Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry July 2010, update Aug 2011
The Church of Michele Arcangelo & the Sant' Alfonso Hill

There is some confusion about the terminology regarding one of the most picturesque churches in the Bay of Naples. On the slopes of Vesuvius just above the town of Torre del Greco is a small hill, visible from the entire bay. Upon that hill there perches a white church with an adjacent monastery; the facade of the church faces southwest and is stunning to behold at sunset. I have always called the church Sant'Alfonso because that is what I must have heard at one time or another. Wrong. The hill is called Sant'Alfonso. The church is San Michele Arcangelo, St. Michael the Archangel.

First, archaeology confirms that the hill was used by the Romans and, before them, the Greeks. The oldest documented name for the hill is Greek-Pandiera, "all sacred." The earliest Christian name is Monte San'Angelo, in use by the 5th century. There was for many centuries at least some sort of small Christian chapel on the hill. The earliest references to a house of worship dedicated to the Archangel Michael is from the 1400s. Also, in the early 1500s a small hospital was built to take in those with contagious diseases. In 1577 the Camaldolese religious order moved to the premises, and in 1602 a church and hermitage dedicated to Arcangelo Michele were dedicated. The hill, itself, then became known as Sant'Angelo ai Camaldoli, (not to be confused with the well-known Camaldoli monastery on the hill in back of Naples, itself). New buildings were begun in 1714; the old church was demolished, and the Baroque church that one sees today was started in 1741. It is in the form of a Latin cross and has two facades, one facing the sea and the other facing the monastic quarters.


With the French takeover of the kingdom of Naples in 1806, religious orders were suppressed and the Camaldolese were expelled from the premises. Interestingly, the town of Torre del Greco had the opportunity to buy the property at the time but did not do so; the town fathers apparently feared excommunication if they bought property from the anti-clerical minions of Napoleon. The property was returned to the Camaldolese in 1826, ten years after the return of the Bourbons to the throne of Naples. After the unification of Italy in 1861, the order was again dispossessed and the premises were put up for sale. There follows a string of private owners of the ex-monastery, some with little regard for the history of the property, as a result of which some works of art and even parts of the considerable monastery library dribbled away by hook or by crook.



In 1943, Maria Ursula von Stohrer, a German baroness bought the property. WWII was in progress, of course, and whatever optimistic illusions Frau Baronin might have had about the German army's ability to stay in Italy were dispelled in a matter of months. Her property saw a succession of German anti-aircraft installations and then invading Allied forces.*

T
he baroness sold the property to the Redemptorist Order in 1954. The order renamed the hill after the founder of their order, Alfonso Maria de' Liguori (1696-1787). (Also see this separate item.) The church of San Michele Arcangelo and monastic premises were restored to the point where they could be rededicated in 1959 on September 29, the feast day of St. Michael. Further restoration continued into the 1960s. There were some irate letters to the editor when the Redemptorists changed the name of the hill from Sant'Angelo to Sant'Alfonso. The name game has another wrinkle here: the church is named for San Michele Arcangelo, yes, but the name of the attached hermitage combines the old and new and is called "the monastery of Sant'Alfonso ai Camaldoli. In any event,
toponomastics is an old, old game in this area, and if we got irate every time they changed the name of a street, square, or even a hill, we wouldn't have time to worry about things that matter, such as that volcano right behind the hill.

Geologically, our bucolic knoll started life as its own little volcano, perhaps what is called a "parasite cone" of Mt. Vesuvius. That was in a past so remote as to be totally irrelevant to the Greeks, who knew Vesuvius as peaceful. Vesuvius was then so dull to the Romans that Pliny the Elder didn't even mention it in his list of volcanoes in Italy. It then erupted in 79 AD and killed him. Vesuvius has been active since then in an on-again off-again fashion. (Also see Recent Eruptions of Vesuvius.) Vesuvius had, indeed, been napping for a few centuries when the Camaldolesi decided to build on the Sant'Angelo hill in the late 1500s. Shortly thereafter, in December of 1631, Vesuvius roared into its current cycle of eruptions with a mammoth explosion. The main brunt of the explosion and subsequent pyroclastic flow, however, were apparently away from the church and hill. I have found no documentation of damage inflicted on the hill by that event or the half dozen or so lesser eruptions that followed in the next few decades, as frightful as those episodes must have been. The Camaldolese built a new church shortly thereafter. That must mean that the premises substantially survived, as they have survived the other eruptions since that time, indeed, as late as 1944. The hill survived
, no matter what it's called.


original note:

*I'm curious about a German woman who would buy property near Naples in 1943. I have nothing on her except that she was seen sporting a rare René Boivin "pagoda" headdress in 1941, was "renowned for her great taste and elegance," was a friend of Coco Chanel, and was married to Baron Eberhard von Stohrer, (d.1953) the German ambassador first to Franco's rebel court in Salamanca during the Spanish civil way and then to Madrid, itself, from 1939-1942. She acquired the property in the same year (1943) that her diplomat husband was recalled to Berlin and held onto it until a year after his death. There's probably a good story behind all this. Somebody please write me and tell me what it is!

update: August 2011

Aaaaah, thank you! Maria Ursula von Stohrer's name is better known in connection with another site in the Bay of Naples, the Castiglione Thermal Baths on the Island of Ischia. In the 1930s she and her husband visited Naples and she decided to acquire property. She decided on the ancient Castiglione site and bought it in 1936. After the war she returned to Ischia and dedicated the rest of her life to developing the property into a flourishing commercial enterprise. She passed away in 1988 on Ischia. (^)



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