entry 2004, revised 2023
The Architects of the San Carlo theater
The San Carlo theater opened November 4, 1737, the feast day of the saint, Carlo (Charles)III the king was named for.
Antonio Carasale (died 1742) and Giovanni Antonio Medrano (1703–1760)
Carasale is primarily remembered in Naples as the "architect of San Carlo"; but the original architect —the person who designed the building— was Giovanni Antonio Medrano. Medrano was born in Sicily, but he did most of his work in Naples. He died before the theater was finished and Carasale finished it for him; Carasale was the appaltatore, something like "interior designer," the one responsible for the stage, the boxes, the elaborate art-work, the chandeliers, the double staircases —all that; he was responsible for the oohs and aahs on opening night, the one who caused Charles Burney to say that San Carlo "...as a spectacle surpasses all that poetry or romance have painted." This is not two architects working together, but rather two architects working in tandem —one died, the other one picked it up.
Interestingly, neither Carasale nor Medrano was among the best-known Neapolitan architect/designers of the time, the 1730s, when the Spanish king, Charles III, set up a new kingdom and dynasty in the former Spanish vice-realm of Naples. Such a one might have been, say, Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, a holdover from the late Baroque of Spanish architecture in Naples. One source says (Anthony Blunt, "Naples Under the Bourbons, 1734-1805" in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 121, No. 913, Apr. 1979, pp.207-11) simply that the king didn't like the architecture he found in Naples and decided to go with two lesser known architects for the new opera house. In any event, the king got from Carasale and Medrano a neo-classical design that put an end to the highly ornamental Baroque construction of the previous century.
A lasting story that one tells about Carasale is that the king was so impressed by the splendid new theater on opening night that before the opera he called Carasale to the stage to take a bow but mentioned —light-heartedly— that the
architect had forgotten to build an interior passageway from the adjacent Royal Palace, thus making him, His Majesty, walk
around and come in the front door like everyone else. Carasale is said to have mumbled something and disappeared from the stage. After the opera, so the story goes, Carasale reappeared and told the king that the passageway was ready. Carasale had knocked down a few walls during the music and built the new entrance! (If that is a true story, Carasale may have done the labor himself, for a number of sources say he was a blacksmith's son and, indeed, one himself, originally. He knew how to handle a hammer. That story, apocryphal or not was retold by Alexander Dumas (Sr.) in his The Bourbons of Naples; he apparently got the tale from an earlier work entitled Storia del Reame di Napoli [History of the Kingdom of Naples] by Pietro Colletta (1735-1831) first published in 1834 in Paris. Carasale subsequently served as impresario of the San Carlo opera house for the first four years of its existence.
He had earlier
worked on the conversion into a church (image) of
the old San Bartolomeo theater, the predecessor of San
Carlo and was involved with the construction of another
"pre-San Carlo" theater, the Teatro Nuovo in the
1720s. Colletta's work (in Vol. 1, section 49) also tells
of Carasale's unfortunate fate: He protested to the king
that he (Carasale) had put in honest work on the new
theater and was in spite of it all still destitute. Alas,
the king found out that Carasale had been skimming
construction funds for his own benefit. Carasale wound up
in prison, where he died. Colletta, himself, gives almost
no sources for any of his book about the history of the
kingdom of Naples; thus, there is no way to know how much
any of it all really happened the way he says. Colletta,
yes, did live through much of the period he chronicled,
but he was also involved in anti-Bourbon uprisings in 1799
and 1806; thus, his version of things might be skewed. His
"History" was so anti-Bourbon that the work had to be
published in Paris since Neapolitan censors had rejected
it. The story about Carasale in jail is likely to be true;
the one about the three-hour building job on opening night
is now regarded as a good story but nothing more. Plans of
the original theater have been found and they reveal an
interior passage, built right from the start. That is what
modern guides at San Carlo now tell visitors. Me, I see no
need to louse up a good story with facts. Exact dates on
Carasale don't seem to be available, but 1700-1742 would
fit. He is still somewhat of an enigma.
Giovanni Antonio Medrano
There is no such enigma surrounding Medrano.
He was born in Sciacca in Sicily in 1703. He was as
solid as they come.
He was the "Major Regius Praefectus Mathematicis Regni Neapolitani" (Major Royal Governor of Mathematics of the Kingdom of Naples), chief engineer of the kingdom, architect, brigadier, and also tutor of Charles III of Spain (in Spain!) and his brothers. In Naples, Medrano designed the Palace of Capodimonte (image, below) and the Theater of San Carlo (as noted above) for his former royal pupil Charles III of Spain. Medrano’s career is particularly well-known from his stay in Seville and his subsequent work in Naples, which also include the design for the spectacular Royal Palace at Caserta.
During that early period in
Spain, Medrano handled the military and architectural
education of the Infante Don Carlos and his
brothers; of these tasks, for "instruction and amusement
of the Most Serene Prince our Lord and Lords Infantes",
there exist two plans of small forts, erected between 1729
and 1730 in Buenavista, on the outskirts of Seville, one
of which is dedicated to the Infante don Carlos,
himself, the future king for whom the theater of San Carlo
in Naples is named.
In December 1731 Medrano followed young Carlos to Italy. The future king (not of Spain, but of the Spanish vice-realm in Italy, called "the Two Sicilies"*) was now 16 and titled Carlos of Bourbon, Duke of Parma and Piacenza. Medrano was an engineer with the rank of lieutenant. From 1732 to 1734 he stayed in the service of Carlos, teaching him geography, history, and mathematics, as well as military science and architecture during their stays in the cities of Livorno, Florence, Parma and Piacenza. The fact that he was promoted in 1733 to lieutenant and ordinary engineer and, later in Naples in 1737, to brigadier and chief engineer, testifies to his efforts and work. After the coronation of Charles as king of the Two Sicilies in 1734, probably due to his close bond with the young sovereign, but more generally because the state wanted more direct control over the entire local system of public works, Medrano was given charge of the most prestigious and strategic public buildings built by the Bourbons in the capital. (*Curious about the name? Of course!)