Just as Villa Jovis from the height of Mount Tiberius expresses and sums up Capri's imperial period, the Certosa, sunk with its extended buildings within the narrow valley between the Castiglione and the Tuoro hills, expresses the mediaeval and monastic period of Capri in its most noble and monumental form. There is no evidence cither for or against the existence of a Roman villa in this place; yet the lack of clear traces of remains and the low ground itself on which the monastic edifice stands, suggest that this place had been discarded as a site for imperial buildings.
The long row of "Camerelle" running along the present Via di Trag?ra which, according to the most likely interpretation served as cisterns as well as a viaduct connecting the slopes of the several hills, must have marked the last inferior limit reached by the Roman Villas on this stretch; the Villas instead commanded this valley with the sumptuous "Villa del Castiglione" and the lesser one of the "Unghia Marina". We prefer therefore to ascribe the choice of a site untouched by the invading imperial buildings to the deliberate intention of the founder and of the builder. And this enclosed and peaceful place seemed to agree with the spirit of monastic life, particularly at a time when the Capri dwellings were in their turn surrounded by a walled enclosure and the uninhabited slopes all around were covered with pines and olive trees: a man looking down from the very edge of the terrace (92 metres) was prevented from seeing much farther away by the rounded outline of the coast; on one side was the sheer side of the Castiglione hill into which the "Via di Augusto" has now been cut; on the other side the horizon was cut off by the gigantic spiers of the Faraglioni. It may, perhaps, have been considered prudent in view of the much feared threat of Saracen attacks, to conceal the building in that low ground, instead of erecting it on a more conspicuous and higher place on the hills.
The Certosa was founded between 1371 and 1374 by Giacomo Arcucci, count of Minervino and Altamura, who was secretary to Joan I, queen of Naples and belonged to the most noble family of Capri; to the same family Eliseo Arcucci, count of Capri, also belonged and he was an admiral in the service of Frederick II. Count Giacomo Arcucci, a rich and powerful feudal lord, built the Certosa di S. Giacomo as a thanksgiving for the birth of his first born from his wife Margherita Sanseverina; and by the favour of the queen, he endowed it with lands, gifts, papal bulls and ecclesiastical prerogatives and privileges, so as to ensure its temporal and spiritual patrimony for ever. But it was fated that the first great builder in mediaeval Capri, after Tiberius the builder of Roman Capri, should also come to an unhappy end; for, being involved in the crisis of the Angevin monarchy by which queen Joan was deprived of the throne and tragically killed (1381), he was himself banned and stripped of his possessions, and only obtained by grace to be received as a pilgrim and guest in that very Certosa be had so richly endowed. The monks themselves paid the ransom for the deliverance of his son, Jannuccio who had been taken a prisoner and to whose birth the foundation of the monastery was due. Count Giacomo Arcucci spent his last years in monastic life, dying in 1386, the year in which Ladislaus of Durazzo became king of Naples. He was perhaps the only great penitent in the monastery, for the Certosa, steadily increasing in wealth and landed proper- ties, housing but few monks who were attended upon by a number of servants, ended by acquiring full control over the economic and agricultural activities of Capri, because of the ample revenues and the taxes it exacted in the island, the lands it owned on the mainland and the largesse and assistance it more or less generously granted to the poorest among the island families.
The Certosa was sacked and burnt in I553 by the pirate Dragut; it was repaired and enlarged in 1563 when a look-out and defensive tower was raised within view of the sea; and being further enriched by the legacies of the dead from the plague in 1656, its prosperity finally aroused quarrels and contrasts with the clergy and the bishop of the island, who were poor and in need, so that, when in 1807 Joseph Bonaparte suppressed the monasteries and seized their possessions, the end of their great Certosa was learned by the inhabitants of Capri with no great grief; nor was the Certosa recalled to life when the Bourbons returned. Yet, before the monks left their old monastery in i8o8 the tower that bad been raised against the pirates in 1563 crumbled like the Tower of the lighthouse at Villa Jovis had crumbled a few days before Tiberius died. The leaving of the monks marked the ruin of the monumental monastery, for, like the imperial villas, it was turned into a place of detention: into a jail at first (1815), then into a hospice for invalids, finally into a barracks for a disciplinary company of the army (1860); and despite the repairs which were made and the many more it still requires, it cannot yet be said to have been given a destination in accord with its exceptional importance in the history and the architecture of Capri. The name of the architect who first planned it, is unknown, and unknown those of the architects who supervised its later enlargements: yet the Certosa reveals its distinct Capri character by the superb extent of its roofing vaults, which disclose the outline of the structure below, of the groined, hemispherical and fanned vaults by the shape of their external development; and since their dates are clearly established, they mark the first chapter of Capri's architecture. The plan of the buildings however it be vast and complex, develops in a series of successive separate squares, yet communicating with one another.
