your intriguing note! Thanks for sharing more of its rich secrets with us all!

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  5. Annette (Alessio) Higday

    I love reading about Napoli- a passionate heart of Italy. We visited and toured in 03, and 06 with family who live there. I remember leaning on golden sculls outside of a church downtown while learning about the wonderful hidden treasure of the “sotteranea”. Thanks for more info.-Annette

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  6. Happy Halloween and thanks for the comments! I didn’t know that recycling relatives is/was a common practice throughout Italy. The San Gaudioso catacombs are a real treat to visit and interestingly, the burial site was created above the 5th century Basilica of San Gaudioso as well as an ancient Roman cistern. What’s more, throughout the hallways they’ve got modern art everywhere. It’s lush experience all around.

    Saluti da Napoli!

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  7. Great post, and there’s also a former convent in Naples (up in the Vomero, if memory serves) which has catacombs featuring narrow, upright niches with drain-holes at the bottom. In these, the dead sisters, were set up in sitting posture, as if at prayer, and before being put in place the corpses were somehow opened up at the bottom (shudder…) so that their innards too would drain away more quickly. One wonders if the subcellar received a cleaning, every now and then — and if so, who the convent got to do the job.

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  8. Ugh! But this macabreism reminds me of another famous Neopolitan insult: “Va muri ammazat’!” I’m not sure of the spelling, but liberally translated it says “Drop dead butchered!”

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  9. No one has mentioned the ‘bleed to death curse’. That was my family’s favorite….(and I wish I could say and spell it in Italian)

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