There are two chunks of prime real estate in Naples, two properties that swagger largest when you look up at the city from the sea. They’ve been together for centuries.
The highest of the two is Castel Sant’Elmo – the star-shaped fortress that looks like it’s been carved out of rock by a gifted sledgehammer. Right next to it is the Certosa di San Martino, proud when seen from below, but less obvious when approached by road.
San Martino, formerly a Carthusian monastery, used to be one of the must-sees for the wealthy who came to Naples during the days of the Grand Tour. Today it seems priorities have changed, and for many visitors the monastery is little more than a striking landmark high on a hill.
I was one of the “done-churches” for a whole year … and then I got sucked into a group visit. I was stunned by what I saw. The plain old building that I’d turned my back on so often to admire the view that runs beside it was as rich as a jewelled box on the inside.
Here’s a quick gallop through what I found.
The church and its back rooms are wrapped in paintings, and filled with detailed carvings in wood and marble, commissioned from the finest artists of the day.
Beyond are plainer courtyards and corridors around the monks living quarters. Their simple balance is soothing … at least until you reach the skulls. These line the balustrade around the monks’ graveyards – watchmen facing outwards as visitors look in.
Then, depending on the route you take, it’s on to the museums which, amongst their other exhibits and paintings, include displays of a huge presepe and interesting collections of model ships and royal barges.
Our group visit ended on the terrace with gardens below and views out over the city and sea.
It’s hard to ignore the challenge nature had laid down for the artists who worked on the interior of the charterhouse. She had swept a glistening bay and its volcano before the monks – what could they do?
Today there are no monks in the Certosa di San Martino in Naples. They were first chased out after the French Revolution, and then finally excluded forever following Italian unification.
Who are the Carthusians? I didn’t have a clue. This is what I’ve found out.
- They’re an Order of Roman Catholic monks and nuns.
- The Order was founded in 1084 – 1086 at Chartreuse, near Grenoble in France.
- The founder, Saint Bruno, was born in Cologne Germany in around 1030.
- Saint Bruno was brought up in France where he was a chancellor of cathedral schools. He died at the second of the Order’s monasteries in Calabria, Sicily in 1101.
- Carthusians are a strict, largely silent order – one that has never had to be reformed.
- The monks wear hooded, white robes.
- The daily life of the monks combines the life of a hermit, solitude and prayer, with the workings of a monastery.
- Prayer includes two to three hours of prayer each night from just after midnight.
- In church they sing a form of Gregorian chant – the Carthusian chant.
- There are 19 charterhouses world wide today, with around 370 monks and 75 nuns.
The Certosa di San Martino was built near the middle of the 14th century when Europe’s ruling elites were at each other’s throats.
This wave of unrest began with the death in 1250 of the powerful, Sicily-based Frederick II, of the Hohenstaufen family. He and the popes in Rome did not always get along so, when he died, the pope of the time decided to bring in new, friendlier blood. He invited the French Angevins to take charge of the south.
It wasn’t easy for them to get established but the first Angevin king, Charles I, was ruthless enough to make it work.
It was a risky time and anyone who wanted to rule had to make their mark quickly. Building churches was a good start especially if your most powerful friends were the popes just down the road in Rome.
Charles II, the son of Charles I, takes much of the credit for the start of the wave of building. Proof of his quick thinking and piety still stretch over Naples today: the Certosa di San Martino; the Duomo; Santa Maria di Donnaregina; San Lorenzo Maggiore; and Santa Chiara.
His name is still linked with the Certosa di San Martino although he died in 1309 and it was only inaugurated under his great-grand-daughter Joanna I, in the second half of the same century. Joanna I might have hoped that life would be smoother for them with the monks in place on the Naples skyline …
… sadly it didn’t work like that – if anything it got much rougher.
Joanna, like her ancestors, ruled from the Maschio Angioino (Castel Nuovo) down by the sea in Naples and her reign was challenged from the start.
It was a difficult half century for her and the city but through the turmoil the monastery kept going.
The two centuries that followed were also untidy for Naples, but by the mid-sixteenth century, with yet another set of rulers in place, the mood had changed for the city and for its charterhouse. Both were due a facelift.
The additions and improvements in the monastery went on for years as great patrons and famous artists came in waves to turn its church into an extravagant jewel and its monastery into an example of elegant simplicity.
The results were, and still are, stunning.
Today the charterhouse remains a rare canvas – one that has been worked on by great artists for centuries and then gifted to the world, framed by one of Italy’s most complex cities … all that is missing are the monks.
The Certosa di San Martino looks modest from the outside, but, like much of the great treasure in Naples, it’s well worth a closer look.
Amongst the sources I have used for this piece are:
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018