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AROUND NAPOLI
The Royal Poorhouse
by Jeff Matthews
In Buddhist lore, a white elephant is said to have revealed to the mother of the Buddha that she was going to give birth to the Enlightened One. Thus, in many parts of Asia, the albino elephant is sacred. It does not lead the weary life of toil of your average working class pachyderm. On the contrary, the sacred animal must be sheltered, tended, worshipped and, of course, fed. The ancient kings of Siam are said to have ruined enemies--or maybe just taught upstarts a severe lesson--by presenting the gift of just such sacred creatures, gifts that had to be pampered and fed for the next 60 or 70 years. A few Holy Jumbos could eat you out of house and home. In English, then, the term "white elephant" has come to be a metaphor for something that is big, useless and ruinously expensive to maintain.

In Naples, the Whitest Elephant of All is the Albergo dei Poveri, the Royal Poorhouse, the mammoth structure on via Foria, begun in the mid-1700s to care for and educate the indigent of the Kingdom of Naples. Although used partially over the years, the structure was never finished. (There is a separate entry in the encyclopedia on the history of the Albergo dei Poveri that you may read by clicking here.) Major restoration of the Albergo is now underway. The entire faade is being restored and plans have been drawn up for turning the building into something that will finally serve the social needs of the modern city of Naples.

I have often wondered what they could do with it. There are no poorhouses anymore, so that's out. It might serve the ravenous appetite for real estate of the Federico II University of Naples or the Orientale University. Both of those institutions, however, seem to be dedicated either to taking over smaller buildings elsewhere in the city or to building entirely new facilities outside the main part of the city. A hospital? I don't know. In any event, the health care people are directing their energies elsewhere. The focus for new hospitals or expansion of existing ones is likely to be in the upper Vomero section of the city, already known as the "hospital zone".

For many decades, the Albergo has been one very large symbol of what is wrong with that entire part of the city--urban decay barely ameliorated by the great renovations of the Risanamento (urban renewal) before WW1, decay accelerated by WW2 and the earthquake of 1980. The plan now calls for the creation of a "Youth City"; the three large sections of the building will be dedicated, respectively, to Art, Education, and Innovation. (The first two are almost self- explanatory; I'm not sure what the last one means. I hope it's not video games.) The plans also call for restoring much of the original superstructure of the building, such as the pilasters and columns, as well as the original colours of pink and white, thus getting rid of the drab yellow that the building has been saddled with since the late 1800s.

The restoration of the faade is well underway. One faade--even a very large one--doth not a restoration make, however; the building is not only 300 meters long; it is a city block wide with internal courtyards and a long back wall. It is an ambitious undertaking,essentially rebuilding what was originally meant to be a magnificent view as visitors to the city would come down from the Capodimonte hill and pass by this sparkling example of Bourbon largesse and social concern. When the French then ruled Naples for nine years (1806-1815), they built a broad road (present-day name, via Don Bosco) down the hill into the city, planning a Triumphal Arch approximately where Piazza Carlo III is today. Visitors were to pass beneath the arch and have the splendid Albergo dei Poveri on their right. The French left, of course, and the arch was never built. Even without it, a rejuvenated Albergo dei Poveri will still be a cornerstone of sorts--possibly the beginning of a further rejuvenation of that entire section of the city.
3/8/2005