Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry April 2006

anta Maria di Portosalvo

1633 map of old portThe only structure vaguely recognizable today on the 1633 Stopendael map (left) of the port of Naples is the large Maschio Angioino (in the upper left quadrant of the map), the fortress at the main entrance to the modern port. The upper-right quadrant shows a small inlet, the porticciuolo (little port); on the right side of that tiny port and accessible from the water on two sides is the small church of Santa Maria di Portosalvo (Safe Haven), built in 1534. For many years it was the traditional church for Neapolitan seafarers. The little port no longer exists; the church, however, does. Barely.

S.Maria di PortosalvoSanta Maria di Portosalvo (photo, right)  stood vigil over the sailors' quarter of the city, a part of Naples that has disappeared, overwhelmed by years of urban development and devastation of war and subsequent rebuilding. What is now via Marina —the broad east-west road that runs the length of the modern port— was not even there until the Risanamento, the massive rebuilding of the city between 1885 and 1915.  Before that, you zigged and zagged your way along the piers and docks as you moved east along the coast. The Risanamento did not fill in the small port (see map below), but it did build the new port facilities quite a ways out from the old water line and did unroll the new via Marina between the church and port. Subsequent port expansion in the 1930s filled in the tiny port,  and after WW2 extended the modern port facilities even further out into the water. Santa Maria di Portosalvo is now about 150 yards from the water's edge. Starkly amputated from the port, it is closed and abandoned, a 16th-century island in a sea of modern traffic and architecture—a ruined reminder of another age.

This 1909 Baedeker's map of the port
area shows the small harbor still there after
the Risanamento, although it is no longer
accessible from the sea

1909 port mapThe original church on the site was built at the behest of one Bernardino Belladonna to thank the Virgin for saving him from pirates and shipwrecks. It was modified over the course of the next two centuries to contain art and design typical of the Neapolitan baroque, including the painting of la Gloria della Vergine by Batistello Caracciolo, marine scenes done in mother-of-pearl and majolica tile, and the inlaid marble balustrade of the presbytery.The prominent dome is of majolica tile.

The church was rebuilt in the 1880s to repair earthquake damage, and the small port was eventually filled in by the intense port restructuring of the 1930s (which included the huge main passenger terminal from 1936). That closed even the passage from the church by bridge over the main street to the area of the Immacolatella, the old customs station. Santa Maria di Portosalvo now sits bizarrely on a traffic island that is the branching point for the two arms of a letter Y, via Colombo and via De Gaspari, as they move west into the city. The long leg of the Y is via Marina, running east along the port. The church is kept company by another relic that goes totally unnoticed these days—a spire mounted by a cross (photo, below), put in place in 1799 by the Bourbons to mark their retaking of the kingdom of Naples from the forces of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic.

1799 spire and crossThus, Santa Maria di Portosalvo escaped the urban renewal of the Risanamento, the bombs of WW2, and even the building boom of the 1950s and 60s, dedicated to tearing down everything that wasn't a cracker box so they could build new cracker boxes. It has not, however, escaped the theft of a number of works of art nor civic indifference. Yet, if reports are to be believed, restoration may be in the works. An organization known as IPSEMA (Istituto Previdenza Settore Marittimo), directly concerned with the welfare of members of the civilian maritime fleet, has presented a proposal to restore the church. Also, a nearby high school has apparently "adopted" the church as part a local civic initiative that encourages good-hearted school kids toinvade and fix up old monuments. They have done splendid work in the past. The equation becomes more complicated, perhaps encouragingly so, with the recent announcement by the city of a plan to redo all (!) of via Marina, running from the church down to the end of the industrial port, two miles to the east. The plan includes moving the tram tracks, creating a decent pedestrian walkway, and, generally, doing whatever else needs to be done in order to restore a severely blighted section of town. Restoring this tiny church, a jewel of Neapolitan history, would fit in with those plans. So would redigging that small harbor, but first things first.

update: (November 2007)

Plans to restore Santa Maria di Portosalvo have been approved over an alternate plan that would have demolished the church so a port-side traffic tunnel could be built. The church will become a "stella maris" ("star of the sea") —that is, a church/cultural center like the ones in other large Italian ports such as Genoa, Cagliari, Catania, Livorno, Messina, Palermo, Taranto, Venice, as well as in over a dozen other smaller ports. The umbrella organization now responsible for preparing Santa Maria di Portosalvo is the Migrantis Foundation, founded in 1987 by the Italian Episcopal Conference with the aim of providing for the spiritual needs of the sailors and fishermen in the some 40,000 Italian families that derive their living directly from the sea as well as the approximately 2 million foreign merchant seaman that navigate in Italian waters each year.

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