A first in what we hope will be many more to come, we are honored to have the opportunity to share with our readers not just one, but two excerpts from Susan Van Allen’s new book:

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go

A woman after my own heart (and not just because it turns out we are both from the Jersey Shore or that we both love Italy), Susan doesn’t just recite dry facts and figures, she tells us a story about each and every place in her book, bringing them to life on the page. Getting to the heart, the humor and the humanness of the place, she invites us in and we leave feeling as though we’ve just heard her stories over a big Italian meal at her dining room table!!! Beyond that, Susan sparks our curiosity and makes us want to go out in search of each and every one of her “100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go!”

With so many amazing places in Italy, we are thrilled that Naples made Susan’s list not just once, but several times. At number 16 is Naples’ Cloister of Santa Chiara. Part of the Santa Chiara Monumental Complex that includes the Santa Chiara Church, the Museum of the Works, a Roman Thermal Bath Complex, and a Neapolitan Presepe (Christmas crib or creche), the cloister dates to the 14th century. Its claim to fame is Donato and Giuseppe Massa’s 18th century Majolica tile work, to which Susan attests, but she takes us beyond that, leading us on a journey of the cloister’s history to find it’s true sources of inspiration.

Cloister of Santa Chiara–Naples
Susan Van Allen

TUCKED AWAY FROM NOISY, darker Spaccanapoli is this calm bright oasis where the followers of Santa Chiara once prayed.
The cloister’s main attractions are rows of seventy-two majolica-tiled columns, painted in pretty blue, green, and gold floral designs. Tiled benches below show scenes of peasants dancing the tarantella, hunting, and enjoying jolly times in the fields, along with myths featuring Neptune and his mermaids. Citrus trees and shrubs fill the gardens, adding sweet smells.

On the convent walls surrounding the cloister are faded jewel-toned frescos where angels float on arches next to women representing virtues such as Wisdom and Temperance. Murals picture action-packed battle scenes and Bible stories, including one of Judith looking innocent and content as she cuts off the head of General Holofernes.

It all seems a bit much for the nuns who called themselves The Poor Clares and were famous for living lives of poverty and self-denial. As they had no contact with the outside world, these images must have been as entertaining as high-def TV.

The cloister didn’t look at all like this originally. It was built in the fourteenth century when the second wife of Robert d’Anjou (the church founder) decided she wanted to live vicariously through the lives of nuns in seclusion so had this convent added on.

Four hundred years later the innovative artist Domenico Antonio Vaccaro came in and renovated the cloister, inspired by all the Neapolitan frivolity of his day. The nuns enjoyed it all to themselves until 1924, when they traded places with their Franciscan friar neighbors. The Franciscans invited upper-class intellectuals and artists to see the cloister and finally in the 1970s the space was opened to the public.

Although this is still a quiet spot, who knows what Santa Chiara (to us Clare) would think of it. She was a twelfth-century girl living in Assisi who got very inspired when Saint Francis came and gave a sermon at her church. Though many noblemen wanted to marry her, one Palm Sunday night Chiara snuck out of her wealthy parent’s home and headed to Saint Francis to ask to join his gang.

Francis took her in, shaved her head, and gave her sackcloth to wear. Though Chiara’s parents tried to force her to come back home, she fiercely resisted. Instead she founded the Poor Clares order of nuns, and became a fanatic about vows of poverty. The sisters wore no shoes, existed only on alms, slept on the ground, spoke little, and could own nothing.

Chiara became the Patron Saint of Embroidery and Sore Eyes because she was a sickly type and while in bed managed to get a lot of sewing done, making altar cloths and vestments for churches all over Assisi. One Christmas Eve, ailing in her bed, she heard songs from the church below. Then, miraculously, an image of the Bethlehem manger appeared on her bedroom wall. That’s why in 1958, the Pope declared that she should also be known as The Patron Saint of TV.

At number 15 on her list, Susan takes us to Naples’ world class National Archaeological Museum to discover some of the more “interesting” treasures hidden among the museum’s some 3 million artifacts. In her excerpt from this article, Susan unveils the one sculpture that every woman (and man) should see.

Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks
Susan Van Allen
An Excerpt from Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks and Other Museo Archaeologico Nazionale Treasures – Naples

Callipygian Venus (Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks)

Sculptures of Hercules and the Farnese Bull dominate the ground-floor room where you’ll find this enticing Venus. She’s posed lifting up her robe and turning to peek at her rear end. The statue is a Roman copy of the Greek Callipygian Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), that was found in Syracuse , Sicily.

There’s a good story behind this behind.

Two Sicilian farm girl sisters were fighting over which one had the better rear. To settle the feud, they ran to the road, lifted their skirts, and asked a guy passing by to be the judge. He chose the older sister’s rear, fell in love, and ran back home to tell his brother all about it. The brother decided to head out there and judge for himself—which he did, and chose the younger sister’s behind. These guys were from a wealthy family, and their father tried to marry them off to rich girls, but they refused to give up on the sisters with the beautiful butts. And so those lucky farm girls ended up marrying money.

In gratitude they built a temple in Syracuse and dedicated it to Aphrodite Callipygos, because in Greek calli means beautiful and pygos means buttocks. A Sicilian cult grew around the temple, with many coming to worship at the statue, hoping that they would receive good fortune from those buttocks, just as those farm girls had.

The Callipygian Venus statue here in this museum was considered so pornographic in the nineteenth century only privileged men on the Grand Tour who paid were allowed to have a look at it. Notice how those beautiful buttocks got smudged by all the kisses they received from her admirers.

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