The Vasari Sacristy is located in the Sant’Anna dei Lombardi church in Naples. Another name for the church is the Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto. The entire complex spans many rooms that belonged to the Olivetans, who were a congregation of monks founded in 1319.
The church was built in 1411, and the Vasari Sacristy used to be a refectory for monks to take communal meals. Church authorities renovated it into a sacristy or a room to keep sacred objects, in 1688. Since then, many visitors note the Vasari Sacristy as one of the most marvelous rooms to visit in Naples.
The Vasari Sacristy was named after Giorgio Vasari, who created what is essentially the pièce de resistance of the church. Below, we’ll take a closer look at his marvelous frescoes, and other lifelike art in this expansive complex in three parts.
1. Giorgio Vasari’s Frescoes: Church Values And Celestial Bodies In The Vasari Sacristy
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was a major artist and architect in Renaissance Italy. He designed the loggia at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and Lorenzo de Medici was one of his patrons. Many regard him as one of the first art historians because of his publication Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. In it, Vasari wrote about the life of fellow Renaissance men like Michelangelo.
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His art style, as we’ll see in the Vasari Sacristy, leans toward Tuscan Mannerism more than the High Renaissance. In the latter, artists tried to capture ideal notions of natural beauty and proportion. Think of Michelangelo’s Pieta for example. Tuscan Mannerism took this ideal beauty and exaggerated its features, taking it into the realm of ethereal high elegance.
In 1545, Vasari received the commission to paint frescoes for the refectory ceiling. He almost declined because it had narrow walls characteristic of Gothic architecture. This made it look darker, and Vasari worried that it would detract from the beauty of his work.
Instead, he found a way to renovate it by using stucco to smooth out clumsy walls and brighten the base for painting. Then, he divided the vaults of the Sacristy into three themes. The octagons at the center of each represent Faith, Religion, and Eternity. Each one is surrounded by other symbols of the values the monks should lead throughout their lives.
Eternity is accompanied by Fortress, Justice, and Wisdom. Wisdom is portrayed as the Greek goddess Minerva, holding her iconic sword and armor above. The third, Religion, is at the center of Silence, Charity, Concordia, and Goodness.
While these symbols form the biggest figures in the ceilings, there are also 48 stunning grotesques between them. Grotesques in Renaissance Italy are notable for portraying fantastical, hybrid creatures that defy the laws of physics. Together, Vasari’s grotesques scale the heaven’s constellations and Zodiac signs. See the examples of the constellation Lyra and Gemini. The humanoid birds perched on the top sides are curious and vivid examples of grotesque-style art.
Vasari’s own writing shows that he was a fan of grotesques. He admired Giovanni da Udine, an artist who painted for the Loggia of Pope Leo X, by describing,
“these grotesques… executed with so much design, with fantasies so varied and so bizarre… and with their little scenes so pleasing and beautiful, entered so deeply into the heart and mind of Giovanni…”
It appears they entered into the heart of Vasari, too. His gorgeous fresco and grotesque ceiling have earned the Vasari Sacristy the nickname of a “small Sistine Chapel in the Heart of Naples.”
2. Wooden Inlays by Giovanni da Verona: Capturing Faith and Daily Life in Naples
Fra Giovanni da Verona (1457-1525) was a monk and skilled woodworker. He’s credited for doing the marquetry and bell tower of the Santa Maria in Organo in Verona, Italy. Little is known about his youth or family, but we know he entered a monastery in 1475 that belonged to the Olivetans.
Fra Bastian Virgola was a fellow Olivetan who founded a school of timber masters that flourished in their community. Since Virgola lived in the same monastery from 1477-1478, it’s possible that da Verona learned woodworking under him.
Verona completed the wooden inlays that line the walls of the Vasari Sacristy sometime around 1506. Yet, the church only adopted them to this room after it was turned into a Sacristy a century later.
These are delicate carvings, some of which are no thicker than a pencil. In it, you’ll find detailed, complex carvings of city views and religious symbolism. Take the inlay of Maschio Angioino (English: Angevin Keep) above, for example. Il Maschio Angioino, also known as Castel Nuovo (or new castle), was built in the 1200s and surrounded by moats. This castle was the royal seat for several kings of Naples, Aragon, and Spain until 1815.
Above, we see its towers elevated in the distance as if we’re a monk admiring it from a far-off passage. It was, and remains, a remarkable architectural landmark of the city.
Other inlays employ a creative illusion of doors opening up to you, the viewer. In the piece above, it opens to reveal a goldfinch in a cave just above a candle and an hourglass. Goldfinches were popular pets in Naples and could symbolize the soul since they were winged creatures like angels. Hourglasses, on the other hand, symbolized the passage of time– And therefore, death.
Another inlay combines both cityscapes with religious iconography. Rabbits, for example, represent resurrection or new life in Christianity.
3. Guido Mazzoni’s Sculptures Outside The Vasari Sacristy
It’s worth noting that this piece isn’t directly in the Vasari Sacristy. It’s in the Chapel of Mourning; however, they’re both in the same complex and are worth visiting on the same day. This piece’s attention to emotional detail and realistic statue make it worth the mention.
Il Compianto sul Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ) (1492) is a piece by Guido Mazzoni (1445 – 1518). Mazzoni was a terracotta sculptor from Modena, Italy, who was also called Il Modanino. Modena was not a major hub of the Renaissance, so much of Mazzoni’s early work was theatrical, yet realistic masks for festivals or performances. But by 1485, he created one of a similar Lamentation for the church of Santa Maria della Rosa in Ferrara.
In this version from 1492, we see eight figures looking over Jesus Christ’s dead body. The Virgin Mary, who stands over her son, is noteworthy for her grief-stricken expression. A closer look at any of the faces shows a different range of expressions of grief.
Patrons didn’t consider terracotta as refined as marble. Despite this, Mazzoni’s lifelike sculptures achieved success. In his career, he created at least six sculptures of the Lamentation, one of which is in the Church of the Gesù in Ferrara, Italy.
The Sant’Anna dei Lombardi church also houses work by sculptor Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino. These, combined with the Vasari Sacristy, make it a marvel and hotspot to visit for Renaissance art in Naples.