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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Oct 2005
Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori (Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows)
Most churches in Naples that catch your eye do so by virtue of size or splendour—the Cathedral of Naples or the Church of San Francesco di Paola, to name two obvious examples.
A few churches, however, are noteworthy simply from their location. If you stand anywhere along the considerable length of the street known as Spaccanapoli, that arrow-straight road through the old historic center of the city—go ahead, stand as far east as you can go, past via Duomo, and turn back and look west—you will see an itsy-bitsy piece of white that seems to anchor the road you are standing on, pinning it fast at a point about half-way up the side of the Vomero hill. That is the Church of Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori (Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows). If you set out to walk to that church from the western end of "Spaccanapoli" (in reality, an extension of the old lower decumanus of Greco-Roman Naples), you will march off 1128 paces—if your legs are exactly the same length as the poor flunky drudge who had to measure it in the Middle Ages. ("Sire, I calls it 500 fathoms, give or take a cubit. C'mon—walk way up there?")
There was a smaller chapel on the spot in the 1400s, but the present building goes back to a newer church completed in 1583. Historically, the church had its moment of prominence in 1850 when Pius IX personally crowned the statue of the Madonna and promoted the church to the status of "Basilica". Culturally, it had a grand episode, as well: in 1707, the Blessed Virgin of the Seven Sorrows was added to the list of the many patron saints of the city, and a tradition was begun of a yearly festival held in September. The festival of 1736 was marked by a musical composition by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi—his Stabat Mater, composed especially for the occasion. It is the last work he left us from his tragically brief life, and the work remains to this day one of the most remarkable pieces in the repertoire of sacred music.
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