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Palazzo Sanfelice and Palazzo dello Spagnolo: The Architecture of Fernando Sanfelice

Two sides of the same coin

Naples is known as a city of a thousand secrets. It possesses all the necessary requirements to be a part of our Italy Segreta and as such, her stories (Italians refer to their cities as she) warrant sharing all her perfect imperfections.

A proper city with strong visual impact, reveals herself slowly, inviting each spectator to be a part of the show that animates her day in and out. Naples is a city that allows everyone to see her beauty and defects in equal measure. She packs a real emotional punch and there is no way around it.

For me, Naples was a love story right from the start.

Before seeing the city in person, I studied and researched her far and wide; just like when we meet someone new these days and take to social media for a proper background check; you simply must know everything, not wanting to be unprepared.

I pored over movie after movie, book after book, leafing through the great classics to the most banal city guides. Ancient songs with melodies so distant yet modern, inextricably bound to the contemporary sounds of rappers telling intricate stories of the city’s past.

Everything about Naples fascinated me. I couldn’t think about anything but her and how much I wanted to “meet” her.

I remember my first time in Naples like it was yesterday, tattooed on my brain. A direct flight from Stansted to Capodichino, with not a clue as to how the trip would affect me, magic gradually unfolding, completely unaware of what lay ahead and what Naples had in store. An experience so different from reaching the city by train, exiting at Garibaldi station, across its eponymous square with the port behind it in the distance. I remember how moved I was, walking for the first time along Piazza Plebiscito toward Mergellina; Mount Vesuvius peeking out from behind the Royal Palace, looking out to sea like a giant at a window. Bit by bit, the colors, the laundry on the clotheslines, and the distinct aromas emerged: everything exactly as in a photo, but more intense than I ever imagined. Naples is full of contradictions, and sometimes it is best to resolve these with poetry, to accept them without prejudice. I clearly remember the smiles and kindness that easily won me over. Naples is like that, before you realize it she’s cradling you in her arms like a child. 

Amidst its various styles, Naples’ Baroque features have never gone unnoticed during my many walks, doing my best to photograph each detail from all sides. The Baroque design can be specifically observed in the off-beat beauty of the alleys in the Sanità district. Founded in the sixteenth century as an aristocratic neighborhood, today it houses the lower working-class. Along with its long and rich history, this now poor and volatile neighborhood is also a hotbed for art. A few steps from the entrance to the Sanità are the Madre Contemporary art museum, in the center, and the legendary Fontanelle cemetery. It is the home of the ultimate symbol of Neapolitan genius, Totò, while in the church of San Aspreno ai Crociferi you’ll find the studio of Jago, a contemporary marble sculptor.

In the heart of this neighbourhood, among the myriad of churches that reveal themselves to curious eyes, there are two distinct buildings – two sides of the same coin so to speak, like twins separated at birth – designed in the eighteenth century by architect Fernando Sanfelice. Although his name is associated with many other Neapolitan buildings, Palazzo Sanfelice e Palazzo dello Spagnolo were his biggest pride and joy. He was known as somewhat of a character, but well liked by the Neapolitan people. He began his career as an apprentice in Giovanni Solimena’s studio and soon his talent earned him numerous commissions, allowing him to develop his own style. 

Sanfelice carefully planned to build these palaces in the Sanità because the area was considered “healthier” (sanità means health in Italian) than the crowded historic center contaminated by frequent epidemics of plague and cholera. The architect first designed and built his own house with his characteristic open staircase, the background of many films set in the city, such as the famous “The Four Days of Naples” by Nanni Loy. The Palazzo dello Spagnolo, commissioned by the Marquis Nicola Moscati in 1738, recalls a sugary confection: a pastel green hue decorates its stairs and hallways. The double staircase known as “hawk wings”, is emblematic of the Neapolitan Baroque period with its unique and unmistakable design. The palace has an unspoken transcendence, an invitation to immerse oneself in its intricate halls so you may conjure your own story, one that belongs to you only. I always felt as if I were inside a thousand intertwining plots, seeking to know the smallest detail behind each door (alas, not possible). Curiously, the Sanfelice palace is darker and gloomier, but still extremely fascinating in its decadent and decaying beauty.

Like any self-respecting Neapolitan undertaking, the stairways and palaces earned Sanfelice the nickname “Levat’a ‘sott”. Literally, “move from under it”, from the extremely convoluted, unusual and visibly unstable nature of his designs. In fact, the belief had spread among the people that the buildings might collapse at any moment. So, in addition to the common superstition that walking under a staircase brings bad luck, Sanfelice added his buildings to that belief, which fortunately never gave way. Its stairs have survived, as solid and unwavering through the centuries as the story they tell.

Just like Naples, they fascinate and shock. A true love story.