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
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
The monastery remains astonished because in our entire complex we have no inlay work that is mainly on
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
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.