To get a sense of this church’s history, you needn’t look any further than the grand porch that sits atop its monumental double staircase. Here, you’ll see two corinthian columns braced against the church’s facade. They are the only reminder we have of its humble beginnings as the pagan Temple of the Dioscuri which sat along the north side of the ancient Foro di Neapolis, today’s Piazza San Gaetano. The Dioscuri, aka, the twins Castor and Pollux were two of the founding gods of the Greek city of Neapolis.
The statues in the two niches embedded into the principal facade of San Paolo Maggiore, that of Peter and Paul, recall the temple’s Christianisation in the late 8th/early 9th century AD. The entrance below the staircase and the statue in the piazza tell of the church’s medieval history. The statue is that of San Gaetano, one of the patron saints of Naples and one of the founding members of the Religious order the Congregation of the Clerks Regular of the Divine Providence, the Theatines. The church was given over to the Theatines in 1538 after a long period of degradation. Ten years later, San Gaetano died in Naples and his remains were interred in this crypt below the church. The church was subject to a complete restyling during the Baroque era and suffered grave damage during WWII. The frescoed ceiling in the central nave, Stories of the Lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul by baroque artist Massimo Stanzione (1585 – 1656) was among the casualties. Still, much of San Paolo’s rich artistic heritage escaped unscathed. Among these are Francesco Solimena’s (1657 – 1747) frescoes in the sacristy and Ferdinando Fuga’s (1699 – 1782) altar.