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© Jeff Matthews   entry May 2009        

The Church of Sant’Agostino della Zecca

I don’t think there is a large historic church in Naples that is in such dreadful condition as that of Sant’Agostino della Zecca (also alla Zecca” and known originally, in the late 1200s, as Sant’Agostino Maggiore). It has been closed since the 1980 earthquake. In spite of grand commitments from various political quarters to restore the church, nothing has been done nor does that even look remotely likely.

“Zecca” in the name means “mint” in Italian; the church is so called because it was right across the street from the building that for many centuries cranked out the coin of the realm for the kingdom of Naples. (That building, itself, is very historic and is said to have been the property of the medieval poet and secretary to Frederick II, Pier della Vigna, well-known from his presence in Dante’s Inferno [Canto XIII]  as one of the pitiful victims of suicide. The old mint building has been restored and serves as the Naples conservatoria —not conservatorio as in music school, but 
conservatoria, the real estate hall of records for the province of Naples.)

In photo, below, the large rectangular building left of center is the old mint.
To the right, the oddly shorn-off building is the old monastery that belonged to the
church (the prominent white dome), above it. The straight street angling up from
bottom center to the right is Corso Umberto, on its way to the train station.

The church represented the first presence in Naples of the Augustinian religious order; the property was given to the Augustinians by Robert I of Anjou in 1259, a time when that dynasty had not even fully secured its grip on the kingdom and was still struggling against the descendants of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. It was the first of the three early Angevin additions to the city of Naples, the other two being the construction of a hospital at the church of S. Eligio and the building of the church of S. Maria del Carmine. (This was even before they got around to the Maschio Angioino, the Angevin Fortress down at the port.) The new church of Sant’Agostino was built next to an earlier Basilian monastery with its even older “Ademaria” tower (still standing). (The “Ademaria” spelling is apparently correct and is so cited in many sources without an explanation of the etymolgy. If you are betting that it is simply a miscopied version of “Avemaria” —maybe, but that level of erudition is above my pay-grade. It was also called the “Tower of Paleopoli,” (Old City) a reference to the original pre-Naples settlement of Parthenope, but I don’t know why.) The Augustians appropriated the monastery when they built the church next door.

The sorry condition of the church is no doubt due to its location. It is not far from the main train station and was smack in the middle of the area gutted during the risanamento, the massive urban renewal of Naples in the late 1800s. To lay the new straight road
(Corso Umberto) to the railway station the city builders simply sheared through hundreds of buildings, truncating at least a few major churches (as in the above photo). San Pietro ad Aram was one and Sant’Agostino was another; in both cases, the rest of the church/monasteries were left standing and continued to function in their truncated form. An aerial view (above) of the Sant’Agostino monastery shows it sawed off at an oblique angle with the slanted side now fronting on the main street. The main body of the church was not destroyed.

The 1780 date over the entrance marks the Bourbon
restoration of the church. The skull (memento mori)
display is typically found on many churches in Naples.
(See above link.)

In its very long history, the church/monastery was the site of the Augustinian university (1287); it was also severely damaged by an earthquake in 1456. It went through partial restoration in the late 1600s under the direction of the prominent architect, Bartolomeo Picchiati, and further restoration was completed by the Bourbons in 1780. The Augustinian monastic order was suspended (as were almost all others in Italy) after the unification of Italy in 1861; the risanamento was shortly thereafter, and since that time the church has fallen on hard times although my understanding is that it was actually used until the earthquake of 1980.  It has now been closed since then, and I know of no exact catalogue of works of art in the church. Some have been moved to storage, some have been stolen, and some are probably still there. In any event, a list of the works that at least used to be on the premises include the magnificent statue of Saint Augustine Trampling Heresy by Giuseppe Sanmartino, one of the greatest of all Neapolitan sculptors and creator of the renowned Veiled Christ (on display in the Sansevero chapel in Naples); also, there are (or were) a number of paintings by Evangelista Schiano and Giacinto Diano, both noted Neapolitan artists from the mid-1700s.


Napoli Sacra, Guida alle Chiese della Città, vol. 1. Sopraintendenza per i beni artistici e storici, pub. Elio de Rosa, Naples 1993.
Napoli antica by Vincenzo Regina, pub. Newton Compton, Rome. 1994.
S. Maria la Nova a Napoli, Fondazione e trasformazioni del complesso conventuale (secili XIII-XX) by Andrea Di Dena. Doctoral thesis, Frederick II University of Naples, Dept. of Architecture. 2005.

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