I had never considered becoming a nun. In fact, in my on-going quest to decide on a career, it may have been one of the few occupations I had not entertained. And yet, in the courtyard of the Santa Chiara Cloister, tucked away from the busy streets of surrounding Naples, sitting on a bench painted with a vivid blue and yellow ship sailing into a lemon-framed port, smelling the orange blossoms and listening to stone fountains gurgle and bells toll at the basilica next door, I could understand how a woman could choose to live that life.
I had not planned to visit Santa Chiara at all. The sprawling religious complex in the center of Old Naples – complete with basilica, monastery, cloister, steam baths, museum, chapel and late-addition bell-tower – was too obvious a tourist site.
But on my way to Via Tribunali, I made a wrong turn in the twisting streets and found myself in the stone archway of an uneven courtyard, facing a massive stone cathedral with three great rose windows and watching two flower girls in purple dresses dance and jump to an accordion player as the wedding party left the church. I waited until they had dispersed, and then followed a small knot of tourists into the building.
The main sanctuary is carved white and blue marble, inlaid with gold and yellow sunbursts, and decorated with white marble statues and stained glass windows. The grandeur of the architecture contrasts starkly with the plain wooden pews lining the room. And though the design is old, the construction is relatively new: much of the church was destroyed during Allied bombings in WWII and was rebuilt by the community in 1953, according to a proud plaque on the front doors.
Originally built in 1313, the Basilica di Santa Chiara houses the remains of a short and violent line of royalty: King Robert of Naples, Queen Sancha of Majorca, Bourbon King Francis II, Marie Sophia of Bavaria, Queen Maria Christina of Savoy, and the ill-fated Joan I of Anjou, who was crowned queen in Santa Chiara in 1343 and buried here in 1382 after her cousin ordered her smothered to death.
The brain of Saint Toulouse is housed in one of the chapel walls, donated by his loving sister after his early death at age 22. A small nave and an even smaller, smudged, bronze plaque mark the grave site of the Italian hero Salvo d’Acquisto who sacrificed his own life to save two dozen of his countrymen from wrongful execution at the hands of the German occupying force. A collection of bright, stained glass depicting St. Georges battling dragons give a colorful tint to his final place.
At the front of the church, beyond the altar, a worn wooden plaque describes the detailed screen grille separating the altar space from the retrochoir beyond, the seating space where the nuns of Santa Chiara could observe Mass, invisible to any viewers from the main sanctuary. Santa Chiara was the largest Clarissan church ever built and the first to enable the Poor Clares to observe Mass.
Having my fill of stained glass and statuary, I made my way to the Poor Clares’ Cloister. The outside of the Cloister is unremarkable. It was built to hide, to conceal the women who lived here in solitude and poverty for almost 600 years. A demon, with his tongue lolling out, grins down at modern visitors who pass through the arch and into the courtyard beyond.
The nuns of Santa Chiara lived in complete seclusion, but they did have some comforts, including an elaborate steam bath that is currently being excavated and is on display to inquisitive viewers. The real display, however, is the garden. In 1742, the Abbess commissioned artist Domenico Antonio Vaccaro to create a garden “fitting for noble ladies.” He more than succeeded.
A square green courtyard is framed by archways and a covered walkway painted with beautiful murals on yellow stone. Lemon and orange trees are separated from flower gardens and a few tall, ancient pines by geometric stone pathways. Everything is lined with majolica tile benches and columns in bright yellows and blues. An exquisite motif of green vines and yellow lemons, oranges, and sun bursts stand out against a deep blue background. Panels in the low benches and shaded walkways are painted with lively scenes of everyday life: a market sale, a village game, a wedding, a ship at sea, a carnival, a woman sewing, a shepherd guiding his flock to the field.
This gorgeous place was barred from public sight until the Poor Clares swapped convents with nearby Franciscan friars and the friars began to allow public viewings in the 1970s. There is good reason it has become a well-visited tourist site since, and it is welcome sanctuary for weary visitors.
Written by Guest Contributor Anne Siders for EuropeUpClose.com
Anne Siders is a foot-path traveler who delights in the off-beat, the ancient, and the active. She travels for work and for pleasure, and for the opportunity to write and photograph it all.