Medieval Naples
An Architectural
& Urban History

by Caroline Bruzelius
& William Tronzo

The Medieval Review

The Burlington Magazine


Medioevo Latino

The Medieval Review, February 6, 2012

This small and short book (only 112 pages of text) addresses a vast scope, that of the history of the urban landscape of Naples between Late Antiquity and the end of Angevin rule. It includes seventy-nine black and white pictures in the text, a few of them full-page. Chapter 1, “Naples in the Early Middle Ages” (forty-six pages), is written by William Tronzo and Chapter 2, “Naples in the High and Late Middle Ages” (sixty-four pages), written by Caroline Bruzelius, reuses much of the material already published in her larger book, The Stones of Naples: Church Building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343 (New Haven and London, 2004).

In a clear and easily readable overview, the authors point out some distinctive features of the city:

First, the strong and extremely long survival of the Greek street-grid, still perfectly visible today in the city centre. Three main East-West plateiai or decumani divide the city in four wide stripes, each one of which is in turn divided by twenty North-South stenopoi or cardines, the medieval (and today typically Neapolitan) vici. This very restrictive grid explains why the main city-centre churches are set along a North-South axis, as opposed to those built extra muros (near the harbour in particular), where the grid is looser, less restrictive, and building sites cheaper, and to the great thirteenth-century rebuildings of San Lorenzo and the cathedral, both set along a more traditional East-West axis.

The almost complete loss of the Early Medieval material. Late Antiquity (5th-6th centuries) and the Angevin Period (1266-1442) are admittedly times of exceptional building activity, but we know of dozens of early medieval monasteries, of which nothing remains.

Because of the number of surviving monuments, the book focuses mainly on the renewal in urban design under Angevin rule. The 13th- and 14th-century churches display a mixing of regional and foreign styles, because of a combination of influences: a series of foreign (Norman, Staufen and Angevine) rulers, numerous and affluent merchants, and the Mendicant Orders. These various architectural and artistic traditions and influences meet the strong classical culture of Campanian elites, a culture not limited to Frederick II and his court. From the 1270s onwards, Naples takes over from Palermo as the political and economic core of the Angevin kingdom (Sicily being lost from 1282 anyway). The two main buildings soon follow: the Castel Nuovo, from 1279, the building of which shifts the city's centre of gravity towards the sea, and, to mark the restoration of the monarchy's legitimacy and prestige after king Charles II's return from captivity in Aragon, the new cathedral (1294-1313).

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Caroline Bruzelius points out the specific style of the Neapolitan Mendicant churches from the 1280s: a single, column-less nave, flanked by two rows of side chapels, some of them funeral chapels of main donor families; an architectural choice partly due to specific Mendicant economics, in which donations are the main source of wealth. This architectural model is, then, used for both San Lorenzo Maggiore and the cathedral. The authors lessen the previously oft-mentioned French influence on these late 13th- and 14th-century churches: some of the choices are due to Tuscan artists, or to the Late Antique models dear to Mendicant commissioners; reference to Late Antique Roman models is especially clear in the cathedral, which evokes Christian origins in order to convey a message of authority and legitimacy; on this latter topic, C. Bruzelius agrees with what Vinni Lucherini points out in her 2009 book about the cathedral (on which more below). All in all, the Angevin rulers' commissions result in a very conservative art, the key clue of which lies in legitimacy and continuity, in the face of Aragonese and Hungarian threats; only after the Aragonese accession does Renaissance art really flourish in Naples.

As a matter of fact, however, this book does fall short of its explicit scope. Most probably because of the limited volume, the authors do not really outline a global urban history across a millennium. After a general overview of the Greek street grid and its exceptionally long continuity, the study really focuses on some monuments, the main number of which being Angevin, as shown above.

