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main index    © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb 2006

On the Trail of the Missing Music Conservatories
—a tale involving the world's worst etymology!


The last part first. Many years ago, I saw the name of the church named Pietà dei Turchini on via Medina in Naples. I let fall but a single powerful drop of my intellectual alkahest onto the problem of the origin of the name and —shazaam!— knew, just knew (!) the answer:

—fact: in the 1500s, Turkish pirates were raiding along the Campanian coast;

—fact: there is in Neapolitan dialect a cry for help, "Mamma, li turchi!" (roughly: "Help! Here come the Turks!"). It is still used humorously to express mock terror.

—factoid: "Turchini" is a plural diminutive of "turco"—a Turk, thus "little Turks";


The Church of Pietà dei Turchini

Conclusion (the chain of deduction takes my breath away):  the church was called "Pity of the Little Turks" and was so-called because many centuries ago there was a band of particularly vicious Turkish pirates—a sort of Ottoman Midget Special Forces—about to raid Naples, so the people built this house of worship to seek refuge, that is, pity.

I then found out that turchino is a color, a few angstroms away from "turquoise" and that the church is named for the color of the robes that the little altar boys wore. The kids were the "turchini". The church is named for altar boys. There. And if you prefer the true story to mine, I don't like you. (Having said all that, I have no explanation for the presence of a Turkish flag on the balcony adjacent to the church, photo, left. Someone has a strange sense of humor.)

That church is connected to what was once a very large monastery (long since converted to secular, municipal use) and was the site of one of the four historical music conservatories in Naples. As noted elsewhere in these pages, these institutions were consolidated into a single conservatory in the early 1800s. That is shakily accurate, but is a drab gloss of what went on behind the scenes, so I set out to find the actual old buildings, themselves, and see what I could dig up. (In Naples, "dig up" is not necessarily a metaphor.) Thus:

1.  That  Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini was built in 1583 and is the only one of the original four sites that is still easy to find. Indeed, the church is still prominent and open to the faithful. It stands on via Medina not far from the city hall. The church has a historical marker posted in front that explains its role as one of the original four. The name "conservatory" originally indicated a place that "conserved" orphans and young women. All of the institutions instructed their wards in music; thus was born the modern meaning of "music school."


2. The Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo was founded in 1589 by Marcello Fossataro, a Franciscan monk.
It was adjacent to the church of Santa Maria della Colonna (photo, right) on via dei Tribunale directly across the street from the mammoth white church of the Girolamini. Illustrious names connected with the school include the philosopher Giovan Battista Vico; a "maestro de [sic] grammatica"  from 1620 to 1627, according to the records. (My cockles really go into heat when I read that one of our cultural icons, indeed, paid his dues by pounding verb conjugations into numb little skulls. He made five carlini a month. In modern currency, that works out to, approximately, "not very much.") Musical luminaries at the conservatory included Francesco Durante, Niccoló Porpora, and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.

All monasteries and convents in Naples were closed by the French in the early 1800s (under the reign of Murat), and many were then re-closed at the unification of Italy later in the century. The Poveri di Gesù Cristo has a slightly different history. It was closed in 1743. According to some sources, the students staged a "revolt" against the rector, and the conservatory was simply shut down and the unruly students dispersed to the other three music schools. Thus, the Poveri di Gesù Cristo is not in the group of Neapolitan monasteries later consolidated. The church stayed open, but fell into ruin over the years. (The facade of the church is from 1715 and is by Antonio Giudetti. The church was last restored in 1896.) The original entrance is now closed; the metal gate across the entrance is rusted and bent, the wooden doors are rotted, the facade is dingy, the inscription above the entrance is barely legible. To the eye, it is just one more broken-down small old church in the city. Yet, if you walk around the corner and through a side entrance—behind the original church—you are in the courtyard of the old monastery, itself—again a working religious institution. And I mean working. Members of the order of the Sisters of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) scurry and hustle about, heeding the injunction to feed the hungry. They even have a homeless shelter with room for about 20 residents at any given time.

[Also see the entry on Croce & Pergolesi)

3.  Santa Maria di Loreto was built in 1537 and was the original conservatory in Naples, coming at the beginning of the Spanish expansion of Naples under the city's most famous viceroy, don Pedro de Toledo. Old maps show Santa Maria di Loreto to have been a seafront  "borgo" —a separate section of town—just beyond the Carmine fortress at Piazza Mercato. (The ruins of that fortress are still prominent (photo, left); Piazza Mercato is still there, as is the church of the Carmine (in  photo); the modern port road, via Marina, is from 1900;) Thus, the conservatory was beyond the Spanish fortifications that guarded the southeastern approach to Naples: it was an extensive piece of property with monastery, church and a vast garden. It was described as being  "in the countryside" beyond the walls.

The original monastery was turned into a hospital in the 19th century; that hospital was destroyed by an Allied air raid on December 15, 1942.  (The hospital was virtually next-door to the major Axis port facility in Naples; that entire area was subject to over 100 air raids in the war.)

