History of Naples

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The origins of the city of Naples are rooted in legend. The chief protagonist is the Parthenopean Siren ' a mythical, fascinating creature which for centuries, was said to resemble a bird, but with the delicate facial features of a young girl. In Antiquity, many shipwrecks occurred off the 'Island of the Sirens', (believed by some to be the Isle of 'Li Galli') which lies in front of the coast at Positano. This was apparently because sailors would be bewitched and disturbed by the irresitible song of the island's inhabitants (the sirens), causing them to lose control of both themselves and their ships. It was only Ulysees, the hero of Ithaca who managed to escae this fate, by forcing his crew to plug their ears with wax and then tying them to the mainmast of the fragile hull, thus saving the ship and all its equipment from being wrecked in a disastrous storm.

History books tell us that the Greeks arrived in Naples in stages. In the ninth century B.C. , they arrived on the island of Pithecusa (Ischia), in the following century, they arrived on the island of Cuma, and it was only in the sixth century B.C. that they founded Parthenope on the isle of Megaride, then extended to Monte Echia (the Pizzafalcone hill), which was more of a commercial centre than a city. In 470, the inhabitants of Cuma founded a real city in the east (on the site of the current historic city centre), which they called Neapolis (or 'new city'), in order to distinguish it from Palepolis (the 'old city').

The urban lay-out of the city of Neapolis echoed the Grecian lay-out consisting of the 'cardo' and 'decumano' road system. The 'cardo' is a narrower street running from north to south, while the 'decumano' is wider and runs from east to west. This lay-out is still visible today as you walk down Via dei Tribunali and Via Benedetto Croce, Decumano Superiore and Via San Biagio dei Librai, Decumano Inferiore.

The city of Naples, with its magnificent scenery, attracted many intellectuals such as Cicero, Horatio and Pliny the Elder who wrote about the terrible eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 B.C. which destroyed Pompeii and Ercolano. The great Latin poet Virgil also lived in Naples ' he chose to stay in the delightful Mergellina district where the so-called 'Tomb of Virgil' and the nearby 'Tomb of the Leopards' can now be found.

Medieval Naples

During the early Middle Ages, the city remained inside the walls which were built under Valentiniano III (450-455). The walls were only widened at certain sections, to include the del Gesù Church, part of the Santa Chiara Convent, the neighbouring palaces, and the Santa Maria La Nova and San Giovanni Maggiore churches. The first Christian cemetries in southern Italy were also built here ' the San Gennaro and San Gaudioso catacombs bear witness to this. Local ecclesistical history states that the Emperor Constantine founded the basilica which was dedicated to Santa Restituta in the eighth century. The apses ' dedicated to San Giorgio Maggiore and San Gennaro - in the basilicas founded by the Bishop Severo at the end of the fourth century are of particular interest: they are linked via the underground catacombs dedicated to San Gennaro.

The Baptistery of St John the Baptist also dates back to this period - it consists of a baptismal building founded by the Bishop Sotero in the second half of the fifth century. The small Santa Maria Maggiore bell dating back to the ninth century is an isolated example of Lombardian architecture.

Norman/Swabian Period

After having been made an autonmous Byzantine duchy, Naples was conquered by the Normans in the ninth century. The urban development that took place during this period encompassed more of the hinterland, (with the construction of the Capuano Castle) and the flat land near the port where the 'Castel dell'Ovo' ('Egg Castle') was enlarged, to become the royal palace of Ruggeri II.

Angioino and Aragon period

In 1266, Charles I of Angiò transferred the capital of the kingdom of Sicily from Palermo to Naples, heralding a period of active civil renewal for the city. The city walls were enlarged: from the Capuano Castle, they now included the churches of Sant'Eligio and Egiziaca a Forcella, the area around the Market, Santa Maria La Nova, the area where the Orsini of Gravina Palace was to be built, the area on which the Piazza del Gesù currently stands and the Via San Sebastiano leading all the way down to Port'Alba. Charles I was particularly concerned with carrying out public works ' amongst other things he ordered the drainage and settlement of the marshy area in the north-east of the city, as well as the re-structuring of the Campano Aqueduct. The Market and all the artist's workshops which were situated in the historic city centre were moved to the south-eastern part of the city. In 1279, the construction of the Castel Nuovo" ('New Castle') began.

