main index © Jeff Matthews entry Feb. 2011
The Church of the Holy Apostles
I remember the first time I went to see the church of the Santi Apostoli. It was at the very northeastern corner of the ancient city, down at the end of the old upper decumanus (the east-west roads of what is now called the "historic center" of Naples; it is so far down at the end that it is not even on this map! It would be off the upper right-hand corner). Finding it meant walking east along that street way beyond the tourst shops, past the Cathedral and into a dingy section of very narrow streets, then turning off into a small side-street. There it was (photo, right). I was disappointed. It was an unadorned solid yellow box. It was closed, as well, and I thought, no big loss—look at it. I finally got in the other day. I was totally unprepared for the Wizard-of-Oz Moment, the spot in the film where Dorothy opens the door of her drab black-and-white house and steps into breathtaking color.
The interior is spectacular. It is in the form of a Latin cross with a single nave covered by a barrel vault; there are four chapels on each side, and at the front there is a semi-circular apse. The church is a great display of the Neapolitan Baroque—that is, art from the mid-1600s. (It is also a working church.) Those who crafted and painted the altars, ornamentation and paintings within the Church of the Holy Apostles read like a Who's Who of that period in Naples: Giovanni Lanfranco, Francesco Solimena, Luca Giordano, Paolo De Matteis, Giuseppe Sanmartino (sculptor of the famed statue of The Veiled Christ) and Belisario Corenzio, among others. The list also includes artists from elsewhere in Italy, such as Francesco Borromini (a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture) and Giovan Battista Calandra (the head mosaicist at St. Peter's under Pope Urban VIII). The Baroque sacristy is from 1626 and was later restored by Ferdinando Sanfelice; it is regarded as one of the most beautiful works of its kind in Naples.
Tradition says that the church was founded in the fifth century A.D., possibly on the ruins of an earlier Roman temple to Mercury. That is plausible since the location was on an appropriate rise above the old northeastern corner of the city at a point where the terrain started to slope down towards the old Greco-Roman wall that ran along what is modern-day via Carbonara. The first real news, however, of a church called the Holy Apostles comes in 1530 when the church was given over to the care of the Marquis of Vico Colantino Caracciolo. It then passed to the Theatine Order at the wishes of the marquis' gracious lady, Maria Gesualdo. They say she was devoted to that order, yes, but was especially intent on keeping the church out of the clutches of the Society of Jesus (commonly known as Jesuits), whom she regarded as "...all a bunch of Spaniards"! In any event, the church is one of the four major basilicas of paleo-Christianity in Naples. (The others are the churches of S. Maria Maggiore, S. Giorgio Maggiore, and S. Giovanni Maggiore.)
The church was rebuilt by 1581 and a monastery, designed by Francesco Grimaldi, added by 1590. The facade and further changes to the church and monastery were done by Giacomo Di Conforto in the early 1600s. In 1627 the church of the Holy Apostles was rededicated to Ascanio Filomarino, the archbishop of Naples. A belfry was built in 1638 and the large Filomarino Chapel by Francesco Borromini was added in the 1640s. There was major damage from an earthquake in 1688, but the structures were rebuilt by 1758. With the suppression of religious orders under Murat in the early 1800s, the monastery was confiscated by the state but restored to the order after the return of the Bourbon monarchy. Church and monastery were restored in 1857 but the monastery was again closed by the anticlerical government of united Italy in 1870. For many years the monastery was used to manufacture tobacco products. After the earthquake of 1980, both monastery and church were restored; the monastery is now a high school, the Liceo Artistico Statale of Naples.
The magnificence of the interior is due to the restoration after the 1980 earthquake. They missed a few spots such as (to my dismay) the original double pipe organ, which is still visibly broken with the pipes bent and sticking out from the case. I am hoping for at least a cosmetic restoration even if the instrument never again plays a single note. (Restoring old church organs is a particularly thorny problem. See this link.) Also, for some reason, the original and noteworthy yellow, white and black majolica tiles that covered the dome on the outside were not put back in place, nor was the original Baroque facade restored, whatever it might have been. From the outside, then, the church of the Holy Apostles remains monotonous and plain. I understand that some of the external ornamentation had also been vandalized over the years. Maybe the restorers decided not to fight the inevitable. Leave it plain, but give the folks something to see on the inside. And that they did.