Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Jan 2010
The Church of San Nicola a Nilo

The church of San Nicola a Nilo (#23 on this map) is in the heart of the old city on the north side of "Spaccanapoli" (the popular name for the street that "splits" Naples); the section of the street where the church is located is officially named via San Biagio dei Librai at that point. The church is across the street from the church of Saints Phillip and James. Both sites are easy to identify—Phillip and James because of the two large statues set in the façade and San Nicola a Nilo because of the Baroque double stairway leading up to the entrance flanked by gigantic Corinthian columns.

The origins of the church can be traced to Masaniello's Revolt in the year 1647. After that violent and failed revolution, a merchant by the name of Sabato Anella received a gift of property through the Spanish viceroy of Naples, Iñigo Vélez de Guevara, the 8th count di Oñate, in order to build an orphanage (called a conservatorio in the Italian of the times) for children left without parents by the recent rebellion. The institution plus a small adjacent chapel was, indeed, built soon thereafter and dedicated to St. Nicolas, the Bishop of Myra and patron saint of orphans. The original structure proved inadequate and the conservatory and chapel were entirely rebuilt in 1705 to a plan by Giuseppe Lucchesi.

The tripartite construction of the façade, the columns, and the double stairway lends a theatrical look to the church, as if it were stage scenery setting off one of the most characteristic spots in the old city. Not only is via San Biagio dei Librai a lively, colorful and crowded narrow street, but the building is set back from the street, thus providing spaces at the foot of both stairways (indeed, beneath the stairs, themselves) for merchants of one sort or another, lending additional "color" to the scene. That was done purposely; merchants have occupied those spaces ever since the early 1700s when the building was completed.

I have never seen the church open and it is my understanding that even at the time of the 1980 earthquake (which caused the building to be abandoned) there were already squatters living on the premises, which means that it must have been in a state of disrepair for some years before that. Whatever artwork that could be moved and salvaged (such as a painting by Luca Giordano, signed and dated 1658, of St. Nicolas of Bari Protecting the Orphans, has been moved elsewhere.

(Nilo in the name of the church, indeed, means Nile, as in the Nile river. It is also the name of a section of Naples. For details on that, see this link or #17 on this map.)


Picone, Concetta. (1993) Entry on "San Nicola a Nilo" in Napoli Sacra, Guida alle chiese delle Città, vol. 5. Elio di Rosa editors. Naples.

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