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The Jewels of San Gennaro
This week I’m on the island of Ischia, relaxing after completing a tour called “Five Days in Naples.” I planned each day to tell a different story of the city’s 3,000-year-old history, including trips to Herculaneum and Baia. But then the usually temperate days of early October turned to rain. On the first day of the tour, the rain was so dramatic that schools in Naples were closed due to flooding and lightning hit an airplane at the airport. Months of meticulous planning went down the drain.
The first indoor pivot took us to the The Treasury of San Gennaro. It’s more significant than the British Crown Jewels and the treasury of the tsars of Russia, yet very few seem to even know of its existence. It’s a testament to Naples's wealth between the 17th and 19th centuries. Intense devotion to the city’s patron saint began in the 1520s when Naples was crumbling from plague outbreaks and several eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Neapolitans often say that when praying for your cause, you just have to find the right saint, like Napes did when it turned to San Gennaro and he saved the city from total collapse.
Only a tiny fraction of the complete treasury is on view, but this miter made to adorn a gold statue of San Gennaro tells a big enough story. It is composed of 3,964 diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.
That evening we dined at Aria, which earned its first Michelin star just six months after it opened in summer 2021. Before we entered, I invited my guests to notice for a moment the frenetic swirl of Naples, and then the dramatic energy shift felt immediately upon entering the restaurant — like a secret hatch door away from the chaos.
Led by Chef Paolo Barrale and Chef du Cuisine Mario Stellato (whom many of you know from Borgo La Pietraia), we were given a tour of Campania over six exquisite courses. The chefs cast their spell and the guests noticed how even the reflections of the wine glasses on the tablecloths were more beautiful in this setting.
I held out hope for the trip to Baia, but the 100% chance of rain on my weather app was delivered, so we instead went to La Reggia di Caserta, the world’s largest palace. I had visited many times and knew it was a knockout, but I learned a feature that gives me chills every time I think about it. Above the grand staircase is a dome with a fresco of Apollo, and around it, a secret tucked away ledge where musicians would sit. When the king entered the palace, the effect was that of heavenly music playing: a halo of sound filled the palace.
The most dramatic rain fell on the last day of the tour when we visited the Sansevero chapel, which was always tricky to find as it required turning down just the right narrow alleyway and walking through it before you knew if you chose the right one.
The highlight is the Veiled Christ - a jaw-dropping masterpiece of carving achieved by Giuseppe Sammartino, an artisan who made Neapolitan creche figures. Because it seems so impossible that marble could be rendered translucent, and because Sammartino did nothing notable before or after - stories persisted for generations that alchemy had been applied to the stone by Prince Raimondo di Sangro. The prince oversaw the chapel renovation in the 1750s and was indeed an alchemist and a devoted Freemason. His design turned the chapel into a temple of Masonic initiation, with every stone containing a hidden meaning to discover and contemplate. Yet another jewel box tucked into the 3,000-year-old urban grid of Naples.
The sun came out for the last hour of the tour just as we entered the majolica cloister of Santa Chiara. In the end, I realized there are no b-list choices in Naples, only more beautiful things to see.
If you want to join me for 5 Days in Naples in Spring 2023, I am ready for you no matter what the weather brings.