Two Late Antique/Early Medieval monuments are really addressed at length here: first, the catacombs of San Gennaro (12-23), the originalities of which are however clearly pointed out: “is our modern designation, ‘catacomb,’ sufficient or even correct? (...) Perhaps it would be better to think about the catacomb of San Gennaro, therefore, more along the lines of (...) a virtual laboratory of ecclesiastical experiment, that was exploited in different ways at different times throughout the Middle Ages by the Neapolitan church” (21). Pages 32-41 are then dedicated to a very interesting intepretation of the iconographic cycle of the 4th-century baptistery, San Giovanni in Fonte, next to the cathedral. The authors make absolutely no use of the hundreds of known charters from the ducal period (10th to 12th centuries) which mention houses, courts, gardens, churches, squares by the dozen. [For these and issues below, see Ronald G. Musto, ed., Medieval Naples: A Documentary History, 400–1400: Historical Texts, Introduction.] An outline of the city landscape could at least have been attempted. It is all the more suprising, since the authors quote Bartolommeo Capasso’s Topografia della città di Napoli nell’XI secolo (Naples, 1895) and its 2005 reprint in bibliography: Capasso's lengthy description could have been mentioned and discussed, e.g., using the archaeological data gathered and interpreted in Paul Arthur’s Naples: From Roman Town to City-State. An Archaeological Perspective (London, 2002). In a similar way, the pages about the cathedral avoid the issue of the so-called Early Medieval “double cathedral,” an 18th-century fiction convincingly dispelled by Vinni Lucherini's La cattedrale di Napoli: Storia, architettura e storiografia di un monumento medievale (Rome, 2009), quoted in the bibliography but not explicitly used: Vinni Lucherini's position should have been either clearly accepted, or discussed.

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These shortcomings are all the more surprising since this book is part of a large-scale multimedia project about Naples, titled A Documentary History of Naples, which can be accessed at This project aims at providing textual and picture material about the city in the Middle Ages and later. Three companion volumes to the one reviewed here (Medieval Naples: A Documentary History, 400–1400: Historical Texts, edited by Ronald G. Musto; Baroque Naples: A Documentary History, 1600-1800, edited by Jeanne Chenault Porter and Modern Naples: A Documentary History, 1799-1999 by John Santore) are currently available…. On the website is also available an interactive map which enables one to locate the main historical buildings of the city, to access individual descriptions and parallels to the 1465-1478 painting, now at Museo San Martino in Naples, known as the Tavola Strozzi, a very precise panoramic view of the city from the sea. A gallery of a few hundred photographs can also be accessed through the website, filed by monument.

All in all, this book is part of a genuinely interesting and useful multimedia project, combining book and online resources, which will provide strong and precise historical information about one of the main cities of the medieval Mediterranean, its cityscape, architecture and art, to students in History and Art History in particular, even though it will not teach anything new to the specialist. But a genuine story of the city as a whole is not really undertaken here; for the time being, the content of this book could be supplemented by Amedeo Feniello’s Napoli: Società ed economia (932-1137) (Rome, 2011), and probably the authors will be able to enlarge the material available online over the course of time.

Thomas Granier
Université Montpellier-III

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The Burlington Magazine 154 (Nov. 2012): 804

This book is one in an ambitious series of publications aimed to raise the profile of the history of Naples for English-language readers. The series combines both printed material and substantial online material, as well as an interactive map and image galleries. The art and architecture of Naples, as Ronald Musto rightly points out in his preface, has not been well served in the English-speaking world, something that is only too clear when perusing the bibliography. This, in itself, presents the authors of the present volume with a challenge: to set out their material in a way that will provide an accessible introduction to the subject while acknowledging its complexities. Since the two authors cover a millennium between them, this is no small feat. It is a testament to the skills of Caroline Bruzelius and William Tronzo, acquired over decades of research in this area, that they succeed in their endeavour.

The book is divided into two chapters: the first, by Tronzo, covers the period up to the end of the Duchy of Naples in 1139; the second, by Bruzelius, takes the reader to the end of the Angevin period in the mid-fifteenth century. Naples is a palimpsest, whose architecture both reveals and conceals its history. Many of the major monuments are the result of additions, rebuilding and alterations over the course of centuries, sometimes with corresponding changes in use. Baroque churches started life as Gothic, Gothic started life as early Christian, nothing is as it seems. After a very brief overview of the main historical events in Neapolitan history before the Norman conquest, Tronzo demonstrates the importance of the Greco-Roman city grid for its subsequent architectural development and then goes on to cover religious and domestic architecture in antiquity, the catacombs, the early history of the cathedral complex and the development of the medieval city. The pace is fast, and includes discussion of the mosaics in the catacombs and the fifth-century baptistery, S. Giovanni in Fonte, but it never seems breathless. Bruzelius gives an impeccably clear and concise overview of the changes in the city’s topography, the religious foundations, the (frustratingly) few remains of secular palaces and administrative buildings and discusses the most important tomb monuments and the artists drawn to work in Angevin Naples. The clarity of her prose makes this section a pleasure to read.

