Scooters whipping past, lilting 50s songs, restaurant serenades, archeological treasures, the home of pizza… pickpockets, stinking rubbish, stifling heat: these are the good, the bad and the ugly that are all associated with Naples. A sprawling metropolis seemingly stuck in the 50s, it can be an intimidating, exhilarating and exhausting place to visit, as described in my previous article on Naples. As I’ve previously found with Venice, Naples’ slightly overwhelming atmosphere (surprisingly not due to tourism this time) calls for moment of peace, clean air and green space. I found the Monastery Complex of Santa Chiara to be just the place.
The Franciscan friars of Santa Chiara call the complex an ‘oasis of peace and tranquility’ where you can pursue an ‘inner journey’. With bubbling fountains, aromatic lemon trees and sunny tiles decorating pillars, walls and benches, the courtyard of this ‘oasis’ is the ideal place for reflection.
Before you enter the courtyard area you can visit the Gothic style church, whose austere facade with simplistic arches and robust architecture is rather incongruous compared to the surrounding Baroque dramas. When I visited there was a wedding taking place in the church, and I couldn’t help admiring the determinism of men wearing suit jackets and ties in 35 degree heat. However, for all its medieval sincerity, the church is actually a reconstruction following devastating bombing in 1943.
As it looks now, the courtyard was built between 1739 and 1742 by D.A. Vaccaro, to have two perpendicular avenues of octagonal pillars coated completely by ceramic tiles. The pillars are joined by benches which are also covered in tiles. On the pillars the tiles have decorative flower, grapes and fruit motifs, taking inspiration from the surrounding nature such as the beautifully exotic yellow orchids. The lemon trees also have a decorative quality, as though those too have been sculpted into grace and beauty. Along the benches the tiles feature narratives of rural, mythological and maritime scenes. Sea and sky are captured by brief, visible brushstrokes. Some scenes are quite amusing, such as a nun feeding fish to several very hungry cats.
Evidential by the fact that all my photos are devoid of people, aside from a solitary gardener, this really is an escape from the crowds, the noise and the chaos in the narrow streets outside.
After wandering under the porticos admiring the 17th century frescos of Saints, allegories and scenes from the Old Testament, you can explore the cloister Museum. Here treasures from antiquity to the 20th century that escaped the bombing are displayed. There are antique statue fragments, polychromatic shields and an archeological area featuring remains of a Roman spa. You can see the curved brick walls of an intriguingly almost flower-shaped room.
Finally make sure you visit the presepe, a nativity scene in miniature which is a tradition of Naples. I will be writing in more detail about the Neapolitan presepi in due course, but suffice to say this was one of the largest and most impressive I saw in Naples.