With these words Celano, in his famous guide to the city of Naples (1692), expresses his astonishment and admiration for the decorative apparatus which, with its richness and dazzling inventiveness, makes the church one of the most evocative and exciting interiors of Neapolitan Baroque.
San Gregorio Armeno: the History
In the middle section of the ancient Via S. Ligorio, on the area of a probable pagan temple, near Piazza San Gaetano, the ancient Forum of the Greek-Roman city, stands the convent complex of San Gregorio Armeno.
Amidst artisans’ workshops, which at Christmas time display the famous crib statues, furniture restoration workshops and ancient statues, a shady atrium leads to the church of San Gregorio Armeno.
The church was built in its present form in 1574 by Giovan Battista Cavagna, but the foundation of the convent dates back many centuries.
The first nuns arrived in Naples shortly after 726 from Constantinople, where Emperor Leo III had issued a decree prohibiting the expiation and worship of sacred images. Fulvia Caracciolo, a nun who lived in the monastery from 1541, dates the foundation of the monastery to the year 930 in her Memoirs. In this chronicle, which is of fundamental importance not only for the church but also for the life and customs of Eastern-rite monasteries in Naples, we learn that the spatial organisation of the primitive structure was done according to the Eastern rite, which provided for the construction of the church within the monastery itself.
San Gregorio Armeno: the Church plan
Plan of the monastic complex of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples
- Monastery entrance
- Entrance portal after the monumental staircase
- Monumental cloister
- Monumental fountain
- Abbess’s Hall
- Nun’s Choir (first floor of the atrium)
- Winter Choir (second floor of the atrium)
- Apse choir (or chapel or communicatory)
- Nun’s corridor
- Vestibule and Nativity Chapel
- Chapel of Relics
- Little Cloister
- Maidens’ Refectory
- Anonymous chapel
- Chapel of Our Lady of Hydra
- Nun’s refectory
- Bell tower
San Gregorio Armeno: the Church
When, following the dictates of the Counter-Reformation, it became necessary – not without resistance from the nuns – to build a church with direct access from the street, the entire monastery complex was rebuilt. Already in 1009 the monastery of St Pantaleon, founded by Stephen III, bishop and duke of the city in the second half of the 8th century, had been joined to that of St Gregory. The two monasteries were then joined by a flyover, which in the 18th century formed the present bell tower that crosses the road. Traces of the ancient convent of S.Pantaleone can still be seen today in the buildings opposite the monastery of S.Gregorio.
Cavagna, in charge of the construction of the new church, designed a single hall in which high Corinthian pilasters divide five deep chapels on each side of the nave.
The rectangular apse, directly connected to the nave, i.e. without the passage of the transept, is covered by a dome. The whole structure, in its spatiality, responds to a typological scheme that was very common in 16th-century Neapolitan architecture.
The church had to meet the monastic needs of the nuns who wanted to continue their cloistered life.
Having built the church with the entrance directly on the street, the architect had to allow the nuns to attend religious rites without being seen. This explains the large room that covers the entrance hall and serves as a choir. The large number of nuns in the convent meant that the choir had to be enlarged at a later date. At that time, it was housed on a higher floor than the original room and was connected to the church by a series of ceiling openings.
In the 18th century, the nuns began a programme of radical renovation of the convent and church. The 16th-century structure was respected, but the walls, arches and every free space were covered with frescoes, gold and stucco in a figurative programme that allowed for a connection with the splendid and very rich gold and green ceiling, which includes paintings by Teodoro d’Errico.
The decorative renovation was not carried out in a uniform manner, but the richest elements, in terms of design and materials used, blend in well with the older decorations, creating a uniquely evocative whole.
The beautiful high altar with marble inlays (1682), designed by Dionisio Lazzari, remains the prestigious work of a great architect, while the side altars reflect the technical skill and inventiveness of skilled marble workers, witnesses to a rich local tradition.
All the elements added in the course of the Baroque transformation are reminiscent of a world of craftsmen who, in their workshops, handed down a figurative culture and skill of execution that characterised the minor arts of Neapolitan Baroque.
Thus, the beautiful rays of the commons, by Giuseppe Pollio, or the rich organs that scenographically invade the space of the last chapels, create that unrepeatable ensemble for the richness of ornamentation and perfection that make the building one of the most significant achievements of the Neapolitan seventeenth century, thus also justifying the words of Celano.
Luca Giordano also intervened in the radical transformation of the church. Around 1679, he painted the most important monuments in the history of this religious community on the inside wall of the entrance.
The same artist also painted the badly damaged frescoes on the dome.
In the chapels, where balustrades and gates take up the usual themes of this long Baroque station, there are paintings by Pacecco De Rosa (1st chapel right Annunciation1644), by Antonio Sarnelli (2nd chapel right St Pantaleon), by Francesco Fracanzano (3rd chapel right the Saint thrown into the well; the Saint invoked by King Tiridate to restore him to human form; 4th chapel on the left St Benedict) by Nicola Malinconico (4th chapel on the right Madonna del Rosario) and others, constitute a pictorial ensemble of considerable importance for Neapolitan figurative culture in this century.
The monastery, which in the chapel of the Idria preserves traces of the ancient monastic organisation, also underwent some transformations. Rebuilt by Giovan Vincenzo della Monica (1644), it was restored and completed by Dionisio Lazzari (1682).
San Gregorio Armeno: the Cloister
The cloister with its beautiful eighteenth-century fountain, with the statues of Christ and the Samaritan woman, by Matteo Bottiglieri (1733), preserves intact the charm of these ancient and more hidden spaces of Neapolitan convents where the vegetable garden, the cistern and the pergolas remind us of the daily occupations of the community.
In the 19th century, another nun, Enrichetta Caracciolo, who therefore belonged to the same family as Fulvia, in one of her publications recalled the cloistered life of the convent described in its unchanged reality. In these pages, rendered with an acute spirit of observation, sometimes with a critical accent or with conscious humour, sister Enrichetta gives us a vivid testimony of a world, made up of renunciation and melancholy, so distant from our modern culture.