Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry June 2003, revised Sept 2013

The Galleria Umberto I

The Galleria Umberto in Naples is in the shape of a Crux immissa (lit. extended cross) or Latin Cross; that is, one in which the main, vertical beam sticks above the crossbeam. The Gallery is oriented almost precisely to the four cardinal points; in this image, north is at the top. The long "beam" (horizontal in this image) is 138 meters long; the shorter crossbeam is 108 meters long. The Galleria is often termed "cathedralesque"; in keeping with that terminology, in this image, the left-hand section would be the "nave" of the church, the right hand section the apse, the top and bottom together, the transept. They meet at a large space called the "crossing." If you stand in the middle of the crossing, the top of the dome is 57 meters above you. Where the sections of the cross meet at the central space, they

form  large surfaces at the NW, NE, SW and SE points. These are quite large (photo, right, below) and are, in fact, entrances to the offices on the upper floors of the Gallery.

Entrances are from all ends of the cross. The main entrance is from the south, directly across from the San Carlo theater, (the large building at the bottom in this image). (That entrance is seen in the photo at left, directly below, left.) The street running up on the left is via Toledo (alias via Roma); the street along the north (top) side of the block is via Santa Brigida; the street running down the right is via Giuseppe Verdi.

Main Article

galleria facadeThe first architectural results of the industrial revolution sprang up in Britain in the middle of the 19th century: Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace in 1851, for example, and The Oxford Museum (1859) by Deane and Woodward. By using iron, these architects sought to reconcile the split in the Victorian personality, which viewed such industrial material as the substance of engines to power modern society with, perhaps, but hardly the stuff of Architecture with a capital A—the discipline of designing museums, hotels, universities and other such places for the genteel to gather. 

Such use of glass and iron, however, was to revolutionize architecture and eventually lead to the first steel-framed skyscrapers of the Chicago architects before the century was out. High vaulted glass and iron domes, governed by their own new architectural aesthetics, characterized a number of structures built in Europe in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The most prominent example in Naples is the Galleria Umberto I, across from San Carlo Theater. It was inaugurated in 1890, and named for Umberto I, who was king of Italy from 1878 until 1900 when he died at the hands of an assassin [see this entry on an earlier attempted assassination of Umberto]. (There is a slightly earlier, smaller example of the same type of architecture in Naples, the Galleria Principe di Napoli.)

gallery interiorThe idea behind the Risanamento ('resanitizing' or 'making healthy again') of Naples in the 1880s and 90s was to clear large sections of the city that for centuries had been nests of squalid overcrowding and disease; then rational construction could take place. The wide boulevard known as Corso Umberto (or the Rettifilo, the 'straight line') running from Piazza della Borsa all the way to the main train station at Piazza Garibaldi was one result of this effort, as was the construction of a new seaside road and 20 blocks of new buildings at Santa Lucia. The Galleria Umberto was another.

There was a need to renew the area across from San Carlo known as Santa Brigida, and four designs were submitted. One by Emanuele Rocco (1852-1922) was chosen. His plan left in place a number of historic buildings that others would have torn down, yet presented a high and spacious cross-shaped mall, a truly cathedralesque affair surmounted by a great glass dome braced by 16 metal ribs. Of the four glass-vaulted wings, one fronts on via Toledo (via Roma), still the main downtown thoroughfare, and another opens onto the San Carlo Theater, framed like a splendid proscenium by the portals of the gallery (photo, below). The Galleria Umberto was based on the design of the gallery in Milan completed in 1865; yet, it was a more aesthetic fusion of the industrial glass and metal of the upper part and the masonry below, which, itself, is a spectacular collage of Renaissance and Baroque ornamentation, tapering off to clean smoothness of marble at the ground concourse. Other architects involved were Ernesto Mauro and Antonio Curri, the latter being primarily behind the intensely ornate decorative and symbolic designs that cover surfaces in the Galleria. (He also worked on restoring the interior of the San Carlo theater as well as the delightful interior of the nearby Gambrinus Caffè.)

The Gallery was built to stimulate commerce and to be a symbol of a city reborn. It still contains numerous cafès, businesses, book and record shops, and fashionable stores. Once it held theaters and restaurants as well, and was, indeed, the sitting room of bourgeois Naples. (One such theater was the fabled Salone Margherita, home of the local version of the café-chantant. It was below the main concourse with a stairway leading down to it and a separate entrance from street-level outside. It was closed for many years and is currently being rebuilt.) The fate of the Galleria Umberto has come to be somewhat of a metaphor of Naples, meaning that there are good times and bad, periods of splendor as well as decay. Among its many ups and downs is even the fact that it was the target of aerial bombardment by a dirigible in the First World War! 

