Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews        original entry 2003


Gino Doria's  “Streets of Naples”

 © by David Taylor

The Neapolitan historian, Gino Doria, first published his “Streets of Naples” in 1943 for reasons, given in his introduction, which varied from a love of the history to be discovered in the study of place names (toponomy), to a desire to rectify the fact that Naples was the only Italian city to lack a toponomic guide. He was also rather appalled at the brevity and historical inaccuracy of explanation given in the official Guide to the City of Naples (1941).

Painstakingly researched in the library of Doria's teacher and mentor, Benedetto Croce, the first edition quickly sold out and became a collector's item, and not until the author was in his autumn years did he finally publish the long-awaited revised edition .

Already highly idiosyncratic and ironic in the first edition, in the second edition Doria became scathingly critical of those responsible for the naming of the many new streets  built in the years between the two editions. His criticism is at its keenest when dealing with name-changes carried out to existing roads that carried names of historical importance for the city, as in the case of Via Roma/Toledo. He also shows obvious delight in demonstrating how traditional names persist, often for centuries, after the powers-that-be have decided it is time for a change. The following are edited translations of entries for some streets we all know, and one or two less well-known, plus a few passages from the appendix which make clear, lest there be any doubt, his views on the sanity of those responsible for naming the streets. Bracketed notes with asterisks are mine:

Via Alessandro Manzoni - Should anyone be in doubt, I'll just point out that this road is dedicated to the author of a wee novel about a couple of sweethearts [“I Promessi Sposi”, arguably Italy's greatest novel*]. I'll add that the first stretch, from San Stefano, of this magnificently panoramic road was called Patrizi after a beautifully positioned villa belonging to this family and noted for its splendid cypresses: this tree may be common in Tuscan villas but it is rare in Naples, where it is considered unlucky.

Via Alessandro Scarlatti - The principal road of Vomero is named after Alessandro Scarlatti, “spiritual leader of the Neapolitan school of music”, according to Pannain. He wasn't precisely Neapolitan, being born in Trapani, in 1659, though much of his major work was carried out in Naples. Prodigious in his production of religious music, creating pieces worthy of Bach, his instrumental works left a deep impression in the history of music…. In 1684 he was given the post of maestro  by the viceroy of Naples but later left our city for a long period, during which he served Ferdinand III of Tuscany and Cardinal Ottoboni, becoming finally maestro of the Chapel of Saint Maria Maggiore in Rome (1703). After periods in Venice and Urbino, he returned to Naples between 1708 to 1717, but Rome called him again… and there he composed his great Mass for Choir and Orchestra in honour of Saint Celia, under commission of Cardinal Acquaviva. His last work of importance was the unfinished serenade for the marriage of the Prince of Stigliano. He died in Naples, the 24th of October, 1725.

Piazza Amedeo - To avoid confusion with others, let's specify that the name refers to Amedeo Ferdinando Maria di Savoia (1845-1890), Duke of Aosta, and for a brief period, king of Spain. A hero of the War of '66, gaining the gold medal for military valour, he was, in 1868, given the command of the navy, demoralised after the terrible battle of Lissa. Called to the throne of Spain, he was unable - despite popularity amongst his subjects - to stop the internal power struggles in the country. He abdicated in 1873 after an assassination attempt. After his return to Italy he held important posts, including that of commander of the Roman Army.

Via Anticaglia - This road, part of the decumano superiore of ancient Neapolis, was called Anticaglia after the archeological remains, which the ancient erudites, letting their imaginations get the better of them, thought were the remains of the city walls of Neapolis and Palepoli. In matter of fact, as we all now know, the remains, with the two arches spanning the street, are what survives of a building that linked the Baths with the Theatre, in the heart of Classical Naples.

To the present, disinterested generation, I offer, even if it surprises them, the following passage from our good old historian, Bartolomeo Capasso:

“To me, and whoever loves the glory of their homeland, those walls are sacred: I look at them with religious veneration. Passing below those low arches, my mind leaps across the centuries, and, as if under a spell, I find myself in times gone by. These are the ruins of the theatre in which Emperor Claudius acted out his play and Nero gave a display of his voice and his musical skills. They bring back the Forum, the Baths, the Gymnasium, the temples, the portals, the city walls; the whole ancient city, in fact, presents itself to me in a splendid panorama.”

Via Benedetto Croce - Following the death of this great thinker in 1953, the Council wanted to give his name to this street, part of the so-called Spaccanapoli, and never has an administrative decision corresponded so well with the wishes of the people.

In this street, in Palazzo Filomarino, a building which had known the illustrious presence of Gianbattista Vico, Croce lived there from 1914 until his death, and there thought out and wrote his great works of philosophy and history; and, above all, kept alive the cult of liberty and human dignity. The immense library therein, now the property of the State, offers its precious contents to research students of the Italian Institute for Historical Studies, founded by Croce himself and by the banker-humanist, Raffaele Mattioli.

