I went to the exhibition Il Tesoro di Napoli (The Treasure of Naples) Wednesday and am still shaking my head in wonder at the glorious collection there. A friend suggested that I go and told me that it was a small exhibit and that it would take only a half hour to see the 70 pieces on display. Almost two hours after I arrived, I reluctantly left, even though I wanted to go back and see everything a second time. I will return.
According to legend, San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), one of more than 50 patron saints of Naples, became the Bishop of Naples at age 20. He was martyred in the 3rd century during the persecution of the Christians by Emperor Diocletian. Since then, San Gennaro has been venerated as the city’s protector against war, the plague, earthquakes, shipwrecks, and natural disasters. San Gennaro’s followers gather three times a year—on September 19, December 16, and the Saturday before the first Sunday in May—in Naples Cathedral to witness the liquefaction of what is claimed to be a sample of his blood, which is kept in a sealed glass ampoule.
BBC says, “In the 1520s, when Naples was beset by disease, war, and the frequent eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius, Neapolitans pledged to build a chapel to San Gennaro and safeguard the donated treasure in return for the saint’s protection.” It’s a good thing that the Neapolitans did, because for the past seven centuries, famous people, ordinary people, popes, kings, and emperors have given priceless gifts in honor of this saint, and the Museum of San Gennaro now houses more than 21,600 masterpieces.
This collection, which has never been shown outside Naples, is reportedly more valuable than the British Crown Jewels or the Russian imperial crown. The collection left Naples only once: when the city was bombed in World War II, the collection was sent to the Vatican for safekeeping in 1943 and returned to Naples in 1947. The 70 pieces for this exhibit in Rome were transported from Naples in several shipments (for security purposes) under armed guard, and the exhibit is, of course, heavily guarded. When the first shipment left Naples for Rome, Neapolitans lined the street and applauded.
Two priceless pieces especially knocked my socks off: the bishop’s mitre, created by Matteo Treglia in 1714 and decorated with 3,326 diamonds, 164 rubies, 198 emeralds, and two garnets; and the Necklace of San Gennaro, one of the most precious pieces of jewelry in the world. The necklace was begun by Michele Dato in 1679, and many precious gifts have been added, including a cross of diamonds and emeralds donated by Emperor Napoleon. I also loved the enormous silver reliquaries (of the more than 50 in the collection, about a dozen or so are displayed in Rome), statues, and candlesticks (two of which were about eight feet tall!); gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted chalices and crosses; and elaborately embroidered altar covers. The exhibit is beautifully mounted, lit, and signed, and the English audio guide is good.
If you’re in Rome before the exhibit closes on February 16, 2014, hie thee to the Palazzo Sciarra at Via Marco Minghetti, 22 (just off Via del Corso), and prepare yourself to be blown away! I went at 10 a.m., when the exhibit opens, on a weekday, and I had the place to myself until around 11. Whatever you do, do not miss this rare opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest treasures.