The Lavish Price of
San Gennaro’s necklace (1679-1933). Photo © Matteo D’Eletto
The miter of the city of Naples’ patron saint, currently on show in the exhibition “The Treasure of San Gennaro” at the Musée Maillol in Paris, looks for all the world like an extravagant pizza, with rubies and emeralds like diced tomatoes and green peppers sprinkled on a field of gold, the color of baked mozzarella.
The exhibition consists of some 90 pieces from the treasure (which belongs to the people of Naples, not the Catholic Church), being shown for the first time ever outside Italy. Except for the five most valuable pieces, which are kept under lock and key in the vaults of the Banco di Napoli, the treasure’s still-growing trove of 21,000 objects offered to the saint over the past 700 years is usually housed in the Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro, a museum opened 10 years ago next to the Naples Cathedral.
The tradition of giving to San Gennaro begin in 1527 when Naples was suffering from a triple whammy: war, pestilence and an eruption of Vesuvius. In a notarized contract, the city leaders promised the long-dead bishop Januarius (Gennaro) of Benevento – martyred by Emperor Diocletian in 305 – 11,000 ducats to build and furnish a chapel for his relics in return for his protection from the bubonic plague.
The veneration of San Gennaro is deeply embedded in Neapolitan culture. When, three times a year, his dried blood (collected, it is believed, from his severed head) miraculously liquefies in its glass phials, the whole city erupts in a frenzy of rejoicing. When it doesn’t – a sign of saintly displeasure and imminent catastrophe – a pistol put to the head of the officiating priest has been known to do the trick.
The Naples museum’s founding director, Paolo Jorio, proudly compares these masterpieces of Neapolitan Baroque craftsmanship to the British crown jewels. For pure opulence, certainly, they are hard to beat.
The gilded silver miter in particular, commissioned in 1713 from the master goldsmith Matteo Treglia and studded with 198 Colombian emeralds, 168 rubies and 3,326 diamonds, is fashioned with a skill that rivals
Miter by Matteo Treglia (1713). Photo © Matteo D’Elettothe work of Benvenuto Cellini, at least to Neapolitan eyes, though some of the emeralds look rather the worse for wear.
Another highlight is a stunning pectoral necklace (pictured above) adorned with gems donated by the aristocracy and crowned heads of Europe from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. It offers a tangible visual history of the fluctuating fortunes and successive political allegiances of what over the centuries was one of Europe’s wealthiest and most populous cities.
The exhibition begins on the ground floor with a scene-setting film of the most recent eruption of Vesuvius, in 1944. Vesuvius is a palpable reminder of the threat of death that constantly
“Forte del Carmine and Borgo Loreto” (18th century), by Antonio Joli. © courtesy of Fototeca Soprintendenze Speciale PSAE and the Polo Museale della Città di Napoli.
hangs over the people of Naples, which helps to explain the city’s intensive veneration of San Gennaro and its perceived need of his protection. The film is accompanied by paintings of Naples with Vesuvius looming in the background by Antonio Joli and Pierre-Jacques Volaire, a French artist who lived in Naples for 30 years from 1768, earning a comfortable living painting souvenir pictures of Vesuvian eruptions for visitors on the Grand Tour.
This introduction leads into the main exhibition space, where 15 monumental busts in silver and gold reign over a recreation of the San Gennaro Chapel in Naples Cathedral.
The bust of Saint Irene, another protector of the city, depicts her warding off lightning bolts with her right hand while her left hand cradles an exquisitely worked model of 18th-century
“Bust of Saint Irene” (1733), by Carlo Schisano. Photo © Matteo D’ElettoNaples, with the main landmarks of the city clearly visible, held aloft by a gilded putto. An exemplary piece of Neapolitan Baroque art, it was made in 1733 by the goldsmith Carlo Schisano. Saint Emidius, two years later, is shown guarding the city against earthquakes.
A dramatic silver and gilded bronze rendering of the winged Archangel Saint Michael dates from 1691. Brandishing a sword, he stands on the chained dragon, the embodiment of evil, cringing at his feet. Representations of other saints, among them Patricia, Nicolas, John the Baptist, Theresa of Avila, all finely crafted and adorned with jeweled brooches, illustrate the progression of Baroque style from early simplicity to florid roccoco.
After World War II, during which the treasure went into hiding somewhere near Rome, it miraculously reappeared, nobody quite knows how. Perhaps the protector of Naples had his own protector.
Musée Maillol: 61, rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris. Métro: Rue de Bac. Tel.: 01 42 22 59 58. Open daily, 10:30am-7pm (until 9:30pm on Monday and Friday). Admission: €13. Through July 20, 2014. www.museemaillol.com
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