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Urban Expansion of the Vomero Section of Naples

Although one generally says "Vomero" today to include all of number 5 on the map (right), the traditional Vomero quarter is centered on Piazza Vanvitelli (bottom square in photo, below); the upper square is Piazza Medalgia d'Oro, the modern center of the Arenella quarter.

Naples has 10 city administrative units (CAU) comprising
30 "quarters". On this map, number 5 is the CAU that comprises the two quarters of Vomero and the adjacent quarter of Arenella. The current population of number 5 is about 120,000, more than any other single CAU. The two dimensions of this map hide the important fact that number 5 is on a hill 500-600 feet above most of numbers 1 and 2.

There was a time when the term “Vomero section of Naples” was a misnomer. Vomero was near Naples, yes, but not part of it; there are, as a matter of fact, still people in Naples who remember when Vomero was a spacious and airy community on a hill where you could actually spend your summer holidays high above the always too busy city of Naples.

Roberto Murolo's authoritative anthology of Neapolitan Song has as the very first example a song entitled Song of the Washerwomen of Vomero, dating the song to the 1100s. Thus, the name "Vomero," itself, is at least that old. Before that, the Vomero hill went by other names depending on the times: the Romans called it Paturcium, probably from Putultius, a religious epithet  (meaning "gatekeeper") of Janus, the Roman deity to whom the hill was dedicated. (There are still traces of Roman roads on the hill, built so the Romans could by-pass the coast and get out to Pozzuoli more easily.) The current name "Vomero" stems from the Latin vomer, meaning plowshare, the blade on the plow that cuts the furrow. (Irrelevant but interesting!—English and Italian medical terminology have vomer and vomere, respectively, for the triangular bone in the nose, so named because it looks like that farming tool!) "Vomero" apparently was used to designate one particular large casale (a fortified farm, really—see this link) and was then later extended to apply to the entire hill. Thus, the name has very rural origins; indeed, some sources trace it to a farmers' game of competing to plow the straightest furrow. At other times, Vomero has also been referred to simply as the Hill of Broccoli. All of this is now quaintly academic since Vomero-Broccoli Hill has been hideously overbuilt since the end of WWII—the focus of what follows.

A map from 1630 shows the entire hill and hillside (i.e., all of number 5 on the map, above) to the west of Castel Sant’Elmo to be empty and wooded. (The castle is located at the extreme SE corner of number 5). There is an extant census from the mid-1500s that estimates the population of "number 5" (including the even higher hill area of Camaldoli) at barely 1200 persons, meaning 200-300 families. There are no settlements, at least none worth noticing from a royal cartographers point-of-view. (Besides the washerwomen, as you moved further north up the Vomero hill towards Camaldoli, you perhaps found such things as Giambattista della Porta’s secret bat-cave, the Academia Secretorum Naturae from the late 1500s.) From the Neapolitan point-of-view, however, there was really nothing up there except the fortress of Sant’Elmo, itself, and the adjacent San Martino monastery; thus, there was a single road up from Naples (today called via Salvator Rosa). There were, of course, numerous paths and stairways; they still exist today but with some exceptions are little used and in some cases overgrown and unusable.

The 1700s then saw the construction of numerous large private estates and a fair number of churches, big and small. An estimate from 1743 puts the number of families at about 600 in the combined Vomero section (the area immediately around Piazza Vanvitelli ) and the adjacent section to the north, Arenella (around today’s Piazza Medaglia d’Oro). Slightly later, towards the turn of that century and especially again after the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in 1816, many large pieces of property, such as what is today called the Villa Floridiana, were developed. (In the case of the Villa Lucia—photo, right—the building was a gift from the king to his wife). Then, in 1827, the king ordered the construction of a very long muro finanziere, a “customs wall”, a true physical wall with a series of check-points to control commercial traffic coming into the city. It took seven years to build and was very long; it started at the east end of the port of Naples at the Magdalene Bridge and ran up through Poggioreale and then up and behind the royal palace at Capodimonte; it then swung west, running below the Camaldoli hill, enclosing today’s Vomero section of Naples and ended up at the bay of Pozzuoli. Parts of the wall are still visible today if one knows where to look. In any event, it set the stage for further development of the Vomero hill.

The first attempt to encroach on the hill itself from the city was not a frontal assault by building roads directly up the hill from Naples (such as the existing and very steep via Salvator Rosa that ran up (and still runs up) from the National Museum; it was rather a stepped, or terraced, approach—the road today named Corso Vittorio Emanuele (V.E.) (originally named Corso Maria Teresa) built in the 1850s. It is often called the “first tangenziale —that is, the first “ring road” or “by-pass.” It started at Mergellina and swung away from the coast and up onto the southern slope of the Vomero hill to about the halfway point and then turned east for a couple of miles and ran along the side of the hill until it ran into via Salvator Rosa. Not only could you then by-pass the coast to get into the city from Mergellina, you could actually by-pass the whole city, itself, by turning down via Salvator Rosa and then north or continuing west once you got back down to the museum. And most important for the future development of the Vomero, the Corso V.E. set up a great wave of building along the slope. Large buildings started going up along the Corso V.E. before WWI, and that naturally entailed the building of numerous smaller access roads up from the seaside Chiaia section of town (the right-hand portion of number 1 on the above map) and a few larger roads such as via Tasso and Via Aniello Falcone that would then “snake” up the rest of the hill to the top—Vomero, itself.

