Postcard from Naples, Italy: The most bejeweled saint

164 rubies, 198 emeralds and 3,326 diamonds adorn the gold mitre created by Matteo Traglia in 1713 for a bust of San Gennaro

Gennaro, or Januarius, ascended through the ranks of early Christians to become Bishop of Naples. Unfortunately for him, this was during the time period when Emperor Diocletian was at his most testy. In the year 305, the bishop and some of his fellow practitioners were sentenced to be thrown to the bears awaiting them in an amphitheater. Legend claims the bears refused the proffered meal, so the emperor was forced to change their sentence to beheading, which proved more successful in achieving their martyrdom.

Later, San Gennaro’s remains were moved to catacombs in Naples that bear his name. But his remains no longer are found there. At some point, his body went elsewhere while his head remained in Naples. Finally in 1497 a cardinal in Naples, where Gennaro is the city’s primary patron saint, managed to regain the body and reunite them in a handsome crypt below the cathedral, which bears the name of San Gennaro as well.

Back in 305, one of San Gennaro’s followers salvaged two ampules of his blood after his beheading. Their whereabouts for the next thousand years or so are uncertain, but they surfaced and were secured in the church. Not surprisingly, the blood had dried up by then. But soon after, its caretakers observed it spontaneously liquifying.

Creating much excitement among the faithful, the liquification supposedly occurs to this day three times a year – on the Feast Day of San Gennaro, September 19; on December 26, the celebration of his patronage of Naples; and finally in May to mark the reunification of his body parts. Sometimes one of the ampules liquifies when visited by popes. This miracle failed to occur when Pope Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI arrived at San Gennaro, but supposedly an ampule half-liquified for Pope Francis, demonstrating San Gennaro’s strong support for his reign.

Survivors from several 16th-century disasters wanted to show their gratitude to the city’s patron saint and decided to erect a chapel adjacent to the cathedral to honor him. Citizens stepped forward to donate huge numbers of gemstones to commission appropriate tributes. One is a stunning necklace created by Michele Data in 1679; another is the jewel-encrusted mitre at the top of this post.

Additional treasures were accumulated to add to San Gennaro’s treasures. Major silver statues of saints among them.

The unusual aspect of the Treasures of San Gennaro is ownership. They belong to the citizens of Naples themselves, not the Catholic Church. They escaped confiscation by the state of Italy when it was unified. Periodically rumors spring forth the Vatican is trying to get control of them, sparking major protests in Naples, one as recent as 2016.

Sorry, so distracted by the shimmering jewels that have neglected to make much mention of the Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, itself. The initial construction of the cathedral was commissioned by King Charles I (see earlier post) but was not completed until the 14th century. Mosaics from the 4th century are found in an adjacent baptistry predating the cathedral.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: Glamming up the royal residence

While Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) kept architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) well occupied around the Vatican and Rome, he managed to take on a project for the Viceroy in Naples. The excuse for the construction of the palace was an impending visit by King Philip III of Spain (confusingly known as Philip II in his role as King of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia) (1578-1621). But, alas, when the king did not make it to Naples as planned, rather than let it go to waste, the Viceroy himself move into the grand new quarters.

A new royal arrived in town in 1734, King Charles III of Spain (adding to the confusion, prior to becoming King of Spain in 1759, he was known as Charles VII of Naples and Charles V of Sicily) (1716-1788). By the time King Charles arrived, the palace was empty of residents and devoid of furniture. While waiting for suitable decorating, the new arrivals temporarily were forced to furnish it with contents bought from the pawnshop and private citizens.

King Charles III immediately put architects and artists to work. With his marriage to Maria Amalia of Saxony (1724-1760), decorating assumed a sense of urgency. To take care of royal needs, a porcelain factory was founded, which later became known as Capodimonte porcelain. Receiving an abundant supply of art from his mother, Elizabeth Farnese (1692-1766), the Queen of Spain, Charles was able to transfer it from family palaces in Parma and Rome to Naples. One palace, however, is hardly enough to accommodate royal needs, so two more were built which the blog will visit later.

His son, Ferdinand I as King of the Two Sicilies (Ferdinand IV as King of Naples or Ferdinand III and King of Sicily) (1751-1825), begin to take beautifying the palace to even higher levels. Arranged by his father, King Charles, Ferdinand’s proxy marriage to 16-year-old Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814) spurred further gilding and flocking throughout. The grand hall was remodeled to serve as a court theatre.

By the time his grandson, Ferdinand II (1810-1859), became King of the Two Sicilies, the whole palace was viewed as in need of a major renovation. This was partially due to a fire in 1837 and partially to accommodate modern services and systems for lighting, water-delivery, sewage and so forth.

Finally in 1888, King Umberto I of Italy (of the House of Savoy) (1844-1900) altered the façade of the building addressing the grand Piazza del Plebiscito. Large statues of major rulers of Naples were commissioned for the new niches.

Addicted to writing with access to two computer screens displaying a multitude of resources, I was most impressed by an early innovative predecessor – sort of a ferris wheel for books to aid research from multiple tomes at one’s desk.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: The Egg and the New Castle

Castel dell’Ovo

Castel dell’Ovo stands astride the small island of Megaride that originally was settled by Greek colonists in the 6th century B.C. Five centuries later, a Roman patrician built his villa on the site, now attached to the mainland. Its name, the Egg Castle, arises from a legend that the poet and magician Virgil (70-19 B.C.) placed an egg into the foundation of the fortress to support it. If the magical egg were ever to be broken, disaster would befall Naples.

Appointed Roman Emperor in 475, Flavius Romulus Augustus ruled for but a year before being overthrown and imprisoned in the castle, possibly until the end of his life. A monastery was founded on the castle site shortly before the year 500. Emperor Valentinian III (419-455) added fortifications to the site toward the end of his reign, but those fortifications were of little help to the crumbling Roman Empire. Valentinian III was assassinated in Rome, and Rome was soon sacked by the Vandals, whose destructive invasion contributed the word vandalism to our vocabulary.

Most of the early fortifications were demolished to prevent use by invading forces. Perhaps the magical egg was broken, because the piece of prime real estate on the bay captured the attention of Roger the Norman (1095-1154) who conquered Naples in 1140. He set up his headquarters there in a new castle.

But this Egg Castle was relegated to the role of an old one, one well-suited to serve as a prison. Normanesque was not the style of Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), King of Sicily, and a son of King Louis VIII of France (1187-1226). A little farther around the Bay of Naples, Castel Nuovo, or Maschio Angioino, was designed as a more palatial fortification. It served as the royal seat for rulers from off and on 1279 until 1815. The most notorious of, and the end of, the line of Anjou royals there was Queen Joanna II (1371-1435). During her tumultuous reign she was known for her several marriages and numerous lovers. Rumors swirled that she disposed of her lovers by unceremoniously dumping them via a secret trap door into a well in the castle’s dungeons where they were consumed by a resident crocodile.

King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396-1458) remodeled the palace in a Catalan-Majorcan-Gothic style. The impressive marble entryway added in 1470 commemorates his entry into Naples in 1442. The royals associated with the House of Bourbon found the New Castle not sumptuous enough for their tastes and added several luxurious new palaces in and around Naples beginning in the mid-1700s.

Unfortunately, the Palatine Chapel with its Giotto frescoes and several other portions of the Castel Nuovo were closed off during our visit, but the Civic Museum was open.