Day 13 – Chiostro Grande, Certosa di San Martino

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Day 13 – Cosimo Fanzago, Chiostro Grande, c. 1623, Certosa di San Martino, Naples.

Originally posted on 31 March 2020

Well that’s a surprise! It’s not a painting. I think I did say, almost two weeks ago, that I would be talking about a painting every day, but quickly realised there’s more to life than flat things – and I love painting, sculpture and architecture equally, so today’s #pictureoftheday is a picture of a sculpture in Naples. To be honest, I really want to talk about the space it’s in, the ‘Chiostro Grande’, or large cloister of the Certosa di San Martino – or Charterhouse of St Martin – in Naples but I suspect this image will better at grabbing you attention! 

It’s not entirely clear who designed he cloister, to be honest, although it is traditionally attributed to architect and sculptor Cosimo Fanzago. Born near Bergamo in the North of Italy, he made his name in Naples. He was certainly working in the Chiostro Grande around 1623, but might have added the decoration to a slightly earlier structure. At the very least he was responsible for the architectural frameworks of the doors in the corners of the cloister, and the sculptures which inhabit them: they are all fantastic, but this is probably the best.

It represents the Blessed Niccolò Albergati, a Carthusian monk who became a Bishop in 1417, and then a Cardinal in 1426. Five years later, working as a diplomat in Antwerp, he met Jan van Eyck who painted his portrait –which looks nothing like this sculpture. I’d trust van Eyck, though, as Fanzago is clearly creating a dramatic showcase with which to display his ability to make marble move. Albergati wasn’t beatified (the first step towards being recognised as a Saint) until 1744, but his inclusion in the Chiostro Grande in the 1620s shows that he’d been revered by the Carthusians for a long time. 

The sculpture shows Fanzago at his very best, but to appreciate it fully you’d have to go and visit, as you need to move around it and see it from more than one point of view. You would see it frontally like this while walking along one of the arcades in the cloister (imagine it in the far distance in the second picture). Framed by the cool, grey marble, the brilliant white figure stands out, both in terms of colour and sculptural form. It’s like he’s standing behind an oval window, his bible resting on the windowsill, with his habit flowing out into our space. His left wrist rests on the book allowing his hand to fall forward towards us, and he props his right elbow on the other side of the book, his wrist bent back so that his long, curving fingers rest on his face. The sculpture are deeply cut – especially behind the book, creating a dark shadow – and every joint is beautifully articulated, with each finger extended differently, and a large space opening up between his chest and right arm – which you can only really appreciate from the left-hand side.  In this photograph he appears to be turning away from us, but imagine approaching along the arm of the cloister which joins from the left. Not only would you see the looping form of the arm and hand, but you would also see him looking down towards you, assessing you, fully aware of your actions, perhaps: curious, if not judgemental. This is a sculpture which is perfectly suited to its location.

Wherever you go in the world, the best way to understand it is to find a place where you can see as much of it as possible in one go – go to the top of a tower, if you can. Or go up a hill, which is where the Certosa is, overlooking the bay of Naples, as that’s where the Carthusian monks decided to establish their monastery. From the terrace outside you can get a very good sense of the extent of the city, of its limits in Greek and Roman times, and of its expansion in the 19th and 20th Centuries (although the latter is rather distressing). It’s the perfect place to go.

I’ve been wanting to write about the Carthusians for a while – ever since #POTD 6 as it happens, as the artist of that mesmerising Still Life, Juan Sánchez Cotán, entered the order in his forties, in the middle of a career as a successful artist. The Carthusian Order is intriguing, and the monks would be doing very well right now. Founded by St Bruno of Cologne in 1084, the order is a combination of two different types of monastic lifestyle: eremitic and coenobitic. The former is the life of a hermit, withdrawn from the world, and solitary. The second implies belonging to a community. The Carthusians manage to do both by being hermits within a community.

There were – and are – two types of Carthusian: cloistered monks, who live a life of prayer and contemplation, who are destined to become Fathers, and the lay brothers. The choirmonks all live in the cloister, and each one has their own split-level cell, built to a uniform design. On the lower level is a room in which to store wood for a stove, and a workshop for manual labour. The rest of this level is given over to a walled garden, used by the monks for prayer and contemplation, and to grow food for themselves and the rest of the community. On the upper level there is a small area for prayer, which adjoins a larger space, a combined bedroom, dining room and study. Each monk eats lunch and supper alone, the food being delivered via a turntable next to the door of the cell by one of the lay brothers, who are responsible for the practical running of the monastery, but who also lead a life of silent prayer and contemplation. You can see these ‘turns’, as they are called, on the far side of the cloister in the second picture, and all around the cloister in the third. Of the seven daily services, the cloistered monks say four on their own, leaving their cells three times a day for communal worship. I’ve read that they go for a walk in the countryside once a week, and only then can they speak. However, another source said this outing would take place once a year, and yet another, never. On Sundays and special feast days there are communal meals, but these are eaten in silence.

Basically they are all self isolating and socially distancing while at the same time receiving home deliveries and remaining part of a wider community – we could all be doing it now. The first time I visited San Martino I wanted to move right in. Having passed through the church, which is richly decorated in brightly coloured marbles – quite overwhelming – I stepped out into the Chiostro Grande, with its pure white architecture, and it took my breath away. The weather was pretty much like it is in these photographs, too – clear blue skies, and pleasantly warm. Not only that, but I quickly realised that almost all of the cells have sea views – check out the third illustration. It was an especially good place to be in times of plague: the monks went out very rarely, so they were unlikely to catch anything. In any case, they lived high above the city, well outside the city walls, so disease would not reach them. Monks also had an age-old tradition of washing their hands before meals, so they were even less likely to get ill. As a result it became abundantly clear to the people of Naples that God was watching over the Carthusians, especially when, in 1656, the plague killed around half of the 300,000 inhabitants of the city, and the monks didn’t even get sick. What a brilliant place to live. Mind you, the only way out was up – to Heaven – leaving their earthly remains in the Cemetery that is visible in the second image. You can see it on the right, surrounded by a balustrade, which Fanzago topped with rather cheery skulls. I suppose it’s not how we’d choose to live today. Apart from the fact that in 1907 a twenty-year-old architectural student from Switzerland visited the Certosa di Galuzzo, just outside Florence, and made a number of drawings – the fourth picture comes from one of his sketchbooks.

The idea of living separately as part of a community made sense to him. Everyone has some open space of their own and room to work, sleep and eat, while being part of a community, with all the infrastructure necessary for good living easily to hand in the same building. Initially the young Charles-Édouard Jeanneret arranged these units horizontally. But then, he piled them up into the sky, so people would living like crows – an idea related to the name by which we know him today: Le Corbusier – ‘the crow-like one’. Sadly a lot of bad architecture was influenced by his ideas, but I can’t help thinking that the ideas themselves were necessarily wrong: it was when the need for individual open space started to get cut out as ‘inefficient’ that it became less desirable. Perhaps I’ll move into San Martino after all.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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