Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 93,  entries Jan 2003, Aug 2005, Nov 2010

he Albergo dei Poveri — the Royal Poorhouse
                              or, How the White Elephant Lost its Color
Painting of the Albergo           
     from the 19th century          
In Buddhist lore, a white elephant is said to have revealed to the mother of the Buddha that she was going to give birth to the Enlightened One. Thus, in many parts of Asia, the albino elephant is sacred. It does not lead the weary life of toil of your average working class pachyderm. On the contrary, the sacred animal must be sheltered, tended, worshipped and, of course, fed. The ancient kings of Siam are said to have ruined enemies —or maybe just taught upstarts a severe lesson— by presenting the gift of just such sacred creatures, gifts that had to be pampered and fed for the next 60 or 70 years. A few Holy Jumbos could eat you out of house and home. In English, then, the term "white elephant" has come to be a metaphor of something that is big, useless and ruinously expensive to maintain.

In Naples, the Whitest Elephant of All is the Albergo dei Poveri, or the Royal Poorhouse, the mammoth structure on via Foria, begun in the mid-1700s to care for and educate the indigent of the Kingdom of Naples. The Albergo was ordered built in 1751 by Charles III, the first Bourbon monarch of the Kingdom of Naples. It was designed and started by Ferdinando Fuga and then continued by Luigi Vanvitelli, the great architect of the Bourbon Royal Palace in Caserta (the so-called “Versailles of Italy”). The idea, in those days, of constructing a mammoth poor house along via Foria, one of the principle entrances to the city of the eighteenth century, was in keeping with promoting the image of Charles III as an enlightened monarch and the image of his kingdom as one of compassion. It was also in keeping with a wave of such “social construction” throughout Italy in that century in the form of poor houses, hospitals and communal granaries. (Indeed, in Naples, there was even a grotesquely efficient paupers’ graveyard with a numbered communal plot for each day of the year.)
The original plan for the Hospice was to have one long façade fronting five internal courtyards, the central one of which would house a high-domed gigantic church that was to be the inner hub of the entire building; from that hub, passageways were to radiate out to dormitories, dining halls, workshops, and gardens. It was actually envisioned as a sort of self-sufficient small village. The intentions of Charles III were never fulfilled. The anti-clericalism of French rule between 1806 and 1814 in Naples put an end to the central church, and two of the five courtyards were eliminated, thus giving the present configuration of one central courtyard and one on each side. Thus, by 1820 the plan to build a poor house bigger than most royal palaces had become much less ambitious. That part of the building that had been finished, however —and it was impressive— remained in use through WW2, and in its long history the mammoth buuilding has housed everything from trade schools to hospitals to the back-up archives for the city of Naples. After WW2 they even put in a football field in a courtyard to keep the local kids out of trouble. Also, there are currently some 85 families living in the building, housed in flats around the courtyard behind the east third of the façade. They are, by now, the grandchildren of the needy families that were situated there after WW2. Thus, even in its unfinished state, it has served the city.

Real neglect began after WW2, and the years since then have been a disaster. Also, the building suffered considerable damage in the earthquake of 1980; yet, the consensus is that it is still structurally sound. In 2002 the main entrance and adjacent rooms were restored as part of a "teaching project" to help build a cadre of masons, builders and artisans trained in historical restoration. The restored section is open and houses exhibitions of one sort or another. In February 2003 plans were approved to restore the building to the "unfinished" state of the early 1800s. That is, no attempt, for example, will be made to build the mammoth church that was originally planned for the main courtyard of the building. The various rooms will then be available for various functions and possibly even private enterprises that do not "offend" the history of the building.

The restored façade
is impressive; however, one façade, even a very large one, doth not a restoration make. The building is not only 300 meters long; it is a city block wide with internal courtyards and a long back wall. It is an ambitious undertaking, essentially rebuilding what was originally meant to be a magnificent view as visitors to the city would come down from the Capodimonte hill and pass by this sparkling example of Bourbon largesse and social concern. When the French then ruled Naples for nine years (1806-1815), they built a broad road (present-day name, via Don Bosco) down the hill into the city, planning a Triumphal Arch approximately where Piazza Carlo III is today. Visitors were to  pass beneath the arch and have the splendid Albergo dei Poveri on their right. The French left and the arch was never built. Even without it, a rejuvenated Albergo dei Poveri will still be a cornerstone of sorts, possibly the beginning of a further rejuvenation of that entire section of the city; yet, none of the rest of the building, shows much sign of progress towards the purported goal of turning the whole thing into a "Youth City," a giant assemblage of schools, activity rooms, and multimedia facilities. If you stand in front of the building and stare up at and through the top row of windows, you find yourself staring at blue sky. There is no roof left in many sections. And from this miscellaneous 2008 update, it now seems that experts have decided that the white they chose for the restored façade was not the original color! So a "do-over" may be coming sooner or later. It was originally meant to be a pink elephant.

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