The Church of Jesus Nuovo in Naples is a masterpiece of Baroque Art, overlooking the Piazza del Gesù, one of the most beautiful squares of Naples city. The church is famous, apart from its sumptuous inside, for the many ex voto dedicated to San Giuseppe Moscati, saint renown for his many episodes of miraculous healing. Recently though, the church obtained further popularity for a mystery concerning its incredible facade, mystery thankfully explained by the art historian Vincenzo De Pasquale.
The massive dark stone wall giving onto the square is the “paper” on which the riddle has been written, probably the oldest element of the whole structure.
Originally the building had been raised as a civic building, palace belonging to the noble family of the Sanseverino, subsequently expropriated and sold from the revenue office to the Jesuits in 1584. In this square the Society of Jesus established their “Jesuitic island”, as in they placed two other structures next to the one they had bought, still existing to this day: the Palace of the Congregation and the “Casa Professa dei padri Gesuiti” (“the Holy House of the Fathers Jesuit).
Once the palace was bought, the Jesuits decided to turn it into a church and gave the responsibility of the construction to the brothers architects Pietro Provedi and Giuseppe Valeriano. Of the original structure only the external facade was left, with its Renaissance portal in marble, which anyway was heavily handled as well.
The works terminated in the first years of the 18th century, exactly in 1725. As a consequence to the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Kingdom of Naples, the church was adjusted to the Franciscan order for a short time up until the Jesuits were allowed back in the kingdom. Numerous new works were carried out in the following century inside the church, so it is accurate to say that the facade is the very only part which has stayed almost the same all along.
Below: the facade of the church, picture by Vitold Muratov shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
The surface of dark stone (technically called piperno), has a typical shape of an bossage. That is an ancient technique never fallen into disuse although it has changed throughout the time. The big blocks of stones overlapping one another were sticking out, giving greatness to the structure where such a technique was employed. The optical effect of the bossage is a series of elements which stick out from the horizontal and vertical joints. Amongst the many types of bossage, the one utilised by the church of Jesus Nuovo is the so called “diamond-shaped”. The overall effect is so suggestive that some years ago the facade was chosen to represent the notes of the 10,000 Italian lire.
No one though suspected that this church was hiding a musical mystery within its structure
It all started about 10 years ago in 2005 when Vincenzo De Pasquale along with Salvatore Onorato realised that each single dark volcanic stone block that compose the facade had a notch, signs which had no precise purpose.
De Pasquale was sure that the notches were indicating the cave from which each stone was coming, as that was how architects and art historians have always explained those 10 cm big incisions. While the investigation was carrying on, De Pasquale found out that other interpretations had seen alchemic symbols and occult messages, probably linked to the art of the piperno stone-master. Some others had imagined the palace was cursed considering the tormented alternation of owners/purposes which had characterised it.
Below: Inside of the dome as it was built in 1786. Picture by Baku shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Those interpretations did not convince the two researchers who decided to trace an actual map of the decorations of the external facade.
and thanks to the thorough study of any single block and refined graphic reconstruction the two historians, they discover that those notches are instead letters of the Aramaic alphabet
The Aramaic alphabet is the one of a Semitic language 3,000 years old which, along with Greek, was the language spoken in Palestine back to Christ’s time. It is a system of 22 characters whose spelling is extremely similar to the Hebraic one.
Below: detail of the letters engraved into the stones
On the blocks though, only a few letters repeat themselves. That is the case of 7 letters which recur in various order going from right to left and from down upwards.
De Pasquale and Onorato had an intuition. What if that was a code?
The hypothesis is correct and after several attempts, the two art historians found out that the seven letters which reoccured apparently in a random sequence were instead representing the seven musical notes. The facade of one of the most beautiful churches in Naples was a huge music score which had been there under unaware eyes for centuries.
Below: detail of the portal after the addiction of Baroque elements. Picture by IlSistemone shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Besides, it seems that even in the decorations inside the Sanseverino Palace there were musical elements, as if they were trying to hint and give away the key to the hidden secret. As a homage to the taste of the first occupants, the external part is the score of 3/4 of an hour concert for plectrum instruments in Gregorian style. Most likely, the secret of the palace got lost throughout the years while it got changed so many times, and maybe to the severe artistic censorship coming from the Counter Reformation.
The music score, located by De Pasquale and Onorato, was then rebuilt thanks to the work of two Hungarian researchers, the musicologist Lòrànt Réz and the Jesuit, Aramaic expert Csar Dors. The team of people renamed the music score as “the Enigma Score”. The sequence of notes is today performed with the pipe organ, giving back to us a secret melody from hundreds of years ago which managed to escape time and censorship. A melody which the first constructors loved to the point of wanting it to be engraved into the dark stone of their palace for ever.