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main index   © Jeff Matthews  entry March 2011

Everything is related to Naples
Number 144 in this series. Link to all items here.


Johann Sebastian Bach!


I've just listened to BWV 655 (one of the Leipzig Chorales entitled Herr Jesu Christ, Dich zu uns wend [Lord Jesus Christ, Turn Unto Us]). (BWV stands for Bachwerkverzeichnis [Bach Works Catalog], not a catalog of Johann's many children, as you may plausibly think, but a chronological listing of his equally prolific musical output.) I can't judge the claim that #655 contains fragments of melody recently found chiseled into the stone facade of the church of Gesù Nuovo in Naples, originally constructed as the Palazzo Sanseverino in the 15th century. That notation is currently being transcribed and prepared for presentation, but it may take a while to actually hear the results. Forget the Enigma machine and Navajo Code Talkers! These Neapolitan stone masons were using esoteric Aramaic musical notation. National Security Agency, eat your hearts out!

The Palazzo Sanseverino is now the church of Gesù Nuovo (photo, right). It has an ashlar facade; that is, the surface is not flat but is built of hewn stone blocks that protrude. The surfaces are smooth and suggest thousands of small pyramids sticking out over the entire facade. Careful examination reveals markings on many of the stones (such as the one in the photo, top right). They were put there by the original masons in the late 1400s when the building was put up as a private dwelling for the powerful Sanseverino family. The markings have been the subject of countless interpretations over the centuries. Did they identify the quarry where a particular block was cut? Or perhaps identify a particular mason? Was there—and this one is very popular—an occult meaning to them, something that has since been lost to us?

No, none of that, although the last one comes attractively close. Local musicologists and art historians have decided over the last five years that the symbols are letters in the Aramaic language (the language spoken by Jesus and once the lingua franca of the Middle East). There are seven symbols, each symbol representing a musical note. When viewed in the proper sequence, they produce a particular Gregorian chant. That is not as weird as it might sound, since the Sanseverino family, indeed, had similar "facade music" chiseled into some of their other residences in southern Italy. The music sleuths who did the work are working on a transcription of the piece for organ with the idea of presenting it in the church, itself.

Chief sleuth in all this is Vincenzo de Pasquale, a local art historian and music buff. He went on a rampage of research to track down the origins of the symbols inscribed on the facade. His digging led him from the archives of the Bank of Naples to a 1742 edition of Vite dei Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Napoletani [Lives of Neapolitan Painters, Sculptors and Architects] by Bernardo De Dominici and then all the way to Eger in Hungary where he came across a volume from the late 1800s called Sanseverino Palota [the Sanseverino Building] by one Laszlo Molnar. [Don't bother to look. There are many Laszlo Molnars in Hungary. One was a middleweight boxer in the early 1900s; another was a prominent Hungarian fighter pilot, flying for the Axis in WWII when he was shot down. This Laslo Molnar is probably another one.]

The architect of the original Palazzo Sanseverino is identified as Novello da San Lucano, who might have remained unknown if not for this research. He is also mentioned as having to do with the restoration of the church of San Domenico Maggiore. Sources say that he was also a musician; indeed, the Hungarian book contains a number of Gregorian chants, some of which are by the architect, da San Lucano, including the one on the facade of our Neapolitan church. The book also mentions the peculiar fact of the musical notation, itself, being engraved into the stone—not unique, perhaps, but it was unusual. If we ever get a chance to hear this thing, and if the Bach connection holds, then the mechanism for such transfer of music from one place to another in Europe in centuries past would presumably have been the great amount of music manuscript exchange that went on from church to church and monastery to monastery throughout Europe.

Incidentally the Naples/Hungary connection is not far fetched. During Angevin rule in the 1300s and early 1400s) male monarchs were often titular kings of Hungary. It is plausible that Neapolitan and Hungarian churches were swapping their versions of the Top Ten.

And what of the rumor that Johann Sebastian Bach, himself, showed up in Naples in the 1740s cleverly disguised as a construction worker and was seen sitting on high wooden scaffolding in front of the facade of the church of Gesù Nuovo frantically taking notes?! (That one may be just a rumor.) Finally, we note with investigative zeal that the first four notes of 'O sole mio bear an uncanny resemblance to Grieg's Piano Concerto no. 1.


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