Gems in the heart of Naples

The semicircle of the Piazza del Plebiscito and the Teatro di San Carlo are worthy of inclusion on any itinerary to the city

One of the largest open piazzas in the whole of Europe, the Piazza del Plebiscito was laid out in a semi-circular fashion, meaning that it can only be described as a square in the loosest sense of the word. The semi-circle formed by the square’s façades boasts an attractive, curving pair of colonnades which were fashioned in the nineteenth century. The square also contains the magnificent neo-classical church of San Francesco di Paola, modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. At the other end of it is the Royal Palace, home to the Kings of Naples. For over a hundred years, the niches of the palace’s façade have housed statues of the first king of any of Naples’ dynasties. However, the twin equestrian statues that stand in front of the church are probably the most noteworthy. One was sculpted by Canova and is his representation of Ferdinand I of Bourbon. The other horse bears Charles III.

Palazzo Reale

The Royal Palace, or Palazzo Reale, which now hosts the Royal Museum and the Neapolitan National Library, was constructed in 1600 and has been remodelled several times since. Nonetheless, the wonderful palatial façade retains much of its original appearance, as envisaged by its designer – the architect Domenico Fontana. A grand staircase (Scalone d’onore) leads to the apartments of the royal palace and its elegantly decorated chapel. The stairway has sumptuous twin ramps and is crowned by a coffered dome. The richly ornamented rooms of the palace, which was only used by Neapolitan royalty from the first half of the eighteenth century, have retained much of their period furnishings along with fine works of art, including tapestries and paintings. A rarely opened roof garden which overlooks the Piazza del Plebiscito can be accessed from the palace and is well worth a visit, if you can time your visit to coincide well. Look for opening times for the Giardino Romantico ahead of your visit to avoid disappointment.

Religious Architecture

Whilst exploring the many fine buildings surrounding the Piazza del Plebiscito, you should not miss out on the church’s architectural delights. Properly named the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola, this 19th-century-church has a so-called cupola ceiling. The central dome is 53 metres high and there are two further examples of a smaller, but no less impressive, size to each side of it. Inside, the church is decorated with marble floors, often sporting geometrical designs. There are also paintings by Pietro Benvenuti, Tommaso De Vivo and Luca Giordano. Art lovers should also make time to visit the shopping gallery Galleria Umberto I, a remarkable cathedral-like building with a semi-glazed roof, which is only a few steps away from the main square.

The San Carlo Theater

Located next to the piazza is one of the real delights of Southern Italy, the Teatro di San Carlo. The oldest (built in 1737), and many consider to be the most evocative, opera house in the country, the Teatro di San Carlo is really the ultimate symbol of Naples. Charles III fostered the idea of a theatre and construction took just eight months, according to official records. When originally built, the theatre housed 184 boxes set in no less than six tiers – plus a royal box for ten occupants. With its other seating, this meant it could house well over 3,000 people in the auditorium. However, in 1816, the theatre’s interior was destroyed by fire and only the exterior remained intact. Despite this, the stage and seating were soon replaced under a restoration project run by Antonio Niccolini. For visitors who do not fancy sitting through a production in the evening, some of which can last for three or more hours, then a daytime tour is highly recommended and a great way to see the theatre if you are not blessed with plenty of time during your stay. Put together, the Piazza del Plebiscito and Teatro di San Carlo are two sites not to be missed.