Brief history of the city of Naples

From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth century, Naples received great attention from travelers, scholars and intellectuals. They gathered curious facts and unique characteristics of this city while traveling across Europe. Until 1861, Italy was not considered as a whole nation yet and was divided in seven states of different extent and Naples was the capital of the largest state of the peninsula - il Regno delle Due Sicilie - literally, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - governed by the Bourbon dynasty.

A capital city that as early as the Sixteenth/Eighteenth centuries was the third most populous city in Europe after London and Paris until it reached the number of about 400.000 residents in the middle of the Seventeenth century. In Italy, no city had this size of population and certainly Naples, from the beginning of the 16th to the unification of 1861, was the largest Italian city. A city that - not so differently from today times - has always had many problems: first of all the small area of the city in relation to the number of inhabitants and secondly a morphologically varied territory, flanked and pressed by the sea on one side and surrounded by irregular hills on the other. All that determined a very high density of population, with major urban problems particularly as to the areas where such a large number of inhabitants could be left living. Therefore, contravening any rule, every free space was exploited to the max and constructions growth as flowers everywhere.

Presently the urban look of the city does still appear very irregular indeed, because next to buildings with valuable architectural design, stand irregular and poorly constructed houses.

Throughout its history, Naples has always been an 'open' city, that didn’t discriminate between local citizens and foreigners and always welcomed and incorporated merchants, artisans, artists of other nations. Surely, that’s due to the various sovereigns who had succeeded on the throne of Naples. Curiously, in fact, all the kings who had ruled Naples and the kingdom had never been members of a dynasty born and rooted in the same kingdom, as on the contrary had happened in France or England.

First the Swabian dynasty with its most important sovereign, Federico II ; then the Angevins and their descendants until 1442; later the Aragonese dynasty, with Alfonso the Magnanimous, governed until the Fifteenth century, then followed by the Spanish rulers of the Hapsburgs of Madrid from 1503 to 1707 and subsequently from the cousin line of the Hapsburgs of Vienna between 1707 and 1734 and, finally, from 1734 by the sovereigns of the Bourbon dynasty.
Naples welcomed these sovereigns or their viceroys sent to govern the kingdom as well as their numerous advisors and trusted people along with them, showing different but never unfriendly feelings. Many Neapolitan surnames bear French and Spanish traces in and that’s the evidence that they very often took roots in Naples.

Over the centuries, these experiences of political life have produced very different spaces of architectural and artistic life, making the image of the city an extraordinary stratification of evidences preserved not only in city museums, but also and above all in everyday life. Those walking through the streets of Naples with attentive and sensitive eyes will discover the signs of the Greco-Roman city, medieval monuments, an impressive number of Gothic and Baroque churches and the new urban spaces of Eighteenth-century reformism. The visitor will hardly come across a kind of merge of all these material memories; on the contrary, city life will be often mirroring opposing and contradictory visions. Exactly as it happens in the city social life where the visitor's eye will register the inequalities in the distribution of resources as well as highly contrasting behaviors and lifestyles.

The attraction for the city is therefore born from its many contradictions and, perhaps, precisely these have fed the urgency of the theoretical and literary reflection of Giordano Bruno, Giovan Battista della Porta, Tommaso Campanella, Giovan Battista Basile, Giovan Battista Vico, Gaetano Filangieri, Benedetto Croce. Not without reason, this strong sense for life - witnessed by the long tradition of the Neapolitan musical school - has recalled in Naples the Caravaggio who had been living here for some of the last years of his life, celebrating in the wonderful framework of the “Sette opere di Misericordia” (the Seven works of mercy) the identity of a city that, like today, appears to resist the processes of social discipline that regulate the lives of men in our time.

This is perhaps the fascination that even today Naples exercises on those who want to know it closely.

Giovanni Muto
Professor of Modern History, Federico II University