San Martino & Castel Sant’Elmo

I decided what to do this morning only while eating breakfast. That decision was to start out at the San Martino Monastery and Museum. I opted to follow that up with a visit to the Castel Sant’Elmo.

I know I said in my post on Castel Nuovo and Castel dell’Ovo that I’d probably restrict my castle visits to just those two of the four open castles here, but Castel Sant’Elmo is almost right beside the the San Martino Monastery and Museum. So I figured, what the heck. Go for it.

The jaunt from my hotel to the San Martino Carthusian Monastery and Museum involved two shortish walks punctuated (a semicolon) by a funicular ride in between.

I arrived at the lower funicular station just in time to see a procession of at most a couple of dozen people processing toward me along the street in front of the station. I don’t think they were intentionally processing specifically toward me. That was probably just a coincidence.

They carried banners and some sort of float with religious themes. They also had a marching band. When I first heard them, they were playing a march that I clearly recognized, but I’m not sure I’m remembering its actual name. It might have been a name I heard in a parody. The name that stuck in my head for it, right or wrong, is “Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue.” After that, they went into a lively tune I didn’t recognize, followed by a march I didn’t recognize.

The banners and float convinced me it was religious in nature, but the choice of music made me question that. However, today is Easter Sunday, so it probably did have a religious purpose.

The funicular ride up the hill to the San Martino district high above the central part of Naples is entirely through a tunnel. So it’s not the most scenic. Nor is it worth any more words other than to say it ably did its job, which is to transport an old man up a high hill without risking his heart bursting.

Yes. That specifically is its job, at least as far as I’m concerned.

The View From San Martino

As I mentioned, the San Martino district is high above the rest of Naples. Immediately in front of the San Martino Monastery and Museum there’s a public terrace that looks down on the city. That terrace provided me with an amazing view of relatively heavy haze over Naples and its port. I imagine on a clearer day it provides an amazing view of Naples and its port. But that was not today.

San Martino Monastery and Museum

The San Martino Monastery and Museum* started its life as a Carthusian monastery built between 1325 and 1368. It’s no longer a monastery. It’s a church, museum, viewing terraces, and two cloisters, one of which is very beautiful. I don’t think the church is still used for services, but I’m not sure.

* I couldn’t find an English version of the sight’s website. You can use the translate function of your browser to translate the Italian website for the San Martino Monastery and Museum.

Some time between being a monastery and being a museum/tourist church, the complex was a charter-house according to one of my guidebooks. but I have no idea what a charter-house is.

As anyone who knows me, or who has read at least a few pages of this journal (or just one if you pick the right page), knows, I am not an art historian. In fact, I’m just proud I can spell “art historian” without resorting to a dictionary or spellchecker. (*rereads previous sentences to make sure he spelled “art historian” correctly*).

However, I think art historians would describe the San Martino church something on the lines of “a massive profusion of over-abundant baroque design and decoration.” Sorry about getting into the weeds of art history terminology, but it had to be done.

Then again, like I said I’m the furthest thing from being an art historian, so I’d have no problem believing I’m totally wrong about that.

There is a huge altarpiece blocking the view of what’s behind it. And ropes blocked the way to it and to the small spaces on either side of the altarpiece. So I couldn’t see what was back there. More on that later.

The San Martino monastery museum is eclectic. It has statues and paintings from various periods, a couple of ornate carriages (as in horse-and-carriage carriages), and a huge collection of “crib figures.”

“Crib figures” is what the signage called it. I had no idea what crib figures were. They certainly didn’t appear to be of the sort of material or design that one would put in a baby’s crib. So I looked it up on the internet. It suggested they are from nativity scenes. I looked again in my guidebook. It talked about nativity figures, but no crib figures. So I guess that’s what they were.

I am not of a persuasion that affords me much experience with nativity scenes, but I live in a country where Christianity is the largest religion, so I’ve seen one or two. These don’t look anything like that. The nativity scenes I’ve seen have Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. There might be some putatively wise men, although it’s hard to tell their level of wisdom from the Christmas displays. There might also be an animal or two because it’s a manger.

The nativity figures at the San Martino monastery museum were many and varied. They were displayed in several glass cases. Only one of the cases had anything like what I think of as a nativity scene. Few if any of the figures in the other cases had anything to do with what little I know of the nativity. There were grotesque-looking individuals, normal looking people playing musical instruments for a dog, a variety of other people doing I don’t know what, and some angels. Okay. Angels fit, I guess. I’ll let that pass.

Two of the display cases were quite large and and their contents quite intricate. One of the two was huge and contained an elaborate diorama with dozens of figures.

One section of the San Martino monastery museum that my guidebook gives particular attention to is its naval museum. Don’t ask me why there’s a naval museum in a former monastery. Also don’t ask me what’s in it. When I was there a sign told me, in Italian, that it was temporarily closed to the public. (I used Google Translate to confirm what I thought the sign said. Most of the words were similar enough to English words that I was able to guess correctly.)

A chapel off to the side of the back of the San Martino monastery church
A chapel off to the side of the back of the San Martino monastery church

The museum layout is hard to follow. I doubt I saw all of it. But walking along, I came to an area that looked like it was decorated the same way as the church. I looked to my left and I noticed that I was behind that big altarpiece that blocked my view earlier. Walking along further brought me to a chapel that is decorated in a similar fashion.

I mentioned above the two cloisters. There’s a big one and a small one. The big one is particularly beautiful, with grass and flowering trees at its centre. A small section of it is surrounded by a balustrade topped with sculptures of skulls. The balustrade delineates a small graveyard of the San Martino monastery.

There are also a couple of terraces in the museum which provide similar views of hazy scenes as the terrace out front.

Castel Sant’Elmo

Every source I looked at on the Castel Sant’Elmo describes it as star-shaped. I dispute that. Stars tend to be symmetric on two or more axes. The shape of the Castel Sant’Elmo isn’t. It’s only symmetric on the horizontal axis.

It has six points, but it’s stretched on one side. It’s almost as if someone took a Star of David, put it on a torture rack, and twisted the handle a few cranks. That probably doesn’t give you a particularly clear idea of what I’m trying to say. I took a picture of a map of the castle and I’ve posted it here.

The public is allowed to walk up the ramps to the courtyard at the top of the castle, a few stories up from the ground. There are ramparts that surround much of that courtyard. Those sections without ramparts provide views of, today, the hazy sea and hazy Naples.

I also climbed up and walked around the ramparts, which afforded me an even higher views of the hazy scenes.

It might have been more enjoyable on a clearer day.

There’s also a museum up on the top of the castle. Today, it contained a temporary exhibit of 20th century Neapolitan art. The exhibition included both abstract and non-abstract paintings and sculptures. There were also a few drawings and photographs.

Don’t ask me what’s inside the castle below that upper courtyard. The price of admission didn’t include entry to that.


TripAdvisor highly recommended a restaurant that was just a block or so from the exit from Castel Sant’Elmo. I went there. I asked if they had a table for one. I was told no. They’re full. I didn’t see a line for tables, but they didn’t suggest I wait for a table to empty.

I suspect if I were younger they might have suggested I wait. But I think they took one look at me and they weren’t sure if I’d live long enough to get a table.

I found another restaurant a few blocks away that Google Maps recommended. It too was full.

There was a pizza joint around the corner from that with a few empty tables. I ate there. This is my last day in Naples, so I thought another pizza was appropriate. I ordered a Capricciosa pizza (tomato, cheese, mushrooms, Neapolitan salami, artichokes, and black olives) and a glass of wine. I won’t say the pizza was the very best I’ve ever had, but it was quite good.

And with that, I capped off my morning activities.


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