Piazza del Plebiscito: history and origins

by Daniele Nocera

Some nostalgic people will certainly remember the compact mass of cars that spread over Piazza del Plebiscito like a carpet to cover it almost entirely. It was the year 1963, in fact, when the City Council, in order to cope with the problems linked to the increase in traffic in the city and to parking in urban areas, decided to use Piazza del Plebiscito as a very large parking area. There Basilica of San Francesco di Paola, Royal Palace and, in the background, the dome of the Umberto I Gallery in a short time they became the precious enclosure of dozens of cars, neatly arranged under the helpless gaze of the works of great masters of the past. Who knows what the Spanish viceroys would have thought, Joachim Murat or Ferdinand IV of Bourbon if only they could have looked out or walked through their beloved "forum" in those years.

Piazza Plebiscito
Source: Napoli Retrò Facebook group, image published by Imma Scognamiglio

Well yes, that of Piazza del Plebiscito it is a space it has always had occupied a strategic role in the urban grid of the city, attracting the attention of those rulers who most wanted to impress on the body of Parthenope the sign of one's passage. Not far from the port, but not directly overlooking the sea, this widening has often represented one of those urban outposts able to communicate that access to the city has occurred.

From Piazza del Plebiscito the glance towards the city it is in fact unique; the gaze manages to pierce the mass of buildings, palaces and tenements to move or towards the Vomero hill, with the towering mass of Sant'Elmo Castle and the underlying Charterhouse of San Martino, or towards the sea, which laps the coasts of the city up to its eastern offshoots.

The origins of Piazza del Plebiscito

Despite its immediate recognizability, there was however a time when the appearance and naming of Piazza del Plebiscito they were very different from the current ones; just think, for example, that originally its name coincided with that of 'largo di Palazzo', an expression that takes us back to the first half of the seventeenth century, that is to say in that period in which the construction of the Royal Palace was completed, then the official residence of the Spanish viceroys, built in continuity with the Old Viceregal Palace at the will of Pedro Alvarez de Toledo and Zuniga towards the middle of the previous century. A work of Gaspar van Wittel, father of the well-known Luigi Vanvitelli, portrays the area in a famous dedicated painting, in which not only the irregularity of the Palazzo's square is perceived, but also the presence of religious buildings, such as the convents of San Luigi, of Santo Spirito and the Croce di Palazzo, no longer existing.

Piazza Plebiscito
G. van Wittel, View of Naples with Largo di Palazzo

In all those decades the clearing area was never paved, since it is used to host jousting of knights, bullfights, processions, shows and public festivals, which exalted the royal magnificence and diverted the attention of the plebs from the misery of their lives. With the arrival in Naples in 1683 of the Viceroy Don Gaspar de Haro y Guzmàn, the same decorative apparatuses that adorned Largo di Palazzo on the occasions of these events acquired an indisputable autonomy with respect to the feasts they initially served. The same line was adopted by King Charles of Bourbon, who, in view of the realization of works designed to embellish the capital of the Kingdom, used to experiment in advance with the new architectural solutions through scale models and ephemeral apparatuses, and then transform them into lasting works if the effect had been adequate to expectations.

The arrangement of the Largo di Palazzo

The most notable transformations began starting in 1809, when the Council of Civil Buildings announced a competition for the construction of a "Foro San Gioacchino", named after Murat. In the space occupied by Largo di Palazzo the text of the announcement also provided for the construction of an exedra which branched off from a central building intended to house a pantheon of national heroes. Antonio Laperuta and Antonio De Simone were the winners of the competition with a project that involved the demolition of the aforementioned convents of San Luigi, Santo Spirito and the Croce di Palazzo. To the south of the square stood Palazzo Acton, renovated by Francesco Sicurezza at the end of the 18th century and used as a residence for the ministers of state. To respond to that compositional need for symmetry, which very much shapes the entire project, the construction of an identical building was started on the opposite side which would be used, once completed, as the headquarters of the Foreign Ministry and guesthouse.

Piazza Plebiscito
Piazza del Plebiscito, photo by Federico Quagliuolo

The return of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon

The French parenthesis ended and he returned to Naples Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, the latter opted for the continuation of the works, while demanding modifications of a predominantly symbolic nature rather than compositional or formal. He transformed the central secular building into a temple dedicated to Saint Francis of Paola, as a sign of gratitude. In 1815, the time came for a second competition, announced through the "Giornale delle Due Sicilie" and in which an overall project for the arrangement of the future Piazza del Plebiscito was requested with the specific request to follow the foundation walls already laid on indication of previous projects.

Three proposals were selected by a special commission, but the king did not approve even one, this time resorting to the opinion of Pietro Bianchi, an architect very prominent in the Roman area and reported by Antonio Canova. He did not hesitate to share the king's work, considering all the proposals lacking attention to the models of the past. He then personally developed a new project which was approved without hesitation by Ferdinand IV himself.

The final project

The model of the Pantheon, already present in the proposals of various Neapolitan architects, was confirmed by Bianchi himself, who nevertheless chose to organize the external bodies of the church by arranging them in a progressive hierarchy of masses and volumes sloping down towards the wings of the hemicycle. The bulk of the central building is also enlarged by the use of smaller domes, arranged laterally, and of a hexastyle pronaos in antis which rises in an advanced position. The architect also adopted the Doric order for the hemicycle and the Ionic order for the pronaos, accentuating the motifs of discontinuity between the two parts through the use of different materials: the gray stone of Pozzuoli for the first and the white marble of Carrara for the tympanum and the front columns.

Piazza Plebiscito
Piazza Plebiscito in the evening, photo by Federico Quagliuolo

If at this point the evolution of Largo di Palazzo can be said to be concluded from a compositional point of view, it will be much more difficult to attribute a specific social function to it. After the period of oblivion that lasted until 1994, in which, as specified at the beginning, Piazza Plebiscito was used as a parking lot, a slow recovery phase still underway will begin. The artistic experiments of which this place was the scene were significant, among which it is worth remembering the installations by Mimmo Paladino with his "Salt Mountain" of 1995 or those by Gianni Kounellis and Mario Merz.

Although Piazza Plebiscito has now regained its original forms, the debate on the need for substantial revitalization of its spaces is still alive. Perhaps this is one of those cases in which to make a square a 'place of sociality' it is not enough to focus only on that material heritage made up of buildings, streets and paths, but it is perhaps necessary to imagine actions that are able to grasp the needs of the community. citizen and translate them into concrete interventions.

-Daniele Nocera

Sitography: http://www.unina.it/-/1345511-arte-a-cielo-aperto-a-piazza-plebiscito

https://sabap.na.it/da-largo-di-palazzo-a-piazza-del-plebiscito/

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