The Italian Almanac

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the necklace of San Gennaro

The Treasure of San Gennaro

One of the world's most precious collections of jewellery and gems are current only show in Naples for the first time ever. The pieces are among a selection of treasures devoted to the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro or St. Januarius, which has been built up over the centuries.

''This is an intact collection that bears testimony to 600 years of history and faith,'' said Paolo Iorio, director of the museum that normally guards the San Gennaro treasures. ''It has been developed over the centuries as rulers and powerful individuals passing through Naples commissioned these extraordinary works of art from Neapolitan goldsmiths in order to donate them to the city's patron saint''.

The collection is considered unique as it has survived unscathed through eras in which it was commonplace for invaders and rulers to help themselves to whatever took their fancy. Iorio points to the example of Napoleon Bonaparte, who filched some of Italy's most valuable treasures during his conquest of the peninsula, sending them back to France. Upon reaching Naples, however, he instead commissioned an extremely expensive monstrance as a gift to the San Gennaro collection.

The exhibit, which opened on November 14 in the San Gennaro Museum, features a selection of pieces from the collection, including its centrepiece, the necklace of San Gennaro.Considered the most precious piece of jewellery in the world, work on the necklace began in 1679 at the request of the Bourbon family. It is made of 13 large golden links, from which are hung crosses studded with sapphires and emeralds. Also on display is a gold-plated mitre of silver made in 1713, with over 3,700 rubies, emeralds and brilliants.

Other items include a massive gold chalice donated by Pope Pius IX and the so-called mantle of San Gennaro, a cloak smothered in precious gems with heraldic designs picked out in gold and silver. Accompanying the jewellery are a series of paintings and photos exploring the popular worship of San Gennaro in Naples, including annual processions, miracles linked to his name and regular celebrations.

Little is known about San Gennaro except that he was bishop of Benevento to the south of Naples and was martyred during the persecution of Christians spearheaded by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The bishop was beheaded for refusing to bow down to his 'pagan' persecutors. According to legend, his body and head, still dripping blood, were gathered up by an old man and taken to a safe place while a local woman filled a phial with his spilt blood.