Naples has a history problem: there’s just too much of it.

Greek cemeteries, Roman ruins, medieval castles, Renaissance churches… it’s more than one city can maintain, and some sites will inevitably crumble – unless passionate locals take matters into their own hands.

I met one of these restoration vigilantes on the metro. By day, Maria Corbi, an expert in art history, manages the art installations found in 11 subway stations that double as public galleries. But by night (and evenings and weekends) she’s a founding member of the SMMAVE Association, which is currently restoring an abandoned church in the neglected district of Vergini Sanità.

“Vergini is rich of history, of heart,” Corbi told me. “It was an area of cemeteries and convents, a very spiritual location from ancient times.”

Its modern reputation is less pious. Vergini is often associated with crime and poverty, and it usually doesn’t feature in tourist brochures. But thanks to associations like SMMAVE, that’s changing.

SMMAVE stands for Santa Maria della Misericordia ai Vergini, the 16th-Century church it was originally formed to restore. The church was once part of a hospital complex for religious orders. But by the time SMMAVE stepped in, it had been abandoned for decades. The crypt was so full of rubbish that volunteers could barely get down the stairs.

“You have to be a bit visionary,” Corbi admitted when I asked how she saw the potential in the mess.

She and her co-founders, artists Christian Leperino and Massimo Tartaglione, solved wiring and plumbing issues, shovelled rubbish and tackled mountains of paperwork alongside the actual restoration. They uncovered a few surprises, such as a Pietà fresco buried behind rubble in the crypt.

Corbi used her experience as an art historian to piece together the church’s story, tracing the scraped and faded fresco to Leonardo Olivieri, an 18th-Century painter. The stuccos in the main church were probably created by another Neapolitan artist, Bartolomeo Granucci. But it is hard to be certain, as the church records were found in the same condition as the building.

Fortunately, the three friends weren’t completely on their own – they were supported by volunteers from the neighbourhood, along with art and architecture students. Together, they cleaned, researched, documented and repaired. After two years of work, the church reopened in 2016 as a centre for contemporary and performance art.

It’s not a complete facelift; Santa Maria still looks her age. The stucco walls are scored and stained with gaps in the plaster where sculptures had been chipped out and stolen. Yet SMMAVE has realised its goal: the church is alive with community outreach events, kids’ programmes and theatre workshops.

“The work of the associations shows that, with commitment and passion, you can really change things,” Leperino said. “And you can rediscover the beauty where there was just rubble.”

But they’re not the only ones trying to bring ancient parts of the city back to life; down the street from the church, another underground movement has taken root.

With commitment and passion, you can really change things. You can rediscover the beauty where there was just rubble.”

The Vergini neighbourhood was built on top of a cemetery dating to the 4th Century BC, when Naples was the ancient Greek city of Neapolis. And according to local archaeologist Carlo Leggieri, the site was as significant then as it is now.

“These monuments marked the tombs of the aristocracy of ancient Neapolis – all the influential people of one of the biggest and most important cities on the Mediterranean,” he said.

Its status didn’t last. As the centuries passed, the cemetery disappeared beneath layers of flood and construction debris. Now it is an inadvertent catacomb, entombed 8m to 10m below the city.

For a while, the sunken chambers were used as cisterns, but a cholera epidemic in the 1880s closed the wells, and the necropolis was forgotten. One hundred years later, an earthquake exposed burial chambers beneath Vergini. Leggieri began exploring the tombs in the early 1990s, accessing them through one of the ancient wells.

Since then, the archaeologist has invested more than 20 years in the excavation of the ancient cemetery. In 2001, he founded the Celanapoli Association to manage the site and open it to the public.

As with SMMAVE, Celanapoli’s first and largest task was cleaning. The tombs were full of debris from ancient floods, quarrying and even World War II. Clearing it was dirty and dangerous work – not the way most people want to spend their free time.

“On paper I have a lot of volunteers,” Leggieri said wryly, though many don’t last beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm. Meanwhile, progress remains slow; of the more than 200 tombs, only two are currently open to the public. (But at least now visitors can take the stairs instead of scrambling down a well.)

The tombs’ walls convey their jumbled past with traces of cistern waterproofing and daubs of funeral paint. In one chamber, a support wall cuts across a relief carving, lopping off the figures at their ankles. But the paintings in the burial room below retain their vibrant yellows, reds and blues.

With 1sqkm of cemetery still left to uncover, the necropolis represents a huge commitment. But the big problem is not dedication; it’s money. Celanapoli, like SMMAVE, is entirely self-funded. While the Vergini neighbourhood is beginning to bloom, it is still largely unknown. Tours generate a small income, but the associations’ sites aren’t yet able to support themselves.

The best way forward is collaboration. Celanapoli has formed a relationship with the VerginiSanità Association, which maintains a fragment of the Roman-era Aqua Augusta. The aqueduct once spanned 100km across southern Italy, and this particular piece happens to intersect the necropolis.

“This area is very rich in cultural groups,” said Pippo Pirozzi, co-founder of the VerginiSanità Association. Over the last two years, he has seen that the associations’ successes have fostered a renewed civic pride. “It’s important to involve the local community. You can’t have [tourism] develop if you don’t involve local people.”

To this end, the associations run educational programmes and liaise with local businesses. SMMAVE is developing an art library for the neighbourhood, and in April 2017, the Naples National Archaeological Museum will partner with several associations – including SMMAVE, Celanapoli and VerginiSanità – through its Obvia outreach programme, where museum ticket buyers can get discounted tours of association-maintained sites. Pirozzi and Paolo Giulierini, the museum's director, hope this will bring visitors to the Vergini neighbourhood and help redefine the district within Italy and beyond.

But the associations aren’t waiting around for someone else to put them on the map. Like true vigilantes, they’ve become used to doing things themselves. Their newest collaboration is a map of historical and cultural sites in the Vergini neighbourhood. Names that had faded from the city’s memory have been firmly reprinted. As far as the associations are concerned, they’re here to stay.

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