by Simona Vitagliano
When we talk about traditions, we Neapolitans are really very habitual: there are customs, places and entire bodies that continue to live in our memory even when they clash – losing – against modernity.
An example is the Banco di Napoli, just recently absorbed by the Intesa Sanpaolo Group and disappeared as a separate entity: it is the oldest bank in the world in continuous activity (until 2018) and a real inspiring icon for everything it would have happened in the banking world after its foundation, which took place, according to many scholars, in 1463. A natural consequence of the so-called public benches of the pious places that arose in Naples between the 16th and the 17th century, tied together with the Banco della Pietà, which however, it was founded only in 1539.
In short, a true institution that has traveled along with the Neapolitan city its history and its evolutions and that it is really difficult to “let go”, for the Neapolitans, who consider it a further testimony of the greatness and avant-garde that has always marked their city.
Similarly, the link with the premises of the Gran Caffè Gambrinus is also two-fold: no one would think – and, perhaps, someone prefers to forget – that for a brief period, during the fascist era, they were closed and in a state of total abandonment. And few know that, in reality, those same environments have hosted a branch of the Banco di Napoli!
But let’s go with order.
It was 1860 when, on the ground floor of the Foresteria building, the elegant building of 1816 which today houses the headquarters of the Prefecture, the “Gran Caffè” was opened; everything was born, therefore, together with the Unification of Italy. The central position and the exclusivity of its proposal quickly made the place a good living room of Naples, earning an excellent reputation thanks to the presence of the best pastry chefs, ice cream makers and bartenders from all over Europe; in a flash, even the royal family fell in love with that reality, officially declaring the Gran Caffè “Real House Provider”.
The first threat of closure came very early, in 1885, but on that occasion the misfortune took a back seat, giving space to an era made up of elite tourism and magnificence: it was precisely in those years that, thanks to a job started by the will of Mariano Vacca, a well-known visitor to artists and actors, the rooms of the Foresteria were affected by a restructuring that, with the work of forty between artisans and artists, made them precious chests of works of art, marbles, stuccoes, tapestries , bas-reliefs and decorations. The Gran Caffè had become, in short, a veritable art gallery and was renamed as “Gambrinus”, in the name of the legendary king of Flanders, the inventor of beer.
An appellative that enveloped and mixed multiple cultures, making them convey to that one place where artists and intellectuals from all over the world stopped at least once in their lives to be inspired and sip a good coffee: beer was thus combined – cold and clear -, typical of Northern Europe, with coffee – dark and boiling – from the South, making contrasts a strength in a way that only happens in Naples.
Among meetings of travelers, politicians, nobles and artists, we arrived at the Belle Epoqué and names of illustrious visitors such as Sissi, the unforgettable Empress of Austria, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Matilde Serao, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre ; and, with regard to France, the nineteenth century was the moment of the Cafè Chantant, inspired precisely by trends across the border, and the birth of the figure of the “sciantosa” (from the French word chanteuse, “singer”), arriving at that fateful 1938, when the prefect Martial ordered the closure because the Gambrinus was considered an anti-fascist place; it was on that occasion that the premises were sold (but only in part) to the Banco di Napoli and the years of parties, living rooms and important appointments remained nothing but the memory.
This went on for years until, at the beginning of the 70s, Michele Sergio began the battle that would have led him to reconquer those premises and give them back to the community, reopening the exercise: the Gran Caffè Gambrinus was recovered thanks to a meticulous work by restoration and reported, in a very short time, to its ancient splendor. The management was subsequently carried out by the children of the Neapolitan entrepreneur who, after a dispute with the Banco di Napoli, managed to recover even the rooms occupied by the bank (those that overlook piazza Trieste e Trento and piazza del Plebiscito).
Today the historic café is, for all of us, still the beating heart and elegant living room of the city.