Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Apr. 2003  rev. Jan. 2015; suppl. article added 2020


1.S
an Martino & Sant'Elmo        2. extra article on St Martin of Tours


From the sea, the most visible structures in Naples are the museum of San Martino and the fortress of Sant' Elmo, located on the Vomero hill at the highest point in the city. The museum used to be a monastery that was finished and inaugurated under the rule of Queen Giovanna I in 1368. It was dedicated to St. Martin, bishop of Tours. During the first half of the sixteenth century, propelled by the energies of the Counter-Reformation, it was expanded. Later, in 1623, it was further expanded and became, under the direction of architect Cosimo Fanzago, the quintessentially Baroque structure one sees today. Fanzago was responsible also for the small cemetery in the courtyard; a cemetery ornamented by rows of skulls, a typical Counter-Reformation memento mori—a reminder of mortality.

[As of Jan 2015, the original Gothic basements and underground chambers are open.]

Under the French, the monastery was closed in 1806 and was abandoned by the religious order. Today, the museum houses a museum with a fine display of Spanish and Bourbon era artifacts, as well as a recently restored presepe, or Nativity scene, a display made up of thousands of finely wrought eighteenth-century Christmas figures. It is the finest display of its kind in the world. (Click here for more about the presepe.) The green area directly below the white San Martino museum is now separate (originally it was the vineyard for the monastery). It is called the Vineyard of San Martino and is a working garden/farm in the middle of the city(!), hosting tours for all and summer activities, especially for children.

Sant’ Elmo is the name of both the hill and the fortress adjacent to the museum. The name is from an old 10th-century church, Sant’ Erasmo, that name being shortened to "Ermo" and, finally, "Elmo".* [The alternative etymology is that it comes the Spanish Dominican saint, San Telmo.]


Although there was a Norman watch tower from the 1100s on the hill, a true fortress was not started until 1329 under Robert of Anjou; it was completed in 1343, the year of his death. That fortress was known as Belforte (image, left). The strategic importance of the fortress was clear, and Spanish viceroy, Don Pedro de Toledo, had it rebuilt between 1537 and 1546. The new fortress was on the same site, and though it is a massive remake, especially the radical design (image, below), it left intact some of the original Belforte structure (the small village-like assemblage of buildings on top of the new fortress, as seen in this 1582 image of the now Sant'Elmo castle,). The result was a spectacular star-shaped castle with 12 cannons; part of the six ramparts with "double-claw" design rest against the rocky tuff of the hillside so that the castle blends in with the surrounding environment. The fortress was partially destroyed in 1587 when a lightning strike caused the ammunition dump to explode, killing 150 men in the process.


During the revolution of 1647, so-called “Masaniello’s Revolt,” the Spanish viceroy took refuge in the fortress to escape the revolutionaries. The people stormed the fortress but failed to take it.

Sant’Elmo was also a dramatic symbol of the short, turbulent period of the Neapolitan Republic (alias Parthenopean Republic), the local version of the French Republic. The fortress was taken by the populace in 1799 and the Republic was proclaimed. A few months later, the revolutionaries were forced to capitulate to Royalist forces under Cardinal Ruffo. For a short period, Sant’Elmo had been a bastion of freedom against Bourbon absolutism; now it proved to be the prison and place of execution for a number of the Republic’s supporters. The fortress has been restored to public use since 1980 and houses the "Bruno Molajoli" Art History museum.

[There is a later entry on Sant' Elmo at this link.]


[*I acknowledge etymological information from Libero Scinicariello of Cleveland, Ohio: "... just a few miles up the road in Gaeta, Erasmo is the patron saint and the namesake for the Duomo. In local dialect, Erasmo evolved into Raimo, and the church is referred to as Santu Raimo."]

to urban portal        to top of this page

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

This is a miscellaneous article on St. Martin of Tours, the eponym of the museum of San Martino.    added 1 Jan 2020

Saint Martin of Tours (316 or 336–397) was the third bishop of Tours, in France. He is one of the most familiar and recognizable Christian saints in Western tradition. He converted to Christianity when he was young and served in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, but left military service at some point before 361. He became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, establishing the monastery at Ligugé. He was consecrated as Bishop of Tours. in 371.

He was widely known for his travels. (The image on the right is a promotional itinerary put out by the Council of Europe to get Europeans to follow some of the famous paths that have "created   Europe": follow the path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the best-known pilgrim's road of all; or trail along with Charlemagne on the way from Aachen to Rome to found the Holy Roman Empire; follow the Viking expansion; go with Mozart to Italy; see how the great European vineyards and olive groves spread across the Mediterranean. All that and San Martino, too. Those red lines are the paths he took. Apparently the word "tourist" is not from the city of Tours, but it should be.

The best-known episode in his life took place as reported by a contemporary hagiographer, Sulpicius Severus, when Martin saw a beggar freezing in the frigid winter near the city of Amiens and used his sword to cut his own cloak in two, giving half of it to the beggar. That is how San Martino is generally portrayed handing half of his cloak to a beggar. Tales like that are made to be legends, perhaps in ways you wouldn't expect. The half of his cloak Martin kept became a relic preserved in the oratory of the Merovingian kings of the Franks at the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. The priest who cared for the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu [the person in charge of the cloak] and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived! 

During the Middle Ages, the relic of St. Martin's miraculous cloak, (cappa Sancti Martini) was carried by the king even into battle and used as a holy relic upon which oaths were sworn.  A similar linguistic development took place for the term referring to the small temporary churches built for the relic. People called them a "capella", the word for a little cloak. Eventually, such small churches lost their association with the cloak, and all small churches began to be referred to as "chapels".
The painting, above, is by Alfred Rethel. It's from 1836 and is held in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany

I am confused about the next part so if you can help by all means. In Italy, and some other places, there is a period in autumn called St Martin's summer (l'estate di San Martino) generally fixed on or around the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Martin (Nov. 11)  It is a pleasant warm period, generally described as "after a frost and before the real cold starts." Some places recognize the North American term "Indian Summer", and many cultures use their own terms such as "Altweibersommer" ("Old Women's summer" in many German-speaking places.) I have also head "Gypsy summer" and "Poor man's summer". In Sweden there is "Brittsommer" (the name day for St. Birgitta is Oct. 7) and they tell me that in Gaelic Ireland, the phenomenon is called "fómhar beag na ngéanna" ("little autumn of the geese").

So, I do know that it's customary in Roman Catholic countries to name children after their saint's feast day. That is, my wife was born on Feb. 18, so that was her birthday. They named her Luciana. On the Catholic calendar for feast days, the day for Luciano and Luciana is Jan. 7. That was her "name day, called in Italian your "onomastico." It's just as important as the
birthday. The kid gets a gift.  But if you were born between Christmas and Befana (Jan 6, a major gift-giving day in Italy) your cagey parents can try to pull a fast one and give you one lousy pair of socks for four "gift-holidays". Children that happens to usually turn out to be serial killers.  (My wife was not amused when she thought the Vatican had removed a few names, including hers, from the calendar! "Hey, put down the placard! We are not going to the Vatican for this!") (I think she was wrong about that. "Luciano/a" is still on the calendar.) Where was I?  Yes, Martin was born before that naming tradition was customary, so I guess his was just another name. There is, as far as I know, no earlier St. Martin in Roman Catholic hagiology. (In modern "name day-ing", if you have a name that is not on the calendar of the by now many hundreds of "onomastic saints," don't worry you get Nov. 1, All-Saints Day. Also don't worry if you're a Protestant and all this saint stuff bothers you.  Feel good Martin Luther was named for St. Martin!


                                         to urban portal                                                to top of this page
 © 2002 - 2021