Light and Shadow: Art Tourism in Naples (Part I)

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October 29, 2014

by Mark Russell

The city of Naples famously sits in the shadow of Vesuvius, continental Europe’s only active volcano. But many other shadows have cast themselves over its long and complicated history: the shadows of war, cholera, poverty, and organized crime among them. For many decades following Italian Unification, the shadow of diaspora also hung over Naples.The city at the foot of Vesuvius provided many Italians with a last glimpse of their homeland as they fled the miseria of the country’s southern provinces for better lives in America and beyond. Many families, now living in countries around the globe, can trace their history back to the Kingdom of Naples.

Nowadays Naples is darkened by the shadow of a bad reputation. Recently, it has undergone something of a cultural renaissance and been described as one of the forgotten treasures of European civilization. But it is still neglected and, in fact, avoided by many Italian and foreign travelers. Potential visitors are put off by its reputation for dirt, dilapidation, petty crime, traffic chaos, poor municipal services, and general lack of orderliness. napoli1

I was warned not to go, or to be extremely careful if I did. In addition to tales of misadventure, “keep an eye on your wallet!” was a recurring piece of advice.
Those tourists who, despite the negative image, venture into the shadow of Vesuvius often give Naples short shrift: many simply pass through on their way to and from the Amalfi Coast and the Island of Capri; for others it is a port of call on a Mediterranean cruise; the majority are drawn to Naples first and foremost by the magnificent ruins of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum that are located nearby. But the rich history of Naples itself is often unappreciated, and as a destination for lovers of Italian art and culture the city is completely overshadowed by Rome, Florence, and Venice.
In this sense, Naples is forgotten. But does it deserve to be characterized as a treasure of European civilization? Its natural setting – in a volcanic landscape, beautifully situated on the Bay of Naples with views to Vesuvius and the Island of Capri – is justly famous and undeniably spectacular. But what about Naples itself? Little survives of the city’s architectural fabric from before the time of the Hohenstaufen dynasty that ruled Naples in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Furthermore, many historic neighborhoods disappeared or were dramatically transformed in the nineteenth century. And yet history has so richly endowed this city – long one of the great capitals of Europe – that only a sampling of its great art and architectural wealth can be offered here.


Characterized by large public squares, broad thoroughfares, and grand public buildings, the San Ferdinando district in the city’s west end is light-filled, elegant, and monumental; it is not what many expect to find in Naples. This part of the city reflects the architectural ambitions of Spanish and Austrian Viceroys, Bourbon kings, Napoleonic rulers, and the government of the Kingdom of Italy. It is dominated by the Piazza del Plebiscito, a vast public space of Napoleonic origin in this often congested, sometimes claustrophobic city. The piazza is framed by two monumental structures that represent the forces that shaped Naples for centuries. To the west is the imposing and dramatic neo-classical portico, colonnade, and rotunda of the Church of San Francesco di Paola, built in the early nineteenth century and imitating the Pantheon in Rome. To the east, the Palazzo Reale, one of several impressive royal residences in or near Naples, served as the seat of the Spanish viceroys. Its large but elegant façade, completed in 1616, is adorned with statues representing the various dynasties that ruled the city. Now opened as a museum, visitors can admire its fine interiors with their paintings, frescoes, and furniture.
Adjacent to the Palazzo is one of Naples’s most elegant squares, the Piazza Trieste e Trento with the historic Caffè Gambrinus on the corner of via Chiaia that is lined with numerous high-end shops. Nearby, and connected to the Palazzo Reale, stands the Teatro San Carlo and its opulent hall. Opened in 1737, and rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire in 1816, it is a testament to the long and rich musical history of Naples and continues to offer a rich and varied program of opera, ballet, and symphony. Opposite stands the iron-and-glass-roofed shopping arcade erected in 1887-91 and known as the Galleria Umberto I, reminiscent of the larger and more famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.
Proceeding east along via Vittorio Emanuele, the hulking mass of the Castel Nuovo rises above the harbor. This splendid fortress, first built in the thirteenth century as the residence of the Angevin kings, is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Its famous triumphal arch, celebrating the entry of Alfonso I into Naples in 1443, is a Renaissance masterpiece and testament to Alfonso’s interest in ancient civilization.
(End of part I) Part II is here