Piazza Cavour - In the vulgar tongue it is still known as Largo dei Pigne: a notable example of the tenacity of place-names, if one cares to think that the pigne (pines) that gave it its name were chopped down in 1630. Today, the piazza is adorned by rare examples of araucaria, cassowaries, and other trees planted in 1870. This place used to be the area occupied by stone masons, displaced to Porta Capuana when the piazza was rebuilt.

Piazza Dante - The old name, still tenaciously adhered to by many Neapolitans is Largo Mercatello, after the market held there every Wednesday. Its present form is owed to Luigi Vanvitelli and it came to be called Foro Carolino in honour of Charles of Bourbon, to whose virtues are dedicated (with some exaggeration) the 26 surrounding statues.

Naples lacked a night-time clock so the city-planners decided to put one in  Largo Mercatello but it proved not to work too well. It was repaired and still refused to keep good time. The works were eventually stolen during the disorders of 1860…[the casing still remains but now you know better than to set your watch by it*].

The statue of Dante, an unsuccessful work of Tito Angelini, was inaugurated in 1871 and remained without any inscription until 1931 because the artist, the commissioners and the council failed to agree on the exact wording.

Via Francesco Girardi - used to be Via Magnocavallo (great horse), which many Neapolitans, keen to be precise in their speech, pronounced Mangiocavallo (eat a horse), convinced that magno (great) derived from the Neapolitan verb magnare (to eat)… Girardo was a noted criminal lawyer, who also acted as mayor of Naples for a year.

Via Mezzocannone - [a great disappointment, this, as I had been previously convinced by the popular myth that a great cannon used to be trundled down the road to fire out to sea. Misfiring, so the story goes, the cannon split neatly into two; hence "mezzo", half, "cannone", cannon*] The present road, flanked by the modern University, does not follow the route of the old road of the same name, and which in antiquity was called Fontanola and then came to be baptised Mezzocannone by the people of the area, after the famous fountain built there at the orders of Alfonso II of Aragon. It should be remembered that cannone refers to the spout of the fountain…

Piazza Piedigrotta - For many non-Neapolitans, the name Piedigrotta is synonymous with Naples. And why not? Some of us are quite happy to have it so; those of us, that is, who are proud of that swarm of songs that teems and crawls from beneath a poor, ignorant 13th century Madonna. Let's try and get this, to me, unpleasant entry over and done with. The Church of Piedigrotta, that is “at the foot” (piedi) of the old “tunnel” (grotta) to Pozzuoli has existed since the 13th century. From numerous rebuilds, the church still conserves memories and documents, such as the wooden statue of the Madonna. This church, as everyone knows, is the reason for the notorious September festival; and I'll be damned if I shall waste another word on the subject!

Via Roma -   I shan't be telling you anything new if I say that this road, the pride of Neapolitans, was opened in 1536 by the viceroy, Pedro di Toledo, whose name the road bore for the following 334 years. In 1544, an anonymous Roman writer published a Description of Naples , in which he praised Toledo and the road “named in eternal honour of His Excellency”.
The good Roman had too much faith in the eternity of things human.  In 1870, being “the first citizen of Naples”, that is to say, the Mayor, Paolo Imbriani and his Council changed the name to Via Roma, adding, for administrative purposes, previously via Toledo… but why chose via Toledo for this change? The baffled Neapolitans did not want to give up the old name. And not only Neapolitans. Here for example, is how an illustrious German Italophile expressed himself on the matter: “How on Earth did we come to the point, in Naples, of deciding to change the historic, three-century-old name of Via Toledo into Via Roma, and of forcing the population to accept this violence…”

From F. Costa we read… “In name of the truth, it has to be said that Imbriani, seeing that public opinion was against him, had to have the new street sign reading "via Roma già Toledo" guarded at night by Municipal Guards because he was sure that the public would break it with stones.” I shall refrain from causing a scene or from trying to describe via Toledo, and shall not even repeat the famous words of Stendhal; but I suppose I might allow myself to print a few lines of verse which seem to capture perfectly the contrast of “misery and nobility”, to use the words of Scarpetta , which was always the state of our most noble street:

Toleto, ch'è na strata nobelissima,
ogne Palazzo sta mmiezo a doie chiaveche;
ogne portone nc'è lo pisciatorio  ec.
B. Valentino, 1748

[Every doorway a public urinal,
Every building surrounded by sewers,
On Toledo, most noble of streets.*]

Via Caracciolo - Our beautiful coastal road was christened corso Caracciolo by Council Decree of 18th of May, 1872. There is no need to remind you who Francesco Caracciolo was [an admiral of the Bourbon Navy, hanged at the orders of Nelson for having sided with the Republicans against the Monarchy*]; but it must be said, with much bitterness, that this unlucky mariner has suffered more at the hands of certain historians than he did under the Bourbons and the English. Even Nelson must be turning in his grave at this libellous treatment of a great admiral. There has been talk of raising a monument to this hero, let's hope his image is captured more precisely by the sculptor's art than it has been by the writer's.

