07 Jul 2017

Masterpieces of Naples: Umberto I Gallery

Who, in Naples, does not know the Umberto I gallery?
Who has not passed through it at least once in life, remaining stunned in front of its immense and proud appearance?

What not everyone knows, however, is that this architectural marvel was chosen, a few years ago, for the project of the “National Youth Forum”, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, with the aim of publicizing in the world, the riches of our entire peninsula.

But what is the origin of this Neapolitan wonder?


The history of this gallery begins, yes, in Milan, in another building very similar to it, built about twenty years earlier: the Vittorio Emanuele II gallery. Taking inspiration from here, in the nineteenth century, in the San Ferdinando district, in the heart of Naples, this “little Neapolitan twin” was built (only the dome, designed by the engineer Paolo Boubeè, is higher than the Milanese one) of 10 meters) by Luigi Emanuele Rocco, Ernesto di Mauro and Antonio Curri, with a project on three floors in Art Nouveau style.

Its inauguration took place on November 10, 1892, by the mayor Nicola Amore, through an exhibition of artistic, craft and industrial products: it was precisely this that became, immediately, the commercial pole of the entire city of Naples, thanks to the favorable location, near  Toledo street, the San Carlo theatre and Plebiscito Square.

Its wonderful polychrome floors have a particularity, which is revealed at the dome: show the mosaics with the signs of the zodiac, made by the Venetian firm Padoan, but not everyone knows that this is a “new entry” occurred in 1952, to replace the original flooring, damaged by the war.

Our grandparents will certainly remember, however, the Umberto I gallery for another reason: for fifty years, in fact, it was the “headquarters” of the sciuscià , the shoeshine, of which, today, they remain very rare and isolated heirs.

A territory, that of the gallery, which has seen, in short, simple and ordinary personalities mixed with figures of historical relevance and artistic level, as it also houses the famous  Margherita salon, which was the first cafè-chantant in Italy epoque, meeting place for intellectuals like Gabriele D’Annunzio, Matilde Serao or Salvatore Di Giacomo.

Not only a commercial center, in short, but also a social center, which has made the Umberto I gallery what it is today, in the eyes of residents and tourists.

A curiosity

The area on which the Gallery stands was already intensely urbanized in the sixteenth century, formed by a tangle of parallel streets connected by small alleys, which from Toledo street flowed in front of the Maschio Angioino.

These were alleys with a very bad reputation, full of taverns and houses of ill repute, where all kinds of crimes took place.

At the end of the nineteenth century the deterioration was at the top, with six-story buildings in which the hygienic situation was bad, so much so that the area, between 1835 and 1884, was the scene of nine epidemics of cholera. After the last of these, it began to consider a government intervention and, in 1885, the Law for the rehabilitation of the city of Naples was approved, thanks to which various proposals were presented. In the end, the winning project was that of the engineer Emmanuele Rocco, resumed later by Antonio Curri and expanded by Ernesto di Mauro, which included a four-armed gallery that intersected in an octagonal cruise covered by a dome.

The demolition of pre-existing buildings (with the exception of the Capone palace) began on 1 May 1887 and on 5 November of the same year the first stone of the building was laid. The gallery, as we have seen, was inaugurated after only 3 years and has given new dignity to those streets and alleys so infamous in the past.