Italian culture and history: Naples, the Historic Center
- WTI Magazine #113 Mar 15, 2019
Visiting Naples's historic center means traveling through twenty centuries of history. The design of its streets, piazzas, churches, monuments and public buildings and castles constitute a jewel box of artistic and historical treasures of exceptional importance, so much so that together, they earned their spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
Extending over 720 hectares, the historic center of Naples is the largest historic center in all of Europe, and includes testimonies from diverse styles and periods – from its foundation in the 8th Century B.C. as the Greek colony Neapolis, to its subsequent domination by the Romans, and from the Swabian-Norman era to the Reign of the Anjous, and finally from its time under the Aragonese Empire, the Kings of France, to the period of Unification under Garibaldi and the resulting Kingdom of Italy.
Very little survives today of the original Greek city, although such remains traceable in the defensive walls of the northeastern section of the city, and in a few other points of interest, among which is Via Mezzocannone. More numerous, then, are the archaeological remains from the Roman Age, when the new city Neapolis was built next to the old city, Paleopolis. Cemeteries, catacombs and various finds can be seen in the museums and archaeological sites of Naples, including in the area of San Lorenzo Maggiore.
The fall of the Roman Empire saw the eventual construction of imposing churches like the Basilica of San Gennaro in the colorful Sanità neighborhood. San Gennaro was constructed around the 5th Century, near the Catacombs that are also named for the city’s Patron Saint.
The most famous structure from the Swabian-Norman period is, on the other hand, the majestic Castello dell’Ovo, which was planted on top of a previous Roman villa, that of Lucio Licinio Lucullo to be exact. Situated on the Island of Megaride, today the Castle is the seat of important expositions and cultural events, offering, among other details, a splendid view of the Bay of Naples, dominated by the Volcano Vesuvius.
The next epoch – that of the rule of the Angevin Dynasty – was one of great expansion,and bequeathed to the city of Naples works of immense beauty. Many of them are in the Provincial-Gothic style that predominated at the time. Of these, visitors should not skip seeing the new Cathedral that preserves the celebrated Chapel of the Treasury of San Gennaro; the Churches of San Lorenzo Maggiore, San Domenico Maggiore and Santa Chiara, with the magnificent Cloister of the Clarisse; the Castel Nuovo (also called “Il Maschio Angioino”); the fortress and noble residence of Castel Capuano; and the Palazzo of the Prince of Taranto.
The Aragonese dominion brought with it important defensive fortifications, as well as the Palazzo Reale or Royal Palace, which rose up sometime after 1600. The Palace is one of the elements framing Piazza del Plebiscito and the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola, parts of which resemble Rome’s Pantheon. Today it houses one of the largest libraries in southern Italy, the Vittorio Emanuele III National Library; before, several Spanish and Austrian Viceroys had inhabited it, as had the Bourbon rulers and after, the Savoys. The Palace is, obviously, the geographic and symbolic center of power and of some of Naples’s most important historical happenings.
The 19th Century added to the city’s endowments with a far-reaching reorganization of spaces and of the city’s “floorplan,” which helped to render Naples the modern metropolis that we know today. It is a metropolis that, like no other, knows how to fuse the ancient and modern, along with its artistic and historic treasures, with the unforgettable beauty of its natural scenery, in which the city’s entirety is framed. What this city does not know, with its unique, peculiar, and ancient soul, is time, or boundaries.