The historic and magnificent city of Naples, Italy, has long been home to some of the finest masterpieces of art on earth. Among the quaint streets and museums, one can find a place called The Cappella Sansevero, or the Sansevero Chapel, also called the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà. It is a beautifully crafted chapel that is home to some of the best works of the top Italian artists of the 18th century; truly a dynamic treasure of Italy’s artistic heritage. Yet among all of the intricate paintings and marvelous sculptures, one may come across the more bizarre aspects of the chapel. As one peruses the various works of art here, it soon becomes evident that some of the weirder and more eccentric creations that Italy had to offer are displayed in its halls. The strangeness gets weirder and weirder and if you happen to stray off into the underground chambers of the chapel, you are bound to come face to face with one of the creepiest and little understood works of art ever produced by human hands; the enigmatic and baffling human machines of Cappella Sansevero.
The chapel itself dates back to 1590, and was built by the Duke of Torremaggiore, John Francesco di Sangro, on the grounds of the affluent Sansevero family as a private place of worship, and later was converted into a family burial chapel under the hand of Alessandro di Sangro in 1613. It wasn’t until between 1749 and 1766, when Prince Raimondo di Sangro commissioned major renovations, that the chapel began to take on the baroque, masonic inspired form it exhibits today. Raimondo di Sangro went to great lengths to hire some of the most well known artists of the time to help turn the chapel into a luxurious and lavish showcase of artwork.
Prince Raimondo di Sangro was known as an eccentric, enigmatic, and mystical man. He was the head of the Neapolitan Masonic lodge, the symbols of which are interspersed throughout the chapel, and was a student of numerous areas of the sciences, as well as alchemy and other mystical disciplines. He also spoke several exotic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic and was an inventor, some of his inventions of which were rather bizarre, such as a mechanized carriage with wooden horses that was said to be able to travel over both land and water. These eccentricities led to the Prince garnering a reputation as a practitioner of wizardry and black magic, and rumors abounded that he performed sinister magical rituals, human sacrifices, and curses. It was also said that he could perform great feats of alchemy, such as creating blood out of water or even thin air, and that he used the various body parts of his sacrificed victims in his odious spells and potions. The Prince was said to lock himself away for days on end and perform demented experiments on human beings, such as reanimating the dead. These dark rumors and legends that swirled around the Prince made him into a man to be feared and avoided; a larger than life black sorcerer who could bend magical and natural forces to his will. The Prince did little to deny these rumors and it is thought that he even encouraged them.
Prince Raimondo di Sangro’s eccentricity can be seen reflected in some of the various pieces exhibited within the chapel, and there are flashes of true bizarreness scattered among the more than 30 various works of art that can be found here. The Prince was intrigued by macabre and unusual artwork, sculptures, and pieces of scientific equipment, and as such went about collecting such items for the chapel. Here one can find some mysterious works of art that were atypical for their time. One such piece is a sculpture created by Giuseppe Sanmartino, that is usually referred to as Cristo velato, or “The Veiled Christ,” which depicts a post-crucification Christ and was crafted from a peculiar marble-like substance invented by Prince Raimondo di Sangro himself. It is a remarkable sculpture, famed for the incredibly hyper-realistic way the marble depicts human skin and the fabric of the veil. The effect is somewhat unnerving, and it seems as if the sculpture is a real living person that is wearing an actual veil rather than a completely marble construct, ready to pop awake at any time. The undeniably creepy sculpture looks so real, in fact, that it long was the source of rumors that the Prince had used his dark sorcery to transform a real person into marble. Other unique sculptures on display made of the same eerily realistic material include Francesco Queirolo’s sculpture Disinganno (Disillusion), which depicts a man trying to disengage himself from a net, and Antonio Corradini’s Pudicizia (Modesty), also known as “The Veiled Truth,” which shows a female figure paying tribute to the Prince’s mother.
There are other wonders to be seen in the chapel as well. The ceiling is covered in a striking, chaotically colorful fresco by Francesco Maria Russo called the Glory of Paradise. In addition, although little of it remains intact today, the original floor, designed by Francesco Celebrano, was black and white marble featuring a unique labyrinthine design said to be of Masonic origin and meaning “initiation.” Most of this original floor was destroyed in a major chapel collapse in 1889, but fragments of it remain intact today in one of the chapel’s passageways. In fact it is this very passageway that leads to the stairway down to the basement, where the chapel’s most baffling and mysterious works of art reside.
Working one’s way down a modest staircase into the lower reaches of the chapel, one will first encounter an unusual painting dating from 1750 by the Roman artist Giuseppe Pesce called Madonna con Bambino, which was painted using a unique wax-based paint also created solely for its creation by the mysterious Prince Raimondo. Beyond this painting are by far the chapel’s most enigmatic and unsettling residents; two bizarre half flesh, half metal creations often called “anatomical models,” and more morbidly as “anatomical machines.” These “anatomical machines” were commissioned by Prince Raymond and created by the anatomist Giuseppe Salerno in 1760. The sculptures, if one can call really them that, are of a man and a pregnant woman, dubbed Adam and Eve, and are built over actual human skeletons with slightly askew bones connected by metal pins and wires. There was once even a fetus included within the pregnant woman but it is thought to have been stolen long ago. These two skeletons are overlaid with a complex, twisting network of metal tendrils and hardened arteries and veins which represent the arterial system, viscera and musculature of human beings with amazing, meticulous accuracy. The skulls of the two figures are hinged, and can be opened to reveal an incredibly detailed spiderweb of blood vessels within. Upon their unveiling, the disturbing models were so mystifying and grotesque that it was believed that the dark Prince had actually used his black magic and alchemy on some of his unwilling servants to morph them into these abominations.
Regardless of whether they are the result of black magic or not, Adam and Eve present a number of very real mysteries, not the least of which is how they were made in the first place. For years the method of construction was the source of bafflement among scientists and doctors. Were the intricate hardened circulatory systems real, and if so how did they remain so remarkably well preserved for over 200 years? Were they artificial? If so, how could they be reproduced so faithfully? Since there was little to no documentation as to the original creation of the anatomical machines, these were questions for which the answers long remained elusive. The main theory was that the two anatomical machines were created through a process known as plasticization, or “human metallization,” which involves injecting substances directly into the circulatory systems of subjects while they were still living, after which these materials would travel along the veins and harden, painfully killing the unfortunate victim in the process. However, no one really knew for sure.
A more detailed examination of Adam and Eve later showed that they held no evidence of the use of injected substances such as hardening materials or embalming chemicals of any kind. Through various sophisticated tests such as scanning electron microscopy and infrared spectroscopy, it was found that the veins themselves were comprised of a core of twisted metal and silk fibers that was then covered with a layer of a mixture of colored waxes, mostly beeswax. This detailed analysis helped to shed light on the creation of the mysterious Adam and Eve, but it still hasn’t been resolved exactly how the original creator managed to carry it out or indeed why. It is also unclear whether the two subjects were killed for the sole purpose of turning them into these twisted anatomical machines or if they had died before hand and were then changed postmortem. Considering that few records on their actual creation and early history exist, it is quite possible that we will never know for sure.
Whatever the reasons for their creation or the methods by which they were crafted, the anatomical machines of Sansevero Chapel certainly rank among some of the weirdest, most twisted works of art ever conceived of by the human imagination. If the eccentric, allegedly black magic wielding alchemist Prince Raimondo di Sangro was intentionally trying to freak people out, then it was a job very well done indeed.