These days, you can still —and should still— marvel at the architecture, its deceptive orderliness as it moves and shifts like Proteus from one detail to the next. Yet, the Galleria also lets you become for a moment the center of an equally fascinating bit of flesh-and-blood architecture: a true human kaleidoscope swirls around you, on the way to the opera, to work, to a rendezvous. Perhaps they are well-dressed, perhaps disheveled; the weird as well as the mundane, the casual and the poised. From the perfectly nondescript to those who look like extras in some bizarre film, they all have their own reasons for being drawn to what is still a most remarkable structure.

(update from June 2015)

entry Sept 2013

"What are all those Stars of David up there?"

That was precisely the question a woman asked whom I was leading though the Gallery. In the Gallery Umberto, as noted in the box at the top of this page, the four sections of the cross come in from the four cardinal points, N, S, E & W, stopping well short of the center and allowing for large surfaces at the intermediate points; these are, in fact, entrances to the upper floors of the gallery by internal stairways and elevators. There are thus four such entrances in the Gallery, each topped by a semicircular framework of glass calledI think, but am not surea lunette, a typanum, a half-moon window, or, my personal favorite, a semicircular framework of glass! They are identical; one of them is seen in the image, above. They are all decorated identically with what my guest referred to as "Stars of David"a single large six-pointed stara hexagramat the top and two sets of five smaller similar stars arrayed along the bottom, separated by three empty panes.

photo by & courtesy of W. Johnson

Strictly speaking, however, in this case they are not Stars of David. Well, waitback up. "In this case" is important, since obviously they ARE Stars of Davidthat is, the hexagram, the six-pointed star. That symbol has been a symbol of Judaism at least since the Middle Ages; it has a much older history as a decorative or ornamental design in Jewish archaeology in the Middle East (and possibly a religious symbol, though that is disputed).* There are, in any event, such designs or symbols on very old synagogues in the Middle Eastin Capernaum, for example, (photo, left). The hexagram has also been used in religious and cultural contexts other than Judaism. Today, the symbol is indelibly linked to Judaism in the perceptions of both Jews and non-Jews; it was adopted as the symbol of the Zionist movement in 1897 as well as by the state of Israel in 1948 for their new national flag. (It bears noting that the traditional "co-symbol" of Judaism has been the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum used in the temple; it is at least as strong a symbol of the Jewish faith as the Star of David.)
*note to "...though that is disputed."  the Jewish Virtual Library says "The Magen David (shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David) is the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today, but it is actually a relatively new Jewish symbol....there is really no support for the claim in any early rabbinic literature. In fact, the symbol is so rare in early Jewish literature and artwork that art dealers suspect forgery if they find the symbol in early works. "
masonic symbols

In 1890 in Naples, Italy, that connection between the six-pointed star and Judaism was not particularly part of the non-Jewish perception among the populace. (The Jewish population of Naples numbered fewer than 1000 persons at the time.) Rather, the hexagrams are masonic symbols. This makes sense when you consider that the Gallery Umberto, from the outset in 1890, housed (at #27 in the Galleria) the Neapolitan center of the Grande Oriente d'Italia, one of the largest and most significant masonic organizations in Italy, founded in 1805 and counting among its 19th-century members the likes of Giuseppe Garibaldi, Alessandro Manzoni and Giosuè Carducci. It is still the largest masonic organization in Italy and still in the Galleria Umberto.

I am not concerned with the nature of freemasonrywhat it is, what it isn't. I am content to believe in their published accounts of support for hospitals and schools and less inclined to believe that they are ensconced in a mountain retreat planning to take over the worldor, in the words of my dear friend, Peter, they are "hardly the Bilderburger Trilateral Commission conspirators so often depicted." I admit that I don't see the necessity of symbols, but maybe that's just me. The eclectic masonic use of symbols is well-known. My light-hearted layman's point of view is that if you are going to lay claim to some sort of genealogy of knowledge, that is, a connection to esoteric secrets that run back through the centuries, even millennia knowledge that might serve us well todaythen you pretty much need all the symbols you can find: 6-pointed stars, 5-pointed stars (the Gallery in Milan, very similar to the one in Naples, is ornamented with 8-pointed stars) pyramids, upside-down pyramids, circles, squares, crosses, all-seeing eyes, pentagons, eagles, anchors, harps and tesseracts. On the right is a photo of a masonic ritual where the standard masonic symbols of the square and compass (representing the Grand Architect of the Universe, as the masons put it) are next to a menorah! My friend, Warren, interprets this as a symbol of "I believe in something," and that is fine with me. (Note, too, that in the large photo, above, there is also a display of five-pointed stars, the pentagram, running around the metal base of the dome. That is also a common masonic symbol.) So, they're not Stars of David up there. Well, waitback up again. Can you deal with their presence in the same way as the juxtaposed square, compass and menorah" That is, might it be some sort of an all-encompassing all-welcoming way of saying "I believe in this, too! I believe in something." Maybe.

(Thanks to Warren Johnson, Peter Humphrey and Selene Salve for their comments.)

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