Conferring in Naples I: the gratuitous picture post

Having finally finished reporting on July’s Leeds conference (and not even being the last to do so) leaves me now free to leap forward two months in a single bound, leaving me only four behind from reality, and talk about a conference I went to in September, to wit: Digital Diplomatics 2011. The organiser of this, I will admit, largely got me to participate by pointing that it would be (a) in Naples and (b) largely expenses-paid. I was practically packing at that point, because compensations for academic drudgery are sometimes hard to find and that seemed like a good one. But, following the practice of my last (and first) jaunt to Italy for similar purposes, I made sure to leave at least some little time for sight-seeing too, because I have been to too many exciting places and spent my time there in a conference venue drinking bad coffee. (And in Italy drinking bad coffee is kind of a felony.) So even before I got to the conference, having made more or less sure I could find it (wrongly, as it happened, but I had help by then so it was OK), I took the time to take a look round with a camera.

A view of the hills around Naples down the apex of a city street

A view of the hills around Naples down the apex of a city street

I really took to Naples. My kind of city appears to be one that’s scummy enough that it suggests you could survive and even enjoy yourself if you were poor, that has people having fun in it in the evenings, and ideally has plentiful Italian food and wine in it, so I may need to learn more Italian and advance my intent for a Sicilian comparative project, as plotted here years ago. Naples – well, scummy isn’t the word, the whole city really really needs a clean, but it is full of people having fun and the food was easy to find good and cheap.
A fourteenth-century church slowly mouldering between more modern buildings on a Naples street

A fourteenth-century church slowly mouldering between more modern buildings on a Naples street

It may have helped with this impression that I was in the city the evening the Napoli football team beat Inter Milan, but you know, I’ve been in cities where the local team winning means an outbreak of civic violence and window-breaking, not (as here) spontaneous Vespa parades including stupidly dangerous jumps from scooter pillion to scooter pillion on the move. (There appears to be no public space into which Neapolitan youth will not try to get on the back of a Vespa.) It was all kind of great, if dirty and poorly-maintained. But this is not a tourism blog so I will just concentrate on the medieval stuff for a few photos, which I’ll stick below a cut. But let me at least show you this:

I never even found out what this building was, though some poking at maps now suggests it is part of the Palazzo Reale enclosing the Piazza del Plebiscito, very democratic, but there was much more to be seen here.

The altar and the east end of Santa Chiara, Naples

The altar and the east end of Santa Chiara, Naples

The first medieval thing I found to get excited about was the church of Santa Chiara, which is opposite a quite different modern affair, the Chiesa del Gesù nuovo. That was also incredible, but in a completely different way, full of gilt, every surface covered in painting, impossible to look in any direction without being distracted and sucked in by splendour – but not even slightly medieval and with extremely stiff photography restrictions clearly posted that I didn’t feel up to defying. At Santa Chiara they were feeling much more indulgent:

Declaration of a plenary indulgence displayed in Santa Chiara, Naples

Declaration of a plenary indulgence displayed in Santa Chiara

and so I got more to work with. It is a big church, and essentially single-naved, albeit with side-chapels. Everything I’ve found to read about calls it Gothic, or Provençal-Gothic, but I’m not seeing it: it’s massive, basilical, has a wooden roof and so on, despite the pointy windows, I want to claim it for Team Romanesque. There’s probably a good reason why that’s wrong, and maybe it was more Gothic before it was bombed out in 1943 and rebuilt in the early 1950s, but I didn’t know that then, and I thought (and think) it was great. It’s also so closely surrounded by other buildings, as so often with city churches, that from the ground you can’t really get its shape into a camera from outside.

North wall of Santia Chiara, Naples

North wall of Santa Chiara, Naples

Portal and upper west face of Santa Chiara, Naples

Portal and upper west face

View down the nave of Santa Chiara, Naples, west to east

View down the nave, west to east

Happily the inside of the nave more or less makes it clear what’s going on where. Above you see that east end done in closer-up, and the thing here that I haven’t seen elsewhere, I don’t know how unusual it is, is the stand-alone shrines behind the altar. There were also a couple of these near the entrance, which allowed one to get a closer look at how they were done.

Shrine in Santa Chiara, Naples

Shrine in Santa Chiara, Naples

Detail of carving on shrine in Santa Chiara, Naples

Detail of carving (click for full-size)

Exposed confessional at Santa Chiara, Naples

I would also like to know how exactly this works. Do you just whisper your sins very quietly and hope no-one is standing close? Can the priest really deal with confessants on both sides, and if not, why equip the booths for them? So many questions!

