St. Chiara represents the largest and most important sacred area in Naples. It was built from 1310 on the order of King Robert of Anjou, who sought to create a Franciscan citadel which would be a temple of peace and prayer forever. In the course of ages the monument sustained many alterations and additions chiefly due to frequent earthquakes. But the most radical reconstruction took place about 1750 and completely changed the look of the building from Gothic to baroque.
On August 4th, 1943 the fury of the war devastated St. Chiara. The Franciscan citadel, bombed in an air raid, was consumed in an enormous fire which lasted several days. Because of high temperatures, the marbles calcified, the sculptures dissolved like wax, and many paintings and frescoes were destroyed. But what was recovered from the debris restored hope for the rebirth of the whole.
Patient and skilful repairs, supervised by the Franciscan Father Gaudenzio dell'Aja, restored the building to its original Gothic splendor and revived its great artistic and historical value. The complete restoration of the treasures inside St. Chiara, however, was impossibile. Nevertheless, either the Majolica Cloister or the Museo dell'Opera may be admired in their splendour. In particular, many marble and wooden fragments of masterpieces of different ages demaged during the war now have found their proper home in the halls of the Museo dell'Opera.
As regards the Cloister, in 1739-42 its original angevin look was transformed by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, who preserved the arches of the porch on octagonal pillars and create a kind of rustic garden, adorned with tiles made by Giuseppe and Donato Massa. The prevalent colours of the tiles - yellow, green and light blue - recall the colours of the sky, the lemons and the vine which are in the Cloister. Many of the scenes of the tiles celebrate rural landscapes, mythological scenes and masquerades. While in the internal corridors, the vaults are decorated with frescoes of the seventeenth century celebrating stories of saints.
As regards the Museo dell'Opera, it aims at becoming a place of ideal synthesis between the different components - archaeological, historical, architectural and artistic - inherent the monument. Through an organized itinerary (the Archaeological Hall, the Thermae, the Hall of History, the Hall of Marbles, the Hall of Reliquaries) the visitor may follow the most important stages of a very complex story which developed in the course of almost two thousand years of religious and artistic life.
In the first hall may be found the most significant archaeological remains from the area of Santa Chiara (first-fourth centuries A.D.). The remains of a first century A.D. building, which represents the most complete and well documented example of thermae from ancient town of Neapolis, lies beyond the hall.
In the second hall, the history of the convent, from its origins to the present day, is shown through objects and fragments of works of art. Among them are two wonderful vases, the only survivors of a set that Domenico Antonio Vaccaro designed to adorn the famous Majolica Cloister of Santa Chiara.
In the third hall there are fragments of marble works which date from the fourteenth century and which come from the Basilica, from the adjacent Monastery of poor Clares, and from the adjoining small Convent of Grey Friars. The objects on display include a wonderful frieze (which measures about 18 meters) with episodes from the life and martyrdom of St. Cathrine of Alexandria as well as a pulpit of the fourteenth century.
In the fourth hall there are somptuous sacred vestments, ornate reliquaries of seventeenth through eighteenth centuries, wooden works of great artistry and expressive intensity, and a fragment of the Holy Family made by an anonymous but gifted sculptor of seventeenth century.
The ambitious aim of the Complesso Museale di Santa Chiara is to establish a vital and dynamic center of research in order to reconstruct the history of the monumental area which still is obscure in many of its details.