The Basilica di Santa Chiara in Naples is a regal church…..– and not only for its elegance but for the purpose of its construction: to house the bodies of the royal descendants of the Angiovin king, Roberto I, called “il Saggio” (“the Wise”). The Angiovin coat-of-arms incised in marble greets the visitor walking up the main nave:In the early 14th-century, Roberto became king after his brother, Saint Louis of Toulouse, Franciscan saint, renounced the throne to enter the religious life.
The brothers are depicted in the most famous work surviving from the Angiovin court of Naples, housed in the city’s Museo di Capodimonte: a ten-foot tall altarpiece by Simone Martini (1317-1319):Saint Louis wears a silver miter, richly-decorated gloves and cape and holds a gold crozier indicating his status as Bishop of Toulouse.
Under his magnificent ecclesiastical garb, he wears the rough wool habit of a Franciscan monk, sign of poverty. The tunic shows that Louis’s ambition to come a Franciscan was successful for the young prince professed his vows just days before his ordination as Bishop of Toulouse in 1296.
And in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, in fact, Simone Martini depicted St. Louis of Toulouse next to San Francesco in an early 14th-century fresco:
The main panel of the Naples Simone Martini masterpiece depicts a double coronation: a pair of angels hold an elegant crown above Saint Louis’s head while the Saint holds a similar crown over his brother’s head as Robert kneels in submission to his right.
The portrait of King Roberto I is the first ever done in Italy of a living personage, painted by Simone Martini when the king – who died in 1343 – was about 40 years old.
This royal panel preserves a fascinating history of that dynastic succession so important to the history fourteenth-century southern Italy – and so inextricably linked to the Basilica di Santa Chiara
In 1310, Roberto I Il Saggio and his second wife, the very devout Sancia di Majorca (who had hoped to enter the order of the cloistered Poor Clares),…
…decided to erect a basilica just outside of Naples’ medieval walls, with an adjacent Franciscan monastery as well as a convent, thus creating a veritable monumental citadel.
The church was initially dedicated to il Sacro Corpo di Cristo (“the Sacred Body of Christ”) or also called “Dell’Ostia Santa” (“of the Sacred Host”) inspired by the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena in 1263.
The church opened for veneration by the faithful in 1336.
The tomb of Roberto I il Saggio takes center stage in the church he commissioned, taking pride of place just behind the altar; in fact, an unusual feature of the building is the lack of an apse.
Side chapels flank the high altar backed by the King’s tomb, sculpted by the Florentine brothers and architects, Giovanni e Pacio Bertini, in the mid-14th-century….
…who placed a solemn and seated Roberto I il Saggio above his tomb:
A sculpted crucifix – probably of the Sienese school – hangs in front of the tomb:
Work had started in 1310, concluding in 1328 under direction of napoletano architect Gagliardo Primario who created the largest Gothic church in Naples and one of the most impressive Angiovin monastic buildings in the city.
The Santa Chiara monumental citadel includes four grandiose cloisters….
..as well as subterranean archaeological excavations, for this had probably been the site of Roman baths:
Even before it was completed, the church housed venerated relics including those of Saint Louis of Toulouse, elder brother of King Roberto I. One was the brain of St. Louis in an elegant, ornate reliquary adorned with a crown, donated by Queen Sancia in honor of her brother-in-law.
The rulers of the Angiovin dynasty as well as the most important dignitaries of court were buried in the Basilica and subsequently the Bourbon rulers also. For more than four centuries, the complex of Sant Chiara remained as the Angiovins had conceived it.
In the mid-18th-century, architects Ferdinando Sanfelice and Domenico Vaccaro with a group of decorators and architects were commissioned to add Baroque embellishments, thus “modernizing” the architecture of one of Naples most important churches.
At this time, Naples was the most important and economically advanced city in Italy, four times bigger than Rome and twice as big as Milan, larger than New York and Tokyo.
On August 4, 1943, Allied bombs devastated the church, with fires raging for two days.
After ten years of painstaking restoration which returned Santa Chiara to its medieval aspect, the church re-opened in 1953:
Fortunately, the World War II devastation had spared some of the elegant medieval tombs located in the various side chapels; others were damaged but skillfully restored.
An esteemed unknown sculptor – known simply as “il Maestro Durazzesco” – carved an unknown noblewoman, dressed in a nun’s habit on the lid of her sarcophagus, with St. Francis, the Madonna col Bambino and St. Clare sculpted in low relief on the facade of the tomb. Coats-of-arms – perhaps of her noble family? – flank the Franciscan saints:
This anonymous sculptor’s name – Maestro Durazzesco (“Durazzo-like master”) – is linked to one of his major sculptural works, also in the Basilica di Santa Chiara: the tomb of Maria di Durazzo, granddaughter of King Roberto I:
Twisting columns sustain the baldacchino over the deceased, angels holding open the curtain flanking her. The relief sculpted below the deceased depicts the Madonna with Child in the center, flanked by saints: St. Paul, St. Catherine of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, and St. Peter.