The illustrations are numerous, but sometimes too small to be of real use, especially to a reader new to the subject. However, the online image galleries provide access to over 450 colour photographs (although, in a perfect world, it would have been possible to view these in a larger format). To have images separated from the book might seem to be a drawback but in fact it is an advantage, allowing the reader to appreciate and study the fabric of the city through a prolonged visual meditation on its monuments.

Cordelia Warr
University of Manchester

Speculum 88.1 (January 2013): 265-66

Naples, the most important city and port of southern Italy and once a capital, has often played a major part in the history of the Mediterranean. Its status, wealth, and power, as well as its changing vicissitudes, have molded its form through time. Yet beneath the changing exterior is a solid skeletal framework imposed by the original Greek foundation of the fifth century BCE. Indeed, its Hippodamean plan of streets and urban blocks condition the city to this day, and in various cases — usually at cellar level — post-medieval walls may be seen to stand on Roman ones. The purpose of this book by Caroline Bruzelius and William Tronzo is to analyze the city’s form, through the changing architecture and urban transformation, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Middle Ages. Intended primarily as a handbook for students, it is also a synthesis of a very substantial topic, made all the larger through evidence made available following urban renewal and excavation that has taken place since the earthquake of November 23, 1980, and the construction of a new underground rail line of the Metropolitana. Any study of Naples can thus now take advantage of an impressive quantity of fresh and exciting archaeological, architectural, and urban data, which the Italian authorities are gradually publishing.

The book is divided into two main sections: Tronzo’s on “Naples in the Early Middle Ages” and Bruzelius’s on “Naples in the High and Late Middle Ages,” with the threshold between the two being the Norman conquest of 1139 under King Roger II.

Following an introductory setting illustrating the city’s historical background, its defenses and road network, Tronzo presents a series of monuments. The greatest space is given to the catacombs (twelve pages), followed by a discussion of the primitive cathedral complex, in which Tronzo voices the opinion that it was not an original Constantinian foundation (25). Other buildings, of which traces remain, are often given only a passing mention. It is true that little survives from Byzantine or Ducal times, but the surprisingly well-preserved baths at Santa Chiara should have been illustrated (they do not even figure on the interactive project map), along with the cross-in-square church of San Costanzo on Capri, an island integral to Naples and its outer defenses. It is a further pity that the book does not take into account the study by Ida Baldassare and others on the recovery of the Roman theater that, together with the theatrum tectum, was gradually divided into private spaces (Il Teatro di Neapolis, scavo e recupero urbano, 2010).

Bruzelius presents the principal surviving monumental architecture of later medieval times. We may remember that the city gained increasing importance after it was conquered by the Normans, although it only became the true capital city of southern Italy under the Angevins. This largely explains why there was an increase in medieval building in the thirteenth century (the only surviving Norman-period church is the Hospitaller foundation of San Giovanni a Mare). Bruzelius includes in her analysis of the urban fabric such churches as Santa Chiara, Sant’ Eligio (a very French church), Santa Maria la Nova, San Lorenzo Maggiore, San Domenico Maggiore, Santa Maria Donnaregina, and the cathedral, often illustrated with plans and photographs. A plan of the Maschio Angioino castle would also have been welcome, as there is little on secular architecture. Archaeological excavations in the castle have also provided details on the palatine chapel and related medieval cemetery, with one person having been buried with his splendid spurs. The notes on the surviving Palazzo Penna and the palace of the Prince of Taranto could also have been supplemented with information on the remains of the wealthy Angevin palazzi with frescoes revealed by excavations between the castle and the church of the Incoronata.

