Can any site embody a city, especially one as architecturally rich as Naples? If so, our candidate would be a pair of staircases in the Sanità neighborhood where the work of Rococo virtuoso Ferdinando Sanfelice meets the turbulence of modern life in southern Italy. The Palazzo Sanfelice and Palazzo dello Spagnolo both feature the architect’s distinctive “hawk-wing” form which made him a sensation in an era with more than its share of dramatic buildings. In any other city, these designs would dominate their surroundings – but in Naples, they simply add to the density of the visual landscape.
The palazzos lie a few blocks from one another, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Like most 18th century residences in southern Italy, they have a grand portal on the street leading into a courtyard. The staircases provide exterior access to each floor, now converted into apartments. While both buildings are official monuments, their private ownership means it’s not always clear whether non-residents can climb the stairs. The courtyards, however, are free to visit every day, and make an unforgettable, only-in-Naples experience.
The two palazzos epitomize the often-incongruous juxtapositions created by Sanità’s swings from extravagant prosperity to impoverishment. Originally a burial area during ancient Greek and Roman times, it was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries as a neighborhood for the aristocracy. Sanità means “health” in Italian, a reference to the refuge it promised from the overcrowded city with its recurrent epidemics. Aristocratic families vied for the most flamboyant dwelling, commissioning up-and-coming architects like Sanfelice to create daring new designs.
After Italy’s unification in 1861, Naples lost much of its prominence to the peninsula’s rapidly-industrializing northern areas. The 20th century was not an easy one for the city, with heavy bombing in World War II, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1944, and a major earthquake in 1980. By the end of the century, high unemployment combined with organized crime made the former haven of Sanità notorious for its poor living conditions.
A grassroots movement to revive Sanità began with locals giving tours of the catacombs in the early 2000’s. It’s been so successful that the area has become a ‘hotspot’ for the arts, ranking on TimeOut magazine’s latest list of “the coolest neighborhoods in the world”.
Fernando Sanfelice and the Hawk-Wing Staircase
Born and raised in Naples, Ferdinando Sanfelice became one of the most inventive architects of his era. He specialized in residential architecture at a time when city regulations had just opened up development outside the overcrowded historic center. He also benefitted from his family’s aristocratic connections and the wealth to start with his own home early in his career.
The dynamic V-shaped formation began as a way of addressing a design problem facing architects at the time: providing external access to multiple floors. Previously, upper-class society revolved around urban castles, with public areas on the lower floors and private spaces on top. Eventually these gave way to smaller, more purely residential palaces. Internal stairways now meant that anyone heading for the upper floors would have to pass through (and potentially disturb) other areas.
Adding a structure with stairs outside the main building required finding a way to create openings for light in awkward places, such as between the floors. Sanfelice’s solution turned the diagonal movement into a dramatic asset, making the stairway a spectacle independent of the rest of the palace.
The Palazzo Sanfelice, completed in 1728, established the architect’s reputation. In fact, it created a sensation, earning him more commissions. It was also widely imitated, including at the nearby Palazzo dello Spagnolo, built at the same time. Although Sanfelice’s role there was unofficial, he is widely credited with the general design.
At least one account records horses being trained to carry cavaliers directly up the stairs to their quarters late at night, before descending on their own to the stables. More recently, the stables have given way to parking for cars and motorbikes.
The Palazzos Today
Different levels of maintenance on the two buildings give them a remarkably different feel.
The Palazzo Sanfelice stairwell looms over its courtyard in a stark monochrome palette. The moody colors emphasize the play of light and shadow, bringing Sanfelice’s inventive shapes into relief. We didn’t see anyone watching over the space, but a sign said non-residents shouldn’t climb the stairs.
By contrast, the Palazzo dello Spagnolo sported a relatively fresh coat of paint evoking pistachio ice cream. Climbing to the top, we discovered the residents’ own additions, in the form of plants and a mask of Salvador Dali.
Both palazzos have featured in a number of films. Most recently, John Turturro shot some of Passione in the Spagnolo.
In 2007, the city of Naples announced plans to convert two apartments in the Palazzo dello Spagnolo into a museum dedicated to celebrated comic actor and Sanità native Totò. After years of delays, permitting issues continue to plague the project.
Palazzo Sanfelice: Via Sanità, 2 e 6
Palazzo dello Spagnolo: Via Vergini, 19
For more on Naples, see our guide to the historic architecture and piazzas.