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The Unbelievably Delicate Marble Sculptures at Cappella Sansevero

In the late 16th century, the Duke of Torremaggiore, Giovan Francesco di Sangro, after a miraculous recovery from a serious illness, erected a chapel to thank the Virgin Mary in the gardens of his family home in the heart of Naples, Italy. This chapel, called “Cappella Sansevero de' Sangri”, is today home to some of the most extraordinary pieces of art by leading Italian artists from the 18th century. Among these, in the center of the nave, there is a reclining figure of Christ, covered with a shroud carved from the same block as the statue. The shroud looks so realistically transparent that it was rumored that the sculptor, Giuseppe Sanmartino, had laid a real veil on the sculpture and then transformed this veil into marble by means of a chemical process.

Veiled Christ

The Veiled Christ was originally begun by another sculptor named Antonio Corradini, who is best known for his illusory veiled depictions of women where the contours of their face and body beneath the veil are discernible. But when Corradini died without completing his work, a hitherto unknown sculptor named Giuseppe Sanmartino took over Corradini's half-fished sculpture, applying his own style to it. The masterful completion of the Veiled Christ earned Sammartino further commissions from the Bourbons and important Neapolitan churches.

Veiled Christ

Veiled Christ

In addition to the Veiled Christ, Cappella Sansevero also contains another one of Antonio Corradini’s sculpture—Modesty. Completed in 1752, Modesty was the last of Corradini's series of veiled female nudes, a subject he developed and refined throughout his career. His mastery of the medium of marble is seen in the increasingly skilled representation of seemingly weightless and see-through cloth draped over human flesh in his commissioned pieces. In Modesty, the figure is covered by a large veil that covers the entirety of the body, accentuating her breasts but also covering her pubic area so that it is not overtly sexual.

Naples - The Veiled Truth by Nomadic Vision Photography

modesty

modesty

Yet another masterpiece in Cappella Sansevero is Il Disinganno, also known Release from Deception, depicting a fisherman entangled in a net, that was carved from a single piece of marble. An allegory of a man set free from his sins, Disinganno was considered by some to be impossible to complete, and only Francesco Queirolo agreed to attempt it. It reportedly took the sculptor seven years to carve.

Release from Deception

Release from Deception

Release from Deception

Release from Deception

In addition to these delicate marble sculptures, in the basement of the chapel are two models called “anatomical machines” that display a complex and delicate network of arteries, veins, and capillaries of different thicknesses, colors, and lengths. Bones are held together with metal pins, nails, and wires. The skulls were sawed and hinges were placed on either sides so that they could be opened and seen inside, where a complex network of blood vessels is also present. The exceptional details in the reproduction of the vessel system led to rumors that Sansevero injected a quicksilver-based compound into the bloodstream of two of his servants while they were still alive, causing their blood to turn into metal, thus preserving their circulatory system. The bones are real, but the blood vessels are metal wires, colored wax and silk, a technique common to anatomical studies of that time. The accuracy of the human circulatory system in these 18th century models, in keeping view of the level of knowledge of the time, is praiseworthy.

anatomical machines

anatomical machines

anatomical machines

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