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main index               © Jeff Matthews            entry Aug 2007

Pulling Out All the Stops to Recover the Great Neapolitan Tradition
of Organ Building & Restoration!

I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into the church of Santa Maria della Sanità. The belfry outside had been beautifully restored, but the rest of the façade was still cloaked in the cloths and scaffolding of painstaking restoration. Some day soon, one hopes, the church will again look like the jewel of the Neapolitan Counter-Reformation that it was when it was built in the early 1600s. The entrance was open; I walked in and found myself alone and mesmerized by the ornate marble double stairway, the pulpit above, and, above that, a magnificent organ (photo, above). I half-expected to see the half-masked visage of the Phantom of the Opera turn and leer over his shoulder at me as he struck up the infamously chilling opening of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (you know, the one that starts: da-da-DAAAAAH!).

This is not meant to be even a mini-manual on organstheir history, how they are made, how they are played, how they are restored, etc. (For that, I urge you buy The Cambridge Companion to the Organ by Nicholas Thistlethwaite and Geoffrey Webber. Cambridge University Press, 1999, and read it. Get back to me when you’re done.) Suffice it to say that an organ has keyboards, pipes, ranks, pedals, stops, registers and, historically, any number of ways to move “wind” though the instrument; an organ can have one keyboard or many and it can have many thousands of pipes. Organ terminology is very technical, and none of it is accessible to the layman. (They speak of “pipe feet,” “pull-down seals,” “cone valves,” and “pallet magnets,” which to me might as well be parts of the Large Hadron Collider atom-smasher about to open near Geneva. “OK, Luigi, listen. Pull this knob and you open the 16-foot B-flat trombone stop; pull this one next to it and you open a black hole. Be careful.”) All of this combines to produce a glorious musical instrument like none other in the history of the music of western civilization, one that moved Milton to these lovely lines:

But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloister's pale,
And love the high embowed roof,
With antique pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full-voiced quire below,
In service high, and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.


In the church of Ascensione a Chiaia. This organ has 2,500 pipes
and is in working order. It appears to be of more recent construction,
probably twentieth century.

In a city such as Naples, where there are hundreds of churches, many of which were built in the hey-day of the Baroque (the 1600s), you would expect there to be at least a few dozen fine, ornate organs still up and playing. Alas, there do not seem to be. There are a few, but not many, and the real problem is that no one seems to know, or, until recently, to have cared much about preserving this rich part of the musical heritage of Naples, a city once called The Conservatory of Europe. Where are the instruments? When were they built and by whom? When were they restored (if ever)? What are the details of their construction (i.e. number and configuration of keyboards, pedals, stops, etc.)? At present, there is nothing even close to a catalogue of such things. The closest you might find is a 2-volume work by Stefano Romano called L’arte organaria a Napoli (The Art of the Organ Builder in Naples) published in 1980 (vol. 2 in 1990).

Most organs in churches throughout southern Italy are from the 1700s and 1800s but there is documentation of early organ building in Naples as early as the first half of the 1400s. The first truly prominent organ builder in Naples was Lorenzo di Giacomo, hired away from Bologne in 1471 by King Ferdinand of Naples. That was the beginning of a long string of prominent organ builders in the city of Naples and, indeed, the entire kingdom of Naples (including Sicily) that spans 500 years.

The church of S. Maria in Portico. The instrument is from the 1600s;
it is not in working order and there are no plans for restoration.

The details of it all, however, are obscure for many reasons. A lot can happen in 500 years. There are the natural ravages of time, not to mention earthquakes, volcanoes, bubonic plague, cholera, urban destruction/renewal, wars, revolution, vandalism and theft, all of which have caused entire churches to disappear, forget about the furnishings! Through all of this, even devout Roman Catholics—while no doubt concerned about their immortal souls—might be forgiven for not caring much about who was minding the organ. A new organization has arisen, however, to meet the challenge: the “Giovanni Maria Trabaci” Organ Association (note*), founded in 2006, is dedicated to filling in the blanks. They have already held one conference at Santa Chiara and are now at the beginning of a long process of cataloging instruments and publishing the results on-line and in a print journal.

