Corso Umberto: history of the gutting of the ancient districts of Naples

by Federico Quagliuolo

It was called "the screen", it was the protagonist of parades and demonstrations, it was the largest urban work in the history of Naples, realized at the expense of the entire medieval city.
Corso Umberto, born as Corso Re d'Italia, is still 150 years later today one of the most discussed and important streets in Naples.

Today it is a straight line that cuts the port district of Naples in half, giving an unusual sense of order in the chaos of the ancient alleys of the historic center.
Let's try to understand what was there before and what happened in those days.

Perspective from the top of Corso Umberto
A perspective from above of Corso Umberto and the area rebuilt during the Renovation. Photograph by Federico Quagliuolo

Medieval Naples

Under our feet, as we walk among the spacious sidewalks and elegant buildings of Corso Umberto, before 1884 claustrophobic alleys arose, very narrow and so intricate that today they would have made it impossible for any car to circulate. Typical, however, of any seaside town: who was a Genoa no doubt had a feeling of deja vu.

We see similar ones in the Rione Terra of Pozzuoli, but also in the close Salerno, who has seen hers medieval old town still intact in most of its conformation.

Corso Umberto 1775 not present
The historic center of Naples in 1775, from the map of the Duke of Noja.

A Bourbon precedent

The problem of a rehabilitation of the cityin fact, it was already very popular in the time of Ferdinand II of Bourbon. The medical knowledge of the nineteenth century they believed that cholera spread due to poor sanitation. In reality the doctors, above all Salvatore De Renzis, claimed that it was necessary to completely clean up the popular neighborhoods to avoid the spread of new infections.

Thus it was that in 1839 Ferdinand II of Bourbon appointed a commission to study the feasibility of a revolutionary plan for Naples, who could completely redefine the city. Among the various plans imagined there was also the construction of railways, the expansion of Via Chiaia and the construction of a wide road parallel to the already present Via Marina, capable of eliminate and reclaim all the ancient fondaci.

Francis II of Bourbon, in his very brief government, he decided to move on to the operational phase, setting up in February 1860 the "Commission in charge of drawing up a general plan of the improvements and extensions to be made to the area of the city of
". They were also funds allocated by law: Naples had to be gutted and a modern capital built.

All this, of course, did not come true.

Inauguration of Corso Umberto works
The inauguration of the Renovation works in the Piazza del Maio in Porto, which no longer exists. Corresponds approximately to Piazza Borsa

The cholera of 1884 and the birth of Corso Umberto

The speech was resumed just over 40 years later. After that three outbreaks of cholera, that of 1884 was disastrous and brought it to the attention of all of Italy the problem of overpopulation in Naples. It was decided to resume the speech left pending fifty years earlier, by financing the largest city reconstruction never seen in the history of Naples. An ad hoc company was created to carry out this mission: the Società pel Risanamento di Napoli, still existing today and operating in the real estate field.

Of all historical, legal and criminal misadventures of the Risanamento, we talked about it at length here.

Corso Umberto construction
Corso Umberto under construction

Between great devastation and great innovations

More or less the entire aspect of the historic center of Naples is not the real one.

The idea of the design team, led by Adolfo Giambarba, was that of be inspired by the revolutions made in Paris by Napoleon III, with immense streets and large straights: the main one had to be Corso Re d'Italia, later named after Umberto I of Savoy afterwards the attack that saw him as the protagonist.

So it was that a straight and orderly road was imagined, capable of bringing the future from the new railway station Garibaldi square, at the port. It had to be cut in several places, all regular: starting from the railway, the first intersection was the current Corso Garibaldi, enlarging and improving the ancient Strada dei Fossi that Ferdinand II built where once the Aragonese walls of Naples; at the center of these gigantic hinges and decumani there was instead Piazza Quattro Palazzi, with Via Duomo which was enlarged and stretched to the sea.

At the beginning of Corso Umberto, however, there was Stock Exchange Square with his monumental palace which was imagined as seat of the chamber of commerce, which is still there today, and of the stock exchange for government bonds, which instead it was closed in 1997.

Finally, the height: everything we see in the Corso Umberto area has been raised about 3 meters from the ground. It was in fact the "price" to pay for the construction of the new sewer system in Naples: Consequently, the ancient buildings lost a floor, while some other houses were buried. For the avoidance of doubt, after the war, many old and new buildings have been raised by one or two floors.