1) - the little cloister (Chiostrino) around which are ranged the most ancient and monumental parts of the monastery, namely the Church and the Refectory; 2) - the large cloister (Chiostro Grande) with the cells for the monks; 3) - the section of store rooms and services; 4) - the Prior's quarters. Local historians have unanimously maintained that the builders took the Certosa di S. Martino in Naples as a model for the Capri Certosa; but, in truth, with the exception of the large Cloister, added during the second half of the sixteenth century and probably during the I563 restoration, and the portico with arches and pillars, resembling the arrangement of the rooms around open or porticoed areas, may in fact be traced back to the Roman villas with their more or less large peristilia. Above this solid and substantially organic complex of volumes and geometrical forms, rises as a fanciful seventeenth century whim the Torre de11' 0rologio with its curly spire similar to the triangular point of a Neapolitan spire and provides the last touch of Capri craftsmanship to the Certosa by reproducing in stone a metallic model in a somewhat popular taste. A ramp leads to a Watch Tower with its typical rounded battlements and to the vestibule of the Church. In the lunette above the portal a fresco by Andrea Vanni of Siena (1332- 1414) represents the dedication ceremony: The Madonna with Child Jesus between St.Bruno and St. James; praying by St. Bruno is queen Joan; by St. James is count Arcucci in the act of offering a model of the Certosa, which the painter wished to show as roofed with domes instead of groined vaults. The inside displays a single straight nave with an apse at the end with high, single opening clerestorey windows along the nave and a triple opening window in the apse; it is divided by pillars and ribbed arches in three successive crossed spans having simple sharp edges without any ribbing.
Luckily neither a few remains of late seventeenth century paintings on the walls, nor the stucco decorations on the apse, impair the simple and solemn severity of the interior, so unlike the Gothic models of the great fourteenth century churches in Naples. Between the nave of the church on the east, a gallery lighted by low windows and round openings above on the north, and the smaller refectory hall on the west there opens the elegant CHIOSTRINO (little cloister) to which recent repairs have restored its original architectural and structural arrangement with crossed spans supported by columns and capitals belonging to the Roman and Byzantine ages, instead of the squat temporary pillars with which they had been replaced. By the luminous grace of the Chiostrino that seems to temper the monastic sterness of the surrounding rooms, the vast area of the Chiostro Grande appears more imposing but less colourful; it has four long portico wings with arches supported by massive pillars, and seems too severe in its geometrical lines as compared to the remaining structures which used to complete harmoniously their vertical outline by the extrados bending of the vaults. The large Cloister was built at the end of the sixteenth century at a time when the life of the monastery was most active. With the unbroken series of cells ranged along three of its sides, northern, eastern and southern, with the little Cloister of the church and the quarter of the cellars, the services and the guests, it was intended to be the centre of the life of the monastery: the spacious cistern on one side sunk into the ground to collect the rain, indicates, here as well as by the cisterns of Villa Jovis the overwhelming need for a water supply in the centre of the buildings. As in the great Roman villas the rustic quarters of the cellars and of the processing of agricultural products was set apart from the industrial section, thus here in the Certosa the complicated body of the rooms on the south-western corner was set apart.
This section of the monastery suffered the greatest changes and is the least studied one; it would on the contrary repay for a careful examination and a survey so as to make out better, despite many and arbitrary transformations, the nature and the use of the several rooms and thus estimate the amount of the crops and of the revenues the Certosa controlled in wine, oil and cereals; which amounts to saying a considerable part of the agricultural crops of the island, for the patrimony of the Certosa, in the periods of its greatest wealth and prosperity, cannot have been much inferior to the private estates which the emperors owned in Capri. Because the cells on the southern side are still in a completely ruined condition, and those on the other sides have undergone transformations and adaptations, the most singular aspect of monastic life escapes us. We see something of it in the ample and almost luxurious QUARTIERE DEL PRIOR, that having perhaps been built during the later seventeenth century enlargements, formed an apartment standing by itself, isolated upon the highest terrace of the rock facing the sea. The Prior's lodging is preceded by an ample square garden surrounded by a high wall; it stands on the edge of a sheer rock, and has the loggia and some dwelling rooms above and more resting rooms below; it seems thus to reproduce the arrangement of the section of the imperial Loggia or Villa Jovis or of the smaller, and also imperial one, of Damecuta. Clearly the Prior of the Certosa di S. Giacomo and emperor Tiberius shared the same liking for a fine view over rocks and sea. And just as Tiberius walked down to the Loggia of the triclinium to enjoy the grand sight of the wide gulf, the Prior stepped down from his loggia along a goat path as far as a little belvedere terrace that the waves washed: the relish for penance and solitude did not prevent him from enjoying the beauty of the place. And perhaps the curious account that Bouchard who visited Capri and the Certosa in 1632, gave, is connected with this lodging up on a rock and with the tiny path cut into the rock; he writes: "The Prior of the Certosa had with own hands cut out a road to go down to the marina, and had excavated several rooms and galleries in the rock". Here was a legend growing about the Prior's secret life, just has a legend had grown about the secret life of Tiberius.
How to reach
From Piazza Umberto I along Via Vittorio Emanuele, Via F. Serena and Via Certosa (10 mins.).
Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale della citta' di Napoli
Certosa di San Giacomo
tel. +39 0818376218 - +39 0815788418
8.30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Closed on Monday