* The eponym, Trabaci (1575-1647), was an organist and prominent composer for the instrument who for many years was active at the Oratorio of the Filippini in the church of the Girolamini in Naples.

The organ that stirred my inner Lon Chaney in Santa Maria della Sanità is from the early 1700s and was last restored in 1940. That restoration was done by Pietro Petillo, a Neapolitan whose entire family was prominently involved in organ building and restoration throughout Italy in the last half of the 1800s and first half of the 1900s. (I am indebted for that information to Gian Marco Vitagliano, a Neapolitan restorer of such instruments.) The Sanità organ has two manuals (keyboards) and about 2,000 pipes. It is not currently in working order and plans for restoration are unclear.

                  In the church of San Domenico Maggiore

A few other examples in Naples include the instrument in the church of Gesù Nuovo; it was built recently by Gustavo Zanin in 1986 but uses pieces of the earlier Balbiani organ in the church as well as of an unidentified instrument from the 1600s. The organ in the church of Sant’ Angelo a Nilo is by an anonymous (at least, so far) builder from 1700s and was restored in 1970. The organ in the church of the Madre di Buonconsiglio is by the Neapolitan builder, Domenico Antonio Rossi, and is from 1769—indeed, much older than the church, itself, which is only from the 1920s; the instrument was restored in 1994; the historic organ in the chapel of S. Restituta within the cathedral of Naples is from 1750 and was built by Tommaso Martino; it was restored 1994. (More on the cathedral, below.) The organ in the church of San Domenico Maggiore (photo, above) is from 1751 and was installed to replace two earlier organs during restoration directed by D. A. Vaccaro. It is in working condition and is played regularly.

The instrument shown above is a double-organ, the two components of which are situated on either side of the nave in the recently restored church of Santa Maria dell'Aiuto. Double organs were not particularly rare, but this is the best-restored one I have seen. Literature on the church simply describes it as "a 17th-century instrument"—not particularly helpful. I am making enquiries, but I have a feeling that the otherwise very successful restoration of this church stopped short of restoring the organ such that it can be played.

above: The organ in the church of the Girolamini. (update: I comment elsewhere on the reopening of the Church of the Girolamini in May 2011. The photos from before (2009, left) and after (2011, right) the restoration of the church show that the pipes have simply been removed. I have no information as to an eventual restoration of the instrument.)

(from 2009) It is obviously going to be a long process of restoration to return the magnificent Girolamini church to the icon of the Neapolitan Baroque that it used be. My understanding is that it will sooner or later serve as a museum rather than a house of worship much like the Diocese Museum within the splendid church of Santa Maria Donna Regina. But at least the Girolamini church is open after many decades of neglect and that is a start. You can walk in and see the partially restored art work on the walls, as well as other partially restored this and that. My gaze wandered up to the organ (photo, right). It is a total wreck; the few pipes that are still there are askew. I know nothing of the details of the instrument—that is, who built it and when. I suspect it will be the last thing to be put in order and then only cosmetically, which is to say that they may make it look good, but I doubt that it will ever again—in Milton's words—" service high, and anthems clear...". But one can hope.

Organs in the Naples Cathedral

The musical instruments within the Naples cathedral are well-known, so they are not really within the "the lost organs" premise of this entry. Yet, for the sake of completeness, one should know something about their history; also, as we shall see, organ construction in the cathedral may bear on the presence of organs in other churches in the city.

There are organs (1) in the main nave of the cathedral; (2) in the left-hand chapel (known as the Basilica of Santa Restituta; and (3) in the chapel of the Tesoro [Treasure] of San Gennaro.

