Alongside the “cultured myth” of Raimondo di Sangro, over the centuries a multitude of legends on the Sansevero Chapel and its original patron have sprung up. The noisy underground workshops of Palazzo Sansevero, which never fall silent even at night, and gave off mysterious light, the sensational inventions they produced, amazing those who observed them, must have ignited the fervid popular imagination of the Neapolitans, and especially those who lived in the narrow alleyways of the ancient city centre.
The words of Salvatore Di Giacomo splendidly recreate the atmosphere which stimulated the imagination of passers by in the eighteenth century. “Stray Flames, infernal light – the people said – moved behind the enormous windows which look from the ground floor onto Vico Sansevero […]. The flames would disappear, darkening once more, and there, dull, prolonged sounds could be heard inside the building. From time to time, in the silence of the night, what sounded like the clank of an anvil being struck with a heavy hammer could be heard, or the paving stones of the alleyway would shake as if at the arrival of some huge invisible carriage”. Thus, Benedetto Croce recalls how, “for the poor people from the streets near the di Sangro Chapel”, the Prince of Sansevero was “the Neapolitan incarnation of Dr Faustus […] who made a pact with the devil, and almost became a devil himself, to master the most secret mysteries of nature”.
Here are a number of the misdeeds and wonders which, according to the so-called “black legend”, the Prince of Sansevero is supposed to have performed. “He had two of his servants killed” to “strangely embalm their bodies” (the reference is to the Anatomical Machines). “He killed […] no fewer than seven cardinals” to obtain from their bones and from their skin seven chairs. He blinded Giuseppe Sanmartino, creator of the Veiled Christ, so he could “never more produce so extraordinary a sculpture for anyone else”. “He reduced marble and metals to dust” and “went to sea in his carriage and horses […] without wetting the wheels”. About Sanmartino’s masterpiece, then, arose what is presumably the most widespread and unshakeable of the legends, according to which the Prince is said to have “marblised” the veil of the Christ using a an alchemic procedure.
Another fantastic story regards the circumstances of the death of the Prince of Sansevero, who, for Neapolitans, is the “Prince” by definition. Croce, once again, tells the story. “When he felt that death was not far away, he arranged his resurrection, and had himself cut to bits by a black slave, and the pieces put in a chest, from which he would leap out in complete health at the appointed time. But the family […] looked for the chest, and opened it before time, while the parts of the body were still in the process of joining up, and the Prince, as if woken from sleep, tried to get up, but fell back immediately, with the scream of a damned man”.
These and many other legends are still being told, and new ones continue to be born. It is enough to listen to visitors to the Sansevero Chapel to hear the most bizarre stories about Raimondo di Sangro and the works he commissioned, and it is not rare to find passers-by making the sign of the cross in front of the Palazzo Sansevero to ward off the evil spells of the feared and “diabolical” Prince. There are even those who tell stories of “close encounters” with the spirit of Raimondo di Sangro. It is also thanks to these curious stories that in Naples survives – distorted, but solid – the memory of the Prince of Sansevero.