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In Little Italy a Love Story Between San Gennaro and Lady Liberty

Given that distant past, what does a celebration of Naples’ patron saint mean within Manhattan’s multicultural reality, ninety-two years later?

San Gennaro and Lady Liberty in Little Italy, Manhattan (Photo Angelo Pennati)

Every 19th of September for centuries, the city of Naples unites in its usual enchanting, vibrant celebration of the miracle of San Gennaro. However, the patron saint of the city, and the spiritual power he embodies, find themselves strangely celebrated across the the ocean. In a land at the edge of the world, that the martyr himself would never have believed could exist, a week long feast is held in his name. Between September 13th and 23rd, Mulberry Street, the straight line that cuts straight through the heart of Manhattan’s Little Italy, hosts an autonomous, independent celebration of Naples’ patron saint: The Feast of San Gennaro. 

The Bishop of Benevento, rendered saint under Diocletian, has been protecting Naples from the Vesuvius’ devastating natural tantrums for over a millennium. Symbol of devotion and protection, San Gennaro is buried, along with his possessions, within the splendid white marble of the Neapolitan Duomo. Every year, inside its charmingly decorated naves, the city of Naples bears witness to the patron saint’s miracle: the liquefaction of his preserved blood.

Although, of course, none of that goes down on Mulberry street, a statue of San Gennaro purposefully imported from Naples is paraded up and down the narrow street, just as it is in the narrow corners of the colorful Mediterranean port. It finds rest in front of the Shrine Church of our Most Precious Blood, a small chapel inspired by the Duomo’s grandiose designs, and dedicated to the patron saint’s spiritual relevance, even across an ocean. The shrine church, built by the still small Neapolitan community at the end of the 19th century, quickly became a crucial point of contact for newcomers and old patrons alike. Just as rapidly, it became the primary center for Neapolitan spirituality in New York’s reality, to the point that, on September 19th, 1926, a small congregation organizes the very first Feast of San Gennaro the city has ever seen. Given that seems such an immensely distant past, what does a celebration of Naples’ patron saint mean within Manhattan’s multicultural reality, ninety-two years later?

In terms of festivities, it means something completely different from its Neapolitan counterpart. Where celebrations in Naples reflect the spirituality, approachability, and inner wholesomeness of its community, Mulberry’s vibrant ecosystem of restaurants and stands comes closer to a giddy festival. For the entirety of the week, zeppoli, cannoli, pizza and pasta vendors parade below the neighboring building’s low profiles. Amidst a rain of Italian, English, and Spanish shouting, they offer their take on Italian street food to the never ending flow of people that runs between them. The food, then, as in Naples, is certainly not missing. However, the extremely commercial treatment of the festivities demystifies, to an extent, the depth of the festivities. In Naples, San Gennaro’s miracles and spirituality act as the main dish of the feast, with food and celebration behaving as delightful side orders. The masses of Manhattan, on the other hand, seem to only focus on food and drink, leaving a faded note of transcendence to very few.

The crowd at San Gennaro’s Feast in Manhattan (Photo by Angelo Pennati)

Rightfully, New York does not care about any of that, and Mulberry Street is nonetheless swarming with people, to the point of making walking an almost impossible task. For vendors and restaurateurs, it is the busiest week of the year. Tourists and citizens alike flow through Little Italy’s as if they were one giant river. Exponents of the brilliant Neapolitan culinary tradition, hence, must devote all their attention to the biggest financial window of their year. They must, therefore, cater carefully to the flimsy desires of manhattanites. In crafting this scroll of novel dishes, deals, stands and discounts that stand out from the rest, San Gennaro and his history slip lazily into the background.

That being said, even within the modern register of an ever less religiously inspired youth, San Gennaro’s icon, hanging next to a beautiful graffiti of Lady Liberty, appears keen on inspiring those who walk beneath him. The two seem to want to coalesce. One a symbol of freedom and independence, the other a symbol of protection, they conspire to deliver a heartwarming rendition of the filaments that connect the different facets of humanity. The lady, beautiful as she is colorful, welcomes all who seek refuge in her promises of existential freedom. From her throne of red bricks, she seeks San Gennaro’s loving protection. Lady Liberty welcomes its citizens, makes them free. In turn, they vow her the protection of their miraculous patron saint. The romance between them acts, then, as a wonderful reflection of the what America (and New York with it) have forever represented in the eyes of the world’s youth: a place where you can be what you want to be while remaining yourself, a place to meet an infinity of different cultures without having to sacrifice yours.

In a shaken, divided America, home to an incredibly unstable sociocultural environment, this unexpected relationship blows hopeful breaths into the lungs of a young immigrant. In a sense, then, even without the religious depth that surrounds the feast in Naples, Mulberry street’s celebration assumes a unique shape. When framed from the right angle, it becomes a unique, beautiful celebration of the protection of liberty – a story of two sets of cultural values that find love within their differences.     

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