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Treasure of San Gennaro

The Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro is located inside the Cathedral of Naples. It is accessed from the right aisle, passing through the monumental brass gate by Cosimo Fanzago (1665).

Its construction dates back to the 16th century, when the plague was scourging the city of Naples. The Neapolitan people, exhausted by suffering, made a vow to St. Gennaro, asking for intercession to end the plague. The city of Naples thus committed itself to the construction of an extraordinary chapel dedicated to the saint.

A lay body, the Deputation, was set up to oversee and commission the work of the chapel, which signed the vow made to St. Gennaro in the presence of a notary. [photo of the written vow: https://www.cappellasangennaro.it/la-cappella/storia/]

Cappella del tesoro di San Gennaro - duomo di Napoli
Di ErwinMeier – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74706408

The decoration

So it was that work began: architect Francesco Grimaldi was commissioned to design the Chapel in the Baroque style, while its decoration underwent controversial events. Initially, the commission of the Stories on the Life of Saint Gennaro and the fresco of Paradise in the dome were given to Cavalier D’Arpino. He, however, never began the work. The same can be said for his successor, the famous Emilian painter Guido Reni, who decided to leave Naples because of the rancor and repercussions of the local painters, who could not accept that the decoration of the Chapel had been entrusted to foreign artists.

In 1630 the Deputation entered into a contract with Domenico Zampieri known as Domenichino, a pupil of Annibale Carracci and one of the greatest exponents of Baroque painting in Italy. He painted five of the six oils on copper that decorate the lower band of the chapel, the frescoes in the lunettes of the altars, the subarches and the pendentives at the base of the dome. His sudden death interrupted his work. This was completed by Giovanni Lanfranco, author of the Paradise fresco that adorns the dome, and Jusepe de Ribera, known as lo Spagnoletto, who completed the last of the oils on copper with St. Gennaro emerging unharmed from the furnace.

Altare maggiore della cappella del tesoro di San Gennaro
Di Sailko – Opera propria, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83116340

The high altar and antependium

The high altar in red porphyry, the focal point of the Chapel, was made by Francesco Solimena beginning in 1667. It frames the silver frontal depicting the Translation of the Saint’s Relics from Monte Vergine to Naples, this work by Giandomenico Vinaccia and a masterpiece of Neapolitan Baroque. The antependium thus depicts scenes from the saint’s life, and in the center stands out the figure of Archbishop Carafa, proponent of the return of the saint’s relics to Naples in 1497.

Welcoming him are the siren Partenope and the river Seveto, symbols of the city. The plague and famine, in the guise of a woman with long hair, dead, and a ragamuffin, are to the right of the river.

The antependium also depicts the scene of St. Gennaro protecting Naples from the fury of Mount Vesuvius in 1631, when he stopped the lava’s advance and spared the city.

The tabernacle

Behind the altar is a safe that was donated by Charles King of Spain in 1667 and contains the ampulla with the blood of St. Gennaro. This holds fundamental importance for the Neapolitan people, as it encloses the saint’s blood, which three times a year (the Saturday before the first Sunday in May, September 19 and December 16) liquefies, renewing the prodigy.

Two sets of keys are needed to open the safe, one belonging to the Deputation and the other to the Archbishop of Naples. One does not open without the other, and it is therefore the entire city, in its representation, that opens the treasure of Naples.

Di Sailko – Opera propria, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30874821

The silverware

In 1305 Charles II of Anjou on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the saint’s death donated the first piece of the collection, the reliquary bust of St. Gennaro. It is located in front of the high altar on the left. It was made by three goldsmiths from Provence with gold, silver, enamel and precious stones.

Their presence in the city gave such a boost to the local school that only a few decades later Joan I of Anjou formalized the birth of the guild of Neapolitan goldsmiths.

Today, the Chapel houses the largest collection of silver busts placed in one place. There are 54 of them, and among them are depicted all 52 of the city’s patron saints. A record number. On the Saturday before the first Sunday in May, on the occasion of the renewal of the miracle of the saint’s liquefaction, the 52 busts precede in procession to the basilica of St. Clare the golden bust and cruets of St. Gennaro’s blood.

Unique pieces of the Chapel’s silver collection are the so-called Splendors, the two 18th-century candlesticks that tower in front of the high altar. About four quintals of silver were used to forge them. Charles of Bourbon donated 2,000 ducats, and the rest was raised through donations from devotees.

Il Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro

The chapel is also connected to the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, which collects and preserves paintings, statues, busts, jewelry and precious fabrics that Kings and Queens, nobles and common people brought as gifts to the Saint over the years. The museum area is over seven hundred square meters and since 2003 visitors can admire such valuable works as:

St. Gennaro’s mitre, an episcopal headdress in which a total of 3964 precious stones are set (3,328 diamonds to represent the hardness of faith, 168 rubies to represent the saint’s blood and 198 emeralds to represent knowledge), weighing a total of 18 kilograms;
The necklace of St. Gennaro, in which are inlaid precious stones and jewelry given as gifts over the centuries by sovereigns, popes, nobles and common people. These include Charles III of Bourbon, Maria Amalia of Saxony, Maria Carolina of Habsburg, Francis I of Austria, Joseph Bonaparte, Maria Christina of Savoy, and Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy. The last gift was a ring given in 1929 by Maria José, the last queen of Italy;
The insignia of the Order of San Gennaro, the brooch, plaque and mantle studded with gems of enamels, precious stones and decorations depicting the lily of the Bourbons.

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