Still, however, it’s all pretty tame; after all, there was no motorized traffic yet. If you had to go up to Vomero from Naples and you had no horse or coach and didn’t feel like walking, the alternative for centuries was to hire a mule and ride up one of the trails, the most used of which was via Salvator Rosa (then, alternately called the Infrascata). In hindsight, it was all very romantic and folklorish; indeed, it was a common subject of artists looking to paint the common touch but tired of street urchins and fishermen.

 The newly renovated bottom station of the
Montesanto cable-car is pleasantly "retro".

After the unification of Italy, the grand urban renewal project of the 1880s called the Risanamento led to grand plans to build up the Vomero. In the absence of still distant motorized traffic, the first priority was to help pedestrians get up and down between Naples and Vomero. Enter the funicular railway, the cable car. There are three cable cars to Vomero: the Chiaia line (opened in 1889); the Montesanto line (1891); and the Central line (1928). The first two are a result of the risanamento, and it is from that point that you can mark the steady daily traffic between the city and the hill above the city. (Somewhat earlier, in 1879, the first public horse-drawn trams had made their appearance in Naples and took passengers up the steep Infrascata to Vomero and even along the “halfway” road, the Corso V.E. all the way to Mergellina. Those conveyances went through a relatively quick transition from horses to steam (not steam busses, but rather steam-driven "cog railways") to electricity by the early 20th century. Thus, by 1900, with the city of Naples in a full-blown and massive rebuilding, the Vomero and adjacent Arenella quarters were primed to join the greater Neapolitan area. New residences and businesses went up; much of the architecture of Piazza Vanvitelli in Vomero, for example, is in the same "Liberty" art nouveau style as the buildings down at the Mergellina seaside because they were built at the same time—1900 and shortly thereafter. No longer the abode of large exclusive villas, Vomero was becoming "gentrified"—the new middle-class was moving in.

 The Cardarelli hospital, from the 1920s

By the early 1900s and especially after WWI, city planners had to deal with the automobile. Also, during the 1920s, Vomero became more closely connected to Naples when the city decided to open the new “hospital district” of Naples just above the Arenella section of Vomero. For all those cars and hospitals, new streets would be needed. New roads from the 1920s connecting down to the city included the important via Gerolamo Santacroce that ran down from the Vomero to the east to connect to via Salvator Rosa and down into the city; also, via Aniello Falcone, a Vomero road, was extended down to run west and parallel to the earlier (and lower) Corso V.E. to connect to via Tasso, an earlier road that came up from the Corso V.E. and ran to the extreme western end of Vomero.

Post WWII construction in the Vomero section is universally viewed (except by land speculators) as a disaster due to overbuilding. That is incremental, of course. It started small with a single bridge at the beginning of via Cilea (photo, right) in the late 1940s. The bridge is inconspicuous now, but it overcame a considerable difference in elevation between the central part of the Vomero and the relatively undeveloped area to the west (to the right in the photo) that led to the Posillipo section of Naples. That bridge joined the two areas and allowed the laying of a broad straight east-west boulevard, via Cilea, on either side of which since the 1950s has arisen—quite different from the fashionable Liberty buildings from 1900 to the east in the original Vomero—an astonishing array of tightly-packed and too tall apartment buildings. And since the Vomero access ramps to the tangenziale ring road are on via Cilea, the road turns into a half-mile of parking lot at rush hours. The innocent Little Bridge that Could, by the way, is now having structural problems and has been closed to heavier vehicular traffic, which, of course, includes busses.

It is hopeless to pick out the most outlandish example of overbuilding, but many sources cite—just because of its size—a building popularly called the Great Wall of China on via Ugo Ricci (photo, right). The general principle seems to be, “Build as high as you can and as close to the edge as you can; if you don’t, someone else will build higher and closer and block your view of the bay.” That, of course, has happened in other places in Naples, as well (Posillipo, for example). In terms of transportation and mobility to and from the Vomero, the most important recent innovations are the tangenziale and the new metropolitana train line. The latter is not yet complete, but it's complete enough to take passengers from the uppermost reaches of the Vomero into the city in a few minutes (a trip that used to take hours), inextricably weaving both Naples and Vomero into the same urban fabric.

-Vomero, Storia e storie
by Antonio La Gala, pub. Alfredo Guida, Naples, 2004.

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