Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews

main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Jan 2015

Period Postcards from Naples

postcard # 21 -
The strangest thing about these two images is that they are NOT of the same fountain in spite of what it looks like. First, a word  about fountains. Naples has a long history of public fountains going back to the days when they were not mere ornaments. Fountains were the way that most people got water. Many of them are from the 1500s and 1600s, built by famous architects, and are what they now call "monument fountains" (there is a separate entry on them here). To the extent that they have been restored (as many of them have been), they are strictly ornamental now but are marvelous to look at. (Also, many have not been restored, and they are eyesores.) Their history has a lot to do with construction of various aqueducts in the long history of the city - see this link.

Enter the postcard (top right). It is labeled "Napoli - Piazza del Plebiscito and Basilica of San Francesco di Paolo. It is virtually identical to what you still see today. The church and square look the same; the scene is viewed from the Royal Palace. Oh, the fountain is gone. We know approximately the date of the card because the fountain was installed in May of 1885. It was a big deal. It coincided with the completion of the brand new Serino pressure aqueduct; it coincided roughly with a series of terrible typhus epidemics, and it coincided with "Law for the Risanamento of Naples," an urban renewal project that would last until 1915, rebuild major portions of the city and create totally new sections. When this fountain (called the Serino fountain) went up, it was a cover image and lead article for illustrated weekly journals throughout Italy. As I say, it was a big deal.

But if the fountain is gone, where did it go and what is this identical image (bottom right)? Glad you asked. Another word about fountains. New aqueducts actually diminished the need for working public fountains; thus, the Serino fountain was removed relatively quickly and almost certainly did not last beyond 1900. Indeed, it was certainly built to be a showpiece (as opposed to a supplier of water) for the rebuilding of the city that was about to start. It was an ornament. The fountain in the second image was also an ornament. It was installed in 1985, one-hundred years after the original. Note the difference in the scene: 1885 is almost bucolic, not even coach traffic and only a handful of pedestrians. Then, 1985: the square--the largest open space in the city--is a parking lot. It was squalid, noisy and even buses passed across directly in the foreground. Some well-meaning city administrator had the idea of sprucing the square up by putting the old fountain back in place. Then the fun started. They couldn't find the original. This was in 1984; they looked in the basement of the Royal Palace as well as in the mysterious "municipal warehouses". (I have never met anyone who knows were those things are.) The most likely answer is that whatever bits and pieces of the old fountain were ever stored anywhere disappeared during or in the aftermath of WWII. So they gave up the hunt and decided to build another fountain, and that is what you see. I remember that it was there one day and then I looked again and it was gone, having lasted no time at all. It took up too much valuable parking space. It came as close as you can come to what Nietzsche meant when he said that "All wells are poisoned." But, to give the aforementioned well-meaning city hall guy his due, maybe it was the first step in recreating the square as a pedestrian zone. They finally got rid of all the cars and the square is now a pleasant place. Now would be the time to put in a fountain.

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