Corso Umberto
Corso Umberto seen from above, 1960s.

An immense legacy underground

So let's start right from Stock Exchange Square, which once housed Piazza del Maio in Porto, where the renovation works began: right here was the small church of Sant'Aspreno, the first bishop of Naples (falsely considered the "patron" of Aspirin).

All the medieval districts paid the price for this renewal and a huge number of churches and churches, which have now left their names to streets that have the heavy burden of bring the last memory of ancient places that no longer exist.

There was also no lack of boycotts and envy among the designers. Victim number one was the University building, which was assigned and designed by theengineer Guglielmo Melisurgo. Some architecture professors, furious at the exclusion, were able to get their hands on the project filed with the Municipality and they added numerous elements to the facade, in other cases they made some lines of the building less graceful or more confusing.

Corso Umberto university
The headquarters of the Federico II University in a vintage photo.

Also around Piazza Borsa some fascinating streets have lost their existence, such as "Vico Pensiero", protagonist of an old popular legend.

A little further on, the Borgo Orefici it was falsely spared by the Renovation: if we notice, for example, the arches that emerge from the ground, we understand perfectly the raising of the ground level. Even the Orefici square, the one with the miraculous crucifix, it's a fake.

The original square was located at Corso Umberto and had its lower edge with the current Via Benvenuto Cellini. For reasons of perspective, the hole has been "plugged" with the building it houses the Argenteria De Laurentiis, our sponsor in Goldsmith Plates Project.

Further on there was also a fountain that was located in a square of the same name, that of the Sellaria. It was once home to the artisans who produced clothing for horses. The fountain was saved and moved to Piazzetta of the Great Archive, not far from the original point.

Many other ancient places were destroyed and remembered with memorial plaques, such as the tombstone of Colapesce in Via Mezzocannone, which was once on the Seat of Porto. Or the Seat of Portanova, remembered with an anti-Bourbon plaque which, in reality, does not tell the whole truth. Even the Bourbons wanted to eliminate the seats, since the time of Charles.

Corso Umberto Hitler
Corso Umberto decorated for Hitler's visit to Naples. On the left, you can see the University building.

From Adolf Hitler to John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Opened on Course in 1904, symbolically Naples entered the last century of the second millennium with a completely new dress, like a bourgeois and elegant city among the cafes in the Umberto Gallery, walks along the newly built promenade and the shop windows in the Chiaia district. The promenade of the Rettifilo, however, was too greedy for any manifestation of power. And so it was that we find it in the photographs of events.

The most symbolic was the visit of Adolf Hitler in 1938. For the occasion, since they didn't want to make the route irregular, it was also removed the statue of the mayor Nicola Amore in the square dedicated to him, creating a straight and regular route to the Port. Even today the real name of "Piazza Quattro Palazzi", where stands the Duomo station, in reality it should be called with the romantic name of "Piazza Amore". Although the statue of the mayor today is located in Piazza Vittoria.
For the occasion, some cardboard sets to make the buildings all identical and regular.

Corso Umberto Nicola Amore
Piazza Nicola Amore with the statue, now located in Piazza Vittoria.

Other times, others. In the photos ofCoal Archive we find the Corso Umberto in celebration for the Kennedy's Neapolitan visit, the American president who, a few months later, died in an attack. And then came the automobile boom: when in the 60s all the families got a car, the traffic here became legendary. And for a short time it was even decided to make the street entirely one-way. It was a disaster.

Corso Umberto Kennedy
A multitude of people welcoming President Kennedy, passing through Corso Umberto.

From the great protagonists of their epochs, we arrive at the time of manifestations of the third millennium: while under our feet and in front of our eyes there are rubble and the names of medieval Naples, the new history of Naples is written on the sidewalks of Corso Umberto.

Among manifestations of Fridays for Future, strikers and activists of all social issues, today the street has changed its role: from a political catwalk to showcase of the conflicts and challenges of modern times. The heart of Naples is there, always in constant renewal, and we are ready to write new layers of history in a city that never ends.

-Federico and Leonardo Quagliuolo


Giancarlo Alisio, "Naples and the rehabilitation", Electa Editore, 1982

Giovanni Carafa, Duke of Noja, "Topographic map of the city of Naples and its surroundings“, Intra Moenia
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