The book is at times acritical. For instance, the implausible “mud-slide,” cited as a natural disaster by Bruzelius (50), but for which there is no available evidence, is based on one Italian archaeologist’s pure speculation.

Though professing to be an urban history, it is clearly slanted towards the monumental and art historical, rather leaving aside discussion of urban sanitation and lower-class housing that probably went towards creating a noisy, smelly, and somewhat unhealthy atmosphere. Other topics that may profitably have been considered include the natural environment and its effects on urban development; water supply, with its cisterns, wells and ancient aqueducts; quarrying; cultivation within the walls; traffic; burials and cemeteries; and so forth, for which abundant documentary evidence has been made available, particularly in the monumental editions by Bartolomeo Capasso. Indeed, the book suffers somewhat perhaps because it needs to embrace too much in restricted space, some one thousand years of architectural and urban history in around one hundred and forty pages. This is accrued by the attention accorded to some monuments, while others are barely discussed. That said, it is right to remember that the volume is only a part of a more substantial and ongoing project that includes other books and Web resources, the latter presented on pp. 124–25 and illustrated in the preface by Ronald Musto.

The bibliography, aimed at students, is purposefully selective. Though some recent works have appeared too late for inclusion, some scholars are nonetheless notable by their absence. These include Eliodoro Savino, who has written on late antique history of Campania and Naples, and Carlo Ebanista, who has enlightened us especially on early Church history, church buildings, and the catacombs.

Few spelling errors occur, although I would note the incorrect use of the word tufa, the local volcanic stone, which in English is called tuff.

Even if there is not much in the way of new material, the volume stands as a handy and well-written guide for anyone wanting a summary of Naples’s urban and architectural development from the end of antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. For this, I recommend it.

Paul Arthur, University of Salento

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Medioevo Latino 24 (2014)

Il volume ripercorre i passaggi principali della storia urbanistica e architettonica di Napoli durante i secoli della tarda antichità e del medioevo. La «griglia» della città greca vincola lo sviluppo successivo: tuttavia, dopo le importanti edificazioni di IV-V secolo (catacombe di S. Gennaro, utilizzate fino alla piena età moderna; prima basilica di S. Restituta o Stefania, che l’A., diversamente dal Liber pontificalis, non ritiene di fondazione costantiniana; battistero di S. Giovanni in Fonte), è difficile individuare «segni» urbani della città altomedievale, con le eccezioni delle chiese di S. Lorenzo Maggiore, S. Paolo Maggiore e S. Maria Maggiore.

Allo stesso modo sono rare le immagini che riproducano l’aspetto della città nei secoli di mezzo: due di queste sono la miniatura raffigurante l’assedio di Napoli nel Liber ad honorem Augusti di Pietro da Eboli (Bern, Burgerbibl., 120 II) e la Tavola Strozzi (XV secolo). Dal XIII secolo si assiste a un’espansione della cerchia muraria, con l’inclusione di aree poste a Sud (piazza Mercato), e allo stabilirsi degli ordini mendicanti dei francescani e dei domenicani, accolti anche per bilanciare il peso del polo laico rappresentato dall’università federiciana (1224).

Dopo la guerra del Vespro e la perdita della Sicilia, Napoli accentua le proprie caratteristiche di capitale, specialmente grazie all’impegno edilizio di Carlo II d’Angiò, del successore Roberto e della moglie Sancha d’Aragona: tra la fine del XIII secolo e la metà del XIV sorgono il Castel Nuovo, il doppio monastero di Santa Chiara (ai cui affreschi lavora Giotto), la certosa di San Martino. La ricca analisi storicoartistica permette di affermare che la produzione artistica di età angioina a Napoli si caratterizza per un aspetto conservativo, espressione della volontà di restituire un’immagine di continuità e saldezza contro le pressioni politiche e militari esterne. Solo con la conquista aragonese, alla metà del XV secolo, il Rinascimento contribuirà a definire il distacco ideologico dall’età precedente. Il volume comprende anche importanti risorse on-line che ne ampliano e completano il contenuto: una mappa della città con le localizzazioni delle emergenze architettoniche e una ricca galleria di immagini.

Giulio Auciello

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