The spire of San Gennaro, the oldest in Naples

by Francesco Li Volti

The spire of San Gennaro is located in the heart of the center of Naples, behind the Duomo he was born in Treasure of San Gennaro, in piazza Cardinale Sisto Riario Sforza. In this place it is said that once there was a temple dedicated to Jupiter or Neptune.

The spire of San Gennaro, the oldest in Naples
The spire of San Gennaro in a painting by Giacinto Gigante

The story of the spire of San Gennaro begins on December 16, 1631, while he was viceroy the Earl of Monterrey. The Vesuvius after 130 years of inactivity, exploded and began to pour hot mud and lapilli on its slopes, flooding the cities of Resin, Greek's tower, Arcades, Pietrarsa (at the time its name was Pietra Bianca (Leucopetra) but has since been renamed Pietrarsa) and Octavian.
100 million cubic meters of material spread around Vesuvius, killing nearly 3,000 people, as well as about 6,000 head of cattle; the homeless who fled to Naples were about 44,000. The Earl of Monterrey sent some ships to collect the survivors of Torre del Greco. In Naples there was great despair. The people, terrified by a possible eruption, he feared that the volcanic materials, now arrived at the gates of the city, could reach their homes. At times like these there is not much to do but rely on your saints.

San Gennaro take care of it!

So it was that on December 17 the bishop of Naples, Francesco Boncompagni, convinced the citizens to follow him in a procession dedicated to San Gennaro, carrying his relics and the statue of the Saint through the streets of Naples. In a painting by Micco Spadaro was reproduced just that moment.
The unthinkable happened: after 19 days, on January 3, 1632, the lava incredibly stopped, diverting its path, just when the statue of the Saint, placed on the Ponte della Maddalena, then the only passage between San Giovanni a Teduccio and Naples, it was turned towards the volcano. Needless to say, the joy that enveloped the city. San Gennaro became the hero of Naples and his name echoed for days, months.

The spire of San Gennaro, the oldest in Naples
Micco Spadaro's painting of the procession

Following the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 1631, the Viceroy Zunica had an Epitaph placed as a future warning of the dangers of the volcano. The plaque still exists and reads like this:

“Posteri, Posteri! It is in your interest: lived experience teaches life to come. Watch twenty times since the sun shines, it is history, not a fairy tale Vesuvius was erupting always with a huge massacre of those who lingered. I admonish that from now on he does not seize the uncertain. This mountain has laden its belly with bitumen, alum, iron, sulfur, gold, silver, nitro and sources of water. Sooner or later it will be incadent and with the influences of the sea it will give birth but before the eruption it upsets and shakes the earth; it sends smoke, flashes, vomits flames, shakes the air horribly, emits bellowing, roaring, thundering: it drives the neighbors away from their lands. Take to the skies as long as you are allowed! From one moment to the next it bursts, erupts impetuously, vomits a lake of mixture of fire, rushes quickly, precludes late escape. If it grabs you, it's over: you're dead! In the year of health 1631, on December 16, Philip IV reigned and Emanuele Fonseca Zunica count of Monterey as viceroy. Once the calamity of past times occurred and the feared Vesuvius kept alive with great humanity and munificence, the feared Vesuvius kept alive. Not taken into consideration, it has massacred the unwary and greedy for whom the house and the farms counted more than life then, if you have judgment, listen to this eloquent plaque. Don't take care of the house, don't mind your luggage: flee, without any hesitation! "

A spire for the Saint

In a short time it was decided to erect a monument for the patron saint, to thank him for yet another miracle. The Deputation of the Treasury of San Gennaro, the representative body of the Neapolitan people which today as then protects the Royal Chapel of the Treasury of San Gennaro, commissioned the construction of a monument dedicated to him. A spire was thought of due to an ancient practice of Roman origin: at that time it was customary to install an Egyptian obelisk, or an imitation of it, near the basilicas, in order to be easily sighted by pilgrims. The shape of the spire recalls the wooden and papier-mâché constructions that for centuries were carried in procession in different parts of Campania, as still happens today in Nola during the Feast of the Lilies.

The construction of the spire of San Gennaro

The work was entrusted in 1636 to Cosimo Fanzago and consisted of a column 24 meters high. The sculptor finished his work nine years later, due to some economic difficulties but still missing details. You will have to wait until 1660 to get the result of today's spire, as the 17th century was a particularly turbulent century for the city: the eruption of Vesuvius, the revolt of Masaniello it's a'plague epidemic in 1656 contributed to the slowdown of the works. At the top of the monument you can see the statue of San Gennaro by Tommaso Montani and on the base there is the siren Parthenope with a shield, as a sign of the defense of the city. The capital placed at the base of the statue of the Saint houses four putti holding the symbols of San Gennaro: the ampoules, the staff, the miter, the stole, the book and the pen.

Ps: The spire of San Gennaro is the oldest of the five obelisks in the city. In 1658 that of San Domenico was erected in Piazza San Domenico, in 1746 that of Piazza del Gesù, that of Materdei in Via Ugo Falcando and in 1799 that of Portosalvo in Via Alcide De Gasperi


Vesuvius, eruptive history and volcanological theories, Antonio Nazzaro, Liguori, 1997

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