Chapel of Sansevero is one of the most enigmatic chapels in Europe,
if only because its creator, Raimondo di Sangro, was deemed to
be the Leonardo da Vinci of his time.
Scottish Rosslyn Chapel – either correct or incorrectly
– is seen as the work of the local lord, William St Clair.
In the Italian city of Naples, a local church, the Cappella Sansevero,
is seen as the work of the resident noble, Raimondo di Sangro.
Both churches have been seen as a code that is left for future
generations to be unravelled; both churches are icons of artistic
excellence. But whereas Rosslyn’s code is supposedly installed
to hide a secret of history (whether it is the Grail, Mary Magdalene,
the Templars or something similar), Sansevero is apparently all
about alchemy and Masonry.
Raimondo di Sangro, the seventh
Prince of Sansevero, was born in 1710. He studied at the Clementine
College of Jesuits Priests in Rome, where amongst his teachers
were Carlo Spinola and Domenico Quateironi, renowned in mathematics
and hydrostatics respectively. He would not become as famous as
them – instead, he would become illustrious. The Prince
spoke many European languages, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. He
moved in the highest social circles and corresponded with the
greatest scientific scholars of his town. He was very much like
Leonardo da Vinci: an inventor, interested in the human body,
and apparently also interested in alchemy, though it is not always
clear whether he practiced advanced science (chemistry) or alchemy
– if there is a difference.
In scientific circles, Di Sangro is known as an inventor: while
still a student, he impressed his teachers with constructing a
folding stage that saved an important theatrical performance;
he invented an hydraulic device that could pump water to any height;
he made an “eternal flame”; he built a carriage with
wooden horses that, driven by an internal mechanical system, could
travel on both land and water; he developed a printing press that
could print different colours in a single impression. He was a
friend and close aide to King Charles IV of Naples, for whom he
invented a water-proof cape to protect him from the rain while
hunting. He also invented a double-barrelled harquebus.
Like Leonardo, he had a passion for war machines. During his military
command, he made a cannon out of lightweight materials that had
a longer range than the standard cannons of the time. But his
intellect went further: he did not merely invent, he was also
a military strategist; he penned down a treatise on the employment
of infantry, for which he was even praised by Frederick II of
Leonardo was claimed to be a member of various organisations (though
no proof exists for his allegiance to any), it is known that di
Sangro was a leading member of Freemasonry. He was, in fact, the
head of the Neapolitan Masonic lodge, until he was excommunicated
by the Church. Pope Benedict XIV soon revoked it. For some commentators,
it was because the Pope “realised” that the accusations
of heresy against him were the product of slander and envy from
the Prince's detractors. For others, it was purely the outcome
of political pressure applied on the pontiff.
The Masonic tradition to which di Sangro belonged was the Rite
of Memphis and Misraim. The English Freemasons had united in 1717
and Naples entered Masonic history in 1750, under the leadership
of di Sangro. He worked with Baron Henry Theodore de Tschoudi
(1724-1769), the author of the Masonic catechism “The Flaming
Di Sangro is linked with Cagliostro, one of the most famous Masons,
who met Cavalier Luigi D’Aquino (1739-1783), who according
to the tradition was his initiator as well. Cagliostro met him
in Malta in 1766 and stayed with him in Naples in 1773, to receive
the instructions which enabled him to found the Egyptian Freemasonry,
in Paris, in the same year his master passed away. But in 1790,
in front of a Roman tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, Cagliostro
claimed that all his knowledge of alchemy was taught to him many
years before in Naples by “a prince who had a great passion
for chemistry”. The judges did not believe him and didn’t
give any weight to his words. Still, if true, this prince must
have been none other than di Sangro! Any details of the trial
remain unavailable, for all transcripts from the trial were declared
secret and to this day remain locked inside the Vatican.
