Sunday, 15 July 2007

Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples

The dramatic neoclassical space of Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples has its origins in the largo adjacent to the Palazzo Reale where festivals were held by the Spanish viceroys during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, following the establishment of the Bourbon court under Charles III the city gained enhanced status as a royal capital, and archaeological enterprises had encouraged the development of neoclassical taste at the Naples court and a desire to emulate antiquity inspired the eventual design of the piazza, or foro as it was initially termed, in front of the palace. Its design (and to a greater extent its nomenclature) would reflect the seismic political events which affected Europe in the wake of the French Revolution. The expulsion of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV in 1806, their replacement by Bonapartist kings (initially Joseph, Napoleon’s elder brother and then their brother-in-law Joachim Murat) and then the Bourbon restoration (as Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) in 1815 would both delay work, and encourage a renewed impetus as each successive regime sought to emphasise their hold on power in a space directly outside their palace windows.

Despite this political turmoil however, the issue of architectural language was remarkably consistent, so pervasive was the archaeological taste. The initial project from 1808 for the ‘Foro Murat’ designed by Leopoldo Laperuta was for the palace facade to be confronted by a hemicycle of corinthian columns, recalling in a truncated form the design of Piazza San Pietro in Rome. Pairs of subsiduary buildings for the municipal authorities were designed to occupy the sides of the space between the palace and new colonnade. However, following the restoration Ferdinand held a new competition, for the ‘Foro Ferdinandeo’, in which the Rome-based architect Pietro Bianchi (1787-1849) triumphed. His project used the existing foundations to create a doric colonnade (more a la mode) and a circular church, San Francesco di Paola, as a votive offering of thanks for the restoration of the throne to the Bourbon dynasty. Paired equestrian statues of kings Charles and Ferdinand reinforced the dynastic message of continuity. The church is directly based on the ultimate neoclassical precedent, the Pantheon in Rome, but with significant adaptations. For example the ionic portico was required to combine with the lower side doric colonnades, and with pairs of small domes as side chapels helping make the transition between the colonnades and the great central dome. The ensemble was therefore firmly allied to archaeological motifs, but with the complexity of its pure volumes and sober lines was also convincingly modern. The interior continues the imitative manner with the employment of a corinthian order. Externally the ‘roman’ dome and the ‘greek’ colonnade were complemented by ‘egyptian’ lions, but the urbanistic effect was to complement the severe facade of the Palazzo Reale (later ornamented with a series of statues representing the roll call of dynasties who had held Naples), and frame to either side a view towards the Teatro San Carlo (Charles III’s great cultural contribution to the city founded in 1737) and the later Galleria Umberto I (1885-92), and on the other side out to the Bay of Naples. Completed in 1846, the piazza’s name would change again following the final expulsion of the notoriously despotic Bourbons in 1860, and the plebiscite with which the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies joined the new Kingdom of Italy.

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