And it turns out the answer is, with really surpassingly good craftsmanship. I would like to actually see a service in here, just to work out how, if at all, these features are put to use, and indeed although my discomfort with being part of acts of worship is now documented, one of the notable things about this place that I haven’t seen in other similar churches was the way that for all the time I was there, people were nipping in from the street, saying a quick prayer or two and then going on about their business. I’ve seen people at other churches who had plainly come to pray on their own, but not this kind of routine worship, which made the place somehow seem that much more friendly and less stern, despite the massive architecture.

So as you can tell I was very much taken with Santa Chiara, but there is far far more in this city than I managed to see. Some enduring highlights, aside from the promenade above, were this building that faced it, which turns out to be the face of the Palazzo Reale but in the evening lighting just made me think that centuries of skulduggery and intrigue could have been played out there:

Façada of the Palazzo Reale, Naples, by night

Come on; it's baroque film noir, isn't it?

And, you know, that may not be wrong. And then this, which was from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, where I probably shouldn’t have been photographing, but who could stop themselves faced with this?

Porphyry dog in the Museo Arqueologica Nazionale

Porphyry dog

The Museo was interesting for a couple of reasons, but both slightly negative ones for me at least. Firstly, it was almost entirely Classical sculpture or if not sculpture, other Roman cultural material. I do realise that Pompeii is just across the bay and so forth, and that Naples was important then, but you could be forgiven for thinking that as far as the curators were concerned (and despite the line of medieval and modern kings of Naples buried in Santa Chiara) nothing of cultural note had happened here since about 200 CE, and very little before 200 BC (not least as the Egyptian gallery was undergoing renovation and the numismatic one was shut). Some of it—lots of it— is gorgeous, and in the case of a display of basically the contents of a whole villa that takes up much of the second floor (a place called the Villa of the Papyri, whose owners appear to have made so much milling papyrus there that they could afford a truly lavish range of domestic sculpture, both of which aspects were documented in the objects on display), really extremely interesting, but I went a long way up and round this building looking for anything medieval, and the only post-Roman thing in there as far as I could see was the statue of Charles III, the Bourbon monarch who gave them a lot of the collection. However, upstairs, as well as a Gabinetto Segreto that we were supposed to sign into to see (but with no-one on guard people of all ages and dispositions were wandering in anyway), I also found this:

Greek-style crater reclaimed from the Getty Museum in the Museo Archeologica Nazionale, Naples

This engaging fellow had travelled a long way to be here, in as much as this was part of a small gallery display proudly announcing the fact that the Museo had successfully reclaimed its contents from the J. Paul Getty Museum in the United States. The vibrant colours with which the display was set up, however, were rather contradicted by the fact that none of the objects had any signage or description, that in a room twice the size of my office they had only six items, I think, and that they were in the most inaccessible part of the Museum. I couldn’t help but feel that the Getty had probably loved these things more. Anyway. Obviously, as an ex-museum type whose old place of employ had several colleagues banned from Egypt on account of its holdings, I have a stance here, and it doesn’t need to come out now. Obviously as we’ve already established I absolutely wasn’t creeping round taking unauthorised photos and even if I’d seen something world-famous and iconic I certainly wouldn’t have grabbed a shot and then hidden my camera again as quickly as possible. That would have been someone else. Even if it had been this:

Mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting Darius King of the Persians in the Museo Arqueologica Nazionale

Mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting Darius King of the Persians

I’m glad we’ve got that clear. There will be further medievalist photos as I turn to the actual conference, for reasons that will be made clear in the telling, but for now that’s enough I think. Enjoy!

14 responses to “Conferring in Naples I: the gratuitous picture post

  1. highlyeccentric


  2. Oh noes, another place I need to visit… So many shinies, so little time (and money)!

  3. You definitely did well to plan in some sightseeing time – Naples really is one of the coolest cities on earth (or at least one of the coolest I’ve ever been to).

    I’m afraid, though, I have to reclaim Santa Chiara for Team Gothic… I don’t want to go into details too much because there has been a long, unresolved debate as to whether truly Gothic architecture ever existed in Italy at all (with the notable exception of Milan Cathedral, of course), so it would take quite some time to fully cover this argument. I’ll limit myself to saying that those window in Santa Chiara aren’t just pointy, they’re also extremely tall and narrow elegant lancet windows, and there are quite a lot of them – this kind of fenestration would be unthinkable in Romanesque architecture. Also, the whole thing is just too damn high, wide and spacious to qualify for Team Romanesque. On a more fundamental level, both the large windows and the wide, barn-like* structure of the nave are only possible because the building is supported by a dense line of buttresses on the outside. While they may not be fancy flying buttresses, this still means that the overall structural principle of the church may be defined as Gothic. But you’re right, of course, that this is not the same kind of “Gothic” one finds at, say, Notre Dame in Paris, and generations of art historians have wondered what to make of it and have come up with workaround definitions like “Provencal Gothic”, “Latin Gothic” or “Mediterranean Gothic”.

