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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb. 2004

First Theaters in Naples

San Giorgo dei Genovesi churchYou don't have to be an eagle–eyed observer to notice how many old churches there are in Naples. That is not surprising in a place where, according to some claims, in the year 1700 one out of every ten Neapolitans was a cleric.

Also noticeable in Naples are the many old churches that are closed. Some of them were holes in the wall even when they were built; they certainly could not have served very large congregations. But not all of the closed churches are small ones; there are some very large houses of worship in Naples that are closed—for example, the gigantic church of the Gerolamini in the historic center of the city not far from the cathedral of Naples.

[Update-2014: The Gerolamini is now undergoing restoration but has reopened and may be visited.]

Less impressive in size, but still noteworthy is the church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi (photo) on via Medina between the City Hall and the main police station. There is no longer even a sign on the front to indicate the name of the church, although there is a recent sign indicating that the premises are now the site of something called the University Chapel. In any event, I have never seen the building open. The church was built in 1587, which makes it old in some places in the world but not in Naples; it stands next to a church that was, in fact, built 300 years earlier. For whatever its value has been to the faithful over the centuries, San Giorgio dei Genovesi is at least as interesting in the secular history of the city, since it was built on the site of the very first commercial theater in Naples.

When the Spanish moved into Naples in 1500, making the city and all of southern Italy part of the great Spanish Empire, they brought with them their cultural institutions—for example, the large church-run orphanages that trained children in music (the first "conservatories"). Another example—the case, here—theaters: venues where the first troupes of professional actors could present themselves in the art of the comedy. The theater is referred to in documents of the period (the mid-1500s) as, simply, la commedia. (The later church on the same site was then popularly called San Giorgo alla commedia vecchia [old theater]. The theater was the professional home to acting troupes from Spain "playing the provinces," and it provided a stage for the improvised antics of the masked and costumed figures in the then innovative Italian Commedia dell'arte. Such characters included the famous Neapolitan stereotype character, Pulcinella.


The property where the la commedia stood was purchased by members of the Genoese community in Naples for a new church. Then, in the first decade of the 1600s, "show business" continued in a new theater built to replace la commedia. This was the Teatro dei Fiorentini, an establishment that continued through the centuries of demolition and rebuilding in the immediate area and even today still exists in its more recent incarnation as a cinema and, now a bingo hall (photo, left). The other major theater from the same period in Naples was the theater of San Bartolomeo, built in 1620 and redone in the 1640s in order to accommodate the first performances of the "new music" from the north—early opera. San Bartolomeo would then function until it was replaced by the grand theater of San Carlo in 1737.

Between San Bartolomeo and San Carlo in time stands the Teatro Nuovo, built in 1724 on via Montecalvario in the Spanish Quarter of Naples. It was the brain-child of Giacomo De Laurentis and Angelo Carasale (the latter went on to greater things as one of the architects of San Carlo). The architect of the Teatro Nuovo was Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. There is an extant document from 1780 that shows the theater to have been somewhat small by today's standards, with a seating capacity of just over 200. That puts it in a class of earlier theaters, a mold not broken until Charles III decided to build San Carlo a decade later. The building still stands and was a cinema for many years. It has reopened as a theater under the name of "Nuovo teatro nuovo."

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