Cagliostro would go on to write
things such as: “After having taken this grain the one who
is going to rejuvenate becomes unconscious for three hours and
in convulsions he sweats and evacuates continuously. After having
come to himself and changed bed he must be fed with a pound of
fat free beef and cooling herbs. If this food makes him feel better
on the following day he is given the second grain of Original
Matter in a cup of broth that besides the effect of the first
grain will cause him a very strong delirious fever .He will lose
the skin, and the teeth and hair will fall out. On the following
thirty-fifth day if the patient recovers his strength, he will
soak in a bath for one hour in neither cold nor hot water. On
the thirty-sixth day he will have his third and last grain of
Original Matter in a glass of vintage and generous wine that will
make him sleep quietly and peacefully. Then the hair grows back,
the teeth too and the skin gets healed. When he wakes up he soaks
in new aromatic bath and on the thirty-eighth day he will have
a bath in plain water mixed with niter. Later on he gets dressed
and starts walking in his room, then on the thirty-ninth day,
he takes ten drops of Balsam of the Great Master along with two
spoons of red wine. On the fortieth day he will leave the house,
rejuvenated and perfectly recharged”.
Cagliostro’s writing is a mixture of alchemy and modern
medicine, which in essence it was. But it is included here for
it reflects many of di Sangro’s own experiments with chemical
compounds, some of which are known to have made him seriously
ill. His aides repeatedly asked him to stop experimenting in his
cellar, as he was bound to die from experimenting too much himself.
This was the cellar of his palace, on the San Domenico Maggiore
Square. Looking down, on the sides of the front door at number
9, you can still see the bars of the cellar windows which once
served as the Prince’s laboratory.
Sangro decided that the family’s chapel, around the corner
in the Via de Sanctis, would be his personal legacy. The chapel
sits, as mentioned, just off San Domenico Maggiore, the Dominican
church where men like Giordano Bruno had lived. “Sansevero”
is much smaller, but in artistic value it is able to rival its
The origins of the chapel date back to the end of the 16th century,
when an innocent man was dragged to jail, passing in front of
the garden of the di Sangro Palace, where he saw a part of the
garden wall crumble and an image of the Blessed Virgin appear.
The man promised to give a silver medallion to the Virgin if he
was proven innocent, which indeed happened. He kept his promise
and from that moment onwards, the sacred image became a place
of many more blessings. Later, Giovan Francesco Paolo di Sangro,
first Prince of Sansevero, was very sick and went to see the Madonna,
in search of a cure. This too was granted and hence he built a
small chapel, the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta or Pietatella.
Around 1590, the chapel became the resting place of the di Sangro
family. Later, Alessandro, Patriarch of Alexandria and Archbishop
of Benevento, began modifying and transforming the chapel, before
Raimondo took it to the present level of refinement.
William St Clair invited foreign artists to work on Rosslyn Chapel;
Di Sangro commissioned the greatest artists of the time, including
the Venetian Corradini, as well as Queirolo and Sammartino, to
sculpt statues for his church. Like William St Clair, Raimondo
did not just limit himself to commissioning the works; he also
personally selected the marble, suggested techniques and subjects
for each work and decided the location of the masterpieces. When
he died in 1771, the church indeed grew into his legacy and is
now seen as the centre of Neapolitan Baroque; it is indeed believed
to contain a cryptic, Masonic message that many have tried to
we look at the chapel today, there is little to suggest that the
church has a uniform symbolic message to impart to the visitor.
Certain features have symbolic connotations – which the
guidebooks explain. Some features have a “double entendre”
that suggest di Sangro could indeed be an initiate of some intriguing
esoteric tradition, but these clues are sporadic and do not move
throughout the chapel in a consistent manner – and are sometimes
Perhaps the reason for this is that what we see today, is not
exactly how De Sangrio had imagined it to be. At the end of the
stroll through the chapel, the visitor is led down into what was
meant to be a small cave. The original plans show that this room
was to be enlarged and set up for the entombment of his descendants.
For an unknown reason, the project was never completed.
