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main index ©Jeff Matthews entry Nov 2007
The Architecture of Fascism in Naples
The best definition I can come up with for the “Architecture of Fascism in Naples” is “buildings put up in Naples in the 1920s and 1930s.” That, I realize, would be cheating my way around many definitions. With apologies, I am confused by the terms of 20th-century architecture: Bauhaus, International style, Art Deco, Constructivism, Organicism, Modernism, Functionalism, Futurism, etc.—and I have barely scratched the façade. (Most of those styles, by the way, dropped you down the elevator shaft if you tried to put so much as even one ornamental scratch on their façades!) One of the most confusing terms is the one given to much architecture in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s: Fascist Rationalism. It seems to combine two irreconcilable terms.
First: Fascist. Mussolini’s call in the 1920s for a “Fascist style” produced many buildings in Italy inspired by past architectural glories. Among these were the “Imperial” style with Roman features such as columns and façades adorned with eagles; the “Palladian” style, with arcades, porticoes and arches without ornamentation; and the “Baroque” (endearingly called by the diminutive, barochetto) with ridiculous amounts of ornamentation dripping off the facades. All of that is an historical approach to architecture: using the past, as Mussolini said, “…to serve as a source of training and encouragement for the advancement of the aims of the nation.” You expect an architectural corollary; that is, Fascist Italy spent much of the 1920s excavating imperial Rome—the Theater of Marcellus, the Trajan Forum, the forum of Caesar, the forums of Augustus and Nerva. All these were opened and seen for the first time in 1500 years. The glorious past had been rediscovered; the new architecture should somehow reflect that.
Second: Rationalism, the non-historical approach. Modern architecture was dedicated to the concept that form followed function, that ornamentation was a crime, and that—in Le Corbusier’s words— “a house is a machine for living." Rationalism meant science and reason, not history. How, then, to have a building that is both (1) historical and (2) rational, meaning that it should fit the functional "machine" aesthetic of the new architecture? Welcome to Fascist Rationalism.
Some who write about the conflict of those two extremes in Italian architecture say that the modern school lost out to the historical school—termed “stripped Classicism”—by the early 1930s; thus, you might expect monolithic and useless temples erected to the power of the state. Many of the buildings in Naples from the 1930s, however, do not bear that out. Yes, they are obviously “Classical” (though “stripped” of ornamentation); yet, they are functional.
“Rationalist Row,” if you will, in Naples centers on Piazza Matteotti. There you have the main post office (see that link for interior photos); it looks like a marble and glass (and very functional) bee-hive. Indeed, the façade is a giant parabola with rows of small practical windows, behind which sat small practical drones who stared out at New Rome while they cheerfully misdirected your letters. But the interior has so much non-functional wasted imperial space that you could float your blimp in there while you buy stamps. One should note that the architects of the post office went to great ends to preserve an important bit of Neapolitan past by actually incorporating the courtyard of the old Mount of Olives monastery into the new structure (photo, below, right).
Nearby is the Provincial Administration building, called one of the outstanding examples of Rationalist architecture in Italy (photo, top of page, left). Across the street is the ANMIG (Wounded War Veterans) building; up at the corner is the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and one block away is the Istituto nazionale delle assicurazioni (National Insurance Building). Elsewhere there are other examples: the passenger terminal at the port, the Bank of Naples on via Toledo (aka via Roma) and outside of Naples, in Fuorigrotta, the Mostra d’Oltremare (Overseas Fair Grounds). All of those sites were finished between 1935-40. Holdovers from the 1920s in Naples include the Cardarelli hospital—a weird mixture of a neo-Classical façade and a futuristic interior—and the Mergellina train station, solid barochetto, where the ornamentation is so syrupy that trains have been known to stick to the tracks.
(The inscription below the title at the top of this page is on the post office. Such inscriptions typically included the standard date as well as the "Era Fascista" date, measured from the founding of the "new empire"— that is, in this case, 14 years after Mussolini's march on Rome.)