The religious architecture of the time gave rise to churches such as the San Lorenzo Maggiore church which was already built on the site of the Roman basilica and also the churches of San Domenico, San Pietro a Maiella, Santa Chiara, Santa Maria Egiziaca, San Gregorio Armeno, Donna Romita and Donnaregina.

The Angoians imported architecture, jewellry, fabrics and various other objects into Naples from France.

Representative masters from major Italian schools of art were invited to Naples: Pietro Cavallini from Rome, Simone Martini from Sienna and Giotto from Florence. The large cycle of frescoes in the ancient Santa Maria Donnaregina church are evidence of the influence of the Roman school of art in Naples. The only evidence of the three years of Giotto's work in Naples (1329-1332) are the fragments of his work which remain in the Santa Barbara Chapel in the Castel Nuovo. Evidence of the school of painting developed during the reign of Joannna I are visible in the Chiesa dell'Incoronata and the Barrese Chapel in San Lorenzo.

The passage from typical Neopoltian architecture to the floral décor of fifteenth-century Catalan architecure which appeared in urban centres of the the Aragon period was masterminded by Guglielmo Sagrera. This was the architect who designed the 'Room of Barons' in the Castel Nuovo, and who was probably also involved in the reconstruction of the castle in the fifteenth century, before Italian Renaissance elements were introduced.

The Spanish Viceroy

In the sixteenth century, Naples became the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty. Don Pedro Alvarez of Toledo (Viceroy from 1532 to 1553) widened the city walls, increasing the city's surface area by a third. The walls on the western side joined at the Sant'Elmo Castle fortress which was re-built to include the Angioian 'Belforte'. The building work was carried out along the axis of the newly-built Via Toledo. Six streets parallel to the Via Toledo, crossed by a series of streets at right angles to it, make up an area which was dedicated to military lodgings. This area corresponds to the Montecalvario district which is now a residential area.

The construction of residences for the aristocracy both in the ancient city centre and outside the city walls provided the city with a good equilibrium, with both luxury buildings, and less ostentatious ones being built to cope with the demand for housing: the Orsini, Marigliano and Corigliano Palaces are all examples of civil Renaissance buildings.

The grandiose Porta Capuana by Giuliano da Maiano remains standing to this day. The Triumphal Arch of Alfonso of Aragon in the Castel Nuovo was also built during this period ' some believe it was the work of Luciano Laurano while others attribute it to Guglielmo Sagrera.

The architectural organisations of the fifteenth century were housed in the Palace of Diomede Carafa a San Biagio dei Librai and in the Cuomo Palace on Via Duomo. Today, the offices of the Faculty of Architecture are housed in the Gravina Palace and the Church of Santa Caterina a Formiello. Marble was sent to Naples by Donatello and Michelozzo for the tomb of Cardinal Brancaccio in the Church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo. Antonio Rossellino sent the last of his works to the Monteoliveto Church where Guido Mazzoni of Modena and Benedetto of Maiano also worked.

Seventeenth-century Naples

During this period, the Treasury was called upon to finance the building of luxury residences for the nobility: religious buildings and the building of the new Royal Palace (all by Domenico Fontana), as well as the degli Studi Palace which is now the National Museum. Palaces were also built in Posillipo, including the Donn'Anna di Cosimo Fanzago Palace which renewed a tradition started by the Romans for residences in the Posillipo Hills.

Numerous churches by Francesco Grimaldi - San Paolo Maggiore, Santi Apostoli, Santa Maria degli Angeli a Pizzofalcone ' were also built at this time. The churches of the Ascensione a Chiaia, Santa Maria degli Angeli alle Croci, San Ferdinando, San Giorgio Maggiore, San Giuseppe delle Scalze a Pontecorvo, la Sapienza, SantaTeresa a Chiaia and Santa Maria Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone and the Maddaloni Palace were all designed by Cosimo Fanzago.

All of these works are Neopolitan interpretations of the Baroque style ' more obvious in external appearance than in spatial conceptions, they are extremely colourful and intricately decorated. Brother Nuvolo - who designed the churches of Santa Maria alla Sanità and San Sebastiano ' was also influenced by new, expressive Baroque styles. The architect Arcangelo Guglielmelli continued this theme and painted beautifully imaginative settings and backdrops such as that of San Giuseppe dei Ruffi and the Library of the 'Girolamini'. In 1607, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio left his masterful paintings to the Pio Monte di Misericordia and the San Domenico Maggiore charitable institutions.

