The citadel of Santa Chiara with its Church and the Monastery were among the first religious monuments built up in Naples. The construction dates back to 1310, during the time of Robert d’Anjou and his second wife, Sancia di Maiorca.
The church and the impressive dome were built in the Provencal gothic style. That’s why it looks like a fortress. The Francescan citadel was made by building two monasteries. One was for the enclosed nuns and the other one for the Francescan Friars Minor. This particular concession was stipulated in 1317, because of the very good relations between the Angiovin Monarchy and Pope Clemente V. Between 1328 and 1333 Giotto was in Naples, as well, and he painted the Francescan church with frescos representing the Apocalypse and tales fom the Old and the New Testament. Unfortunately, there are only some portions left in the Choir and they represent the Cross. The monastery finished to be built in 1340 and in the same year the Church was consecrated.
In 1343 Pacio and Giovanni Bertini sculpted one the masterpieces of 14th-century Italian sculpture: it is Roberto D’Angio’s tomb, visible at the end of the Basilica.
Until the 1700 the monastery looked like a gothic construction. During the years 1740/1769 there was a restyling. The church, in fact, turned into a sumptuous Baroque building. Indeed, Vaccaro – one of the Neapolitan interpreters of Baroque able to skip from painting to architecture to sculpture -- began the transformation of the nun’s cloister into what it is today. It is characterized by broad paths with octagonal pillars and majolica seats. The tiles -- coloured blue, green, and yellow -- seem to open a window onto the old Naples and its kingdom. It is also a unicum, because of the baroque coloured building dialogues with the green and the yellow of its park and the lemon trees, the blue of the sky. That’s why the cloister is so well known all over the world.
In 1924 the number of nuns was decreasing and that’s why the friars and nuns changed spaces. One other important moment of its history is World War II. During the Allies’ bombardments, on August 4, 1943, some bombs fell on the Santa Chiara Church, burning all the baroque wooden materials. The reconstruction lasted 10 years and it was reopened on the August 4 1953, in its gothic style.
Between 1986 and 2001 the cloister was restored. On May 27, 1995 the museum was opened. Inside its rooms there are various archaeological artifacts that tell about the history of Naples, from the Roman Empire to the 1800s. Some reliquaries are exhibited, and they are very valuable pieces, as are the Fregio di Santa Caterina by Bertini brothers and the Ecce Homo by Giovanni di Nola, the most important Neapolitan sculptors of the 16th century. On December 15, 1998 an agreement was stipulated by Minister of Interior in conjunction with Churches’ Fund in order to identify the one single monumental area named Santa Chiara Museum. Through this agreement the path has been enlarged with the possibility to visit the Cloister and the Nativity Room.
The Basilica The Santa Chiara Angevin church, built by Gagliardo Primario, with its huge mass made of yellow tuff stone, characterizes Naples’ center. The gothic white façade with its triangular tympanum and the central rose window are introduced by a narthex with three oval archs made of tuff taken from the caves of Vesuvius. On both sides, two strong counterforts underline the fortress aspect. The interior of the church is composed of a longitudinal nave with 10 chapels per side. It is also interesting to look at the ceiling, composed of wooden material instead of the typical groin vault, to underline the simplicity and austerity of the building.
The backside of the church is composed of three nave choirs. It was made by Leonardo Di Vito. Also, there are tracks of a fresco representing the Crucifixion painted by Giotto.
Santa Chiara’s presbiterium is characterized by the presence of two sepulchral monuments of a great artistic value made by Tino di Camaino and by the Bertini brothers.
Tino di Camaino built, between 1333 and 1338, Maria di Valois’ tomb. She was the Duke of Calabria’s second wife. The Bertini Brothers carved the monumental tomb of Roberto D’Angio’ in the back of the presbiterium.
The Majolica Tiled cloister The architecture of the cloister connects to the Baroque’s conception of surprise and emotion for the viewer. The idea is shown both with scenographic aspects- through the sequence of octagonal pillars that lead the view of the onlooker- and with the capacity of the complex to blend into the environment. Requested by Queen Maria Amalia di Sassonia, wife of Carlo III di Borbone, it was built in 1740. The works were entrusted to Antonio Domenico Vaccaro, who was able to skip from painting to sculpture to architecture. The realization of the tiles -“riggiole” - was left to Donato and Giuseppe Massa, owner of an old craft tradition that started up in the Middle Ages and increased during Alfonso D’Aragona’s reign. It is intresting to notice that the Neapolitan word riggiola comes from the Catalan term rajola, and it was used to describe the little tile placed over the main entrance in the building. The word maiolica, comes also from the island of Maiorca (Spain), where there was a huge production of ceramics. Santa Chiara tiles recall the colours in the surrounding environment. Blue for the sky, green for the park, and yellow for the lemon fruits.
