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The High Altar of San Martino in Naples: Toward Enlightened Magnificence

J. Nicholas Napoli
, Pratt Institute
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow / Millon Architectural History Guest Scholar, June 10–August 8, 2013


Certosa di San Martino, Naples, high altar, designed by Francesco Solimena, early eighteenth century. Photograph courtesy of Fabio Speranza, Soprintendenza Speciale per il PSAE e per il Polo Museale della Città di Napoli

The inlaid-marble interior of the church of the Carthusian monastery in Naples, the Certosa di San Martino, is so dazzling that it eclipses the high altar. The altar is in fact a full-size wooden model dating from the early eighteenth century with gilt-wood angels added in 1768 to the flanks of the console that backs the mensa. In a church revetted with marbles and precious stones, the presence of a wooden high altar is curious.

The altar is the product of a series of initiatives stalled by indecision and conflicting preferences as to materials and design. The Carthusians had tried to commission and construct a suitably magnificent high altar since the early seventeenth century. The sculptor-architect Cosimo Fanzago (1591 – 1678) undertook the task but quickly abandoned the project. The monks were displeased with his use of base, ignoble building materials when he attempted to produce inlay work on rough piperno stone, as recorded in the monastery’s archives (as na, Monasteri Soppressi, fasc. 2158):

The monastery remains astonished because in our entire complex we have no inlay work that is mainly on piperno or on any other second-rate materials whatever they may be. The works in this church made of inlay that are on its walls are works of great expense and of much planning, and its facade likewise has also been very well considered. And then finally the high altar should be not only of noble architecture but of precious stones and gilt bronzes and other pertinent work, not of rustic stone or of inlay on piperno.

The statement makes the Carthusians’ interest in the finest possible materials explicit, and it demonstrates their willingness to spend handsomely for an appropriately grand centerpiece of their church. After Fanzago’s failed campaign, the monks resumed the project at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Filippo Juvarra (1678–1736), Andrea Canale (active 1670–1710), Lorenzo Vaccaro (1655–1706), and Francesco Solimena (1657–1747) each submitted drawings or received payment for tasks related to the construction of the altar in what appear to be a series of independent commissions. From 1705 to 1707 Francesco Solimena designed and directed construction for what was supposed to be a full-size wooden model of the high altar. Such a model was not unusual in Naples: Solimena constructed a similar one for the Deputazione del Tesoro di San Gennaro in 1707. Whereas the Deputazione eventually converted this altar into a porphyry and silver structure in 1721, the wooden model at San Martino was never replaced. Its relative incompletion is all the more perplexing because the monks commissioned a baluster of marbles and precious stones from Nicola Tagliacozzi Canale (1691–1764) and Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720–1793) in 1757. Sanmartino returned in 1768 to replace the gilt-wood angels of the altar itself. The provisional model became the permanent solution for the monastery.

My summer’s research at CASVA explored the meaning of this episode in the decorative history of San Martino. It is not consistent with the Carthusians’ tendency to commission interventions using the most precious materials possible, but as the ceremonial and spatial focus of the church, the altar is too central to be dismissed as an anomaly in the patronage record of the monks. I am inclined to interpret the episode instead as an allegory of the values of the order, and of the city and the kingdom of Naples as a whole, at the dawn of the Enlightenment. It represented a shift in the expression of magnificence. In the late sixteenth century (the early years of Catholic reform) the use of marble revetment in the church interior confirmed the superlative dignity of the house of God. The preciousness of materials and the virtuosity of manufacture were both central to this expression. By the early eighteenth century, however, the skill of the sculptor began to take precedence, so that now the claim could be made through the commissioning of a distinguished artist. Although the Carthusians used marble in later initiatives, Solimena’s wooden model retained the monks’ esteem.