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The First Polyclinic Hospital in Naples

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Progress:1 — Culture: 0.00-something

The southern entrance to the
First Polyclinic Hospitall   

Today, if you speak of the "hospital zone" of Naples, you mean the hill area in the high Vomero, where major hospitals started to be built in the 1920s. That part of town was not even in town in the 1920s; it was where you went to get away from town. Today, it is urbanized and overbuilt beyond belief. The area now hosts a number of hospitals, from the Cardarelli and the Monaldi (from the late 1920s and late 1930s, respectively) to the mammoth Second Polyclinic Hospital complex, built in the 1970s. That area is today very much in town, connected to the outside world and accessible by the Naples ring-road, the tangenziale highway.

Yet, until the late 1890s most hospitals in Naples were under the auspices of religious orders. That is, many churches came with adjacent monasteries or convents that were dedicated, at least partially, to caring for the sick. They have a long history in the city. One of the first such facilities was Sant’Eligio al Mercato, founded under Charles II of Anjou in 1270. Sant'Antonio abate is also quite early, from 1313. Though many of these ancient places are now gone, a number of them are still in existence and now part of the modern health-care infrastructure of the city; among these are the Vecchio Pellegrini, the Incurabili, the Annunziata, the Ascalesi, and San Gennaro dei Poveri.

Between the very old and very new, however, is the case of the First Polyclinic Hospital of the University of Naples. Though now called "the old polyclinic" by locals, it was once the new jewel of health care in southern Italy. It was part of the urban renewal of Naples, called the Risanamento, between 1885 and 1915, and was just as much a part of Naples for the new 20th century as all the new roads, slum clearance and classy hotels of the same period. The hospital was inaugurated on January 13, 1908 and immediately hailed as a world-class medical school cum teaching hospital.

The First Polyclinic took ten years to build and was accompanied by controversy, since construction meant cutting deep into the historical and social fabric of the old city. But that was what the Risanamento was doing all over the city at the time, and the western end of the historic center could no more escape than could other parts of the city. (Which is to say that you may still like to sing Santa Lucia, but the old quarter of Santa Lucia is now beneath tons of land-fill and hotels.) In the satellite shot (right), the lonely-looking squat building at the very bottom in the center is what is left of the church of the Croce di Lucca.* The parking lot above it is where the Carmelite convent  of Croce di Lucca used to stand. The four buildings directly above the parking lot were the new hospital clinics, each either 3 or 4 stories high and all containing beds for patients and lecture rooms for the medical school. They are on land once occupied by the convent of S. Maria della Sapienza (the church of which still stands on the left of the four buildings, fronting on the diagonal street, via Costantinopoli). Above the four buildings, across the street, are more ex-monastic premises, including St. Andrea delle Dame (the large square building at the top with the tree-filled courtyard), not torn down but incorporated into the new hospital.

The controversy centered on Croce di Lucca. The loss of the convent, itself, was a given. Most monasteries and convents in Naples had been definitively closed by Napoleon and then definitively the second time (!) by the anti-clerical rulers of the new united Italy in the 1860s. Most of the buildings were converted to secular use, yet usually the churches were saved. That is, today you can go to church at San Giacomo right next to the city hall, which used to be the San Giacomo monastery. The same is true of the church of the Spirito Santo, next to what used to be the giant Spirito Santo monastery, now the new architectural department of the University of Naples, and so forth. (See this link for more on the ex-monasteries of Naples.)

Croce di Lucca was a special case, however, according to Benedetto Croce and other Kulturträger in Naples of the 1890s. The hospital builders had spared the church of S. Maria della Sapienza, taking only the convent, but they wanted all of Croce di Lucca, both convent and church. Those who wanted to save the church pleaded their case in Croce's journal Napoli Napolissima. In 1903, when the construction was at the halfway mark, Croce, himself, reminded the builders that destroying the church had not been part of the original plan; yet, the builders went ahead and lopped off 20 feet of the church to enlarge the southern entrance. They obviously wanted the whole area for a square in front of the entrance at the junction of the main east-west via dei Tribunali (running along the bottom of the photo, above) and via del Sole, the north-south road that ran down along the side of the new hospital buildings. As late as one week before the opening of the hospital, Croce was still writing in il Mattino (Jan. 5, 1908) to save what was left of the church. His column was answered by a gentleman who said, "It would be nice if we could save everything that is old while we build the new, but we can't." (That is a leitmotif in ALL discussions of urban expansion and renewal in Naples.)

They saved some of Croce di Lucca, but it was a hollow victory. The church and convent had been put up in the mid-1550s and a century later were turned into one of the splendors of the Neapolitan baroque by the great Francesco Antonio Picchiati. What was left after the hospital was finished was an anomalous and anonymous truncated building. The church of Croce di Lucca was "deconsecrated" many years ago and is now no more than an historical marker. Most of the considerable art treasures have been transferred or have simply disappeared, either lost or stolen. The building is under the auspices of the hospital, which uses it for assemblies of one kind or another. The hospital never got the spacious square, but they didn't leave much of a church, either. You can go in and see what's left.


notes:

* Croce di Lucca. The unusual name refers to the Cross of Lucca, a particular crucifix in the Cathedral of Lucca, the town in Tuscany. The Carmelites in Naples venerated that object and dedicated the church and monastery to it. It has nothing to do with Luke the Evangelist ('Luca' in Italian).
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