When recently in Naples, our napoletani friends, Roberta and Adriano, knew I was eager to see more of the “undiscovered Naples.” Roberta decided where our explorations should start: at the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata Maggiore.
The Baroque church with concave facade is flanked by an 18th-century bell tower – currently under restoration – with a maiolica clock on the upper level:
This basilica has always been associated with orphans and abandoned children left by their mothers – unable to care for them due to poverty – or perhaps the infants were illegitimate.
Roberta told us about the fascinating history of this church and its link to abandoned children in front of the facade just below the belltower…as she wanted us to see a detail just behind the belltower: la ruota degli esposti (“the wheel of the exposed”).
A mother would place her infant in la ruota (first documented in 1601), a basket container on the street side which could be turned so that the infant was entrusted to the nuns – unaware of the identity of the mother – who would then receive and immediately baptize and register the child in their orphanage inside and adjacent to the church. Degli Esposti becomes an Italian surname, given to an orphaned child received by the nuns from the ruota degli esposti.
We waited behind visitors to the site taking photos of la ruota….
…and then we, too, were able to see the aperture to the foundlings’ wheel, inscribed with the date June 12, 1875, its last day of use.
In ancient Rome, the baths and gymnasium were in this area of Neapolis. The church was built in the 13th-century by the Angevins then ruling Naples. In 1317, Sancia of Majorca, queen consort of Roberto d’Anjou, King of Naples, had gifted some land to the lay charitable group, la Congregazione della Santissima Annunziata for the construction of a home for foundlings. More than simply a church, in the 14th-century, the Real (Royal) Santa Casa dell’Annunziata included a hospital, convent, an orphans’ hospice and a school for destitute girls. The charitable institution – supported by the noble families of Naples – had a long life which stretched to the mid-20th- century.
As of the 16th-century, registers were kept noting the day and time of arrival of the infant – each one considered “e figlie r’a Maronna ” (Neapolitan dialect for “il figlio della Madonna,” i.e.,”a child of the Madonna”) – placed in the ruota, as well as a description of the child and any particular details to note, i.e., clothes, notes left by mothers, small gifts – at times – accompanying the child by hopeful mothers desiring one day to return for their child.
Near the wheel was a fissure in the wall where the abandoning mother could slip in offerings for assistance in the care of the child, documents perhaps, or small jewels or other signs of recognition that might be of help in the future. Sometimes, a little packet would be around the neck of the baby containing un santino (“a little saint,” i.e., a holy card), a medal, a rosary cut in two – or a fragment of coral (for good luck). Sometimes, other minuscule objects cut in two would be left, the other half kept by the mother with hopes some day of a reunion with the child.
When the ruota turned, a bell rang and members of the community – always present in the room inside – received the infant, immediately administering the first care. The first foundling registered (in 1623) was given the surname “Degli Esposti” (“of the exposed”). “Esposito” would become another surname for abandoned foundlings as well as “Diotallevi” (“May God raise you”).
The name of another trovatello (literally, “the little found one,” i.e., foundling) is famous: “Gemito,” surname of Vincenzo Gemito, noted sculptor. Born in 1852 and abandoned by his parents who placed him in the ruota degli esposti of the Sant’Annunziata orphanage, he was originally given the surname of “Genito” – that is, generato (“generated” or “born”) – commonly linked to orphans. A transcription error later turned the “n” into an “m”.
Inside Santissima Annunziata, Roberta showed us a display of 19th-century photos of children in the orphanage, also telling us about Vincenzo Gemito, un figlio della Madonna………
whose sculptural works often depicted children, particularly gli scugnizzi (the Neapolitan clever, intrepid street children):
Many of the Gremito masterpieces are on display in the Palazzo Zevallos of Naples:
Nearby was the aperture of la ruota in the chestnut wood cupboard, where each abandoned infant had been tenderly lifted out by one belonging to the Congregazione.
Roberta also showed us the nearby marble fountain where each trovatello was immediately washed and then baptized:
The Angevin church was razed in the early 16th-century and a larger church was built though little survives of that church, destroyed by fire in the mid-18th-century.
The next construction – late Baroque with a concave facade –
… was designed by famed architect, Luigi Vanvitelli,….
….best known for the splendid royal palace of Caserta, la Reggia:
As he was fully involved with construction of the Caserta Reggia, his son, Carlo Vanvitelli completed the work on the Naples Angevin church, consecrated in 1774.
The nave of the sober gray and white basilica is bordered with paired Corinthian columns under an unbroken entablature which sustain the coffered barrel-vault ceiling.
So that the liturgy could be celebrated during the work on reconstruction of the church, the Vanvitellis built an underground church – il succorpo (literally, “under the body,” i.e., the main body of the church) – below the nave in correspondence with the cupola:
Mille grazie, Roberta and Adriano, for sharing with us “undiscovered Naples” treasures.
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