Historic Centre of Naples
The “womb” of Naples is the greco-roman historical centre: a chessboard divided by three main roads, the decumans, intersected at right angles by roads called “cardinals”. It is here that the pulse of the City is best felt: the alleys, the artisan workshops, the innumerable artistic marvels that surprise you in the least expected places, the voices of the “napolitani”. It is also the cultural centre of the City, with the University on via Mezzocannone, the literary cafès of Bellini Square, the bookshops of Port’Alba, and the Italian Institute for Historical Studies on via Benedetto Croce.
The Piazza of the Gesù Nuovo is the entrance gate to the old centre. The steeple of the Immacolata (1747) and the Church of the Gesù Nuovo, which on its facade preserves the 15th century ashlar-work of the Sanseverino Palace (before it became a church it was the property of the Sanseverino family which used it as its palace), introduce baroque religiousness to the city. The inside of the church is an exultation of marble, stucco and frescoes, with works by Francesco Solimena, Luca Giordano and Massimo Stanzione.
Not far away is the austere church of Santa Chiara, built in 1310 by Roberto d’Angiò in a Provencal gothic style and transformed with baroque decorations in the mid 1700’s. After being damaged by the bombings of 1943, it was restored back to its original, more sober, form royal Anjou family (14th century), work of sculptors of the Tuscan school. A stroll in the cloister of the Poor Clares is not to be missed. It was designed by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. Here Naples suddenly becomes silent and perfumed by narcissus and wistaria; yellow, green and blue are the dominating colours of the tiles that dress the magnificent octagonal columns and the seats on which the neapolitan “riggiolari” Donato and Giuseppe Massa painted pastoral and mythological scenes.
In via Benedetto Croce the 14th centruy Filomarino della Rocca Palace can be found, home to the philosopher Benedetto Croce, who also founded the Italian Institute for Historical Studies, still a busy didactic centre with a rich library. Piazza San Domenico is one of the Aragons’most notable urban legacies, a peaceful co-existance of contrasting architectural styles: the church (13th century) was the official Aragonese dynastic church, of which the funereal arches remain: the steeple of San Domenico (17th century) and the lovely façades of the Corigliano Palace (18th century), today seat of the University Institute Orientale, and the Sansevero Palace
In piazzetta Nilo stands the hellenistic statue of Nilo, rediscovered in the middle ages, to which the Neapolitans have given the affectionate name of “Body of Naples”. Here the little church of Sant’Angelo a Nilo stands. Constructed in 1385 and altered in the 18th century, it contains the beautiful Renaissance tomb of Cardinal Rinaldo Brancaccio, made in Pisa from 1426 to 1428 by Donatello, Michelozzo and Pagno di Lapo, and sent to Naples by sea, alongside other works from the 15th and 16th century. Strolling along via San Biagio dei Librai (also known as Spaccanapoli) you can browse in the little shops full of antiques, religious objects and jewelry. At number 114 we come across a masterpiece from the late Mannerism period of the 17th century – the Chapel of the Monte di Pietà, part of the monumental Carafa Palace and decorated with frescoes by Belisario Corenzio with the help of Luigi Rodriguez and Batistello Caracciolo. Almost hidden in a tiny alley that intersects with vico San Domenico we find the small but extraordinary Sansevero Chapel. A visit to this spectacular baroque complex is a must.
A triumph of a single artwork is to be found in the statue of the Veiled Christ, sculpted by Giuseppe Sanmartino: the effect, the virtuosity of the handling of the marble and the play of light make it a true masterpiece. It will be difficult to contain your curiosity for the many inventions and anatomical machines exhibited, which gave the Prince Sanseverino the fame (not deserved) of being a witch and a sorcerer.
Via San Gregorio Armeno, with its lively bustling scene, is characterised by the belltower of the church with the same name. In the two months before Christmas San Gregorio Armeno become the most vivacious area of the centre, and it fills up with stands that sell little figurines and decorations for nativity scenes. Apart from the traditional baby Jesus, Mother Mary and father Joseph figures the craftsmen compete with one another to make figurines depicting current political and gossip column personalities. In the complex of the convent of San Gregorio Armeno, annexed to the church, and characterised by the sumptious Baroque nave and by the extraordinary caisson ceiling, a visit to the cloister with its gardens, orchards and citrus groves, is not to be missed.
At the end of this street we find ourselves in the heart of the greco-roman city, corresponding to the part of town that was the agora and forum, and where the layers can still be seen.
The centre of all of this was piazza San Gaetano, where the San Paolo Maggiore Church built between the 8th and 9th century, and the San Lorenzo Maggiore Church, which in the cloister hosts greco-roman excavations, are to be found. It is here that the great writer Giovanni Boccaccio met his darling Fiammetta on Holy Saturday in 1336.