The Sansevero Chapel

  • dettaglio pavimento Cappella Sansevero

    IT ALL

    The origins of the Sansevero Chapel are closely connected to a legendary incident. Cesare d’Engenio Caracciolo tells in his Sacred Naples of 1623 that, in around 1590, an innocent man who was being led to prison in chains passed before the garden of the di Sangro palace in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, and saw a part of the garden wall collapse and an image of the Madonna appear. He promised the Virgin Mary to offer her a silver lamp and a dedication if only his innocence might be recognised. Once released, the man was faithful to his vow. The sacred image thus became a place of pilgrimage and prayer, and many other graces were received there.

  • vista interna Cappella Sansevero

    The votive temple

    Shortly afterwards, the Duke of Torremaggiore, Giovan Francesco di Sangro, seriously ill, turned to the Madonna to plead for his recovery. Miraculously cured, he erected in thanksgiving a “small chapel” called Santa Maria della Pietà or Pietatella in the place where the venerable image had first appeared (still visible above the High Altar). However, it was the son of Giovan Francesco, Alessandro di Sangro, Patriarch of Alexandria, who, in the early years of the seventeenth century began the enormous task transforming and enlarging it, changing the original votive chapel into a true votive mausoleum to house the tombs of his ancestors and future family members.

    Alessandro di Sangro, Patriarch of Alexandria built this temple, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, as a tomb for himself and for his family in the year of Our Lord 1613

    Inscription over the main entrance of the complex
  • Educazione-monumento paolo di Sangro VI principe di Sansevero - Dominio di se stessi

    The treasure chest
    of Raimondo's dream

    From the seventeenth-century period of the still largely unchanged Sansevero Chapel remain only the outline and the general architecture of the building, together with the polychrome decoration of the apse. There are still four large tombs in the side chapels, while others, once known to have been there, have since been removed. The current layout of the Chapel and almost all the works in it, in fact, were the work of Raimondo di Sangro, seventh Prince of Sansevero, who began reconstructing and reordering the Chapel according to completely new and personal criteria.

    Although many details of the seventeenth-century family Chapel are now lost to us, it is certain that even then it must have been an artistic treasure-trove. One of the many pieces of evidence to this effect is the Guide to Naples by Pompeo Sarnelli (1685), who defined the di Sangro Chapel as “impressively embellished with works in the finest marble, around which are placed the statues of many worthy members of the family together with their eulogies”. What survives of the seventeenth-century works substantially confirms this impression, even if the magnificence of the eighteenth-century work completely overshadows the works predating Raimondo di Sangro’s patronage.

    From the very beginning the Chapel has been surrounded by an aura of legend. The story as told by d’Engenio Caracciolo has certainly been embellished with imaginary details, but it still makes a certain impression. The role Alessandro di Sangro played in the construction of the Sansevero Chapel is further confirmed – not only by various archive accounts – but also by an inscription over the main entrance of the complex, which reads: “Alessandro di Sangro, Patriarch of Alexandria built this temple, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, as a tomb for himself and for his family in the year of Our Lord 1613”.

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    The seventeenth-century layout of the Chapel remained unchanged until the seventeen-forties, when Raimondo di Sangro, seventh Prince of Sansevero set to work enlarging and enriching the temple. A period of great fervour followed, as he poured into it energy and wealth, working with zeal and skill, calling on renowned painters and sculptors, personally supervising the work, choosing and sometimes creating the materials himself. His idea was to build a majestic temple, worthy of the greatness of the household, enriching it with the finest works of art without changing the original structure, attempting to find the best position for the pre-existing tombs in the new layout. This is how works such as the Glory of Heaven, Modesty and the other statues of the Virtues, as well as the Veiled Christ came into being.

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    A generous and
    exacting patron

    His complex personality, cosmopolitan culture, ingenious invention, his studies in science and alchemy, his Masonic militancy and deep-rooted sense of history made Raimondo di Sangro a generous, but exacting patron. Each individual work, in fact, had to play a unique role in the overall iconographic design that he had conceived, and which the artists themselves were probably unaware of. It is for this reason that in the Sansevero Chapel, more than in any other complex, there is the sense of patronage, which, sometimes overwhelming the individual artistic presence, dominates and exudes energy, coherence, and a sense of awe, and lends a European flavour to the whole complex.

    The Prince of Sansevero largely maintained the simple architectural structure of the seventeenth-century edifice. The Chapel has a single longitudinal nave with four rounded arches per side; the cornice, constructed using a mastic invented by di Sangro, runs the length of the whole perimeter above the arches. The barrel vault is interrupted by six deep-set windows that light up the whole Chapel. At the top of the apse, the visitor can admire the illusion of a small cupola painted on the ceiling.

  • dettaglio Pavimento labirintico

    The history of
    the chapel floor

    By 1901, the Neapolitan tiling floor had been completed, featuring a striking yellow and blue enamel recalling the di Sangro family’s coat of arms. The beautiful eighteenth-century floor, with its enigmatic labyrinth motif, constructed using a system also invented by the Prince, was destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century. It is still possible to see a sample in the walkway in front of the tomb of Raimondo di Sangro. From there a stair-case on the left leads to the Underground Chamber which the Prince designed but did not live to see finished.

    Lastly, on the side door, dating back to the eighteenth century, there is a long and eloquent inscription:

    Whoever you are, traveller, townsman, countryman or foreigner, enter and piously pay homage to this prodigious ancient work: this noble family chapel, long since consecrated to the Virgin and greatly enlarged by the illustrious Prince of Sansevero, Don Raimondo di Sangro, to the glory of his forefathers and to immortally preserve his ashes and those of his family, in the year 1767. Observe with attentive eyes and veneration the urns of the heroes endowed with glory and contemplate with wonder this precious homage to the Divine work and the tombs of the departed, and when you have profoundly honoured them, reflect and go your way.