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The Sedili of Naples

There is a small square named sedil Capuano in Naples and also a street named sedile di Porto, both in the heart of the old city. Unlike many names in Neapolitan toponymy, they have not changed in centuries. They shed some light on the historic administrative structure of the city since they are both named for something that no longer exists—the sedile. A sedile (plural: sedili) was a medieval town-hall for an area in the city. Earlier, when the Greeks set up the city, the various quarters were called fratie, and at various times over later centuries they were also called tocchi, teatri, platee, portici, and, in Neapolitan dialect, segge (in which we also see the modern Italian, seggio, today a polling place for elections). In any case, they were seats of local government; these were the places where the nobles and other VIP's (bankers and merchants) met to take care of city business, at least for their part of the city.

There is not much documentation about the administration of the city in the so-called Dark Ages, but one presumes that such units must have survived at least partially since the city itself survived. By the time of the arrival of the Normans and the founding of the Kingdom of Sicily (which became the Kingdom of Naples), the existence of the sedili is documented. Their function was officially recognized by the Hohenstaufen rulers of the kingdom around the middle of the 1200s.

In all, there were 30 such major and minor town halls in the medieval city. There is a graphic display of the coats of arms of the seven major sedili above the entrance to the museum and archaeological site at the church of San Lorenzo at the exact geographical center of the old city (photo, right, and number 28 on this map).The seven major sedili were (starting with the red one at the upper left and moving counter-clockwise): Capuana, Montagna, Forcella, Popolo, Portanova, Porto and Nilo. (The larger symbol in the middle at the top was a royal crest.)

The other, minor sedili were often named for the prominent noble family in the quarter (for example, Calanti), or a local church (SS. Apostoli), or a nearby city gate (Porta di S. Genuario). Some of them were truly ancient; the sedile of Arco is said to have been named for a Greek magistrate before the city was Roman—evidence, perhaps, of the durability of these districts even during the times for which we have no direct documentation. These administrative units served the city well in the Middle Ages and had a certain amount of automony; that is, if you came into the city with merchandise, say, at the sedile of Porto, you paid duty to that sedile.

The names of the major sedili are often self-explanatory: porto (near the harbor); montagna (mountain: the highest point in the city, i.e., the NE corner and site of the old Greek acropolis); Portanova (new gate), etc. Some are less so: Nilo (Nile, as in the river, so-called because of the presence of Egyptians in the "Alexandrian quarter" in the ancient Greek city); Forcella, a fork or pitchfork, yes, but here the Y-shaped symbol of the sedile apparently derives from the form of the Greek capital letter, upsilon, the symbol of an ancient Greek academy in the area.

The coats of arms are similarly self-explanatory or not: the letter P on the crest of the 'popolo' sedile makes sense, as do the three hills on the crest for montagna; and the crest for portanova looks a little like a gate, I suppose. But the horses on nilo and capuana? More research is needed, as they say. Popolo was the most "democratic" since the word, itself, means 'people'. It was apparently somewhat of an umbrella unit, not administering a particular part of the city, but rather representing the classes with no voice of their own (somewhat like the Third Estate in the old French Estates-General). That sedile was located more or less where modern-day piazza Nicola Amore is today—that is, the intersection of via Duomo and Corso Umberto I.

Under the Angevins in the 1400s, many of the minor sedili were abolished or incorporated into larger ones. Then, during the period of the Spanish vice-realm (1500-1700), the seven major sedili each sent representatives to an assembly called the San Lorenzo Tribunal. It functioned somewhat as a modern city council does and met on the premises of San Lorenzo; hence, the display still on that facade—the building was a city hall. That assembly was abolished by King Ferdinand IV in 1800, shortly after the failed attempt by revolutionaries to install a French-inspired Neapolitan Republic. The sedili were never reinstalled and in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries were replaced by more modern divisions of urban Naples.


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