Eighteenth-century Naples

The invading Austrian powers of 1707 to 1734 took over a a city afflicted by the epidemic of 1691, in economic stagnation and under the influence of the excessively dictatorial ecclesiastical powers.

The city was in an even worse state when Charles III of Bourbon succeeded the Hapsburgs in 1734. The new monarch imposed a tax on the property of the Church in order to augment the resources of the Treasury. Charles III encouraged the development of commerce and industry, the building of an urban infrastructure (roads, ports etc.), the improvement of urban conditions, as can be observed in the city plan drawn up by Giovanni Carafa duca di Nola which indicate the new ideas in urban development with regard to the Via Foria, Capodimonte and the Torre del Greco area as well as the expansion of the Granili.

The Bourbon dynasty was also involved in the construction of major buildings such as the Teatro San Carlo designed by Medrano and inaugurated in 1737, the Royal Palace at Capodimonte ' also by Medrano, and the Royal Hostel for the Poor by Ferdinando Fuga (who also designed the façade of the dei Girolamini Church, the Giordano and Caramanico Palaces) , the cavalry barracks on the della Maddalena bridge by Luigi Vanvitelli, the palaces of Ferdinando Sanfelice ai Vergini, the Serra di Cassano Palace and the Church of Santa Maria delle Periclitanti at Pontecorvo. Luigi Vanvitelli designed the d'Angri Palace, the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation, the Church of the Missionary Fathers and the Carolino Forum.

All buildings constructed in the Bourbon period gave the city a more European dimension.

Nineteenth-century Naples

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Joseph Bonaparte continued with the work on the city's infrastructure that was started by Ferdinando. He had a wide road built that ran from the Museum to the Royal Palace at Capodimonte, which dug in to the della Sanità Valley with a viaduct inaugurated by Murat in 1810. Murat promoted the creation of the Botanical Gardens, the Astronomical Observatory, the widening of the Via Foria and the lengthening of the Via Posillipo, all in line with the new guiding principles of urban development.

When Ferdinand I returned to Naples, the construction of the Ferdinand Forum (now known as the Piazza del Plebiscito) got underway. At the end of the piazza stand the San Francesco di Paola Church and the San Giacomo Palace for the ministery. The Bagnoli road was completed and Antonio Niccolini was given the task of re-building the San Carlo theatre which was destroyed in a fire.

Ferdinand IV had the Via Posillipo completed so that it ran all the way to Bagnoli, and work was begun on the building of the Royal Villa, (now the Town Hall) which stands on the Chiaia Riviera.

During this period, tourism experienced a boom, with around 8000 visitors arriving a year. Ferdinand II had the Via Costantinopoli widened, the Via del Piliero settled, and built the Corso Maria Teresa, (now renamed the Corso Vittorio Emanuele).

Modern Naples

In 1860, Naples was unified with the rest of Italy. At this point it had around 450,000 inhabitants.

The first significant work carried out in twenty years of unity was the widening of the Via Duomo (an ancient pivotal point of the Greco-Roman city), the Corso Garibaldi and the Via Caracciolo. Part of the urban renewal work which was carried out after the cholera epidemic of 1884 was the demolition of the most congested areas which were located in a straight line along the Corso Umberto I , as well as the construction of a fifth road characterised by the Umbertini Palaces. With the exception of this road, the alleys and shops in the surrounding area remained breeding ground for poverty.

In 1891, the introduction of the funicular provided the first link to Vomero ' a newly expanding district. Between the two world wars, Naples' urban expansion was considerable. The expansion included: the Vasto district, located near the central railway station, the Vomero district, and the Regina Elena district in the west, the Arenella and Materdei districts in the north and the Fuorigrotta district in Campi Flegrei.

In the city centre, renewal work continued with the building of the Carità district, the Via Diaz and the palaces of the fascists. The 'Mostra d'Oltremare' exhibition complex was built in the western region.

During the Second World War (1943-1944), the city sustained considerable damage.