Why is it impossible to pass between the blindfolded horses in Piazza del Plebiscito?

by Francesco Li Volti

It will have happened to everyone to walk around Piazza del Plebiscito and observe someone intent on walking blindfolded, as if he were playing blind fly, with a group of friends behind them laughing and having fun.

Well, behind their laughter there is an ancient tradition that has merged with the legend, which wants no one, but nobody, be able to pass between the statues of the two horses of Canova in Piazza del Plebiscito, with a blindfold.

The journey is always the same: it starts from the center of the door of the Royal Palace and you walk well 170 meters, trying to grab the glory, succeeding in the coveted enterprise of passing the equestrian statues without being able to look, letting oneself be guided by one's own legs and senses.

Many customers who daily try their hand at this adventure: Neapolitans or tourists, this "game" has fascinated young and old from all over the world and of all ages, who do not give up and who, on the contrary, try and try again, sometimes banging his head against a passerby.

Why is it impossible to pass between the blindfolded horses in Piazza del Plebiscito?
It wasn't possible before!

The legend

It would seem that it's all the fault of the Queen Margherita. Once a month the queen gave one of her parents a chance prisoners to be released before the execution, but on one condition: to be able to cross the square, without the use of sight.

Unfortunately for them none of the convicts seems to have made it. In fact, it is quite clear that it is not that Queen Margaret was more magnanimous than the other monarchs, indeed, hers was a cunning little game to secure the favor of the people.

There was desperation and gambling for freedom in this way would have brought the people into turmoil, recognizing Queen Margherita as a pure and not bloodthirsty soul, as the chronicles of the time described her.

Why is it impossible to pass between the blindfolded horses in Piazza del Plebiscito?
Piazza del Plebiscito - Photo by Francesca Cavallo

A "Neapolitan" fake news

But are we sure this story is true? Let's start the reflection with a question: which Queen Margherita would have allowed a prisoner to be free once a month if she had crossed Canova's horses?

In the history of Naples there were two queens who had the name Margherita: one is Margherita of Durazzo (1323-1348), mother of King Ladislaus, regent of the son before the age of majority, from 1386 to 1393, and the other is the queen to whom it was dedicated the most famous of pizzas, Margherita of Savoy, consort of Umberto I.

At the time of Margherita of Durazzo, Piazza del Plebiscito still did not have today's appearance, since the restyling began with the French Giuseppe Bonaparte and Joachim Murat and ended with Ferdinando II, taking the name of Foro Ferdinandeo. Furthermore, the two horses were only placed in the nineteenth century and, even before that, in the place of the church dedicated to San Francesco di Paola, there were small scattered convents and some houses. For this reason, reluctantly, we cannot attribute the terrible legend to her.

Different speech instead for Queen Margherita of Savoy. Almost 500 years pass and another Margherita returns to sit on the throne of Naples, or rather of Italy, but this time slightly more Savoyard. The first queen consort of the Kingdom of Italy (the wife of first king of Italy Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia, Maria Adelaide of Austria, had in fact died in 1855, before the proclamation of the Kingdom in 1861) would not seem to have been, at least from the sources, a sanguine woman, who would have liked to play with the life of her people.

In 1861, year of Italian unification, the laws of all pre-unification states (including the Kingdom of Sardinia) provided for the death penalty, except that of Grand Duchy of Tuscany. However, from 1877 King Umberto I granted general amnesty to all prisoners, thanks to the "Amnesty Decree" of 18 January 1878.

We will have to wait for the 1889 to see the death penalty abolished throughout the Kingdom, with the approval, almost unanimously by both Houses, of the new penal code, during the ministry of Giuseppe Zanardelli. One of the last famous convicts of the time was the attacker on the life of Margherita's husband, Giovanni Passannante (1879), whose death sentence was not carried out and the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

For the record, however, it is right to remember that the death penalty remained in force in the Italian military penal code and in the colonial ones, being massively applied during the First World War (1915-1918) for facts of desertion, insubordination and "dishonorable behavior ", Even against innocent soldiers (practice of decimation ordered by simple generals, without any decision of a military court).

In light of this, under the reign of the queen who came from Northern Italy the death penalty disappeared and indeed, the contribution that Margherita of Savoy herself gave was decisive. This leads us to a conclusion: the legend is false, without any foundation and whoever repeats it probably does not know the story or is the victim of a fake news.

Why is it impossible to pass between the blindfolded horses in Piazza del Plebiscito?

The cobblestones of Piazza del Plebiscito

But then, why can't you walk straight, following such an (apparently) simple path? It's all the fault of the cobblestones. Yes, you got it right, they are the cobblestones to divert the route. As we have illustrated previously, Piazza del Plebiscito has been redone several times over the course of history, and each engineer also intended to transform the paving of the widening, according to their personal taste.

Century after century piazza del Plebiscito it was the subject of experiments, leveling, raising and lowering and it is obvious that the stability of the pavement is not as perfect as in other roads. Suffice it to say that the bullfight, with bulls and bullfighters, in the center of what is now one of the most famous squares in Italy.

It was the cobblestones that gave the final blow: this type of pavé was used for the first time in the mid-eighteenth century, to pave St. Peter's Square in Rome. The sampietrino craze began and the monarchies from all over Europe competed to secure that flooring, which looked so much like God's house.

But in those days, perhaps, there was not enough discussion about its downsides: the sampietrino, in fact, does not provide a uniform ground and, if wet, can even become quite slippery. Another aspect that should not be underestimated is the fact that the single piece is formed from an uneven surface, therefore not very comfortable. And that's why, placing your foot on it, each step involves a small change of path and it is so easy to get lost and not go beyond the two equestrian statues.

It may not be the most romantic story among Neapolitan legends, but it is still one history of Naples.


Ludovica Cibin, Roman causeway. The sampietrino, Rome, Gangemi, 2003

Indro Montanelli, History of Italy (1861-1919), edition published with Il Corriere della Sera, Milan, 2003

Teresa Colletta, The history of the squares. The main public area of Naples: from Largo di Palazzo to piazza Plebiscito, Naples, University of Naples Federico II

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