    As for Santa Chiara being “more Gothic before it was bombed out in 1943”, you’ve touched on another sore point there. Actually, before 1943, Santa Chiara was just as full of Baroque stucco, gilt and paint as Il Gesù Nuovo (for a pre-war photograph see here). Unfortunately, we have no clear idea what kind of embellishments there were before the building was transformed into an example of Barqoue extravaganza. Presumably, in the medieval era the nave walls were covered with frescos, but even that isn’t a 100 per cent certain. But what was rebuilt after the Second World War is basically just the church’s skeleton, an austere structure suspiciously concordant with the purist tastes of modernist architecture of the 1950s.

    * Yes, believe it or not, “barn-like” is actually accepted art historical terminology to describe this kind of building. You find it particularly often applied to Santa Croce in Florence…

    • Blimey, that photograph you link is hardly recognisable as the same place. The shrines against the wall are still there, at least. But where’s all the seating? The benches around the edge couldn’t hold a congregation, was it not in use? But that’s loads of information, thankyou, and I will reluctantly concede the buttresses and allow Team Gothic to win this one.

      P. S. `Barn-like’, really? Is this different from `basilical’?

      • Regarding the seating: For all I know, the convent of Santa Chiara was only dissolved in the 1920s, and while I’m not sure what happened to the church after that, that declaration of a plenary indulgence you posted informs us that it only became a parish church in 1961. So my guess would be that there simply was no proper congregation before the 1960s.

        As for the “barn-like”: I didn’t mean to suggest this was a clearly defined technical term, but it has been used by many art historians to vaguely describe the impression created by certain late medieval churches. More often than not it refers to churches of the Mendicant Orders in the Mediterranean, many of which are relatively inornate, spacious buildings with an open wooden truss roof rather than vaulting in the nave.

        “Basilical” on the other hand, when used by an art historian, is very clearly defined: It describes a building (usually a church) with an elevated central nave flanked by lower aisles on either side. So technically speaking Santa Chiara does not fall in that category, even though the long, continuous rows of side chapels on either side of the nave somehow create the impression that it does…

        • Oh it’s actually the triple-aisled form, is it, I’ve been under labouring a misunderstanding, thankyou! If we ever meet I owe you a drink. As to the barn-likes, yes, I can see what you mean; indeed, I’ve been in some barns that make it clear enough also, and the hall in Pembroke College here, which is in fact late medieval I believe, is very heavy on the timber trusses. And good call with the congregation in Santa Chiara! You’ve actually worked rather harder on this post than I did, shamefully for me.

          • Rest assured, I haven’t put any *work* into this. You just happened to touch upon topics that I really know a lot about. I mean, 14th century Italy? Bring it on!

            Besides, from your reply I realize that – out of sheer laziness – I haven’t explained the basilica-thing as thoroughly as I should have. You see, it’s not just about the number of aisles (though three is the minimum and also the standard, but there also are some basilicas with five aisles). The crucial bit, however, is that the central nave 1) is higher than the side aisles, and 2) gets its light directly through clerestory windows in the upper part of its walls and is therefore not dependent on second-hand light streaming in from the windows of the side aisles. This is of course a modern and more or less arbitrary definition which, for instance, excludes many if not most of the buildings the ancient Romans would have referred to as “Basilica”. (I wonder if perhaps archaeologists/classicists use the term differently?) To make matters even more complicated, “Basilica” is also a title of honour bestowed by Catholic Church on churches that are deemed particularly worthy or important. Therefore, to name one famous example, San Francesco in Assisi is a basilica for Catholics but not for art historians – which probably leaves Catholic art historians with something of an unresolved inner conflict ;-)

            P.S.: I’ll be in Oxford from March 23-26. If you’re in town, I might actually take you up on that drink you offered!

            • To make matters even more complicated, “Basilica” is also a title of honour bestowed by Catholic Church on churches that are deemed particularly worthy or important.

              Certainly, it is a word that’s littered occasionally through charters I have seen when some scribe wished to add that extra bit of style for this occasion. Of course, imperator teaches us that the path from general to specific is not just a medieval way to treat Latin, but still… For the sources I know best basilica is mainly a fancy word for `church’!

              As far as my calendar currently tells me I should be around town at that time; do get in in touch!

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  8. Gosh. I haven’t been to Naples since before I’d ever been to New Orleans but I now see the parallels. I remember a hotel by the port with fluttering red curtains and tacky faded gold furniture, it was great. Naples Marseille Barcelona Cadiz Havana New Orleans, hmmm. I now have Naples on my must-return list!!!

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