Today, if you turn in from the port road on Corso Garibaldi just past the Mercato, you find after a short distance an enormous chunk of an old Spanish building on the right that they simply haven't bothered to tear down (photo, right). That is part of the original conservatory—and then hospital—of Santa Maria di Loreto.  The area is still a mish-mash of shoddily thrown-up cinder-block walls from the 1950s.  Habitable halves of bombed buildings were left standing; they are still lived in. More modern buildings have been put up in the last 20 years in an attempt to resurrect that section of town.


One such newer building is the modern hospital (photo, left), Santa Maria di Loreto a mare, named for the old hospital and standing approximately on the original premises.

If the city fathers, in their current, welcome frenzy of tagging buildings with historical markers in four languages decide to save the enormous chunk of Spanish masonry I referred to (above) they can say that once upon a time it was part of a music conservatory renowned as the training grounds for many of the famous Italian castrati singers of the day, including Farinelli.


4.  Sant' Onofrio a Capuana (photo, right) is from 1578 and enjoyed centuries of musical renown, just like the others. Charles Burney's The Present State of Music in France and Italy, published in 1771, recounts his visit to the music school at Sant'Onofrio. In part:

This morning I went with young Oliver to his Conservatorio of St. Onofrio, and visited all the rooms where the boys practise, sleep, and eat. On the first flight of stairs was a trumpeter, screaming upon his instrument till he was ready to burst; on the second was a french-horn, bellowing in the same manner. In the common practising room there was a Dutch concert, consisting of seven or eight harpsichords, more than as many violins, and several voices, all performing different things, and in different keys: other boys were writing in the same room...


The cacophony was probably typical of all of the conservatories of the day. What may not be typical was the fact the Sant' Onofrio, due to its location in the city, was apparently more affected by the violent events of Masaniello's Revolt and then, later, by the devastating plague—the Black Death—of 1656. At one point, the conservatory closed and only reopened after the plague had run its course.

Sant' Onofrio counts as its alumni Niccoló Jommelli, Giovanni Paisiello and Niccoló Piccinni, three of the great names in 18th century Neapolitan music. The original building still stands, just across the street on the north side of the old Vicaria, the tribunale, the Naples Hall of Justice (until quite recently). That area of Naples was not greatly affected by the risanamento or by the air raids of WW2. The building is under restoration; a plaque says that it is an administrative office building for the province of Naples (which function it will perhaps take up again when the builders leave); also, another plaque identifies the one open office as the premises of the Confraternity [lay brotherhood] of Sant' Onofrio a Portacapuana. The adjacent entrance to the church, itself, looks as decayed and closed as it does in the old photographs from the 1920s. (The photos are to be found in the definitive book on the old conservatories:  I quattro antichi conservatori di musica a Napoli (The Four Ancient Music Conservatories of Naples—pub. Sandron. Milano, 1924) by the Neapolitan journalist and poet, Salvatore di Giacomo. The square near the old school was originally named Piazzetta Sant' Onofrio; it is now Piazza Enrico de Nicola, named for the first president of the Italian Republic.

[bibliographic note: Di Giacomo's book cites extensively from an earlier, now difficult-to-find work, La scuola musicale di Napoli e i suoi conservatori, con uno sguardo sulla storia della musica in Italia, by Francesco Florimo, 4 volumes. Morano, Napoli, 1882.]


5. San Sebastiano. The consolidation of the conservatories took place in piecemeal fashion, but quickly. With the closure of  the Poveri di Gesù Cristo in the 1740s, there remained but three institutions. First, the music teaching function of the Loreto was ceded to Sant' Onofrio in 1797 so the Bourbon army could use part of the Loreto premises as a barracks. The combined facility took on the combined name of Loreto a Capuana. Then, under French rule in 1807, all of that was merged with the conservatory at the Pietà dei Turchini (mentioned above), which then officially became the Reale Collegio della Musica. And that institution was then moved—still under the French in the early 1800s—to the premises of the ex-monastery of San Sebastiano. At that point, the musical life of the original conservatories may be said to have ceased.


The church/monastery complex of San Sebastiano is ancient and huge; it sits in the middle of Naples on the eastern side of Piazza Dante, but is inconspicuous because it is overlaid with centuries of other construction. The nucleus goes back to the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the 600s. For centuries, the complex grew and housed various combinations of monastic orders. The greatest change to the physical plant of San Sebastiano was the construction in 1760 of a square called Foro Carolina (now Piazza Dante) at the rear of the old monastery; the great architect, Vanvitelli, constructed the new open square and the magnificent semicircular facade (photo, left) at the back of the old monastery to face the modern square. He also opened a new entrance to the monastic grounds from that side, essentially turning the back of the building into the front. The old main entrance is on via San Sebastiano—now in back—the street that runs on top of the old Greek and then Roman western wall of the city.

As noted above, under the French in 1807 the entire musical establishment that had settled into Pietà dei Turchini was moved into San Sebastiano. A few years later, in 1828,  the centuries-old game of musical chairs came to an end when the Bourbons moved the Royal College of Music one block east into the premises of San Pietro a Maiella in 1828, where it remains today. At the unification of Italy, the San Sebastiano complex was turned into a high school, the Convitto Vittorio Emanuele. The high school still exists under that name.


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