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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Mar. 2003 update: June 2015
Piazza Mercato, the Carmine church & square,
and the Carmelite Order (second item, below)
I am looking for a word—"psychotactility"?—to describe that sensation you get when you lay your hands on something ancient—part of a Greek wall, say, in Naples, and close your eyes and suddenly feel that you are in touch with the ancient Greeks. ("Ulysses? Is that you? Can you hear me?" It's ok to talk during these episodes. The people near you will just think you're using a hands–free cell–phone.) That sensation doesn't happen to me very often. Well, all right—it has never happened; I just thought it would be nice to have a word for it.
One place it really doesn't happen is in the middle of a squalid parking lot that used to be one of the most important sites in the city. I tried again today, and all I "felt" were the cars. ("Mr. Ford? Mr. Daimler? Are you there? Curse you!") I am referring to Piazza Mercato—"Market Square," the setting for a number of episodes of extreme interest in the history of Medieval Europe.
The square is at the easternmost point of the old medieval wall along the coast (see this entry) where the Carmine Castle used to stand. The historic old church, Santa Maria del Carmine (also called Carmine Maggiore) is just off the square (photo, above). It is still in use and the75–meter belfry is still visible from a distance even amidst newer and taller buildings.
For such a noteworthy
church, its pedigree is obscure. A document from
1589, the Cronistoria del Convento, by one
Padre Moscarella, says that the church was founded
in the 12th century by Carmelite monks driven from
the Holy Land during the Crusades, presumably
arriving in the Bay of Naples aboard Amalfitan
ships. Other sources place the original refugees
from Mount Carmel as early as the eighth century.
Whatever the case, the fact remains that by 1268,
the date of the execution
in Piazza Mercato of Conradin, the last
Hohenstaufen pretender to the throne of the Kingdom
of Naples, at the hands of Charles I of Anjou, the
church and adjacent monastery were well established.
The square, itself, had become the largest market
place in the city, having replaced in importance the
ancient market in the heart of the old city, itself.
With the execution of Conradin, the square also became the place for official executions and would remain so for many centuries. It was the site of the grisly Bourbon executions of Republican revolutionaries in 1799. It was for centuries a general gathering place, watering hole and focal point for celebration as well as rebellion. In 1647 the square was where trouble broke out between rebels and royalist troops during Masaniello's Revolt and a last-stand rallying point for Bourbon forces resisting Garibaldi's move on Naples in 1860.
All of that history was ploughed under during the great Risanamento—Urban Renewal—of Naples around 1900. The new port road was put in, the old castle demolished, part of the monastery, itself, torn down, etc. Whatever else the merits of the Risanamento were, it shifted the center of the city well away from the port and to the west. The new straight road through town, Corso Umberto, divided the city in half. The port half—Piazza Mercato—decayed terribly over the decades. It was also subjected to aerial bombardment in WWII. The area is just now coming back to life—with an interesting mishmash of architecture.
The Church of the Carmine continues to thrive and serve the needs of the faithful in the area. The old monastic premises adjacent to the church now serve as a shelter for the needy and homeless. The church is home to two remarkable religious relics: One, the painting of the "Brown Madonna," said to have been brought by the original Carmelites; two, a figure of the Crucifixion in which the crown of thorns is missing. Legend says that the crown fell as Christ's head moved when the building was struck by a cannon ball in 1439.
update: June 2015 - That
last sentence is fortunately no longer the case.
The growing Muslim community in Naples uses the
square for Friday prayers. They have cleaned up
the square and do their best to keep it that
way. There is also a space for kids to play
soccer. I don't know what happened to all the
cars. I don't care.
entry May 2011
Further Comments on the Carmelites
[Also see Carmelites (Discalced)]
Jotischky, Andrew. The Carmelites and Antiquity: Medicants and their Pasts in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2002.
Koch, Robert A. "Elijah the Prophet, Founder of the Carmelite Order" in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol. XXXIV, October 1959, no.4. Published by the Medieval Academy of America, Cambridge MA 02138.
Wise, Elliot. "Between Mount Carmel and Piazza Mercato: The Brown Madonna of Naples" in the Journal of International Internship Research, Vol. I, Fall 2008. Publisher Jeffrey F. Ringer, director, David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, Brigham Young University, Salt Lake City, Utah. pp 76-92.
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