The Basilica of San Francesco di Paola in Piazza Plebiscito: a Swiss homage to the Pantheon

by Federico Quagliuolo

All Piazza del Plebiscito speaks Swiss. From the Palazzo Reale, which was built by the Ticino-born Domenico Fontana, to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Paola, made by the "colleague" Pietro Bianchi.

This is a story that brings together Calabria, Switzerland, Naples and Rome. A nice mix of culture which could not fail to create a unforgettable monument.

basilica di san francesco di paola
The basilica today

Why precisely San Francesco di Paola?

For two reasons. First of all, Ferdinand IV, during the period of exile from Naples, he prayed for a long time to the Calabrian saint for help in. The link between Ferdinand and Calabria it was always strong: just an army of Calabrians, led by Cardinal Ruffo, just 20 years earlier he allowed the king to return to Naples after the 1799 revolution.

Secondly, the story is related to an episode from the life of the saint from Cosenza which, in the 15th century, arrived in Naples on his way to France on foot. It is said that on that occasion he has met Ferrante I D'Aragona, who wanted to test the saint. He gave him primto a basket of gold coins to have him build a convent. He rejection, saying he did not accept alms made with other people's money: the king was in fact paying i tax money paid by its citizens.

The next day, before departure, Ferrante gave the saint a gold coin. He there broke and came out of blood from the metal: the saint explained to the king that he was the blood of his subjects, exploited and poorly paid, and that the Aragonese kingdom would soon be over.

Furthermore, before the creation of the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola there was already a church dedicated to the Calabrian saint. Here we have told his story.

miracolo della moneta
The miracle of the coin of Saint Francis of Paola, Juan de Espinal

A historical background

We are in times when the Plebiscite it was not even imaginable. In the 1816, after the end of Joachim Murat, Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies returned to the throne of Naples for the third time. For the occasion he decided to create the Unification of Southern Italy, creating the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies e proclaiming himself "Ferdinand I". It was also an opportunity for create new works who celebrated the new course of the oldest kingdom in Italy.

And so he decided to resume a renovation plan for Largo di Palazzo, the space in front of the Royal Palace, which had been proposed by Murat a few years earlier. And the competition announcement was won by Pietro Bianchi, a Swiss architect who had moved to Naples a few months ago in search of fortune.

piazza del plebiscito 1692
A view of the square with the convent of San Francesco di Paola, dated 1692

The square before the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola: a degraded neighborhood

Largo di Palazzo was indeed a place badly attended before the construction of the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola. Documents dating back to the era of Charles of Bourbon in fact testify that there was a gambling house called "Camorra Avanti Palace": and the first sure evidence of the appearance of the term "Camorra" in Naples. The rest of the Pizzofalcone district had been poorly attended for centuries, as was the nearby Rione Santa Brigida. One thing they own it did not suit kings.

In the French projects of 1809, the new square was to be called "Murat Forum " and was to house a large public garden with a colonnade and a statue dedicated to Napoleon (which was finished, but with the face of Charles of Bourbon). Ferdinando I resumed the drafts of the project and lo readjusted with the construction of the basilica of San Francesco di Paola.

Inaugurazione della costruzione della basilica di San Francesco di Paola
Inauguration of the construction of the basilica of San Francesco di Paola, 1818, Aniello D'Aloisio

A tribute to the Pantheon and San Pietro

Pietro Bianchi, like all Swiss, he was in love with Rome. And he had a very intense relationship with classical architecture, which he studied extensively during his Milanese and Roman period. The Basilica of San Francesco di Paola was in fact a tribute to the shape of the Pantheon, with his coffered ceiling, and a tribute to colonnade of San Pietro.
We find another version of the same architecture in the basilica of the Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg. And it is not said that, given the intense cultural exchanges between Naples and Russia, that the good Bianchi did not stay fascinated by the Russian church.

ipogeo san francesco di paola
The hypogeum of San Francesco di Paola. Photo from Insurgent Identity.

An underground square to pay homage to the Bourbons

The basilica of San Francesco di Paola is not only magnificent above. In 2000 it was rediscovered a gigantic underground cavity, several thousand square meters large, which is accessed from the basilica (it is not the Bourbon tunnel, which is another place). It had to host, in the original projects, a gigantic shrine of the Bourbon family, with the tombs of all future rulers.
The project failed, partly because the church was completed in 1846, thirty years after the start of the works, partly because the entire hypogeum could have house only the tomb of Ferdinand II, given that shortly after the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would end.

The cavity risked disappearing several times: initially it was to become one station of the first underground in Italy in 1913, but this project went to be blessed. Then, in the 90s, it would be joined by Line 6, with a stop that 40 years later has not seen the light. Today i ventilation ducts of the new subway.
Last, but not least, there is also a gigantic giant screen unused and hidden in front of the colonnade.

And then, in an immense empty space to be re-evaluated and in a colonnade that illuminates the square at night with its spotlights, the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola is still today protagonist of a breathtaking stage.

-Federico Quagliuolo

The story is dedicated to Luigi Rocco for his generous donation. Support Naples Stories too: we survive only thanks to you!

References:
Vittorio Glejeses, Naples and its surroundings, 1971
Touring Club Italiano, Guide to Naples and Surroundings, 2000
https://corrieredelmezzogiorno.corriere.it/napoli/arte_e_cultura/18_ottobre_05/ipogeo-plebiscito-era-destinato-spoglie-dinastia-borbone-9fe884a2-c88e-11e8-bc93-97fa64fa5847.shtml
http://www.federica.unina.it/architettura/storia-della-citta-paesaggio/storia-piazze-plebiscito/#:~:text=Gioacchino%20Murat%20promulg%C3%B2%20il%20Decreto,la%20demolizione%20delle%20fabbriche%20conventuali.

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