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main index  © Jeff Matthews    entry Nov 2013

Piazza Plebiscito and the Basilica of S. Francesco di Paola
-a modest proposal & conspiracy theories

Tear it down and they will come.




There’s nothing new about proposals to clean up Piazza del Plebiscito, the vast open square on the west side of the royal palace. The plans usually include cleaning the colonnade of the large basilica of San Francesco di Paola (photo, above) directly across from the palace. With its impressive dome, temple-like entrance (called a pronaos) and semicircular portico supported by 38 Doric columns, the church is one of the “postcard icons” of the city and one of the most impressive structures in Italy.  For good measure, the cleaners usually spruce up the two equestrian statues in front, of Charles III and his son, Ferdinand.

S. Francesco di Paola, interior, detail.            
Cleaning” and “sprucing up, however, are too superficial for the plan now being proposed. If they begin yesterday, it will take at least a couple of years. Besides all the basic cleaning, the plan is essentially to restore the colonnade, provide separate entrances from the portico to various underground sites of archaeological and historical interest beneath the church and also to provide commercial spaces along the portico, that is, niches in the wall of the church itself. (To a certain extent, such spaces are already in place although I have never seen many of them open.)

The greatest change to the square that I remember was in 1994 when they converted it from a gigantic parking lot into a grand square for people to walk around in. The public reaction to that change was favorable, even from those who had to find somewhere else to park their cars. Since that time the square has served as a playground, a parade ground, a venue for all kinds of celebrations and music as well as for yearly episodes (notably absent in recent years) of installation art that became the butt of jokes, admiration and everything in between. One letter to the editor in a local paper suggested combining the need for parking space with the concept of open-air art for the masses by turning the square back into a parking lot but calling it “year-round interactive mobile installation art” and giving it a classy title such as “Damn, Look at all those Cars!” Think of the ever-shifting colors of the animated flow of vehicles prowling up and down, looking for a space. (I think the newspaper cancelled that guy’s subscription.)



Reaction to this newest plan is mixed
. There are the usual complaints from those who say the money would be better spent shoring up the collapsing infrastructure in the outlying area of the city. Not a bad point. Also, what hope is there ever to keep the space directly in front of the church, the statues, the steps, the space along the colonnade safe from the bane of all monuments in Naples—vandals? Good point. The darkened recesses behind the columns are foreboding even in the daylight hours. They are uniformly dirty and defaced by spray-paint, and people use the space as a public toilet. You can make it into a pristine delight and by next week, it will be a pit. A number of writers suggested armed guards and one even suggested a canine corps of vicious dogs trained in the fine art of throat-ripping vandals to shreds.





The most interesting letter-to-the editor, however, was this:
If you examine the church, it is designed like a dam; in back of the dam is the Pallonetto Quarter. If you got rid of the dam, there would be direct contact with the people; there would be a flow of exchange between the rest of the city and this quarter, which has always been treated as somewhat of a frontier area to be defended against. It’s just like via Caracciolo; they built that in order to keep the people from unimpeded access to the sea, and this church had the same defensive function to protect the king's palace and other buildings of power. Naples can only survive as a community of people. Discrimination and exclusion, even by the use of architecture, is one of the weaknesses of our city. Now that they have this plan going, it might be a good idea to study the options of just how to free up the square and open it to the people of Pallonetto.*


*[ed. note: Pallonetto means "hill" or "gradual rise" and refers to the densely populated quarter on the Pizzofalcone hill, part of the Santa Lucia district. The word, itself, is a diminutive of pallone (balloon--thus, "little balloon") and refers to the movement of a slowly rising balloon. There is a street in the quarter named via Pallonetto Santa Lucia, but the whole area is called colloquially Pallonetto. There are other slowly rising streets in Naples and elsewhere in Italy called 'Pallonetto'. The term, in some ball sports in Italian, is also used to mean a 'lob' or 'chip'--that is, a ball movement that describes a slow arc. The buildings seen directly in back of the church in the top photo on this page are at the northern end of the Pizzofalcone hill. The buildings rise up to the left/south to the peak of the hill, where, at one time, you looked directly out over the sea and fishing boats of Santa Lucia. The risanamento changed that by massively reconfiguring the coastline of Santa Lucia in the 1890s--see the photo at that last link to risanamento.)  Pallonetto is the oldest part of Naples. Indeed, there was no Naples. It was still Parthenope. There is an illustration of the Pizzofalcone area at this link.]




That’s the letter-writer’s plan—eliminate the church. First of all, that is not going to happen, but in fairness one should look at some of the writer’s contentions.  It is true that access to the Piazza del Plebiscito is impeded by the back of the church. But there are steps around it. I have been up and down those steps many times. That the church was put there to defend the king is a stretch. The church is from 1816, but built to earlier specifications from 1809 and plans by king Murat to build a Parthenon-like tribute to his boss, Napoleon Bonaparte. Before that it was the site of two churches, the church of San Luigi di Palazzo and the church of the Santo Spirito (Holy Spirit), with relatively easy access across what was then called “Largo del Palazzo,” (Palace Square, referring to the Royal Palace). That is, for centuries the Pallonetto area was not walled off in any real sense. In another sense, the letter-writer fails to note that the entire Pizzofalcone hill is elsewhere isolated by
the terrain. There are only four or five ways onto and off of the hill, and you have to know where they are.




peaking of conspiracies, via Caracciolo is the sea-side road between Mergellina in the west and the Egg Castle in the east. (In the image, north is at the top.)  The road is from the 1890s and was part of the risanamento. Before that, the sea came right up to the Villa Comunale, a long public park. If you were in that park before the road went in, you could indeed, get to the sea. BUT, it had only been a public park since Italian unification (1861). Before that, it was the Royal Gardens, the private pleasure grounds of the royal family, not open to the public. You didn’t just put on your bathing suit and stroll through his majesty’s peacocks and plants to get to the beach. That park was built in 1788 on a stretch of beach and swamp. Yes, before that you could get to the water. But it is an oversimplification to view all this as a ruling-class conspiracy. The entire risanamento could be viewed in the same way. It not only put in via Caracciolo but also put in 20 blocks of high buildings near the Egg Castle, effectively denying access to the sea to the entire quarter of Santa Lucia (again, see this illustration; all of the blocks in orange are new construction built on land-fill during the risanamento. At the same time, urban planners also built out and expanded the sea-side road in the east, via Marina. That kept the peasants from enjoying the bucolic waters of the port of Naples. I see less conspiracy in most of this than simple modern expansion to deal with overpopulation. The idea that architecture (either lack thereof or the abundance thereof) creates community is specious. In the suburb of Scampia they thought that modern housing units would turn the poorest and most crime-ridden part of Naples into a Shangri-La, too, and we saw how that turned out. That is upside-down thinking. Architecture doesn't create a community; it's the other way around.

So I want them to clean up the square and church and keep them spotless. I'm not sure how the "keep it spotless" part is going to work. I'm prepared to give the doggies a chance.




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