The harmony with the garden is also underlined by the decoration on the 64 octagonal pillars, representing the vine-shoots, oranges, lemons, and other fruits like bananas and figs. Thus is created a liasion between the real and the unreal world. This effect was much stronger in the past, when there was a wooden structure placed on the top of the pillars, painted as well. It was lost in the 1800s. The different coloured tiles make the representation more vivid, distinguishing them from the famous portoguese azulejos and the German production, which has colder colours. The drawn scenes on the seats and along the path in the garden make the spectator very curious about their profane character, but this aspect is related to the enclosed life. All of them, infact, represented what happened outside the monastery. What is represented belonged to rural life and is connected to haunting scenes. In other parts we have mythological episodes and art comedy masks. In the central part there are relaxing and playful images. All of them represent the idea of a very easygoing life in the Neapolitan kingdom, and the 18th century arcadian ideal.
The Frescoes in the Cloister The walls are totally covered by a cycle of frescoes realized in the first half of 1600 by an unknown artist influenced by Bellisario Corenzio’s style. This artist evidently came from Greece and had a very strong influence on the Neapolitan artistic context. The decoration along the walls is shared in three different parts. In the southern section, because of the presence of three big Gothic monopheres, the frescos are divided in two sequences.
The section is different from the other ones also for the iconographic choice; saints on the bottom, allegories and virtues on the top. On the other three walls all the images represent scenes from the Old Testament, with the only exception being the frame on the northern side that shows “The death of a nun”, realized while the cemetery of the Clarisse Order was being built.
The Museo dell’Opera The Museo dell Opera is a way to think about the past of Naples, from the Greek and Roman period up to the last Century. The rooms for the expositions are located in the western part of the Cloister, among spaces built on Roman ruins and rediscovered after World War II. Some of the materials date back before the big fire caused by the bombings in 1943 that destroyed the baroque covering structures. The museum is composed of four rooms and allows access to the Archaeological Area.
The Archaeological Room
This room hosts all the materials discovered during the excavations. The presence of a lead pipe is interesting also because it was used to get water from Serino’s aqueduct, built during Augustus’ period. There is also a portion of the old Roman bath. From the archaelogical room is possible to get to the outdoor Archaelogical Area and to the History Room.
The History Room This room shows the historic and artistic changes of the Basilica, in connection with the Cloister and the Monastery. There is a collection of objects coming from the Francescan Citadel: in particular, Roberto d Angio’ and Sancia di Maiorca marble busts and Peace, a 16th-century valuable handicraft representing the Visitation, and the Revolving door.
The Marble Room The exposed pieces help in following the cultural development of Naples between 1300 and 1800. Most of the findings decorated Santa Chiara Church until the bombings in 1943. There is also theFregio delle Storie di Santa Caterina bas-relief, mostly destroyed by the fire after the bombs.
Along the pillars there is a sequence of friezes that in the past embellished the balconiess’ balaustrade located for each cell. Thus, each cell has a different frieze representing a coat of arms (because the Royal Monastery hosted upper-class girls) and religious scenes.
The Reliquary Room
The museum ends with the Reliquary room. This space displays very valuable reliquaries and holy vestments and almost-natural wooden sculptures natural scaled to a nativity. The refined wooden bust presenting Ecce Homo was made by Giovanni da Nola.
The Archaeological Area
The Archaeological Area let the visitors visit the structure of an ancient thermal complex that dates back to the 1st Century. It is an important building both because of the huge covered area and for its articulated planimetry. The thermal buildings host a Laconicum – a space dedicated to hot water baths. On both sides there were two Tepidaria, spaces for warm water baths and there was a Frigidarium also, for cold water baths, as well as the changing rooms (Apodyterium) and a swimming pool (Natatio).
The Neapolitan Nativity - The Nativity Room
This nativity belongs to a collection of nativities, made in Naples during the reign of Ferdinando IV di Borbone. The king, in fact, was a collector of nativities and hired the most important sculptors. Among them was Giuseppe Sanmartino, who carved the Veiled Christ, a masterpiece of Medieval Italian sculpture.
The particularity of the Neapolitan nativities is given by the enlargement of the scene. The holy family is placed in a very joyful environment that represents the ancient Naples, with its architecture, its people, its traditions. Admiring the nativity is like touring around Naples in the 1700s, among the craftsmen, farmers, and street vendors. Added to this spectacle there are the Magi, dressed in Oriental style as Moors, already present in the city at that time. What must be noticed is that special attention given by the craftsmen to reproducing the dresses, using the same textiles available at that time. The contemporary reality was reflected in the dressing distinctions among the most important characters. Their dresses were made by using gold threads sometimes. The popular figures were represented in their expressionistic realism, with pitiless depiction. This realism is connected to Neapolitan painting of the 17th century and to the bambocciade in the 18th century. On the other hand, and very distinguished indeed, we have the Saints and the Angels, characterized by a very high-level and delicate execution, as we can see from their clothes in cold colours, like the blue, the yellow and the white. The figures were made by using an iron support. The head was made with earthenware, but the legs and arms with wood, in order to set different gestures.
Greater value figures are enriched by little particularities, with a special treatment. An example is given by the eyes, made of glass and placed only after the baking of the earthenware. It is also interesting to notice that the scene is not set in a manger, but inside of a Roman ruin. This aspect underlines, on one hand, the triumph of Christianity over paganism and, on the other, the new interest surrounding the discovery of Herculaneum.