Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

   entry Apr. 2003

Piazza San Domenico Maggiore

spire of S.D. MaggioreOne of the most interesting squares in the city of Naples is Piazza San Domenico Maggiore [#11 on this map]. The square is on "Spaccanapoli" (named via Benedetto Croce at this particular section of its considerable length) the street that "splits" the historic center of Naples and one of the three main east-west streets of the original Greek city of Neapolis. 

In the center of the square is an obelisk (photo, right) topped by a statue of San Domenico di Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order, erected after the plague of 1656. The original designer of the spire was the great Neapolitan architect, Cosimo Fanzago, among whose other works is the San Martino monastery on the hill overlooking the city. Actual construction (by Francesco Antonio Picchiati) on the spire was started immediately after the plague epidemic of 1656 but was suspended in 1680 when the spire had reached about half the height one sees today. It was finished in 1737 under Charles III, the first Bourbon monarch of Naples.  The architect who finished the work was Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. The column is one of the three so-called "plague columns" of Naples—also called votive spires. They were all put up after the plague of 1656 as votive offerings. The other two are the one at Piazza Gesu Nuovo and the Guglia di San Gennaro. The square and spire are actually at the rear of the church (the south side) and not the main entrance.

The most prominent building on the square is, of course, the Church of San Domenico Maggiore (photo on left) . The church one sees today incorporates a smaller, original church built on this site in the tenth century, San Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa, a Byzantine church that housed the Basilian monastic order. The original entrance is still visible to the left in the square at the top of an outside stairway (seen in the next photo, below). After the Schism between Rome and Constantinople, that church became a Benedictine monastery in 1116 and then passed to the Dominican order in 1221. Charles II of Anjou began the extensive rebuilding that produced the Church of San Domenico Maggiore. The work was done between 1283 and 1324, but the church has undergone extensive modifications over the centuries, including one in 1670 that recast the structure in the style of the Baroque. In the 19th century, however, the church was restored to its original Gothic design.

Among the many artistic points of interest in the basilica is the frescoed ceiling by Francesco Solimena (1707), one of the most prominent of Neapolitan Baroque painters. The church also holds the tombs of a number of Aragonese princes from the fifteenth century. Other prominent figures repose here, as well: for example, Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, head of the loyalist Army of the Santa Fede, which brought down the Parthenopean Republic in 1799. 

The monastery annexed to the church has been the home of prominent names in the history of religion and philosophy. It was the original seat of the University of Naples, where Thomas Aquinas, a former monk at San Domenico Maggiore, returned to teach theology in 1272. As well, the philosopher monk, Giordano Bruno, lived here before setting off on his wanderings as an itinerant teacher.The side of San Domenico Maggiore on the square is actually the front of the church, meaning that if you go in that entrance you come up next to the altar, itself. The main entrance, from the back, opens onto a courtyard within the monastery, itself, and is generally not open. 

The present-day form of the square took shape between the 15th and 19th centuries, starting with work done by the Aragonese, who transformed it into one of the most important centers in the city. Bounding the square are a number of prominent buildings in the medieval and, later, Spanish history of the city.


Next to the stairway on the left as you face the church is Palazzo Balzo, now called Palazzo Petrucci (photo on right). Its origins are in the early 14th century as a residence of nobility connected with the move of the Angevin dynasty from Sicily to Naples. It passed into the hands of Petrucci in the mid-1400s. Petrucci enjoyed the favor of Ferrante, the Aragonese ruler of Naples, until he joined the so-called "Barons' revolt" of 1485. He was executed by decapitation. The building has changed hands many times since then, and the only real remnant of the 14th century seems to be the main portal. 


On the other side of the square is the Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero (photo on left), built in the middle of the 16th century. The Palazzo was built in the second half of the 1500s at the behest of Paolo di Sangro. The simple facade was embellished in 1621 and is the one we see today. Over the ornate portals is the crest of the Sangro di Severo family. The most famous of the family is Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero (1710-71), whose scientific and technological research earned him an excommunication and reputation for sorcery. 

The building is one of those in Naples said to be haunted! In 1590, prince Carlo Gesualdo, famous composer of madrigals, lived in that building and there he killed his wife, Maria d’Avalos, and her young lover, don Fabrizio Carafa. They say that Gesualdo then killed his own tiny son because of a resemblance, real or imagined, to his wife's lover. (Note "they say"--it's a rumor. Please see this footnote to the Gesualdo entry.) After the murders, Gesualdo went on to compose some of the most beautiful and innovative pieces in the madrigal repertoire. He married a second time and died in Naples in 1613. Tradition says that the ghost of his murdered wife still walks the halls of the building. 

The famous chapel of Sansevero is off the square in back of the Palazzo, itself, and is more properly named the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà, or Pietatella. It dates back to 1590 when the Sansevero family had a private chapel built in what were then the gardens of the nearby family residence, the Palazzo Sansevero. Definitive form was given to the chapel by Raimondo di Sangro, famous Prince of Sansevero, whose patronage added the frescoes and sculpture, which would turn the chapel into a harmonious and integral manifestation of religious faith of the eighteenth century. Unique and world famous, of course, is the statue of the Veiled Christ (photo on left), sculpted by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753.  

The Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero is flanked by Palazzo Saluzzo di Corigliano (photo on right, red building on left), the building on the corner of Spaccanapoli. Palazzo Corigliano got its name in the 1700s from its most famous tenant, Duke Augustino di Corigliano, but is much older than that. Construction started on Palazzo Corigliano in 1506,at the very beginning of the Spanish viceroyship in Naples. Sources from the 1600s and 1700s refer to it as one of the first truly modern buildings in the city. Originally, the building had two stories, but a third was added in the 1700s by the owner, Agostino Saluzzo. Almost all of the sculpture and decorative murals within Palazzo Corigliano stem from the 1730s. Spectacular and representative as they are of the period, they are considered virtually in a class by themselves in Naples. Quite recently, after extensive renovation, Palazzo Coriglno has served to house some departments of the Orientale University of Naples.

The square is closed on the south side by the Palazzo Casacalenda, an 18th century building erected on the site of an ancient Greek temple, remnants of which can be seen within the courtyard.

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