San Lorenzo Maggiore
San Lorenzo Maggiore was built in the great wave of Gothic church building in Naples, meaning, roughly, the 100 years between 1250 and 1350. The beginning of that period corresponds with the take-over of southern Italy by the French Angevin dynasty and the move of the capital of the kingdom from Palermo to Naples; thus, politics had at least as much to do with the presence of new, large churches in Naples as did the new architectural techniques that made such construction possible. Besides San Lorenzo, other major churches from that period include the Duomo, Donnaregina (new), Santa Chiara and San Domenico Maggiore. Of these, San Lorenzo is probably the least known to those who visit Naples. (Perhaps Donna Regina is less known, but only because it was closed for many years and has only recently reopened as a museum of religious art.) The church of San Lorenzo Maggiore is at the precise geographic center of the ancient Greco-Roman city (n.29 on this map), at the intersection of via San Gregorio Armeno and via dei Tribunali. Originally, the entire complex included an adjacent monastic complex, today a museum (item #3, below); thus, the term “San Lorenzo” may refer to the church, the museum or even the Roman archaeological site beneath the church itself (item #2, below).
origins of the church go back to the presence of the
Franciscan order in Naples during the lifetime of St.
Francis of Assisi, himself. The site of the present church
was to compensate the order for the loss of their earlier
church on the grounds where Charles I of Anjou decided to
build his new fortress, the Maschio Angioino in the
late 13th century.
Fanzago's Chapel of St. Anthony
The church has been hit numerous times by natural disaster such as earthquakes and man-made interference such as overlays of later Spanish Baroque architecture, but that is equally true of almost every other medieval church in Naples. There have been attempts to “re-restore” parts of the church (the way they did with Santa Chiara when it was returned to its original Gothic bleakness in the 1950s after the church had been destroyed by a bomb in WWII). Thankfully, the “repristinators” have left later work by Cosimo Fanzago (the Cacace chapel) and Ferdinando Sanfelice (the facade) alone.
some of the paintings originally within the church were
moved to the Capodimonte
museum, “immovable” works remain, including the main
altar, considered one of the most beautiful in Naples; it
was the work of Giovanni
da Nola (Giovanni Merliano) (1488-1558), a
prolific architect and sculptor who works still adorn many
sites in Naples. Also present are a number of funerary
monuments such as the tomb of Catherine of Austria (the
daughter-in-law of Robert of Anjou); it is the first work
in Naples by Tino da
Neapolitan political philosopher, Gaetano Filangieri (1752-88) said that much of the history of Naples came together in the church of San Lorenzo. Indeed, there are some interesting “comings-together.” For example, during Masaniello’s revolt (1547), the rebels captured the church and monastery and used the belfry as an artillery position. On a less belligerent note, students of Italian literature or even, generally, of European literature and culture may know that San Lorenzo is where Giovanni Boccaccio first set eyes on the love of his life, the lady Fiammetta (really Maria d’Aquino, the married daughter of King Robert the Wise of Anjou). It was during mass on the Saturday before Easter of 1334. He was thus inspired to write Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a novel in the form of a first person confessional monologue, often called the first "psychological novel" in Western literature.
2. San Lorenzo Archaeological Site
present-day Piazza San Gaetano is the site of the
original agora of the Greek city, the forum
of the later Roman city of Naples. It was the heart of the
ancient city. Today it is the site of the Church of San
Lorenzo (photo, left). (Number 28 on this map.)
the Church and Monastery of San Lorenzo have brought to
light a complex and layered archeological history. About
half of the original Roman market (photo, below) has
been excavated and may be seen by entering through the
marked portal next to the entrance to the church, itself,
then passing through the courtyard and going down a flight
of stairs. The site has been open since 1992 and is the
result of 25 years of painstaking excavation.
Also, as a result of the excavation, the great hall and three naves of a sixth century paleo-Christian church have been uncovered, and beneath the Sala Capitolare of the church a medieval structure has been found that apparently was one of the small "city halls" of the city. It was razed around the turn of the millennium and portions of it are built into the foundations of the newer church of San Lorenzo on top. It all rests on the original market place of the city (photo, right) from the fourth century before Christ. The market and streets were used as late as the fifth century AD, at which time they fell victim to a massive mud slide. The subsequent construction of the early Christian church on the site effectively closed them forever.
The market place is
the only large-scale Greco-Roman site excavated in the
downtown area. The site and the surrounding area of the
historic center of Naples are on the UNESCO World Heritage
list; that is, it is a site that must be preserved, at all
The Museum of San Lorenzo
it again: while I wasn't looking, another fine,
small museum in Naples has opened. (The last one was the archaeological display at
the Museo entrance to the new metropolitana train
line.) This time, it's the turn of the church of San
Lorenzo (photo, left), just off the intersection of via
dei Tribunali and via San Gregorio Armeno
(see #28 on this map), the
precise geographical center of the historic Greco-Roman
city of Naples, which area is
on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
church, itself, sits directly atop the old Roman forum and
market place; that site (item #2, above) was excavated and
opened to the public in 1992 and, since then, has been one
of the principal tourist attractions in the old city since
it is the only large-scale excavated Roman site in the
city. Entrance to that site is through the portal below
the belfry of the church, across the main courtyard and
down a flight of stairs.
as of December 2005, the "rest"—the new museum— is open to
the public. The three floors above the courtyard are now
given over to the entire history of the area that centers
on San Lorenzo. The first floor of the new exhibit is
dedicated to the archaeological site, itself; it includes
a timetable of the excavation, recovered marble and
ceramics from the old market, a table-top plastic model of
the entire central area of the old city including the
adjacent Temple of the Dioscuri (now the church of San Paolo Maggiore), and an
historical description of the ancient city of Neapolis (from which the name
you then move up from floor to floor, you move forward in
time, from Neapolis to a display of the historical
shipping routes from Naples throughout Magna Grecia and the Roman Empire.
That floor includes more recovered pottery, marble and
mosaic. Above that is the history of post-Roman Naples at
the site of San Lorenzo, first as a sixth-century paleo-Christian monastery, then as
a medieval town-hall and then the large Franciscan
monastery and church, the construction of which was begun
in 1234. The display continues up past the Angevin period
and into more recent history; it includes an exhibit of
ecclesiastical paraphernalia on the top floor.