Tucked away behind a 14th century convent church in the historic heart of Naples, the Cloister of Santa Chiara is a magnet for visitors, and reputedly the most photographed spot in Naples. The church itself dates back to 1310, but the cloister was built in its present form in the 18th century. Both church and cloister have been renovated following bomb damage in the Second World War.
The Cloister of Santa Chiara
The Cloister was planned as a peaceful garden for the nuns, with wide paths and citrus trees. For many visitors the major point of interest is the majolica tiled benches and the octagonal pillars that line the paths. The tiles are decorated with scenes from the city and surrounding countryside – agricultural workers, sea-going boats, and Mount Vesuvius in the distance – which were intended to provide the nuns with a link to the outside world. Images of fruit and vines wind their way around the pillars.
When the garden was first built the pillars were topped with a painted wooden lattice. This is long since gone, but the cloister is still stunning. The bright tiles – brought from the Spanish island of Majorca – sparkle in the sunlight and the place is peaceful despite the insistent snapping of tourist cameras.
Around the walls of the Cloister is a series of frescoes from the 17th century. These show religious topics, including pictures of saints and scenes from the Old Testament.
To the side of the Cloister, where the nuns once had their apartments, is a small archaeological museum. This contains items from the church and the convent but, more importantly, it gives access to the site of a Roman bathhouse from the 1st century AD. Here you can see the extensive remains of hot and cold bathing areas, changing rooms and a swimming pool.
Elaborate Christmas Cribs
Before you leave, make sure you look at the three presepi (Christmas crib scenes) just by the exit. The building of these tableaux is a speciality of Naples. Elaborate landscapes are designed, often with more resemblance to the Italian countryside than to ancient Palestine. Though more commonly a part of Christmas festivities, many of the larger scenes remain on display throughout the year. The Santa Chiara presepi were collected by King Ferdinand IV in the 18th century.
Visiting the Cloister of Santa Chiara
The convent is situated near to Piazza del Gesù Nuovo on Spaccanapoli, in the centre of Naples. The Cloister has a separate entrance at the back of the church, and is open from 9.30 to 5.30 (10.00 to 2.30 on holidays). There is an entrance fee (currently €5). Be warned that there are very strict rules about not sitting on the tiled benches!