Piazza Francese, the story of an ancient community of merchants and prostitutes

by Federico Quagliuolo

There small French Square, which today is squeezed between Town Hall Square, Via Depretis and the port once was much bigger than the battered and dirty little street which today is the rear entrance of the Mercadante Theater.

In fact, this was once upon a time a two-sided zone: during the day it was the public wash house, at night it became one of the most famous places where he practiced low-level prostitution in Naples. It all started with a small group of merchants who settled here in Angevin era.

Piazza Francese wash house
The wash house in Piazza Francese in a photograph preserved at the State Archives of the United States Congress

At the origins of Piazza Francese

Let's ask ourselves though because this area is dedicated to the French. Actually the origin is the same as Rua Francesca, which is located at Borgo degli Orefici: it was in fact dedicated to the French because, at the time of the Angevins, it settled here a lively community of merchants from the transalpine country. We are talking about quite ancient times, around the fourteenth century, and they were on the throne of the Maschio Angioino the descendants of Charles of Anjou, coming from France.

It didn't take long to see her slowly end up in decay, especially in the uncertain times of the Viceroyalty, in which the entire population of Naples, after the viceroyalty of the shrewd Don Pedro of Toledo, became more and more impoverished, scourged by invasions, civil wars, bad governance, riots and dramatic epidemics. With this collapse also came the bastardization of the whole population e the disappearance of those groups of merchants that characterized the many districts of Naples, which today are remembered in the names of the streets. Piazza Francese became known at that time to become a place of prostitution for the people, infamous and often characterized by episodes of crime news: this area of the Port is often also mentioned by Ferdinando Russo that, so a little bohemian, often enjoyed a frequent the disreputable areas of the city.

But there is also a nice anecdote: when in the 19th century the French tried to change the name of Boulevard des Italiens, one of the most famous streets in Paris, i Neapolitans they answered exactly quoting French Square:

For hatred of Italy, the Boulevard
des Italiens on Boulevard Riviere
the people of Paris want to change
We in Naples will not imitate it
and, generously, Piazza Francese
always Piazza Francese we will call!

epigram of the Duke of Maddaloni
French square today
Piazza Francese today, with the entrance to an ancient building cut in half by a modern building. Photograph by Federico Quagliuolo

A public wash house

Times passed quickly and, despite the reform of Charles of Bourbon, which finally gave the shock to the city of Naples after the social and economic gangrene of the last century of viceroyalty, Piazza Francese always remained the same. The only addition was the reconstruction of the public wash house, where women from the entire Porto district used to go for clean the cloths by hand in the large tubs. It remained in operation until the last war: he says a 90 year old lady who often, as a child, went with her mother a wash the clothes of the Americans, after the arrival of the allied military in the city.

To see it today we would not even be able to imagine there presence of a fountain or a wash house: the square was destroyed not so long after Remediation, but after World War II, with the complete reconstruction of Via Marina and Via Cristoforo Colombo, which had been completely destroyed by the allied bombing. Here too, therefore, they peeped out the new buildings of the 60s which destroyed most of the ancient buildings and warehouses (or what remained of them).

Today there is a building that has the entrance bizarrely cut in half precisely because of the post-war constructions. Remember how Piazza Francese is now only the memory of an uneven and narrow road behind the stage in Piazza Municipio, which amazes visitors when they arrive in Naples.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Gino Doria, The streets of Naples, Ricciardi Editore, Milan, 1982
Romualdo Marrone, The streets of Naples, Newton Compton, Rome, 1994
Giancarlo Alisio, Naples and the Restoration, Italian Scientific Editions, 1988

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1 Comment

natale 8 April 2022 - 12:01

Purtroppo continua l’abbandono delle piazze napoletane. Sulla carta la piazza è pedonale in pratica un parcheggio abusivo. veramente desolante. il fatto grave è che hanno messo anche la segnaletica ma nessuno la fa rispettare.


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