On the floor is a rectangular marble slab, a visual clue that
it was here that the Veiled Christ of Sanmartino was supposed
to have been placed. Instead, this extraordinary sculpture is
located in the centre of the chapel above, where it sits as the
true artistic masterpiece for which most tourists come to this
site. The room was equally supposed to be illuminated by an eternal
light that di Sangro had invented, but no trace of that is found
either. Instead, it harbours two glass showcases in which the
skeletons of a man and a woman are visible. The vein and artery
systems of these two individuals remain perfectly intact.
To begin with the “eternal flame”: Don Raimondo reputedly
made it from a skull, obtaining a mixture with a high concentration
of magnesium and phosphate that could burn for hours while consuming
only a negligible amount of material.
What about the somewhat surreal-looking skeletons? They were the
work of di Sangro and his physician Guiseppe Salerno. The woman’s
skeleton has her right arm raised and his eye balls are still
intact, almost shiny, in a truly terrified expression. But what
is remarkable are the veins and internal organs, which would be
expected to disintegrate soon after death. Instead, they remain
in perfect state centuries after their creation. Her heart is
whole and you can even see the blood vessels in her mouth. She
was pregnant and in her belly you can see the open placenta from
which the umbilical cord is spilling out and then joining the
foetus. Just like his mother’s, this unborn baby’s
skull can be opened to see the complex network of blood vessels
inside. The male version of the anatomic machine has more or less
the same features, the only difference being that his arms are
not raised but rest along his trunk.
“A Brief Note on What Can be Seen in the House of the Prince
of San Severo”, published in 1766, and therefore most likely
written by the Prince himself, reads: “In the Chapel one
can see two Anatomic Machines, that is, skeletons, a male and
a female, made by injection, which because of their being complete
and of their having undergone such diligent treatment, can be
said to be unique in all of Europe”. It is believed that
the veins were injected with a certain substance which, upon entering
the circulatory system, gradually blocked it up to the point of
causing the death of the subject. At that point, the substance
might have “metalicized” the veins and arteries, preserving
them from decomposition. Others state that the preservation method
was performed on dead bodies, but as blood no longer travels in
a dead body, we need to ask how all the veins were preserved.
Equally, it is known that the Prince must have waited for the
skin and flesh to completely decompose before obtaining what he
calls the “anatomic machines”.
That is not the only problem: the hypodermic syringe that would
have been necessary to make the “injection” was officially
only invented one hundred years later by a surgeon from Lyon,
Carlo Gabriele Pravaz (1791-1853). Hence, others have stated that
di Sangro “merely” took a skeleton and covered it
with an artificial network of blood vessels. Some believe he used
wax to create the arteries. But: tests performed on the “machines”
in the 1950s revealed that “the whole system of blood vessels,
upon analysis, showed that it was metalicized, that is they were
soaked in and kept their shape by the metals settling in it”.
It is also known that di Sangro was able to compose a material
similar to the substance – deemed to be blood – in
the ampoule of San Gennaro, a precious relic that Naples continues
to worship each January and which is said to miraculously liquefy
during the ceremony; in fact, di Sangro did not want to underline
too much that what he had invented was identical to the relic’s
substance, but “like” it. Still, how the Prince accomplished
this and the two “anatomical machines” remains a mystery.
No wonder that when people saw
these skeletons, di Sangro became the subject of gossip and wild
rumours. Some people claimed that he was a sorcerer, a diabolical
alchemist who ordered people to be kidnapped, so that he could
perform heinous experiments on their bodies. Others argued that
he was a godless predator of young boys who he later castrated.
There were even those who said that he ordered the killing of
seven cardinals and then made the same number of chairs out of
their bones and skin.
