Civic Tower and St Stephen’s Church (Oratorio dei Neri)

The initiative that led to its construction began with an assembly held on 5 January 1473. It brought together some thirty exponents of the most illustrious and influential families of our village, belonging to the various political factions, with the aim of laying the foundations of a work that would be a symbol of the recovered will for peace and a bond of fruitful union.

The document that handed down the memory is a bit like the birth certificate of the Civic Tower.

The meeting took place at a time of serious social upheaval, when the inability to establish a firm and efficient government, the rivalry between the most powerful families, and the bloody partisan quarrels, had led to the passage of the Superba and its possessions under the rule of the Sforza family, Dukes of Milan, ten years earlier.

Even in Rapallo, the reverberations of this climate of discord were accentuated and there was no shortage of clashes between the followers of the Adorno, Fregoso and Fieschi families, so that municipal freedom was seriously threatened.

At such painful junctures, a word of peace and a call to faith was brought by Father Gio Battista del Poggio, founder of the order of the Eremitani, known by him as ‘Battistini’, who promoted the construction of the church and convent of St Augustine. The paternal exhortations of the good Augustinian friar were presumably still ringing in the ears of those we saw arriving at the civic seat on Epiphany Eve 1473 in the warm Christmas atmosphere inviting fraternity and concord. The names of those present at the meeting will be transcribed in the ‘Red Book’ of our municipality together with the decision that resulted from the meeting: ‘Omnes concordes nemine discrepantia deliberaverunt, statuerunt et ordinaverunt construendi facere campaninum Sancti Stephani’.

The meeting resulted in the appointment of four delegates to impose a tribute on all the inhabitants of the village, without distinction of colour or party, but only according to their ‘upright and pure conscience’.

The four chosen were Francesco Della Torre, doctor Benedetto Canevale, Antonio Della Cella and Giovanni Bardi, and the trust was well placed as the factory was soon up and running. The tower was built of stone, with square boulders, equipped with a bell and clock, and was erected a few steps from the seat of the podesteria (which would later become the so-called ‘court’ of the Capitaneato) and the hospital of Sant’Antonio, now the Town Hall, built in 1451 in place of the hospital of S. Cristoforo di Pozzarello, which was by then unfit for use.

It was wanted next to the church of St Stephen, as if to confirm the religious aspiration behind it and perhaps also because this ancient temple did not have its own bell tower.

In 1581, the bell tower was raised by raising a pinnacle with a marble terrace and pediment, and a new bell was placed to be used for ringing the hours.

In 1640, the tower bell was recast at the expense of the community and the Borzoli and Amandolesi neighbourhoods, while the bronze was adorned with the city coats of arms. This is the bell that still exists today and that, until recently, true to an ancient tradition, rang out whenever the town council met.

In 1910, the tower, commonly referred to as the ‘town hall bell’, was declared a national monument. During the last world war, a siren was placed on its summit, heralding the alarms of countless air raids with its piercing calls.

Restoration work was carried out after the war on both the tower and the adjoining church of Santo Stefano: the base of the building was consolidated with cement injections in order to guarantee greater stability to the mole, which remains the symbol of the free Rapallo municipality. Maintenance and conservation work was completed at the end of 2002.

Church of St Stephen

In the centre of the village, on a small knoll, stands the Church of Santo Stefano, now commonly called ‘Oratorio dei Neri’.

The oldest document in its memory is a deed dated July 1155 in which this Benedetta sold to Oberto Cancelliere half of a house located in our village ‘ab ea parte quae est versus Sanctum Stephanum’.

Tradition claims that this was the first Christian temple built in our town, and there is also the hypothesis that the church arose as the seat of a monastic congregation or as a chapel at a pre-existing cemetery.

There is no doubt, however, that its erection was much earlier than that of the present basilica. This is confirmed both by the dedication to the protomartyr, whose cult in Liguria undoubtedly preceded that of Saints Gervasius and Protasius brought by the Milanese bishops, and by the title of ‘Prepositus’ (the older name for archpriest) that distinguished those who ruled the church, and, finally, from the very place where it was erected in the heart of the town, protected by the walls and in an elevated position to protect it from the frequent flooding of the ‘Bogo’, which turned the surrounding areas into marshes, including the area where our Basilica was later built.

The title of Prepositura accompanied the church of S. Stefano throughout the ages; this importance remained unchanged over the years and is underlined by a record from November 1143 in which we read that S. Stefano was entitled to more than half of the tithes pertaining to the territory between the Monti stream and the Bogo.

At St. Stephen’s, the administrative activities of our community also took place and the consuls, in fact, administered justice in the parvis, taking shelter during the summer, as documents from the 12th century state, ‘sub frascata’, under a pergola.

Shortly after 1263, the Confraternity of the Disciplinants was established in the church, and the brothers had their own special tomb in the temple, before they built the present Oratory ‘of the Whites’ in the second half of the 15th century. When did St Stephen cease to have care of souls?

It is ascertained that in 1541 this must have already happened since, by decree of 19 June of that year, Pope Paul III Farnese granted the church in jus patronage to the illustrious Rapallo family Della Torre.

With a bull of December 1634, Pope Urban VIII sanctioned the transfer of the Confraternity ‘Mortis et Orationis’, known as ‘dei Neri’ (of the Blacks) because of the colour of the hoods they wore, to the church. The Confraternity had been established in previous years at the church of St. Augustine, later setting up its headquarters in the chapel of the hospital of St. Anthony (now the Town Hall) authorised by decree of the archiepiscopal vicar on 21 February 1631.

The Confraternita dei Neri (Brotherhood of the Blacks), which still has its headquarters in S. Stefano, was responsible for the first theatrical performances in Rapallo.

On the evening of Good Friday, the brethren carried in procession the ‘disembodied Christ with his helmet’ and soon also staged the representation of the Mystery of the Passion on a stage that was specially erected in the Oratory or in the church of the Nuns of St Clare. Theatrical performances, even secular ones, were held in St. Anthony’s Hospital, so much so that the Genoese Senate had to intervene to prohibit them with a decree of 7 July 1712, as evidenced by a plaque above the entrance from Piazza delle Nazioni.

Changing political conditions and various difficulties led to the cessation of performances, which was made official by an act dated 10 July 1809. Santo Stefano suffered damage during the last war, and restoration work was carried out in 1958, while other interventions took place in 1963 and in recent years. The ancient sacred building awaits, however, other indispensable works of valorisation and restoration that will succeed in inserting it even more vividly into the social and cultural fabric of the city.

And this is the aim of the ‘Neri”s extensive activity, which combines religious events with periodic cultural exhibitions and the traditional Ligurian nativity scene.

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