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 Oaxaca, Mexico: Trials by fire unite two martyrs across time

Bearing a pair of eyes on a platter, Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy (283-304), watches all entering the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo, home to El Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. The patron saint for safeguarding eyesight and writers, Santa Lucia always has ranked among my favorites.

Upon reaching what was considered a marriageable age, Santa Lucia opted to dedicate herself to God and pledge herself a virgin. Born into a wealthy family in Sicily, she began distributing her worldly goods to the poor.

Alas, Lucy’s mother previously had promised her daughter’s hand to a suitor, a man displeased with the dispersal of the family’s wealth perhaps more than the personal rejection. Vengeful, he reported her Christian beliefs to Roman authorities.

The Roman authorities sentenced Lucy to reside in a brothel and to be forced into prostitution. Divine intervention rendered her immovable, despite the soldiers’ repeated efforts to budge her in order to carry out the sentence. Thwarted, they gouged out her eyes and set her ablaze. But Lucy proved impervious to the flames so they resorted to ending her life by thrusting a sword through her throat.

This background is why Santa Lucia would seem ideal to offer temporary sanctuary to a Penny Siopsis’ powerful short film, Communion, relating to the end-of-life experience of a Dominican nun, Sister Mary Aidan (1914-1952). The Irish-born doctor, Elsie Quinlan, had devoted years to lovingly tending and healing Black South Africans in a clinic in New London, South Africa, when she turned her automobile into a public square in November of 1952.

Apartheid was institutionalized by the National Party of white rulers of the country, and public gatherings of Blacks were outlawed. The African National Congress spurred a protest in the square as part of the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and soldiers firing into the crowd killed several Blacks.

By the time Sister Aidan drove into the midst of the then angry mob, instead of recognizing a nun who had been helping them the rioters only saw yet another white person determined to harm them. She was stabbed seven times and set ablaze in her car.

The fire had fused my rosary beads….

“voice” of Sister Mary Aidan narrating Communion

The crowd still was determined to avenge the deaths of those shot by the soldiers. The first-person narration continues with the inquest:

Parts of my body were missing. Someone said a lady had a bread knife.

By the time police broke up the riot, the government admitted to fatal shootings of at least nine. Unofficial reports placed the number at closer to 200.

And that is all of the tragic tale I can bear to relate. What could be sadder than, as artist Siopsis described during a dialogue with artist William Kentridge, “being killed by people you love and who love you?”

The film is part of “Hacer Noche/Crossing Night: Arte Contemporaraneo del Sur de Africa,” an exhibit at the Museo de las Culturas closing February 5.

The dancing skeletons visible in the background of one of the photo’s of Simphiwe Ndzube’s “Rain Prayers” are a frame from Kentridge’s short film “30% of Life/30% de Vida.”

To see more of Kentridge’s work, visit an older post from Puebla in 2015. For more photos from the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, visit here.

Postcard from Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy: History with a horse hanging overhead

Mankind will discover objects in space sent to us by the watchers….

Michel de Nostradamus (1503-1566)

With prophecies such as that, it seems amazing contemporaries of Nostradamus placed much stock in his words. Yet he was a favorite of the French royals.

Nostradamus was dispatched to Castello di Rivoli, outside of and perched above Turin, at the end of 1561 to assist Margaret (1523-1574), the Duchess of Savoy, as she approached time to give birth. Well, not merely to assist as much as to bear witness to confirm the newborn truly emerged from the birth canal of the 35-year-old duchess.

Margaret’s brother, King Henry II (1519-1559) of France, hoped this would be impossible. If the Duke of Savoy, Emanuele Filiberto (1553-1580), failed to produce an heir, the Savoy holdings would be transferred to France. Nostradamus, however, predicted a son would be born and, lo and behold, was proven correct.

Despite her advanced age, Margaret saved the House of Savoy by producing the requisite heir, Carlo Emanuele I (1580-1630). A brilliant flash in the sky above the castle served as a sign to Emanuele Filiberto of the significance of this miraculous occurrence.

While the court moved down from the Castello di Rivoli into Turin, the palace on the hilltop always remained important to the Savoys. Carlo Emanuele I commissioned architects to transform his medieval birthplace into a palatial retreat, with towers added to link the main residence to the adjacent Manica Lunga housing some of his art collection.

After the French destroyed much of the compound during their invasion, Vittorio Amadeo II (1666-1732) determined to resurrect the castle as a grand symbol of the power of the new Kingdom of Sardinia. Much of the work was undertaken under the direction of architect Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736).

In 1883, the Savoy family sold the castle to the city of Turin which, to the detriment of the buildings and their interiors, rented it to the army. Then there was the damage caused by German occupation and bombings associated with World War II.

There was new hope for Rivoli, however. Funding began to arrive and the architect Andrea Bruno, whose name is tied to the complex’s rebirth, provided the first projects. Almost all the exterior doors and windows had disappeared, stucco work and paintings had been damaged through rain and dampness, tapestries were destroyed, woodwork had rotted. The first collapses took place in 1978, with the large vault crumbling to pieces in the grand hall on the second floor…. Coming to the aid of Rivoli was Marquis Panza di Biumo, an important contemporary art collector, in search of a venue where he could install a part of his collection.

In August 1979, restoration work on the Castello alone began, and would last until 1984, when it opened its doors as the Museum of Contemporary Art. This work took into account its entire past, respecting its architecture, but with modern additions like the elevator, the suspended staircase, the platform on the late 1700s vault, and the panoramic area on the third floor.

From 1984 to 1986, Andrea Bruno began working on the Manica Lunga, but unfortunately a lack of funds closed down the site, which reopened only in 1996. It was in February 2000 that the building, first born to host Carlo Emanuele I’s picture gallery, refound its age-old splendor. The structure was maintained with the inclusion of the vault’s overturned hull-shaped steel cover and the steel and glass stairs joining the 17th-century structure.

History of Castello Di Rivoli

When we visited Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, a major Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) exhibition was featured (sorry, no  photos allowed). But you probably want to know about the horse. Of course.

The medium for this 1997 installation piece, “Novecento,” by Maurizio Cattelan is obvious. An embalmed taxidermy horse, unavailable at most artists’ supply stores.

A different allusion to an existential condition, where the subject is deprived of any possibility of action, is elaborated in “Novecento” (1900), 1997…. A new take on the concept of natura morta (“still life,” literally “dead nature”), the final image is one of frustrated tension, of energy destined to find no outlet. By the artist’s own admission, insecurity is a defining aspect of his approach, and the idea of failure is a theme that recurs in many of his works.

While waiting for the regular bus running back and forth from Turin, we passed up on the handsome museum’s café for a spot a flight of stairs down the hill. Nothing fancy. Plastic chairs. But the private bocce club welcomed us.

Bocce competition was fierce on the court adjacent to the patio. Regular local foursomes also were engaged in serious, to the point spectators would pull up chairs to observe, games of scopa (sweep). The regional card game is played with large, unfamiliar decks of cards.

For us, the most unexpected aspect of the bocce and scopa games was the participants’ choice of beverages. While we sipped our beers, everyone else was drinking water.