The Royal Palace of Naples: story of a magnificent palace born without a king

by Federico Quagliuolo

The Royal Palace of Naples is a dream place: from the courtyard to the monumental staircase, passing through the corridors and frescoed rooms. And who knows what a feeling of awe visitors must have had when walking through its corridors!

but yet this magnificent structure was born without a king. Literally: it was commissioned in 1599 to the Swiss Domenico Fontana to host Philip III of Spain, but the Spanish king never came to Naples.
We will have to wait Charles of Bourbon to see this palace regularly inhabited by a sovereign: they had passed well 136 years from the beginning of the works. But the structure was completed as we see it today only in 1858, practically two years before the fall of Naples.

Let's retrace a 400-year history art, fires, extraordinary rulers and architects.

Palazzo Reale di Napoli 1600
The Royal Palace of Naples at the time of the '600, below there are two men dueling: a very common practice in Naples. Credits: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

An infamous place to be redeveloped

Before the creation of the square which became famous as "Largo di Palazzo" and then "Piazza Plebiscito", there was nothing at all if not the Viceregal palace, which was the seat of the government of Naples. Then the only thing visible was a large clearing in clay with a small monastery in place of the basilica of San Francesco di Paola. The widening until 1600 was dedicated to San Luigi for a small church that no longer exists.

All around the Pizzofalcone area was a heap of taverns and closed houses and remained so until the time of Ferdinand IV. Just think that the first testimony of the word "Camorra" in an official document it just comes from one gambling house which was so called in front of the Royal Palace.
On the other hand, the Santa Brigida district it was so ugly and unhealthy that in 1884 some scientists they believed that cholera was born there.

Palazzo Reale di Napoli francese
Royal Palace in the late 1700s in a French lithograph

The Royal Palace of Naples is born

The area was perfect for build a new building e retrain the neighborhood: the new one Via Toledo in fact, it ended just a few steps from the clearing and the position close to the sea was ideal for having a privileged observation point and for guarantee escape to the king in case of attacks: you could reach the Castel Nuovo in case of defense or the sea in case of escape. Viceroy Fernando Ruiz de Castro Count of Lemos, therefore, had no doubts: he called Domenico Fontana to court and asked him to produce the project of a building that should have been the envy of the whole of Italy. Despite the many renovations over time, the structure is not very different from what the Swiss architect thought. They will be needed though 243 years to see the palace finished, even if already after 16 years the palace seemed externally completed and in 1651 the monumental staircase was built by Francesco Antonio Picchiatti which today so enchants us (but the current version in marble was built only in 1844, from Ferdinand II)

All around, the decorations of the Royal Palace of Naples are a tribute to all the noble families entered the Habsburg dynastic line.

Palazzo Reale di Napoli Rebell
Royal Palace of Naples seen from the Arsenale, Joseph Rebell, 1814

How many changes!

Fontana, Picchiatti, Fuga, Sanfelice, Vanvitelli, I'm alone some names of the many extraordinary architects who put their hand to the modern monument.
If the palace externally remained almost always similar to its initial version, the interior was continually revolutionized: we passed from the paintings of Belisario Corenzio to the French decorations of Giuseppe Bonaparte, without forgetting the Habsburg tastes of Maria Carolina of Austria, wife of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, who wanted to decorate the interior of the building with austere and elegant furniture.

It is said that, allarrival of Charles of Bourbon in Naples in 1735, the palace was in such condition dilapidated that Bernardo Tanucci was sent to buy furniture, curtains and furnishings at the Monte di Pietà why all that was left inside was unusable, the result of 50 years of abandonment. The facility was also in bad conditions and, for this reason, he was called Ferdinando Sanfelice for a new one restoration. Then it was the time of Ferdinando Fuga, another superstar of architecture in Naples, who expanded the building even more, with the construction of the court theater, which was "downgraded" for the inauguration of the nearby San Carlo Theater. Then it was the time of Luigi Vanvitelli, which solved a big problem.

The architect noted that the porch designed by Domenico Fontana era too weak and it was compromising the stability of the building that, sooner or later, it would be collapsed. Thus it was that he closed the arches creating the famous niches which were filled in 1888 by statues of the kings of Naples, for willingness to Umberto I of Savoy.

Ferdinand I added instead institutions useful to the Crown inside the gigantic building: he inaugurated the Royal Printing House in 1751, then the Military College (1767), the Academy of Sciences and Letters (1778) and the Great Archive of 1785.

Palazzo Reale di Napoli 1700
The Royal Palace of Naples in the mid-1700s: the arches are still all open

The fire of 1837 and Ferdinando's innovations

The palace as we know it today is very different from how the real ancestors saw it, at least inside. In fact, in 1837 there was a fire which destroyed much of the interior of the Royal Palace of Naples, creating incalculable damage. King Ferdinand II, who in the meantime was preparing to inaugurate the first railway in Italy, he understood that from the disgrace had to create an opportunity. He called Gaetano Genovese, a rookie architect who ousted Niccolini, the father of San Carlo. He gave Genovese a task: that of bring the building "into the future".

A "grand plan, very comfortable and beautiful“, As described by the architect himself.

Ferdinand II, on the other hand, was a lot conservative in character how famously intrigued by the technologies of his time and welcomed with great favor the introduction ofrunning water, the gas and electric light they sewer connections. THE gardens instead they were entrusted to the expert Friedrich Dehnhardt, the German botanist who had made the magnificent i Capodimonte gardens. Last but not least, Genovese ordered the demolition of the Viceroyal Palace built by Pedro of Toledo, which no longer made sense to exist.

Palazzo Reale di Napoli dall'alto
The Royal Palace of Naples in the 70s. Photograph published by Stefano Sticchi in the group Naples Retro

The Royal Palace of Naples after the Unification

The Unification of Italy arrived, with Garibaldi who was nervously strolling through the corridors of the building to decide what to do in Southern Italy, chased by a Neapolitan lawyer, Raffaele Conforti, which convinced him to play the famous Plebiscite of annexation, who then gave the square its name. Then it was the time of Vittorio Emanuele II, who came only once to sleep in the rooms of the "beloved Neapolitan cousin"And finally of Umberto I e Vittorio Emanuele III, the latter even born in Naples (and there is also a painting of him as a child in the Royal Palace of Naples). More generally, the Savoys preferred the Reggia di Capodimonte, as in the past did Charles of Bourbon.

And finally, after the disasters of World War II (the palace was bombed, but did not collapse), with the Italian republic, the doors of the Royal Palace of Naples were finally open wide and became no longer the residence of a head of state, but home to all lovers of those paintings and those austere and magnificent decorations of all the noble residences of Naples.

A museum that enchants and tells, in his own details admired and desired by the many extraordinary kings and architects, the vestiges of a city that once was a capital of art even before being the political capital in Italy.

Tickets and visiting hours of the Royal Palace of Naples

-Federico Quagliuolo

Palazzo Reale II Guerra Mondiale
The Royal Palace in 1943, in disastrous condition

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