06 Sep 2019

The equestrian statues at Piazza Plebiscito

by Simona Vitagliano

On Piazza Plebiscito and on the equestrian statues that dominate it, everything was really said.

Passing through the history of the statues of the Royal Palace and ending with the legend that a ruthless Queen Margherita would like to enjoy before the spectacle of her prisoners’ unsurpassable proof of crossing blindfold the two works of art mentioned above, of stories, curses and myths that are intertwined with historical events could list many of them. On the other hand, even today, many young people enjoy challenging fate, trying to dispel the myth of the square’s “blind crossing” … often, even after all these centuries, without success.

But what is the story of these two wonders of sculpture?


Those who find themselves passing through the immensity of Piazza Plebiscito, perhaps after having refreshed themselves with a nice coffee-sfogliatella stop on the Gambrinus premises, immediately realize that the large space is, in reality, outlined by the structures of the Church of San Francesco of Paola, of the Royal Palace and of the two identical and symmetrical Palazzi Salerno and of the Prefecture (respectively, arranged towards the sea and towards the hinterland), the second of which houses precisely the entrance of our Gran Caffè inside the facade on piazza Trieste e Trento.

Within this perfect scheme stand the two statues that we have previously introduced depicting Charles III of Bourbon and his son Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, in two figures looking towards the Royal Palace and placed on marble bases.

Art lovers can easily realize, at first glance, that the first work belongs entirely to the expert hands of the sculptor Antonio Canova: the King is shown on a purebred steed, with an open mouth and in a pose that simulates a breath panting and even dilated eyes, as if it were the perfect still image of a stop after a long and exhausting run, while holding the scepter with one hand and holding the horse with the other; it is the representation of the majesty that also passes through some details that remind more of a Roman emperor than an eighteenth-century ruler, such as lilies and draperies.

Just about the identity of this first sculptural element there is a curiosity: the work, in fact, was initially to represent Napoleon Bonaparte, as evidenced by a commission received by Canova himself in 1806 by the King of Naples and brother of the emperor of the French , Giuseppe Bonaparte. When Murat (the following year) arrived on the throne, the clay model of the horse was already ready and, fortunately, the work was reconfirmed (despite its resistance: Canova did not like working on equestrian figures very much) and the model final was concluded in 1810. In 1813 the bronze casting will take place but a pause followed due to the socio-political events of the time. The total fusion will come only in 1816 and, back on the throne Ferdinando IV (like Ferdinando I of the Two Sicilies), it was decided to completely change the subject of the statue, planning also the realization of a second in couple to complete the image father-son .

The great obstacle, however, was represented, in that case, by the death of Canova who could not, therefore, also complete the second commission (his is only the horse), so that the subject was entrusted to his pupil Antonio Calì who, for that impressive work, he also received an award.

The legend

There is another legend, however, that hovers right around these two statues and is worth telling.

It seems, in fact, that in 1860 they ran the serious risk of being destroyed: after the fall of the Bourbons and the arrival of the Garibaldi troops, the people were really intent on overthrowing them; it is said, however, that one of the two was “climbed” by a priest who, on his top, spoke to those present convincing them to desist promising that, in a short time, the heads would be replaced with those of Garibaldi and the new King of ‘Italy.

Obviously, we will never know if all this is reality, but the fact is that the two bronze-marble works have reached us unscathed!