This tomb of King Robert’s granddaughter Maria di Durazzo is to the left of his own tomb in the church’s presbytery:
Dating from the 14th to 17th-centuries, eighteen tombs of Neapolitan royalty and nobility – as well as the tombs of many who served them – are sculptured centerpieces in the 20 side chapels of Santa Chiara.
As you enter Santa Chiara, in fact, a regal tomb of two princesses is on your right while the tomb of an assistant to royalty, a king’s secretary, is on your left.
The tomb of two Angiovin princesses, Agnese and Clemenza – daughters of Maria di Durazzo and Carlo, Duca di Durazzo (Albania now) as well as Count of Gravina (Puglia) – was at one time in the presbytery next to the tomb of their mother but was placed here following the restoration of the Basilica post-World War II.Like caryatids, two statues representing Faith and Charity seem to lift up the sarcophagus.
Below the sisters – their bodies flanked by sculpted angels, drawing back drapery for better viewing of the deceased – the artist sculpted a relief of il Compianto sul Cristo Morto (“Lamentation of the Dead Christ”) on the facade of the sarcophagus:
On the church’s controfacciata (counter-facade) to the left as you enter – and opposite the tomb of the royal sisters – is the 15th-century sepulcher of Antonio Penna, a top administrative assistant to the Neapolitan sovereign, Ladislao d’Angio-Durazzo (1377 – 1414).
Sculpted in the early 15th-century by Antonio Baboccio da Piperno – also esteemed as a painter, architect, and goldsmith – the tomb was crowned with a baldacchino perched on sculpted columns over a fresco of the Trinity:
The funerary monument had been taken apart in the mid-17th-century and transformed into an altar.
At the same time, Antonio Penna’s tomb was moved to one of the church’s side chapels….
…and the sculpted lid once covering the sarcophagus holding the remains of Giovanni and Onofrio Penna was set into the wall to the right of the monument.
The garb of the deceased sculpted on the lid is appropriate to that of a royal administrative official:
In a nearby side chapel, the 14th-century tombs of Neapolitan noblemen, Drugo and Nicola de Merloto. were sculpted most probably by the Maestro Durazzesco.
On the tomb of Drugo Merloto – the last of the Neapolitan Templars who died in 1339 – the Virgin holds the Christ Child who blesses the reverently kneeling Templar knight, with saints on both sides of the group:
Below, a relief of St. Francis, Christ in blessing and St. Louis of Toulouse………..is sculpted above the deceased, dressed in knightly garb, hands crossed, his sword hanging at his side:
The tomb opposite is that of Nicolo Merloto, its facade sculpted with a low relief of the Madonna with Child flanked by St. Peter and St. Catherine of Alexandria on the left and St. Agnes and St. Paul to their right:
Even Merlotto’s faithful dog figures on the tomb, placed under his master’s feet, gazing pensively at his deceased master:
In this Basilica di Santa Chiara, yet another wistful dog is sculpted on the lid of another 14th-century tomb: that of the Cabano family. The deceased, Raimondo Cabano, rests his feet on his beloved pet:
Called “l’Etiope” (“the Ethiopian”), Cabano was a liberated black slave who became a knight in the court of Roberto I and then his steward – and one of the wealthiest landowners in the Kingdom of Naples. This humble slave had quickly earned respect and was an important figure in the Kingdom of Naples as were his sons. King Roberto I and his Queen Sancha mandated the burial of the Cabanos in this church.
Of the five knights buried in Santa Chiara, we know the most about Cabano thanks to the writings of Bocaccio (in Naples in the early 14thh-c) who included Cabano’s wife, Filippa la Catanese, in his writings
Certamente in this church dedicated to a Franciscan, Clare of Assisi, St. Francis himself figures. The Santo Poverello d’Assisi reigns in a side chapel dedicated to him. f the chapel:
A 17th-century statue of the Saint was transferred here at that time (from the Naples church of San Lorenzo) after the noble counts Del Balzo, very closely linked to the Angevin royalty obtained possession of the chapel:
(The chapel is still in possession of Dal Balzo heirs who sponsored its restoration in 2001).
Their chapel houses 14th-century Del Balzo tombs, sculpted by local maestri – perhaps the Maestro Durazzesco and followers, creators as we have seen of various tombs in the Basilica.
As you enter the chapel, note on the left the late 14th-century tomb of Count Raimondo Dal Balzo, faithful advisor to Giovanna, first queen of Naples (and granddaughter of King Roberto I):
In relief on his sarcophagus, the elderly Count Raimondo is surrounded by his vassals, young noble hunters paying tribute to the Count and bearing falcons:
Like caryatids, three virtues support the tomb:
The tomb of Raimondo Dal Balzo faces that of his third wife, Isabella Apia who died in 1375; her tomb is a mirror image of that of her husband though of a higher artistic standard.
Isabella is depicted as a solemn, severe matron holding a small dog and flanked most probably by women of her court:
The two regal tombs are surrounded by early 17th-century marble medallions depicting various components of the Dal Balzo noble lineage…
..and the family coat-of-arms incised in various colors of marble is set into the floor of the chapel:
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