Exhibition Review | The Treasures of Naples | John Weretka

Il Tesori di Napoli: I Capolavori del Museo di San Gennaro

John Weretka

Giovan Domenico Vinaccia (1625-95) and Lorenzo Vaccaro (1655-1706), St Michael the Archangel (1691), silver, bronze, and gilding, Museum of the Treasury of S. Gennaro, Naples

Palazzo Sciarra, Rome

30th October 2013-16 February 2014 (now extended until March)

Wowing enthusiastic crowds at the Palazzo Sciarra in Rome is a show entitled Treasures of Naples: Masterworks of the Museum of S. Gennaro. Although compact in size, this show brings together some of the prized objects of the Treasury of S. Gennaro, normally held at the Museum of the Treasury of S. Gennaro in Naples; this is the first time a collection of these objects has been permitted to travel.

The opening room of this exhibition swiftly sets up the cultural context of S. Gennaro with Francesco Solimena’s magnificent 1702 painting of S. Gennaro blessing, a copy of the Voto della città di Napoli of 1527 that established the Deputation of the Chapel of S. Gennaro (the body charged with the management of the Treasury), a sedan chair of late eighteenth-century manufacture used to transport the reliquary bust of S. Gennaro, and a computer-generated exact replica of the bust itself, a gift of the Angevin king Charles II in 1305. These objects point to the deep continuity of Neapolitan experiences of the patron saint.

Two corridors contain display cases of religious furnishings and ephemera including monstrances, chalices, pyxes and other liturgical service wear, in glass and metal, principally of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Highlights of this section of the exhibition include the life-size sculpture of St Michael the Archangel (1691) of silver, bronze, and gilding created by Giovan Domenico Vinaccia (1625-95) and Lorenzo Vaccaro (1655-1706) (Fig 1) and the Tobias and the Angel (1797) by Giuseppe del Giudice.

The heart of the exhibition is clearly the breathtaking Mitra by Matteo Treglia (1713) (Fig 2), made from gold sheets and encrusted with almost 4000 gems, most of which are diamonds. This object tends to dwarf a collection of reliquary busts, such as that of St John the Baptist by an unknown Neapolitan (1695) (Fig 3) or that of St Irene holding a model of Naples (Carlo Schisano, 1733) (Fig 4) and even a pair of massive torcieri that surround it. The following room holds the no less famous Collana (Fig. 5) the upper section of which dates from 1679, but which was added to well into the nineteenth century by private donors. Both of these objects were used to decorate the reliquary bust of S. Gennaro.

Matteo Treglia, Mitra, 1713, gold leaf and gems, Museum of the Treasury of San Donato

In the following room, a video presentation shows the miracle of the liquefaction of S. Gennaro’s blood in real time between altar cloths of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manufacture. The final room showcases some of the personal gifts that have been made to the Treasury by visitors to and rulers of Naples from the eighteenth century until the start of the twentieth century, testament to the vagaries of administration the city has had to endure.

Unknown Neapolitan, St John the Baptist, 1695 and Fig. 4 Carlo Schisano, St Irene holding a model of Naples, 1733, Museum of the Treasury of San Donato

This is a highly capable exhibition in which modest limits are set and more than met. One gets a vivid sense, through video and photography in particular, of the centrality of the cult of S. Gennaro to the experience of being Neapolitan. The objects themselves tell important stories about the history of style in Neapolitan art, and reveal its deep continuities. The dominance of metalwork provides a valuable insight into the history of ‘minor’ art in the south of Italy, as well as demonstrating the riches that Naples must have enjoyed in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century as money, precious metal and gemstones poured into this part of the Spanish empire. There are objects on display, created through 3D printing, that children can touch and room texts, for once translated into idiomatic English, assist understanding the art without becoming overly academic. This is a show for the masses, but it sacrifices very little of its academic integrity. My one quibble — and it is becoming an increasingly frequent one — is the lack of a proper exhibition catalogue. Had there been one to support the exhibition at a deeper historical and intellectual level, it would certainly have been coming home with me.

© John Weretka 2014

Fig. 5 Collana used to decorate the reliquary bust of San Gennaro, 1679 - 19th century, Museum of the Treasury of San Gennaro, Naples

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