Vibrant, Bawdy Naples
Naples Old City - "Spaccanapoli"

Naples’ Old City – “Spaccanapoli”

Arriving in Naples

If you arrive in Naples by cruise ship, you will dock at  Stazione Maritima, which is right in the heart of this historic city.  Many visitors take side-trips out of Naples or come in for only a day, so this write-up provides only enough information for a half-day’s site-seeing.

First, a few words of caution:   Naples seems to be Italy’s capital of petty crime.  Pickpockets abound, so watch out – don’t wear any flashy jewelry, or display wads of cash, and be very alert if someone bumps into you.  One common ploy is for one member of a team to stage a distraction while the other(s) work the crowd.  Women in particular should be on the lookout for motorized purse-snatchers, who roar up on Vespas, hook your bag, and are gone before you know what happened.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

Castel Nuovo, Piazza del Plebiscito and the Galleria Umberto

Naples if, first and foremost, a port city, and has the down-at-the-heels appearance of a typical port town.  Don’t be deceived, though – Naples holds some interesting buildings and incredible artworks in its churches and museums.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Many of Naples’ historical sites are within easy walking distance of the pier.  First up is Castel Nuovo (Piazza Castello), which is literally across the street from the pier.  Built in 1279-82 and enlarged in the 15th century, the Castle’s most distinguishing feature – a 35-meter high white marble arch spanning two of its towers – was erected in 1470 to commemorate Alfonso of Aragon’s triumphal entry into Naples nearly three decades before. In 1487 Alfonso’s son, Ferrante I, found a novel way for dealing with a conspiracy among a group of barons:  he invited the disloyal nobles to a wedding banquet in the upstairs Sala dei Baroni, where they were arrested (and later executed).  Today the Castle’s five towers and massive walls house the Civic Museum, which holds artworks from the Castle and other important Neapolitan monuments.  (Open Mon-Sat, 9:00 to 7 – Admission € 6)

A few blocks further along the waterfront is the Piazza del Plebiscito and it’s monumental buildings, including the Palazzo Reale.  The Palazzo, the seat of power of the Neapolitan monarchy, was built in 1600, enlarged in the 18th century and badly damaged by U.S. bombing during WW II; it has since been completely restored.  The Private Apartments were occupied by the monarchs until 1837:  the 30 rooms open to the public include a Theatre, the Throne Room, the King’s Study, a Ballroom (called the Hall of Hercules), and the Chapel.  The other wing holds the Apartamento delle Feste, rooms dedicated to public celebrations and festivities, and are now occupied by the Biblioteca Nazionale di Vittorio Emanuele III.  (Palace open Thurs-Tues, 9:00 to 8 – Admission € 5.50; Courtyard and gardens free)

San Francesco di Paola

San Francesco di Paola

Also in the Piazza del Plebiscito is the church of San Francesco di Paola.  Intended as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte by his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, the building was completed by the restored Bourbon King Ferdinand I in 1816, and consecrated as a church.  The domed, circular church is fronted by a portico (like Rome’s Pantheon) and framed by two semi-circular colonnades extending to both sides (like St. Peter’s Basilica).  Inside, the 53 meter high dome is decorated with identical inlays leading to a central occulus that illuminates the interior.  The altar is inlaid with lapis lazuli, and the altarpiece, painted by Luca Giordano, dates back to 1641.  (Open Mon-Fri, 7:30 to Noon and 3:30 to 6, Holidays, 8:30 to 12:30)

On the north side of the Piazza, adjacent to the Palazzo Reale, is the Teatro San Carlo (Via San Carlo, 98), which predates Milan’s La Scala by 41 years (opened 1737).  The theatre’s near-perfect acoustics made Naples the music capital of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Legendary composers like Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi were all associated with the theatre, while others, such as Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni staged their works there.  The theatre recently underwent a € 76MM renovation, and it once again attracts world-class talent.  (Guided tours are available in Italian and English, and include the main hall, the boxes, the Royal Box and the Foyers.  Mon-Sat, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 14:30, 15:30 and 16:30 – Sundays 10:30, 11:30 and 12:30 – € 6)

The Galleria Umberto, an upscale shopping gallery, is located directly across from the San Carlo, on Naples’ “main street,” Via Toledo.  The glass and iron Galleria was built between 1887-91, and its businesses, shops and cafes soon became a hub of local social life.  Even if you don’t shop, walk through this building to take it all in – and don’t miss the mosaic Zodiac on the floor beneath the dome.

