Giotto’s Frescos in Naples (Lost Artworks #1)

Thanks to a recent post by Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe the church of Santa Chiara in Naples has been on my mind lately, so I figured I’d (finally) begin my series on lost works of art right there…

The Clarissan convent of Santa Chiara was founded in 1310 Sancha of Majorca, the wife of King Robert the Wise of Naples. Work on the convent’s church seems to have been begun immediately, and appears to have been completed by 1338. The church’s importance is underlined not only by its enormous size but also by the fact that it was chosen as King Robert’s burial-place – his gigantic (albeit fragmentary) tomb monument still serves as the focal point at the western end of the spacious nave. Subsequently the church became the preferred burial-place for members of the Royal household and of Naples’ high aristocracy, too, and was one of the city’s noblest churches until at least into the 18th century.

Naples, Santa Chiara, interior

Given Santa Chiara’s importance and considering the Royal patronage it enjoyed, there can be little doubt that upon its completion it must have been magnificently furnished and decorated. However, the building’s medieval interior was irretrievably lost in the 18th century when the church was redecorated and turned into one of Naples’ most splendid Baroque interiors (for a pre-war photo of this interior see here). Unfortunately, this too was destroyed in the bomb raids of the Second World War – a loss greatly lamented by the people of Naples, not least in that most sentimental of sentimental Neapolitan songs, Munasterio e Santa Chiara, written in 1945. Anyway, after the war reconstruction work on the heavily damaged church was undertaken, but for both financial and aesthetic reasons it was decided not to recreate the Baroque decorations but to merely re-erect the building’s bare skeletal walls, thereby creating an interior very much in accordance with the purist tastes of 1950s architecture. Today, therefore, Santa Chiara presents itself as light, spacious structure with large areas of bare white walls.

Now, according to two 16th century sources, these bare walls were once entirely covered in 14th century frescos: As the Neapolitan humanist Pietro Summonte informs us in a letter dated March 20, 1524 “there are in this city some paintings by the hand of Giotto, for instance in the church of the nuns of Santa Chiara: that church is entirely painted by his hand.” And a short, somewhat speculative biography of Giotto in the Codex Magliabechiano, written in Florence between 1537 and 1542, claims that “in Santa Chiara he painted the Apocalypse.” I believe there are two things we may safely deduce from these sources: 1) Most if not all of Santa Chiara’s interior was once covered with wall-paintings presumably dating to the 14th century (and it’s tempting to assume, therefore, that they were executed shortly after or perhaps even slightly before the building was completed in 1338). 2) Some (or maybe a large part) of them showed scenes from the Apocalypse.

What must remain doubtful, however, is whether those paintings really were by Giotto. We mustn’t forget that, firstly, 16th century writers are notoriously unreliable in their attributions of 14th century paintings. And secondly, Giotto is not just any painter, but the one who, in the words of Boccaccio, single-handedly “brought back to light that art which had for many ages lain buried beneath the blunders of those who painted rather to delight the eyes of the ignorant than to satisfy the intelligence of the wise” and could therefore “deservedly be called one of the lights that compose the glory of Florence”. Indeed, ever since his once lifetime Giotto has been considered as being to the art of painting what Elvis Presley is to Rock’n’Roll, and by the 16th century he was a legend in every sense of the word.* As a consequence, early modern writers had a certain tendency to attribute just about any 14th century painting to Giotto if it they considered it to be of above-average quality.

On the other hand, of course, Pietro Summonte and the anonymous writer of the Codex Magliabechiano had a certain reason to assume Giotto’s authorship: As is well documented by a bunch of archival sources, for about five years Giotto served as court painter to King Robert the Wise in Naples. He first appears on the king’s payroll in late 1328, was made an official member of the Royal household on January 20, 1330, and remained in Robert’s service at least until 1333 or perhaps even early 1334.** A document dated May 20, 1331, also provides information what Giotto was working on: An altarpiece (which had already been completed by that time), and wall-paintings in the Capella Secreta as well as in the Capella Magna of the Castel Nuovo, the most important of the city’s Royal residences. Nothing precise is known about the altarpiece or the paintings in the Cappella Secreta, the king’s private chapel which must have been a comparatively small, intimate space adjacent to the Royal apartment. A little more may be said about the still extant Capella Magna, though:

Naples, Castel Nuovo, Capella Magna, interior (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Built under King Charles II from c. 1307-1309 and dedicated to Saint Barbara, this was designed as the palace’s main place of worship. It is a much more public space than the Capella Secreta and large enough to hold the entire Royal household; for something labelled “chapel” it was built on an exceedingly monumental scale. Minor alterations to the architecture were made when Robert the Wise decided to (finally?) have the chapel’s walls adorned with paintings: That same document from May 1331 informs us that two new windows were inserted into the walls so that stained glass windows with the figures of “certain saints” could be added to the chapel’s decoration.

