Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry July 2003, box added Aug 2019

Spanish Quarter mapThe main shopping thoroughfare in modern Naples is via Roma, a name that many Neapolitans reject in favor of the original name, via Toledo, named for Don Pedro di Toledo, the Spanish viceroy of Naples from 1532 to 1553. He was one of the most notable in a long line of representatives of the Spanish throne who ruled Naples between 1500 and 1700. Don Pedro is the viceroy who began the great Spanish reshaping of Naples, changes that extended into every aspect of life in the city, from the building of new living quarters to the enlarging of  port facilities and shoring up of city fortifications. The Spanish renovation of Naples was precisely that—a renewal, one that cast Medieval and Renaissance Naples in a modern sixteenth-century mold, which would then carry the city directly into the age of the Baroque. 

Via Toledo, begun in the late 1530s, was the centerpiece of one of the most impressive projects undertaken by Don Pedro: the construction of an entirely new popular quarter of the city, today called, simply, The Spanish Quarters—or, by many Neapolitans, the Casbah(!), thus recalling the Moorish influence in the history of the builders. The main street, via Toledo (bounding the Spanish Quarters at the bottom of the above map) was laid out to lead north from what is now the  square in front of the Royal Palace. In the 1530s there was not yet a Royal Palace, but the square itself was adjacent to the large complex that included the Maschio Angioino and the living quarters of the Viceroy; thus, it was a logical place to start a new main road. Via Toledo ran along the line of an earlier city wall and was actually intended to supplant that fortification, literally breaking the confines of the medieval city and extending it up the slope of the hill of San Martino, a natural barrier. Via Toledo then continued on to Largo Mercatello, later, under the Bourbons, to be known as Foro Carolina, and today as Piazza Dante

The Spanish Quarters (generally plural, although it is now thought of as a single area) thus start at the beginning of via Toledo and consist of dozens of symmetrical square blocks, with the east-west streets running up the slope of San Martino. There are about a dozen of these streets between the Palace and the section of Naples called Montesanto. They lead up the slope from via Toledo and are then crossed by a number of secondary parallel streets, each one at a progressively higher level on the slope. The effect is of a chessboard of perfect little squares built on the side of a hill. A great number of stairways are built into the east-west streets to help pedestrians hike up and down the slope. 

The Spanish built a number of villas and residences on the spacious sites fronting the new via Toledo. Many of these buildings are still standing and recognizable even through centuries of overlaid architecture. The Spanish expansion also included the area on the other side of via Toledo and running north towards Piazza Dante. Thus, one finds the Church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli on the east side of via Toledo on what is now Piazza Municipio. The entire area of the Spanish Quarters in the first few years of its existence housed many of the 6,000 Spanish soldiers quartered in Naples in the mid-sixteenth century; the troops then found accommodations in a central barracks in the 1650s. 

The area behind the main street still contains some Baroque churches from the late 1500s and early 1600s. The most famous of these is the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione a Montecalvario, from the year 1589. This church was also the site of an orphanage sponsored by the congregation and which was in operation until the end of the 1800s. The church was rebuilt in the 1720s and has a central space with side chapels and a dome. 

The residences in the Spanish Quarters are four and five stories high, quite an accomplishment for 1600. (Even as late as the 1870s, Mark Twain commented on the “tall buildings of Naples”.) The blocks were an enormous departure from the winding clutter of medieval cities and are, perhaps, the first example of modern urban planning in Europe. "Urban planning" should, realistically, not be understood here in the benevolent twentieth-century sense of providing the poor with a decent place to live, however. [For a separate item on urban planning in Naples at the beginning of the 20th century, click here.] An age of absolute monarchy was concerned less with such things than it was with its own physical security. 

Here, one does well to recall Lewis Mumford’s remark that the clearing away of the small winding medieval streets of Paris by Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century did away with the last physical barrier which protected the common citizen from the power of the absolute state. Such was the case in Naples: a long rebellious nest of medieval clutter into which the King’s soldiers ventured at considerable risk was made more manageable by the introduction of broad straight roads that were easy to patrol. The centuries have by-passed that concept somewhat, for it is now the streets of the Spanish Quarters, themselves, that have acquired a foreboding reputation as a section of Naples where a stranger does not enter without some concern.

Another item on Spanish buildings in Naples.

