Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Mar. 2003  update: June 2015

iazza Mercato, the Carmine church & square,
and the
Carmelite Order (second item, below)

I am looking for a word—"psychotactility"?—to describe that sensation you get when you lay your hands on something ancient, part of a Greek wall, say, in Naples, and close your eyes and suddenly feel that you are in touch with the ancient Greeks. ("Ulysses? Is that you? Can you hear me?" It's ok to talk during these episodes. The people near you will just think you're using a hands–free smartphone.) That sensation doesn't happen to me very often. Well, all right, it has never happened; I just thought it would be nice to have a word for it. 

One place it really doesn't happen is in the middle of  a squalid parking lot that used to be one of the most important sites in the city. I tried again today, and all I "felt" were the cars. ("Mr. Ford? Mr. Daimler? Are you there? Curse you!") I am referring to Piazza Mercato—"Market Square," the setting for a number of episodes of extreme interest in the history of Medieval Europe. 

The square is at  the easternmost point of the old medieval wall along the coast (see this entry) where the Carmine Castle used to stand. The historic old church, Santa Maria del Carmine (also called Carmine Maggiore) is just off the square (photo, above). It is still in use and the75–meter belfry is still visible from a distance even amidst newer and taller buildings. 

For such a noteworthy church, its pedigree is obscure. A document from 1589, the Cronistoria del Convento, by one Padre Moscarella, says that the church was founded in the 12th century by Carmelite monks driven from the Holy Land during the Crusades, presumably arriving in the Bay of Naples aboard Amalfitan ships. Other sources place the original refugees from Mount Carmel as early as the eighth century. Whatever the case, the fact remains that by 1268, the date of the execution in Piazza Mercato of Conradin, the last Hohenstaufen pretender to the throne of the Kingdom of Naples, at the hands of Charles I of Anjou, the church and adjacent monastery were well established. The square, itself, had become the largest market place in the city, having replaced in importance the ancient market in the heart of the old city, itself.

painting of Piazza MercatoWith the execution of Conradin, the square also became the place for official executions and would remain so for many centuries. It was the site of the grisly Bourbon executions of Republican revolutionaries in 1799. It was for centuries a general gathering place, watering hole and focal point for celebration as well as rebellion. In 1647 the square was where trouble broke out between rebels and royalist troops during Masaniello's Revolt and a last-stand rallying point for Bourbon forces resisting Garibaldi's move on Naples in 1860. 

All of that history was ploughed under during the great Risanamento—Urban Renewal—of Naples around 1900. The new port road was put in, the old castle demolished, part of the monastery, itself, torn down, etc. Whatever else the merits of the Risanamento were, it shifted the center of the city well away from the port and to the west. The new straight road through town, Corso Umberto, divided the city in half. The port half—Piazza Mercato—decayed terribly over the decades. It was also subjected to aerial bombardment in WWII. The area is just now coming back to life—with an interesting mishmash of architecture

The Church of the Carmine continues to thrive and serve the needs of the faithful in the area. The old monastic premises adjacent to the church now serve as a shelter for the needy and homeless. The church is home to two remarkable religious relics: One, the painting of the "Brown Madonna," said to have been brought by the original Carmelites; two, a figure of the Crucifixion in which the crown of thorns is missing. Legend says that the crown fell as Christ's head moved when the building was struck by a cannon ball in 1439. 

Yet, as I said at the top of this entry, there is very little of all that still hanging around in the air, if you will. The square is now a totally anonymous and grimy parking lot.

update: June 2015 - That last sentence is fortunately no longer the case. The growing Muslim community in Naples uses the square for Friday prayers. They have cleaned up the square and do their best to keep it that way. There is also a space for kids to play soccer. I don't know what happened to all the cars. I don't care.

entry May 2011

2.     Further Comments on the Carmelites

Assuming that some readers share my lack of knowledge of the history of the Carmelites, I add here some historical information about that religious order, particularly as it relates to their presence in Naples.

First, it is not easy to provide a clear definition of "Carmelites" as they have moved through history from pre-Christian Jewish hermits to and through the period of early Christianity and into the Middle Ages to modern times. There are two branches of Carmelites: the Ancient Observance or "Calced" Carmelites, and the reformed, medieval order called the "Discalced" (meaning "shoeless") Carmelites. Lore and literature within the Carmelite community, itself, traces the ancient order back to its establishment by the Prophet Elijah (or Elias) at the site of his victory over the priests of Baal in the ninth century BC (as recounted in the Biblical Books of Kings). (Mount Carmel is in a coastal mountain range in northern Israel. The area contains the modern city of Haifa.) Subsequent Jewish hermits on Mount Carmel revered Elijah and lived their lives of seclusion in emulation of that prophet. (It is worth noting that Elijah is revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.) The community of hermits, however, seems to disappear from history —or at least from reliable historical mention— with the downfall of the kingdom of Israel only to reappear in the third or fourth century of the Christian era when Mt. Carmel was a place of Christian pilgrimage.