There is however truth in the story of the castrated boys. One
of his hobbies was “bel canto” – singing. Di
Sangro had married Carlotta Caetani of Aragon, a relative on his
mother’s side, and had five children (Vincenzo, Paolo, Gianfrancesco,
Carlotta and Rosalia), but he still enjoyed going around his many
estates looking for young boys with beautiful voices. Usually
he would find them in the church choir, from which he would “buy”
them from their parents, however not, as some may think, for sexual
pleasures; indeed, it seems quite the opposite: Giuseppe Salerno
castrated them, after which they would be locked up in the Conservatory
of Jesus Christ’s Poor in Naples, where they started their
careers as “sopranists”.
back to his chapel. Masons have identified the chapel as the expression
of a Masonic ideal, namely the progression towards salvation or
enlightenment. Di Sangro illustrated this path with the graves,
which proceed, virtue by virtue, to this culmination. These virtues
include: decorum, liberality, religion, softness of marriage,
sincerity, self control, education, and divine love. They stress
that he emphasised the last two sepulchres, modesty and disillusionment.
“Modesty” is the grave of Cecilia Gaetani, Raimondo’s
mother, represented here as a Roman vestal virgin. The broken
inscription and the crown of flowers remind us that she died very
young, while the incense burner recalls the purification of the
air. The oak stands for the antiquity of knowledge. “Disillusionment”
is dedicated to Raimondo’s father. It shows a figure trying
to free himself from a net, which may symbolize ignorance or sin,
with the assistance of an angel, symbolising reason.
The final sculpture, at the end of the path, is the Veiled Christ
– which originally should have been in the “cave”
The Veiled Christ is one of the
most renowned pieces of art in the world. It was sculpted in 1753
and shows a veil covering the body of the Christ. Many have observed
that in its presence, one feels one is observing the true body
of Christ. Canova, the great sculptor of the 19th century, defined
it as “an awesome work, second only, perhaps, to Michelangelo's
Pieta”. He added that he would give ten years of his life
to have been its creator.
The most remarkable aspect of the piece is the veil; some believe
that a veil literally “petrified”, perhaps through
a chemical process such as occurs naturally at Mother Shipton’s
Cave in Knaresborough (England). Like the statue of Disillusionment,
by the Genoese sculptor Francesco Queirolo, the net completely
surrounds a statue that has already been sculpted, while nevertheless
being an integral part of it. How can that be done – sculpting
underneath the tiny holes of the net, yet without breaking the
net and still being able to sculpt the body to its finest detail?
In both cases, the question is how these sculptors were able to
cover their works with veils and nets made of marble, for it is
clear that there is no other method of achieving the final product?
To find two such examples in one chapel suggests that it was di
Sangro’s chemical mastery that may have contributed to the
solution. How? Some claim that the veils were obtained by crystallizing
a base solution of calcium hydrate or slaked lime. Supposedly,
the statue was placed in a tub and covered with a wet veil (or
net), over which a diluted calcium solution was poured, before
the liquid was sprayed with carbon oxide coming from a coal burning
oven. The end result is calcium carbonate, i.e. marble, which
would then be joined to the rest of the statue. But no-one has
yet practically demonstrated this theory to be do-able, or the
one the Prince used.
may be another small “anomaly” in this Veiled Christ,
as there is a slight indentation over the nostril, as if the shroud
is being sucked in by breath – is this “dead Jesus”
alive? Did di Sangro believe that Jesus had not died on the Cross?
If so, perhaps he was not only a Mason, but a member of another,
even more mysterious, order?
Jesus disappeared from his tomb – but he is not alone. The
Prince’s tombstone can still be seen in the chapel. He died
on March 22, 1771, “from a sudden illness caused by his
mechanic experiments”. During the long nights he spent in
his laboratory he had probably inhaled or ingested some toxic
substance, which this time had indeed become lethal. His sarcophagus,
however, does not contain his body; someone stole it. When or
why is not known.
Raimondo had a plaque placed in the chapel, stating that the person
who commissioned those works (i.e. himself) was moved by a desire
“to astonish, discover and teach”. He was definitely
able to astonish… he discovered and taught… but we
seem to have been bad pupils.