Via Bagnoli -  This name derives from the Latin for the small thermal baths, Balneolum (lo Bagnuolo in Latin vulgate), found there. The source of water came from foot of Mt. Olibano, close to the beach… The name, like the baths, goes back to antiquity but the oldest reference comes from the Middle Ages.

Viale Campi Flegrei - They wanted to give this name to the entire zone of Fuorigrotta…not for any particular topographic reason but simply to keep alive the ancient name, which denotes the volcanic region, which from Posillipo and Vomero extends to Miseno and Mt. Cuma, and includes Ischia, Procida and Nisida. Campi Flegrei means burnt fields from the Greek flego, to burn.

Via and Piazzetta Nilo - This road [part of the so-called Spaccanapoli*]  gets the name Nilo from a statue erected by Egyptian merchants that used to populate the area in Greek and Roman times, and who gave the name Vicus Alexandrius to the road that is now Via Mezzocannone. The statue, beheaded and, so, mistaken in Medieval times for a woman, disappeared for a long time. It turned up again in the 15th century and  only as late as 1675 was given a new head and placed in its present position. The lower classes call the statue "The Body of Naples".

Poggioreale - If, today, the name means only tears and sadness through being the location and name of the city prison, it used to symbolize all that was most beautiful, freshest and vital in the Aragonese capital…

On the site, in 1487, Alfonso of Aragon began building the splendid dwelling by the name of Poggioreale…nothing remains except the plans and drawings, showing that, besides magnificent external architecture, there were marvellous rooms decorated with frescoes. The grounds extended to the sea and were full of trees, orchards, rose-gardens, sculptures, fountains, pools, stables and aviaries… The last remains of these beautiful gardens disappeared in the 18th century.

Piazza Vanvitelli -  The ingenious architect, who gave his name to the bright and busy piazza in the centre of Vomero, was born in Naples in 1700. He died in Caserta in 1773, in that still incomplete Royal Palace that represented the fulfillment of the King's magnificent Palatine dream through his architect's admirable skills. Son of a successful artist, Luigi Vanvitelli began his career as a painter before turning to architecture. Amongst the numerous products of his genius are: the restructuring of the Annunziata and San Marcellino [Largo Marcellino is worth a visit, simply to walk into the courtyard and gaze down into the surprise 'courtyard within a courtyard' designed by the master — one of the hidden architectural gems of the city*], the Churches of the Trinity and the Missione, Foro Carolino (piazza Dante), the  palaces Fondi, Berio and Doria d'Angri, the façade of Palazzo Calabrito, villa Campolieto and, of course, the Royal Palace of Caserta.

Vanvitelli cannot easily be placed in any precise school, period or style but "his true master is that classical ideal that he felt expressed through an entire artistic civilization; an ideal of serene and joyous harmony, of which he is to be recognised as the last representative".

Appendix - In the years since the fall of Fascism, what a lot of bittersweet events have accompanied the monstrous elephantiasis of Neapolitan toponomy! How much rancour, how many hopes, and how little historic interest or moral feeling in the updating of the city's street names! We have seen illegitimate inclusions and exclusions, unwarranted relocations, inexplicable and explicable lapses of memory. And it's all due to the authoritative members of the various commissions, of whatever political colour they may be…

An exemplary case: someone proposed the name of Giordano Bruno, the martyr: a name which shines, like the flames around the stake at which he was executed, from the street signs of every major Italian city, including the Holy City which saw him burned. The commission, though, had some doubts; the name of this man from Nola was still a little risky, and so, in the finest Neapolitan tradition of anything for a quiet life, the decision was put off to another day. The years passed, the case was proposed anew and again dropped. Only now, as I correct the proofs for this second edition (1971) has news arrived that Bruno is finally to have his name erected on a roadsign  — in an alleyway in Ottocalli! [An important road now bears the name of Bruno*]

One more case, for your amusement. This concerns the decision of the commission of 1970 to dedicate a road to that martyr of anti-Fascism, Antonio Gramsci. Nothing amiss here; except that they decided to give the name to that beautiful and high-class road already known as via Elena [twenty years on, the name Elena remains as current as Gramsci.]. Saints above! It wasn't the use of the name Gramsci that annoyed the Neapolitans so much as the obliteration of the name of the ex-queen of Italy. Press and public, annoyed at the change, quickly began to remember all the virtues of this queen from the House of Savoy. Personally I oppose such romanticising even at the risk of being labelled a 'Bourbonizer'. After all what did those Savoys do when they had this kingdom handed to them on a plate? One of their first acts was to rebaptize Corso M. Teresa, that magnificent road built by Ferdinand II, with the name Vittorio Emanuele. Worse still, they called the Bourbon Library the National Library and did the same to the Bourbon (or Farnese) Museum. Such acts were not considered necessary in other parts of the country.

I feel I am sinking into a quagmire of recent nomenclature… a hybrid rabble which, next to a few names of merit, vacillates  like some bacillus culture of hundreds and hundreds of microscopic personalities, all becoming smaller and smaller in significance… if they have not already disappeared.


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