Fresco from the Temple of Isis, Pompeii

Fresco from the Temple of Isis, Pompeii

A fair distance up Via Toledo (which changes its name to Via Roma and Via Enrico Pessina) is the National Archaeological Museum (Piazza Museo, 19).  This museum has one of the world’s best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, many of which come from Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The collection includes mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, coins and metals.  Of particular note are the mosaics from Pompeii’s “House of the Faun;” wall paintings removed from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii; an 18th century detailed model of Pompeii; and the “Secret Cabinet,” which holds a collection of Roman erotica.  Word is that museum’s written descriptions and audio guides leave a lot to be desired, so you may want to bring a good guidebook.  (Open Wed-Mon, 9:00 too 7:30, Closed Tuesdays – Admission € 8)

The Churches of Naples

Naples is awash in churches, a testament to the hope of heavenly intervention so necessary in a city perched so close to a volcano.  Some of the more notable are:

On Via B. Croce, just off Via Toledo, is Gesu Nuovo.  Built as a palace in 1470, but  sold to the Jesuits in the 1580s, construction began on the church in 1584.  The building was renovated and expanded with ecclesiastical functions in mind, but the architects kept the diamond-patterned façade of the original palace.  St. Joseph Moscati, a biochemistry professor who was canonized in 1997, is buried here, as is the infamous composer/murderer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, who did away with his wife and her lover.  Make of that what you will.

Giuseppe Sanmartino’s masterpiece, “The Veiled Christ”

Cappella Sansevero (Via Francesco de Sanctis, 19) was built as a private chapel in 1590, but was renovated by Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, in the 1760s.  The chapel houses some 30 works of art, the most notable being Giuseppe Sammartino’s sculpture of The Veiled Christ. Carved in 1753, the sculpture is a technical tour-de-force, and shows the figure of Christ lying under a tissue-thin fabric, his features clearly visible, as are his body and the crucifixion wounds.  Two other statues – Antonio Corradini’s Veiled Truth and Francesco Queirolo’s Release from Deception – are dedicated to the Prince’s  mother and father.  (Open Mon, Wed-Sat, 10:00 to 5:30; Sun 10:00 to 1, Closed Tuesday Admission € 6)

Here’s a link to a write-up on the Chapel and Raimondo, Prince of Sansevero:  http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-anatomical-machines-of-cappella-sansevero

San Lorenzo Maggiore (Via Tribunali, 316)  is located at the geographic center of the ancient Greco-Roman city – the intersection of Via Tribunali at Via San Gregorio Armeno.  The three floors of the monastery attached to the 13th century Gothic church now hold a museum on the history of the area, from antiquity through the present.  Beneath San Lorenzo is the excavation of an original Roman market, the only large-scale site in the downtown area; it includes storefronts with the walls and ceilings intact, and you can actually walk into them to get a peek at a Roman laundry (one basin for washing, one for rinsing) and a bakery with a bread oven in the back.  (Open Mon-Sat, 9:30 to 5:30, Sun 9:30 to 1:30 – Admission € 9)

Lastly, there’s the Duomo (Via Duomo, 147), a 14th century church built on the foundations of two earlier Christian sanctuaries.  The  main attraction here is the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro, which houses two vials on the saint’s blood in a 14th century reliquary.  On the first Saturday in May and on September 19, the saint’s feast day, the vials are brought out and the blood liquefies.  (A recent theory posits that the “blood” may be a thixotropic suspension of hydrated iron oxide, which “liquefies” if left unstirred and reverts to gel form when moved.  The chemicals needed to make the solution would have been readily available locally since antiquity.)  Legend has it that if the blood should fail to liquefy, tragedy will befall Naples. (Cathedral open Mon-Sat 8:00 to 12:30 and 4:30 to 7; Sunday 9:00 to Noon and 5:00 to 7:30 – Free.  Archaeological area open Mon-Sat 9:00 to Noon and 4:30 to 7, Sunday 9:00 to Noon)

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