Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

 Jeff Matthews entry 2003, updated May 2023

Church of the Annunziata

The first two items appeared separately in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated. They have been consolidated onto a single page here. I added item 3 in late May 2023.
entry May 2003
Church of the Annunziata 

Neapolitan folk tradition says that the origin of the surname "Esposito" is to be found in the past participle of the verb "esporre", that is, "esposto", meaning "exposed" or "put out for display". Thus, originally, so the story goes, abandoned children —left perhaps in a church— were "exposed" and those with that surname can be traced back to a foundling at some point. 

Generally, infants who were abandoned in Naples were left on the premises of the Church of the Annunziata (photo) in the old section of town, not too far from today's Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station. Indeed, there are also a great number of people in the Naples phone book with the surname "Annunziata," so that, too, may have a similar etymology. I have also heard the strange, quaint (?) —definitely weird— tale that on the premises of the Church of the Annunziata, which included a large orphanage, there was at one time a small, revolving Ferris-wheel-type affair with basket-cribs in place around the perimeter that each held a child. Periodically, the wheel would be put out and if you wanted a child, you could "spin the wheel," so to speak, and look at what was available. (I don't know if that is a true story, but that is the way I heard it). 

[As a matter of factthis written some time laterthat is not true, but the real story is just as fascinating. See #2, below.]

The Annunziata, itself, goes back to the early 1300s and has always been, in one form or another, an orphanage. By the mid 1600s, it was a full-fledged home, church, hospital, and school for such children. In the 1750s, under Charles III, the entire premises were completely remodeled by a team of architects that included Ferdinando Fuga, who built the giant Royal Hospice for the Poor, and Luigi Vanvitelli. The façade of the church is by Vanvitelli, as is the dome. The church interior is highly ornamental and includes works, for example, by Giuseppe Sanmartino, the sculptor of the famed Veiled Christ within the Sansevero Chapel in Naples. 

Traditionally, children raised by the Annunziata, surviving the staggering infant mortality rate of earlier times, were called "children of the Madonna" and, in a sense, there attached to them a certain aura of privilege —as if they lived in a state of grace. I have read that the Annunziata continued to function as an orphanage until the 1950s, at which time state social services took over the task.


entry Sept. 2003
Church of the Annunziata

Above, I refer to the Church of the Annunziata and a "revolving Ferris-wheel-type affair with basket-cribs in place around the perimeter that each held a child"—well, that was wrong. Close, but wrong. 

I went to the Church of the Annunziata this morning and was happy to note that it is now the site of a quasi-permanent historical display sponsored by the cultural powers-that-be in the city government. As well, the church and premises have been "adopted" by enthusiastic and diligent pupils of two local elementary school. (This is not uncommon in Naples. The Church of the Incoronata is another such example.) The children have filled the entrance to the Annunziata with large displays boards of snapshots, drawings, poetry, handwritten stories of the church, explanations of the traditions surrounding the long history of the church, papier maché models of the façade, and even one almost life-sized cardboard replica of la ruota the wheel" (image above, left), the item I misdescribed above in item 1. 

The "wheel" (photo) in question is actually a revolving single-basket contraption —somewhat like a "lazy Susan"— contained within a wooden frame about the size of a large chest of drawers. It was embedded in the wall of the front of the church with one side open to the street and the other within the church, like an automatic teller machine (to make an utterly inappropriate comparison!) Women who wanted to leave a child could open, from the street side, the compartment with the revolving basket, then put the infant inside and turn the device so that the basket moved around to the inside of the church where a nun was waiting. The current display in the room inside the church shows the "wheel," a small wash basin where the new arrivals were bathed, and a register, a book open to pages from the 1600s, the entries of which note the arrival and the sex and general physical condition of the infant. This unusual set-up guaranteed the anonymity of the woman since there was a wall between her and whoever accepted the infant on the other side. It was also, presumably, a kinder way to abandon a newborn child —that is, directly into the hands of someone who would care for it.

added May 24 2023

3.    The Wheel of Foundling Fortune

There is only one reason we go to see the church of the Annunziata. First, the proper term is the Casa Sacra dell'Annunziata. The hyper-correct name in Italian is Basilica della Santissima Annunziata Maggiore; in English, Basilica of Santissima [most sacred] Annunz-iata Maggiore. The church as we see it today was consecrated in 1774 and the concave fa
çade added in 1782. As an orphanage, it goes back to 1318 when the queen consort of Robert, King of Naples, ceded land to the lay Congregation of the Santissima Annunziata to establish an institution for the care of foundlings.
   Centuries of turmoil and natural or man-made disasters take their toll. You certainly can admire the fa
çade and the dome by Luigi Vanvitelli and his son, Carlo (image, right), and the many sculptures and paintings within the church; they are restored and kept up. But that's not what you came to see. You want to see "the wheel". The "foundling wheel" in this church is documented since 1601. The system was abolished in the 1870s, but the church remained an orphanage until the 1950s when state social services took over the task. There are other names for similar devices "baby hatch", baby box". It's not such an anachronism as you might think; indeed, it has in some parts of the world made a comeback! yes, a place where mothers can bring their babies, usually newborn, and abandon them anonymously in a place to be found and cared for. There are more than 300 such places in Pakistan, 100 in Germany, 76 in the Czech Republic, and 67 in Poland. But this is 2023, you say. How can...? I don't know.

I mention in part 1 at the top of this page that school kids have "adopted" the church and have devoted their efforts to telling the story of the  "Wheel". It's a story that means something to everyone. One of the kids tacked up this poem by the dialect poet, Ferdinando Russo, to their display board.
                                                                                                      thanks to Selene Salvi for this translation 

   Often a woman comes holding a child
    wrapped in a shawl. She looks down
    through half-closed eyes and
    lays the child down.
                The mat moves and turns
                and then is gone,
                This mother, homeless and poor,
                leaves with her head bent down.
                        When she's gone /There comes another
                        Like the first, hiding a child / wrapped in a shawl.
                        Night and day the wheel turns and empties/ turns and empties.


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