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main index                 © Jeff Matthews                          entry Jan 2010


T
he Church of San Giuseppe delle Scalze


The church of San Giuseppe delle Scalze (also known to locals as San Giuseppe a Pontecorvo) was open today, but not for a church service. A neighborhood committee and a private group of architects were sponsoring a tour of the premises in order to draw attention to the incredibly degraded state of a building that really does deserve to be called a “jewel of the Neapolitan Baroque,” in spite of how overused that term is.

The church is at the beginning of the steep road named Salita Pontecorvo that leads to the west and up the hill away from today’s Piazza Dante. A first small church on the site was built in 1606 for sisters of the Teresian order; they also acquired adjacent buildings for a convent. Construction of the larger church, itself, was started around 1640 and finished in 1663. The larger church is particularly interesting because it involved the conversion
of what had been a private dwelling, well beyond the extent to which the property had been modified by the Teresian sisters when they built the first church. The new construction was made possible because urban expansion to the west and up the hill slowed considerably around the year 1600, and many noblemen who had built villas on the hill moved elsewhere, clearing the way for religious orders to move in. (The Teresian sisters were of the "discalced" [barefoot] Carmelite order of Santa Teresa. The monastery for the same order was S.M degli Scalzi, built at the same time and by the same architect, Cosimo Fanzago, one of the great architects of the Italian Baroque.

Fanzago's plan was ingenious. To get around having to start from scratch, he used the building that was already in place and built a double façade. That is, the external façade marked by three arched niches with statues of St. Teresa, St Joseph and St. Peter of Alcantara (photo above) is not the real entrance to the church. The niches are open at the back and let in light to illuminate the courtyard of the original building. That ex-courtyard space then has a double stairway, typical of many large private dwellings of that period, leading up to the second façade with the entrance to the church; thus, the inside of the church, itself, was originally the piano nobile of the private dwelling, meaning the first floor above ground level. The spaces on the ground level on either side of the staircase were part of the original smaller church from 1606. The design with the double façade is not unique, but it is rare enough to make it of great interest in the history of architecture.

Of the works of art commissioned for San Giuseppe delle Scalze, the most significant was by Luca Giordano: La sacra famiglia ha la visione dei simboli della passion [The Holy Family sees a vision of the Symbols of the Passion], dated 1669 and signed “L.G.” That and other works were removed to the Capodimonte Museum for safekeeping after the 1980 earthquake. Many churches in Naples were closed immediately after the earthquake, but San Giuseppe remains one of the few that never reopened. The earthquake opened the flood-gates for the jackals of art-theft to move in and walk off with whatever they could. Some of what was plundered has been recovered. The inside of San Giuseppe delle Scalze is almost empty now. Such public events as the one mentioned above might serve to draw attention, the first step to getting money somewhere down the line. It's a shame and truly ironic that this “jewel” is in such sorry shape; after all, Naples is in the midst of a five-month celebration called “Back to the Baroque.”



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