Raimondo of Sangro
Who has had the opportunity to read some articles in which I speak of Naples, about the long-standing problems facing the city, will be became aware of my love-hate feeling towards it. Different matter, however, is to consider this city under a cultural and artistic point of view. As many assert, and I am convinced, it is a city – if not the only – with the highest concentration of natural beauty and works of high historical and artistic interest, a truly huge cultural heritage. Among these is included the “Chapel of San Severo” or “Santa Maria della Pietà” in the historic center of the city.
Its creator, Raimondo di Sangro VII, Prince of Sansevero was a scholar, a soldier, an inventor, anatomist and esoteric Freemason born in Foggia in 1710 and died in Naples in 1771, around which many legends were born. The members of his family were grandees of Spain, owners of countless feuds in Apulia (as Sansevero Torremaggiore, Castelnuovo, Casalvecchio), and, by paternal line, claimed to be directly descended from Charlemagne.
Motherless since childhood, he was assigned to the paternal grandparents who at 10 years sent him to study at the Jesuit School of Rome, where he remained until 20 years. His father was gone to Vienna, to escape incarceration because accused of having killed a girl’s father in Sansevero, with whom he had fallen in love, and later retired to a monastery in Rome where he took his vows. Naples was the permanent residence of Raimondo’s family where he came back as soon completed his studies. In the same year, by proxy, since she lived in the Andes, he married the fourteen Carlotta Gaetani d’Aragona, who met only six years after the wedding. During his life, the prince of Sansevero took care of many things of a military nature, arts and culture, but also of inventions and alchemy. Adjacent to the family mansion, separated by an alley, is still the chapel of his family, and according to legend, it was built by the ancestors of the prince in 1593 on an ancient temple of Isis, while in 1744, 100 years later, Raymond resumed the restoration works. Construction’s works that drained the family’s coffers and lasted until the death of the prince, but that made the small church with his Masonic influences and allegories, a masterpiece of Baroque Neapolitan, attended by famous artists.
The chapel is known mainly for three idiosyncratic statues that adorn it, two of which “Veiled Modesty” and “Veiled Christ“, seem to be covered by a transparent veil of marble – that is all one with the sculpture – and to date critics has not yet figured out the technique used. Same goes for the third statue entitled “Disillusion” on which there is a network created by marble. One of the hypotheses, by modern admirers of the Prince, is that it is the result of a process invented by the Prince to “marbleize” the fabric. This procedure, however, has not yet been put to the test, and still do not seem to be a convincing explanation. One possible interpretation of these works’ allegorical message, focuses on the Enlightenment, which is that through the reason man reaches the disappointment and gets rid of false truths. In the of the chapel’s “Underground Cave” we find two special “mummies” defined “anatomical machines” by the prince, two human skeletons (a black woman and one man) with their entire circulatory system (including capillaries) perfectly visible.
It is not known how such structures have been obtained and legend has it that the Prince would obtain the “metallization” or “plastination” of the blood circuit “injecting” a compound of his invention and, therefore, the two subjects had to be alive at the time of the experiment (note that the syringe did not yet exist at the time). However, whether they are machines or real bodies is not certain, since the owners of the Chapel have always refused to let perform any type of investigation.
It was easy for the common people to give birth to magical stories on the erudite and mysterious Prince of Sansevero, who, however, did nothing to discredit the rumors rather, cloaked in the secrecy of his life, for days he remained closed in in his alchemical laboratory, where studied and realized his experiments and his inventions. It should be added that, in the basement of the palace, a printing press had been placed and its noise, very original for the time, could well fuel further rumors. From general accusations of alchemy, witchcraft and atheism, other more serious charges took root, without any basis as far as we know, such as kidnapping poor and homeless for his ignoble experiments. For this and more, he was nicknamed the “black noble”.
The Cappella Sansevero also known as the Capella Sansevero de’ Sangri received its alternative name of Pietatella (from the word pity) from a painting of the Virgin Mary (La Pietà), spotted there by an unjustly arrested prisoner, as reported in the book “Napoli Sacra” by Cesare d’Engenio Caracciolo in 1623. When the chapel was constructed it was originally dedicated to Santa Maria della Pietà, after the painting.
With its thirty works of art and decoration in late-Baroque, the chapel has always been a destination for tourists and visitors.