The connection between the pre-Christian hermits and the Christian hermits or pilgrims, especially the transition from one to the other, is vague, much disputed and, to my knowledge, cannot be decided on the basis of independent sources. Modern Carmelite insistence on their connection to Elijah was strong at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, when Pope Gregory X reaffirmed the mandate of the Fourth Lateran Council calling for the dissolution of all orders formed after 1215. The Carmelites responded with the claim that their order predated the Fourth Lateran Council by some two-thousand years (!) and that their order was descendant from Elijah, himself, and his disciple, Elisha, as well as others called "the sons of the Prophet" who lived on Mt. Carmel; further, that these hermits were then baptized into Christianity by the Apostles of Christ. Thus, the order represented an unbroken chain between the Old and New Testaments. A strong claim, indeed.

I have read that some claim a Carmelite appearance in southern Italy shortly after the rise of Islam. That may be possible, even plausible (and even desirable, given the aggressive nature of Islamic expansion) but I am not aware of the evidence. (I mean just that. If you ARE aware of such evidence, please tell me about it. I'll send you some caramel candy, which etymologically has nothing to do with mountains or hermits.) The first documentation of the religious order, as we understand it, is from the 1200s. That was an important century, the events of which are directly responsible for the decision to move the order from the Holy Land to Europe. Pope Innocent IV recognized the group as a religious order in 1247. These are the people who later became the "discalced Carmelites" in Europe; St. Theresa of Avila founded the first female house in 1562 in Spain, John of the Cross and others (inspired by her) founded the first male house in 1568, and the order was recognized by the pope in 1592.

The move to Europe is a direct result of conflict between Islam and the Latin Kingdom, a loose-knit Catholic state in the Middle East set up after the First Crusade. It lasted from 1099 until 1291, when the last remaining Latin possession, Acre, was destroyed by the forces of Islam. The 1200s saw a long string of Christian Crusades into the Holy Land, but in spite of some moderate diplomatic success by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily, the century was a flop in military terms for the Christian West and marked the end of the Crusades.

Sources on the Carmelites say that the order must have seen the Islamic handwriting on the wall in the mid-1200s and, taking advantage of their recent recognition by the Pope, moved "elsewhere" —Cyprus, Malta, and "Sicily". Note, however, the quotes around Sicily; modern readers are tempted to think "island of Sicily" when what it really meant in the 1200s was "Kingdom of Sicily" and included the island, itself, but also what was then known as Continental Sicily, that is, all of southern Italy,i.e., the territories conquered and consolidated by the Normans in the 1000s and 1100s. The same, of course, applies to Frederick II as "King of Sicily" in the early 1200s. His "Sicily" extended almost to Rome and included, of course, the city of Naples. That is why we can have a Church of the Carmine (see the first item, above) claiming establishment in the 1200s (as descendants of the "Ancient Order") as well as others from much later, one of which, Santa Maria della Sanità, claims to be the first (1612) church of Discalced Carmelites in Naples. Both claims can be true. There are other Carmelite churches in Naples that have either scalzi or scalze (the grammatically feminine form for reference to nuns) (meaning "discalced") or "Teresa" in their names. For example: S. Maria degli ScalziSan Giuseppe delle Scalze or the church of Saints John and Theresa. These generally go back to the 1600s, well after the Church of the Carmine.

[Also see Carmelites (Discalced)]


-Jotischky, Andrew. The Carmelites and Antiquity: Medicants and their Pasts in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2002.
-Koch, Robert A. "Elijah the Prophet, Founder of the Carmelite Order" in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol. XXXIV, October 1959, no.4. Published by the Medieval Academy of America, Cambridge MA 02138.
-Wise, Elliot. "Between Mount Carmel and Piazza Mercato: The Brown Madonna of Naples" in the Journal of International Internship Research, Vol. I, Fall 2008. Publisher Jeffrey F. Ringer, director, David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, Brigham Young University, Salt Lake City, Utah. pp 76-92.

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