—(1) The main nave displays the instrument that one sees upon entering the cathedral: the Grand Ruffati Organ from 1975. It consists of two identical organs facing each other, one on the left side of the nave (photo) above the episcopal throne and the other directly across from it, above the pulpit. Even in a house of worship as splendid as the Duomo of Naples, they stand out and are what many people first notice, even if they are not particularly scouting for organs. The instruments are played from a console located near the front of the cathedral. I include here (below) and gratefully acknowledge the following comments from Larry Ray (who has other material on this website). Besides being an expert on Underground Naples, a helicopter pilot, a broadcaster, print journalist and an artist, he obviously knows a lot about organs (Leonardo da Vinci, eat your heart out!):

This looks like a complete organ or "unit organ" with the "swell chest" behind the cloth latticed grill at its bottom behind the railing. Vertical lengths of planks form a shutter, all linked together to open from fully closed, basically forming a solid wall which seals off the pipes inside the small room-like enclosure holding various chests of pipes of various voices, to fully open when the planks or shutters, if you will, are swiveled 90 degrees so they offer no resistance to sound. It is the only way to control volume of a pipe organ, and then only those voices in the "swell chest" or "swell cabinet." The old large crank Victrola cabinets had similar ganged-together shutters to control sound from the sound resonating chamber.

The three groupings of decorative pipes include what appear to be square pipes in the larger center grouping usually for lower notes of a 'flute stop' and spotted metal pipes in each of the two smaller groupings probably of different voicing. Behind the decorative pipe display would be chests upon which several other 'stops' or voices would be racked. I would not be surprised if this is one of two similar ornate organs, located on each side, as is the case in large cathedrals. [ed. note: correct.] This may, indeed be the left organ. They would most likely be manually activated 'tracker' organs meaning that a Rube Goldberg system of push rods and couplings allow a pipe to 'speak' when a keyboard key is depressed. Similarly, many voices can be coupled together so that particular voices all speak when one key is depressed.

The Ruffati organ is essentially the last in a series of rebuildings that go back to 1767 when cathedral organist, Fabrizio Cimino, removed two older organs and replaced them with a new twin instrument, two identical unit organs exactly the same in sound and appearance. Besides 1975, rebuildings of that 1767 instrument occurred in 1843, 1931, and 1963. Such work is not just simple modification, but entails adding pipes, stops, manuals (keyboards) and, most importantly, converting the controls and mechanisms from earlier mechanical systems to electrical ones. The 1767 Cimino organ was itself, however, a replacement for the first grand organ in the cathedral, the first element of which was the 1549 organ, built by G.F. de Palma, set on the right in the main body of the church and, then, a second unit, set on the left and built in 1652 by P. and M. de Franco. Those large components faced each other (the same way the modern ones do) on either side of the nave and were termed "the magnificent twins." (Indeed, they both bore decorative art by Luca Giordano.) Before that, there is no reliable documentation of instruments in the cathedral, but one assumes there was some sort of organ in place to accompany the choir by the second half of the 1400s. The separate small choir organ at the front was from 1782 and had a long life, remaining in use until as late as 1950. It was removed in 1963. 

—(2) In the Santa Restituta section of the cathedral, there are two instruments: the historic 1750 de Martino organ and the Frescobalda organ built in 1975 (although it was built to look older). The latter is free-standing, relatively small and mobile; the fine wooden case housing the pipes features a small, historic keyboard; the case is mounted on wheels and the entire affair can be repositioned if necessary.

(3) The Royal Chapel of the treasure of San Gennaro, contains the 1640 de Franco twin organs. The unit on the right was rebuilt in 1902 by Petillo. To my knowledge, neither of them is currently in condition to be played.

As noted above, the cathedral may have to do with organs elsewhere in the city. When Fabrizio Cimino built the "new" twins in 1767, he removed the original "magnificent twins," and no one seems to know exactly what happened to them. They were highly regarded and almost certainly would not have been destroyed. In the opinion of some researchers,*they may have wound up in the church of Santa Maria La Nova, where the organ has traditionally been regarded as somewhat of a mystery in terms of origin. That church was built in 1596 and had a small instrument there for many years. The two large unit organs that one sees today, however, on the right and left (the left organ is shown in the photo, above) are not recorded in early church documentation and do not seem to have been there until sometime in the 1700s.

*This includes Graziano Fronzuto, from whose article on the history of the organs in the cathedral of Naples I have drawn much of my information.

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