Unfortunately, the document doesn’t say which saints were to be depicted in the windows, nor does it say anything about the subject of Giotto’s wall paintings. Pietro Summonte, in his letter already quoted above, states that “in the chapel of the Castel Nuovo there was painted on all the walls, by the hand of Giotto, the Old and the New Testament.” This is of course important information but once again we need to ask: How reliable is it? The problem is that Summonte couldn’t possibly have seen Giotto’s frescos himself: When he wrote his letter in 1524, the paintings had already been lost for more than 60 years. The Capella Magna and its painted decoration were severely damaged by an earthquake in 1456 and any remains of the paintings that had survived the event were whitewashed over immediately after.

However, a few traces of the fresco decoration have survived and can still be seen today. Not on the walls themselves, though,*** but in some of the window jambs:

Naples, Castel Nuovo, Capella Magna, fragments of fresco decoration

As you can see, these are just fragments of ornamental decoration, mostly garlands, interspersed with the odd coat of arms and some human heads who may or may not have been related to the iconography of the scenes that once surrounded the windows.

Naples, Castel Nuovo, Capella Magna, fragments of fresco decoration

Of course, the kind of decorative painting found in the window splays wouldn’t have been executed by Giotto himself but by his workshop assistants. Even so, they have been executed with great care and show an extremely high quality – which makes the loss of the rest even more regrettable! And considering the quality of those few sad remain in combination with the sheer size of the formerly painted surface and with the fact that there was a Royal patron behind the whole undertaking, the paintings in the Capella Magna must have been one of if not the most prestigious works ever to be painted by Giotto.

Naples, Castel Nuovo, Capella Magna, fragments of fresco decoration

The frescos certainly were impressive enough to be praised by someone as illustrious as Petrarch. It is well documented of course that Petrarch was a huge fan of Giotto and even owned a painting of the Madonna by Giotto himself. In 1358, Petrarch wrote a sort of guidebook, the Itinerarium ad sepulcrum Domini nostri Iesu Christi, a traveller’s guide to the Holy Land, for one of his friends, Giovanni Mandelli. Mandelli was departing from Genoa by ship and the first leg of his journey took him down along Italy’s west coast. In his Itinerarium, Petrarch urges him to visit the Capella Magna if he should go ashore in Naples, explaining that “[in said chapel] one of my [Florentine] compatriots, one of the leading painters of our century, has left great monuments of his skill and his genius.”

Incidentally, Petrarch suggests that Mandelli should also visit the church of Santa Chiara even though it is a little further away from the port. He doesn’t mention any wall-paintings there, however, which has been taken as an argumentum ex silentio supporting the theory that the frescos in Santa Chiara were in fact not by Giotto. While this line of reasoning may be somewhat speculative, one can’t deny that there is something to it: If the paintings were by Giotto it would indeed be strange that Petrarch should make no mention of them.

But anyway, Giotto or non-Giotto, today the bare white walls of both Santa Chiara and the Cappella Magna are striking reminders of just how much great 14th century art has been lost in Naples alone…


* One of the popular legends about Giotto was (and is) that he was friends with his great Florentine compatriote Dante Alighieri. For instance, after mentioning Giotto’s work in Santa Chiara the Codex Magliabechiano goes on to say that Dante had secretely snuck into Naples and advised his painter friend on Apocalypse iconography. The problem here is that even if we assume that Giotto really was the author of the frescos in Santa Chiara, he can’t have painted them before 1328, and Dante died in 1321…

** What we can say for sure is that by October 1334 Giotto was back in his hometown, Florence, where he had been appointed chief architect of the city’s cathedral.

*** As you can see in the interior view of the chapel, there are detached frescos installed on the lower part of the walls today and these are sometimes mistakenly believed to be the remains of Giotto’s work both by tourists visiting the place and online. In fact, though, those frescos come from the palace chapel at Casaluce near Naples, and they were painted by Niccolò di Tommaso several decades after Giotto’s death.


Bibliographical note:

All the documentary evidence regarding the lost paintings in Santa Chiara and in the Capella Magna, and everything I’ve quoted may be found in: Michael Viktor Schwarz and Pia Theis, Giottus Pictor, Volume 1: Giottos Leben. Mit einer Sammlung der Urkunden und Texte bis Vasari, Vienna et al.  2004.

The most comprehensive account of Giotto’s work in Naples is: Pierluigi Leone de Castris, Giotto a Napoli, Naples 2006, though truth be told the author’s far-reaching attempts of reconstructing Giotto’s lost works require a certain amount of imagination and, er, suspension of disbelief.

Finally, if you want to read up on the building history of Santa Chiara and the Capella Magna, the definitive book is: Caroline Bruzelius, The Stones of Naples. Church building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343, Yale University Press 2004.

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