Priceless Italian Treasure Is Shown Off In Rare Exhibition

Oct 30, 2013
Originally published on October 30, 2013 5:07 pm

Dazzling with diamonds, emeralds and gold, 70 pieces of treasure — said to be some of the most valuable in the world — have been transported from a vault in a Naples cathedral to a museum in Rome. They'll stay there until February, marking the first time they've ever been displayed outside of Naples.

The head of the foundation organizing the Treasure of San Gennaro exhibition tells the BBC the collection is "of incalculable worth, both historically and artistically, greater than that of the British crown jewels or the Russian imperial crown."

The collection officially began in 1526, when the city of Naples called upon its patron saint, fourth century bishop San Gennaro (known in English as Januarius), for help. The BBC reports:

"In the 1520s, when Naples was beset by disease, war and the frequent eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius, Neapolitans pledged to build a chapel to San Gennaro and safeguard the donated treasure, in return for the saint's protection.

" 'The city was on its last legs, but the people of Naples knew which saint to turn to,' said the exhibition's curator Paolo Jorio. 'They voted that, if Saint Januarius helped them, they would dedicate a new treasure chapel to him.'"

Since then, it has acquired more than 21,000 pieces. One of the most elaborate acquisitions is a necklace made up of several pieces of jewelry and stones donated over centuries, such as a cross donated by Napoleon.

The exhibition in Rome shows off some of the collection's highlights, including:

  • A golden chalice donated by Pope Pius IX in 1849.
  • An elaborately bejeweled mitre — the ceremonial headdress of bishops — including more than 3,500 precious stones, created in 1713.
  • Diamond earrings donated by a commoner in gratitude for surviving a plague in 1844 (Reuters calls them "relatively humble").
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