The English word “Liberty” is used in Italian in an architectural sense and has nothing to do with politics, freedom or social struggle. It is simply a man’s name: Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917), a London merchant whose shop specialized in ornaments, fabrics and miscellaneous art objects associated with the then (the late 1800s) emerging aesthetic movement known in French (and in English) as Art Nouveau and in German as Jugendstil. In Italian, the original designation was stile floreale [floral style] before Mr. Liberty’s name was adopted. [note *]
Palazzina Russo Ermoli
Galleria Principe di Napoli
Architecture was only one facet of art nouveau; the approach was that artists should work on everything from designing the building to the furniture within. Art nouveau was characterized in external architecture by highly-stylized, flowing curvilinear forms as well as the new materials of the Industrial Revolution; abundant ornamentation both inside and out was characterized by floral and other plant-inspired motifs. This blend of nature and industry often produced attractive effects, such as the glass and metal arches set above mythological figures, garlands and wreathes in the stone and stucco below of both the Galleria Principe di Napoli (photo) and the Galleria Umberto in Naples. It was a strange combination when you think of it: the rustic floral designs (symbols of the tradition of the individual craftsman) below and looking up to the future filled with machinery and steel. The arms of the figures are usually outstreched—to point to the future?—to support it?—to implore it not to give in to mass production? In any event, whatever meeting of the minds art nouveau—this new art—might have represented, it did not survive the mass-productions of the Great War. Art nouveau thus had a relatively brief life and is said to be a bridge between historicism (in which architects used classical models) and the modernism of the 1920s.
Art nouveau spread somewhat unevenly throughout Italy as stile Liberty. Naples is not the first Italian city that springs to mind when you mention the style; that might be Milan. Yet Naples has a great number of buildings loosely termed Liberty napoletano. This new style at the turn of the 19th-to-20th century coincided almost exactly with the massive construction projects of the Risanamento and of the opening up of the new urban areas of Vomero and Mergellina; thus, there was in Naples a lot of opportunity to put up such buildings. Entire areas of Naples are defined by them: the rows of turn-of-the-century buildings on both sides of Corso Umberto, streets such as via Palizzi and many others (all from the 1890s) in the Vomero section, and the turn-of-the-century buildings of via Helena (now via Gramsci) at Mergellina.
The former Hotel Eden (now Villa Maria) at Piazza Amedeo is from 1899-1901; architect-A. Trevisan.
(also see Miscellany, here)
On Corso Europa
The photos on this page have
all been termed “Liberty” by one source or
another, but I have a feeling that the term is
so loosely applied that it often winds up
telling us simply when a building was put up
and not what it looks like. (Thus, the Mergellina train
station is often called Liberty
as well as barochetto
romano. The same goes for the Corte dei Leoni
in the Vomero section of Naples. (I have seen
it called Liberty
and also neo-Renaissance.)
It is not unusual for Italian to mix
chronology and style; if you say that
something is Umbertino in style, for
example, all you mean is that it was popular
during the reign (1878-1900)
of King Humbert I of Italy.
My favorite Liberty building in Naples is the Palazzina Russo Ermoli (top photo) on via Palizzi on the slope of the Vomero hill overlooking the Chiaia section of town and the bay. It was built at the end of the age of art nouveau, precisely in the war years 1915 to 1918; the architect was Stanislavo Sorrentino. Since they redid the original white and yellow to a grey/blue and white in 2007, the building has just been popping off the hillside to my glance. I had never noticed it and now there is this odd cloud up there—coming close to evanescence...not quite fluffy but fitting in with the fluff floating miles above. I have no idea what a gingerbread house looks like, but the Palazzina Russo Ermoli looks edible. It has six floors and is set in the side of a cliff and below street level such that entrance from the street is across a tiny bridge to the fifth floor.
(also see Villa Fermariello)
*note: The use did occur in English at the time in reference to fabrics, but apparently not to architecture or the general art nouveau movement. For example, from the Daily News (London), 23 April 1888: "Her dress was of two kindred shades of almost indescribable colour, belonging to the class now commonly known as Liberty tints." [back up to text]