Tucked beneath the altar of the Santa Maria della Sanità church in Naples Rione Sanità district is a large gate that guards the entrance to an ancient chapel. Hidden behind the chapel’s altar is the tomb of the 5th century North African Bishop who gave these catacombs their name, Settimio Celio Gaudioso. Above it, a large mosaic depicting his life, his name in the Latin inscription. Nearby, a fresco of a large jewelled cross sits above the presumed tomb of San Nostriano, the 5th century Bishop of Naples who gave refuge to Gaudioso and his compatriots after the fall of Carthage to the Vandals.

Lost for centuries, the Catacombs of San Gaudioso were rediscovered when the Dominicans began construction of Santa Maria della Sanità in 1601. They incorporated the chapel into the church’s design below the altar. The catacombs beyond it, destined only for the nobility and elite, they re-imagined according to their own burial practices, and a somewhat bizarre preparation ritual.

Here, we find the remains of family tombs organised by gender, females on one side, male on the other. The entrance to each tomb, marked by a skull of one of the family members placed high on the wall, a frescoed painting below it, depicting their status or occupation in life.

Beyond the burial chambers are the cantarelle, the seats upon which the bodies were placed to drain of all liquids and decompose completely. A purification process that could take several years, it gave way to the Neapolitan expression of wishing death upon someone, puozza scula, meaning literally, may your body drain away.

Access to catacombs is by guided tour only. The ticket office is located inside the church, near the entrance to the cloister. The ticket price includes both the San Gaudioso catacombs and the Catacombs of San Gennaro located next to the Basilica dell’Incoronata Madre del Buon Consiglio. English speaking guides are available, but you may want to book in advance to ensure your language preference.

Allow 4 – 5 hours to do both catacombs and both churches.