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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Renaissance Cities--Naples

Naples, 1472, the Castel Nuovo is center-left, the Castel St. Elmo dominates
the hill in the center. The waterfront street was the Tavola Strozzi
(long since buried beneath a modern thoroughfare.

The Castel dell'Ovo, on the Island of
Megaride, is the oldest structure in the city,
dating from Roman times.
I've been to Naples, Italy, three times but I've yet to "see" the city. The first time, in 2001, I was far more interested in nearby Pompeii and Capri, just down the coast. The second time I took the day to renew my love affair with the Island of Capri. The third time, a couple years ago, my wife and I took a trip down the beautiful Amalfi coast to Sorrento. All three were quite worthwhile and I wouldn't trade a grand tour of Naples for any of them. Actually, my wife has seen more of Naples than I have (she once took a two-hour bus tour). As Italian cities go, especially for someone like myself mostly interested in art and architecture, Naples is no Rome, Venice, or Florence--not even close. It's a modern, urban metropolis of more than three-million souls, the third largest urban area in Italy, and a major shipping and manufacturing center. It has lots of history, but much of it is buried in a sewer-like subterranean layer dating from Greek and Roman times. Most of the city's Renaissance history the Allies bombed to hell during WW II. Naples was the most heavily bombed city in Italy.
View of Naples, ca. 1700, Caspar Andriaans van Wittel
The dome of the Naples Cathedral can be seen
rising above this inland view of Naples by
Caspar van Wittel from about 1700.
A few ancient landmarks have survived, however. They are especially useful in getting ones bearings both in visiting the city and in viewing the topographic landscape paintings of Dutch artist, Caspar Andriaans van Wittel (above and at right) of what was the largest city of the Renaissance era. Historically, a Greek colony on the tiny island of Megaride in the harbor (now connected by a bridge) dates from the 9th century BC. Early Romans "refounded" the city as Neapolis in the 6th century BC. Since that time, amid the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Normans, the Hungarians, the French, the Kingdom of Naples, the Sicilians, the Spanish, Napoleon, and the unification of Italy, followed by the aforementioned world war, as well as the periodic ranting and ravings of Mt. Vesuvius...well, let's just say if you were a Roman retiree seeking peace and quiet for your next 2,500 years, the Bay of Naples was definitely not the place to be.

The Naples Cathedral (Duomo) dates
from the latter part of the 13th century.
The magnificent Bay of Naples has, in fact been a double-edged "blessing" for the Neapolitans since the Greeks first took a liking to the place. On the one hand, this huge, natural harbor is undoubtedly the sole reason the city came about in the first place and remains, even today, its greatest asset. However, it has also made the Campania area a ripe and ready prize for as many as a dozen foreign armies seeking a foothold on the Italian peninsula and the rich commerce the city has attracted over the centuries. Actually the Renaissance era was a relatively quiet period in the city's long, turbulent history. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the firth century, first came the Germans, then the Byzantines, followed by the Sicilians. Self-rule came in 1282 as the Kingdom of Naples arrived and survived until, in 1816, when the south of Italy and Sicily were once more united. That partnership lasted until the unification of the peninsula as the Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

Palazzo Reale, 17th century, Domenico Fontana
Castel Nuovo, 13th century, Naples, an
architectural lesson in royal residences.
Architecturally, Naples is the story of one cathedral (above, left), three castles and several palaces built over the centuries to be royal residences as their royal residents grew more and more confident of not being murdered in their sleep. The Roman Castel dell'Ovo (top, left) is the oldest. During Medieval times, ramparts grew lower and thinner. Castel Sant'Elmo (below, right, 1275), high atop the highest hill in Naples, seems more prison than castle (in fact, it was used as a prison until 1976). 

Castel Sant'Elmo, 1275--castle, palace, prison.
Later, slender gun ports gave way to classically ornate walls and windows. Accommodations grew more accommodating as the royal courts grew more and more populous. The waterfront Castel Nuovo (above, left), dating from the 13th century, illustrates this transition with its Medieval towers and crenelated walls sandwiching an ornate, Renaissance era entry gate by Croatian architect, Francesco Laurana. It contrasts sharply with the drab, heaviness of the ancient fortress. The backside of this fortress is the first thing you see when you land in port. Just a block away, to the left, is the Palazzo Reale (above, center) from the 17th century designed by the Italian architect, Domenico Fontana, with frescoes by Battistello Caracciolo, Giovanni Balducci and Belisario Corenzio. It's no Renaissance fortress, but neither is it Versailles. For that you need to travel to the northern suburbs of the city to the Baroque Palace of Caserta (below) with its sweeping royal gardens fit for a Bourbon king...a French Bourbon King, Charles VII, though he never got to sleep there. His son, Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, did, however. Charles VII abdicated before the palace with completed, moving on up to the big time, becoming King of Spain.

The Naples Palace of Caserta Royal Gardens


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