The Umberto I Gallery in Naples: renewal and café-chantant
The Umberto I Gallery in Naples was built between 1887 and 1890, and now represents one of the most famous outcomes of the so-called Risanamento – the great urban planning operation that radically changed the city at the end of the 19th century, with new squares, streets and buildings replacing pre-existing ones.
The new plan was officially motivated by an outburst of cholera in 1884, when city leaders believed the epidemic was due to the urban decay widespread in the tangled alleys of historical districts such as Chiaia, Pendino, Vicaria, Mercato and Porto. It attracted praise as well as critiques: author Matilde Serao, for example, was convinced it was not truly renovating the city, but rather hiding the problems in Naples.
“Thus, unfortunately, all great men’s great ideas, all grand projects funded by millions, all colossal endeavors that meant to contribute to the hygienic and moral renovation of Naples – we must say – failed. Is there no remedy? Is there nothing we can do? Nothing, in the face of such misery, such disasters, such social danger? Who knows! We’ll see!” (translated from M. Serao, “Il ventre di Napoli”).
The Umberto I Gallery is shaped like a cross with orthogonal, almost equal arms; its central octagon is protected by an iron-and-glass dome that is almost sixty meters high, designed by Paolo Boubée. As architecture historian Cesare De Seta noted, it immediately became “the best place for journalists and writers to meet, as well as a prime location for businesses, theaters, café-chantant, and nightclubs”. It spurred the literary creativity of many Italian and foreign artists: Raffaele Viviani, for example, dedicated part of his 1930 “La Bohème dei comici” to this special corner of Naples. The play begins:
“It’s two in the afternoon. The Umberto I Gallery is crowded with people. They walk together, dressed in rather fine summer day clothes. They speak softly and at the same time create the typical hum that you notice as it heats up, perhaps because of discussions over theater and artists. All of this will be obtained in diligent, human measure, so the picture comes alive to the viewer’s careful eye. Some people walk across and along the Gallery, some stop at the intersection and form small groups, the rest according to directions. The Caffè Romano has tables outside.”
Let’s explore this beautiful picture.