2.  This is from Marius Kociejowski's [MK] forthcoming book The Serpent Coiled in Naples.

My reference subtitle in the excerpts table below is "The Devil."
MK's original chapter title in the book is:

Chapter Nine
he Devil at Play in the Quartieri Spagnoli

The Spanish Quarter is the most densely populated area of Naples, the grid of streets so tightly packed the sun falls in some places for only minutes at a time ― one must rush out with a demitasse to catch it before it goes ― and in other places never at all. The Quartieri Spagnoli*, to revert to the mellifluous original, occupies 800,000 square metres. Arithmetic’s obdurate. What does that actually mean, 800,000 square metres? Giuseppe Marotta, scrittore, comes up with something the mind may grasp, a spiritually precise measurement of the place: "God Almighty must have created the Quartieri for the sole purpose of hearing Himself praised and blasphemed the greatest possible number of times in the smallest possible area."

Zena Rotundi, street harpist, lives here. She says

Sometimes in the house where I live I hear people screaming. I’ve heard, and continue to hear, the very same from my bed in Forcella, a man in the small hours ― no telling where his voice is coming from. It's one of the clichés about Naples that people are always screaming, but there is a reason for it. You have to see what happened to them to make them behave like this. And yet I see light in the Quartieri Spagnoli.
As there is in Forcella, dark though it is. It’s in the people, not all of them, but enough to make me not seek to go elsewhere. Zena finds the old Naples still very much alive in the Quartieri Spagnoli, the Neapolitan language there the best preserved of anywhere. The name derives from when in 1536 the Spanish viceroy of Naples, Don Pedro de Toledo (image) established a safety zone for the Spanish garrisons. A city-builder he may have been, a man of vision certainly, but he was also a ruthless figure. There was no crime so petty it did not merit a death sentence, some 18,000 executions at his own count, which serves to provide a lesson but rarely absorbed, that the more brutal on crime we are the more it flourishes. Some irony that Don Pedro who almost succeeded in bringing the Inquisition to Naples should have been responsible for creating a zone whose name became synonymous with vice. It had become as much a haven for the prostitutes as for the Spanish soldiers who had only to step outside for their fleeting pleasure.

One of the early residents of the Quartieri Spagnoli, a young harquebusier who had yet to make a name for himself, lived there in 1570, and again from 1572 to 1575: Miguel de Cervantes, escritor (in image, right.) The work he believed his best, superior even to Don  Quixote, was Journey to Parnassus, which most people agree is close to unreadable. It serves our purposes, however, because in it the elderly author recalls the Naples of his youth. ‘Esta ciudad es Nápoles la ilustre, / Que yo pies sus ruas mas de un año / De Italia gloria, y aun del mundo lustre.’ Something else brought him to his good opinion of the place. The young Cervantes fell in love with a woman who in his first novel La Galatea he calls ‘Silena’ and with whom it is believed ― for he says as much in the heavy slog of a poem he wrote towards the end of his life ― he had an illegitimate son called Promontorio. After he left Naples he saw neither of them again except through the magnifying lens of his prose and verse without which we would never have known of their existence. We must think of him not as a scoundrel or a bounder but as a man separated from them by circumstance, for there is something haunting in the way he writes about them, as if they inhabit some misty, lost archipelago of love. I keep watching out for a young Cervantes on a motorbike.

* I realise it ought to be translated in the plural but as such it sits uneasily on the tongue.

† Peter Gunn, in Naples, A Palimpsest (1961), wryly notes: ‘It may be true, as Campanella said, that if there had to be foreign rulers in Italy, the Spaniards were best fitted to rule; the tragedy is that this should have been so.’ 

'Tis Naples' self, that city of great fame / Whose streets I paced for better than a year. / Italia's pride, that sets the world aflame." -- from Viaje del Parnasso, translated by James Y. Gibson (1883).

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts on Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item (after #15) from MK.

Ch.1 - introduction -    Ch.2 - An Octopus in Forcella Ch 3 - Listening to Naples  - Ch 4 - Lake Averno
Ch.5 - Street Music - Ch.6 - Leopardi  - Ch.7 - R.di Sangro  - Ch.8 - Old Bones - Ch.9-The Devil (above)  -
Ch.10- Signor Volcano  -  Ch. 10 (2) )
(3)  Ch.11- Pulcinella  - Ch.12 - Boom - Boom (2) - Ch.13- Two Women -
Ch. 14- The Ghost Palace - Ch.15- An Infintesimal Particle -     (extra) Riccardo Carbone, photographer

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