Naples and the Angevin Transculturation

In 1266, Charles of Anjou descended to Italy and defeated Manfred, Frederick II’s illegitimate sons, in the battle of Beneventum. He thus acquired the crown of Naples, extending his rights over the whole southern side of the Italian peninsula and Sicily too. Charles I and his descendants were active patrons of the arts and encouraged the creation of several public monuments, financing the building of new churches and commissioning altarpieces and reliquaries. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Angevin monarchs extended their political aspirations to the kingdoms of Hungary and Jerusalem too, using art to assert lineage and power. In this context, patronage becomes a revealing expression of the Angevins’ political aspirations.

St Louise of Toulouse Crowning Robert the Wise – Simone Martini – 1317

Soon after his arrival to Italy, Charles I founded two Cistercian abbeys near the battlefields that had secured his power. The two sites of Santa Maria di Realvalle and Santa Maria della Vittoria are now ruinous and little remains of their past splendour. Yet, we know from archival sources that the king summoned a group of French monks to inhabit them. In fact, the Cistercian order was popular in France but never gathered momentum in Italy, showing that the sovereign was actively looking back at his homeland rather than favouring locally popular orders. Accounts report that the two sites were decorated “ad modum Franciae” (literally, in the French way), highlighting a conscious reference to specific architectural models. Moreover, archaeological discoveries show that the two abbey churches featured a typical Cistercian plan with a single nave and a transept.

Church of Santa Chiara – Founded by Queen Sancha of Mallorca – 1340

During his reign, Charles I showed little interest in interacting with the traditional culture of southern Italy. His main acts of patronage had a defined stylistic connotation, influenced by French Gothic, with little or no references to local styles. In this regard, it should be said that Naples did not have an artistic school in the same way Florence or Siena did. The Angevin control was asserted through liturgy too, with royal patronage being extended to strategic churches throughout their kingdom. For example, after the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari was transformed into a capella regis (royal church), its liturgical calendar switched to the Parisian one. Such impositions would have weakened local identity by redefining feast days, religious celebrations, and the saints to be venerated.

Reliquary bust of St Januarius – French craftsmen – 1304

As time passed, the Angevin approach to patronage changed, attempting to assimilate local culture and use it actively as a political instrument. In 1304, Charles II commissioned a bust of St Januarius, the first bishop of Beneventum. The lavish object was made for the sovereign by French goldsmiths. The chosen saint was not yet object of particular devotion among the people of Naples, as it is nowadays. However, his story shared several elements with that of St Denis, whose reliquary bust is thought to have been the model for St Januarius’s one. This comparison is tentative only since the object was destroyed during the French Revolution. Both saints were early-Christian bishops and they both died as martyrs. Therefore, the choice of St Januarius represents an attempt of the Angevin king to draw a connection between his French heritage and local devotional practices. This is an act of transculturation, as the ruling class employed local themes and subjects, merging them with its own cultural background.

Charles I of Anjou – Arnolfo di Cambio – 1277

The Angevin artistic patronage shows the complex relation between power, society, and culture. Art becomes an instrument of communication through several different channels, expressing lineage, political aspirations, and heritage. While Charles I imposed his Frenchness to his subjects through the forceful import of foreign architectural forms, his successors understood the importance of local cults and traditions to secure lasting ties with the new kingdom. This was even more relevant after the 1282 rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers, following which Sicily fell under the control of the Aragonese. This led to a phase of active transculturation, when the Angevins inspected wisely local cults and traditions to draw direct comparisons with their own original culture, thus creating an artificial but convincing sense of continuity between their rule and the previous political history of southern Italy.


Bust of St Januarius

St Louise of Toulouse

Santa Chiara

Charles I

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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