Gesù Nuovo Church is the most beloved basilica in Naples, battered by legends, enhanced by the Baroque

Storia della chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, in pieno Centro storico di Napoli. L'edificio nacque come dimora della sfortunata famiglia Sanseverino, i Padri Gesuiti acquistarono il palazzo per trasformarlo in chiesa con le donazioni di Isabella Feltre della Rovere. Tra i luoghi di culto più visitati di Napoli, ospita la cappella dedicata al medico Giuseppe Moscati, santificato nel 1987


Gesù Nuovo building was born as the home of the unfortunate Sanseverino family, the Jesuit Fathers bought the building to transform it into a church thanks to the donations of Isabella Feltre della Rovere. Among the most visited places of worship, it houses the chapel dedicated to the doctor Giuseppe Moscati, sanctified in 1987

Among the five hundred and more churches in Naples, the church of Gesù Nuovo, in the middle of Spaccanapoli, is among the most loved and frequented by the Neapolitans. Its façade, which was printed on ten thousand old Italian lira papers, is one of the very rare examples of diamond point ashlar, an architectural technique used to give majesty to the building.

But the facade of the Gesù Nuovo has a very particular story to tell. Its ashlars, wanted by Novello da San Lucano, have strange signs carved in the piperno extracted from the quarries of Soccavo. For years, these markings have been believed to be alchemical symbols that quarrymen would imprint on the stone to provide positive energy. A legend, perhaps developed in the 1700s, when alchemy was popular in Naples, wants that during the construction of Palazzo Sanseverino the marked stones were placed on the façade in the wrong order, causing an effect contrary to that desired by the quarrymen. The positive energy turned into negative energy. This is why, according to this belief, the misfortunes of the Sanseverino family and all the collapses, fires and other vicissitudes of the Church of the Gesù Nuovo over the centuries happened.

This is the legend. Then, in 2010, the art historian Vincenzo De Pasquale discovered that the symbols were nothing more than letters of the Aramaic alphabet, the language spoken by Jesus. With the help of the Hungarian musicologists Csar Dors and Lòrnt Réz, he came to the conclusion that the imposing facade of the church was none other than a great musical score of Gregorian chants. After that study, the letters were turned into music and the songs hidden there, for over five hundred years, were played and recorded on a CD, but there are still those who, among the experts of occultism, want read only alchemical symbols in the facade of the Gesù Nuovo.

The church of Gesù Nuovo, also referred to as the Trinità Maggiore, is perhaps the most explicit example of the particular Neapolitan baroque, even if the origins of the basilica are older than that artistic period and date back to 1470, when the architect Novello da San Lucano built, in the space now occupied by the church, the sumptuous Neapolitan residence of the Prince of Salerno, Roberto Sanseverino.

That was the period in which the artistic and cultural ties between Naples and Florence were particularly close and Renaissance influences began to make their way into the Neapolitan area.

The story goes that the Sanseverino family’s assets were seized and sequestered several times, for a series of events related to the conspiracy of the barons and to heinous made of blood. The last to have possession, but also to lose them permanently, was Ferrante Sanseverino, who died in poverty, during his exile in France, in Orange, in 1568. All the family assets, including the palace in Piazza del Gesù, became part of the treasury and were sold to various families of the Neapolitan nobility. The Jesuit Fathers, however, obtained from Philip II the preference in buying the building of Piazza del Gesù to transform it into the church around which to build the Parthenopean Jesuit insula.

In 1551, it was the founder of the Society of Jesus, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, under the pressure of  Pope Julius II, who sent twelve confreres to Naples to found the Neapolitan Province of the Society of Jesus. After the initial difficulties, the Jesuit patrol succeeded in doing a good job, also acquiring the buildings surrounding Palazzo Sanseverino and realizing, besides the Church, also the school, which took the name of Neapolitan College, and the so-called Casa Professa, a place destined for the care of the souls of the faithful. The church designed by the able Jesuit architect Father Giuseppe Valeriano, was called Gesù Nuovo to distinguish it from another city temple dedicated to Christ, the Church of the Gesù, later destroyed by fire and rebuilt from scratch.

The Neapolitan noblewoman, wife of Bernardino Sanseverino of Bisignano, Isabella Feltre della Rovere, who was in fact considered by the Jesuits to be the founder of the Basilica, paid a large part of the huge capital required for the construction of the Church.

Impressive is the large quantity of precious marbles, statues, decorations, frescoes and paintings that were added throughout the 1600s to the already majestic interiors of the Gesù Nuovo, with the involvement of the best artists of the time. Cosimo Fanzago shaped a large part of the structure, his work lasted just under sixty years; Francesco Solimena contributed with his gigantic fresco on the counter-façade which depicts the expulsion of Elidoro from the Temple. But in the realization of the New Jesus, as we see it today, took part artists like Giovanni Merliano da Nola, Belisario Corenzio, Paolo De Matteis, Massimo Stanzione, Luca Giordano, Pietro Bernini, Fabrizio Santafede, Jusepe de Ribera, nicknamed Spagnoletto, Giovan Bernardino Azzolino and others, up to the artists who, in 1854, created the splendid high altar, in the center of which stands the colossal statue of the Virgin, which rests on a large globe of blue color and is surrounded by six columns of alabaster, work by Antonio Busciolano. The latter was a pupil of Tito Angelini and author of numerous sculptures in the churches and squares of Naples.

On several occasions, over the years, the Jesuits have lost the guidance and control of the Church of Gesù Nuovo. In 1776 when the Minister of State of Ferdinand IV, Bernardo Tanucci banned the Society of Jesus from the Kingdom of Naples, the Basilica was entrusted to the Reformed Franciscans, who changed its name to Greater Trinity. For this reason, the road from Piazza del Gesù to Via Medina is still called Calata Trinità Maggiore. Shortly after their entry, the Franciscans left the church due to the collapse of the central dome and the cult building remained closed for about thirty years. Then, it was entrusted to the Friars Minimi and only in 1821 it returned to the possession of the Jesuits who, obviously, call it back Church of the Gesù Nuovo. Even today, however, after some two hundred years, many Neapolitans continue to call it Basilica of the Greater Trinity.

The second chapel on the right of the Church, called the Visitazione, is particularly dear to the Neapolitans, because it is dedicated to the doctor San Giuseppe Moscati. On the altar there is a painting by Massimo Stanzione on the Visitation, and the polychrome marble decorations are by Cosimo Fanzago. In the dome on the opposite bay, it is possible to see what remains of some frescoes by Luca Giordano. The angels in the niches are made by Andrea Falcone.

But what recalls a large crowd of faithful, not only Neapolitans, are the tomb and the bronze statue of the doctor Giuseppe Moscati, proclaimed Blessed and then Saint by Pope John Paul II on 25 October 1987. Many are the miracles that the Church attributes to him, but many more are the testimonies of prodigious healings of his patients, cured in his study of Via Cisterna dell’ Olio, a hundred meters from the Basilica of the Gesù Nuovo. It was in this church that the Holy Doctor spent hours praying every morning, before starting his work. The chapel dedicated to him, the statue and the small museum with a series of photographs, personal objects and the precise reconstruction of his study, with the chair on which he died on April 12, 1927, are there not only for a case. People walk through Spaccanapoli making a stop in the chapel of Giuseppe Moscati to kiss the hand to his bronze statue and many slip cards with requests for graces for sick people under the other hand, which is next to his chest.