Familiarity need not breed contempt.

Familiarity can disappoint. Branded superstores show little regional sensitivity in stead favouring standardisation. Identical buildings offer comforting familiarity, but do they breed satisfaction or contempt? 

Bay of Naples with Vesuvius

19th century visitors to Naples surely found architectural ‘déjà vu’ to be more stimulating. The city’s major square Piazza del Plebiscito seems immediately familiar. The flanking colonnades [Leopoldo Laperuta 1809] evoke St Peter’s Square yet confusingly the centrepiece [Basilica de San Francesco de Paola (1817-46) by Pietro Bianchi] is based on another Roman icon - the Pantheon.

Galleria South entrance

Nearby the sheer exuberance of Galleria Umberto I overcomes any surprise at finding Milan’s magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1868) cloned in Naples - thirty years later. Again glazed arcades meet beneath a vast dome, with rich detailing and mosaic patterns. In Milan they link Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala. The cruciform plan however seems less comfortable on the sloping site in Naples as three entrances require steps. The main access opens from the west - Via Toledo - with a secondary south entrance obliquely facing Teatro di San Carlo behind an elaborate colonnaded crescent. This facade somewhat overwhelms its historic neighbour which has enjoyed continuous service as a theatre since 1737.      

The sheer abundance of antiquity in Naples ensures familiarity which while not necessarily breeding contempt does appear to condone irreverent re-workings. Castel Nouvo [1280] displays numerous audacious architectural interventions, including five additional gigantic towers [1450] and later the white frilly ‘triumphal arch’ jammed between two of these sombre silos. This flamboyance is credited to Milanese architect Pietro di Martino with Catalan artists invited by Alfonso d’Aragona whose conquest of the City is celebrated in the renaissance panels. 

View from Castel Dell Ovo

Castel Sant’Elmo has dominated the Naples skyline since 1275. Initially as a residential palace but later significantly reconfigured by Valencian military architect Pedro Luis Escriva [1537] when he introduced his innovative hexagonal star perimeter to form an impenetrable ‘stronghold’- possibly an inspiration for Adam’s Fort George? Sant’Elmo became a jail for political prisoners in 1604 and a military prison until 1952. Recent restoration revealed generations of incongruous interventions but also introduced a lift, auditorium and library allowing the building to join the Naples Museum Circuit in 1982. Sharing Vomero Hill is the beautiful San Martino Monastic complex [1325] also intended to be impenetrable - but in a different way. Both buildings now offer public access and present sumptuous cultural treasures.

Castel dell’Ovo stands on the tiny outcrop of Megaris which around three thousand years ago was part of the Greek settlement of Parthenope which later became Neapolis. From this foundation Naples became one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Europe. In the first century BC a Roman Patrician built his residential Castel here, which was fortified six centuries later, and became a monastery in 492 AD before being rebuilt as a fortification [11th century] and restructured to its present form during the Spanish Viceroyalty [1504 – 1713].

Naples’ location exposed it to influences and invasions from Greeks, Spanish, French, Saracens and even the Roman Empire. The city also survived commercial and cultural invasions such as the 18th century ‘volcano tourism’ illustrated in SNG’s exhibition “Expanding Horizons”.  Such familiarity with invasions suggests that the current potentially damaging swell in ‘cruise liner tourism’ may eventually be addressed with something more positive than contempt.

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© stuart campbell 2021