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Palazzo Sanfelice

Monday 28th September, 2015

When you hear the word “rococo” what immediately comes to mind? Maybe an ancien régime interior or one of its typical features, like an extravagant Sevres vase or a gallant scene by Boucher. Perhaps a gilded arabesque. Most know it as a decorative style: feminine, frilly and French.

Located in the heart of one of Napoli’s most magical districts, Rione Sanità, the building known as the Palazzo Sanfelice falls outside what is commonly classed as rococo. Yet among historians the term is often used to demarcate all late baroque art, and indeed in Napoli the Palazzo stands as a quintessentially Southern example of architettura rococò. From both inside and outside the space feels like an Escher lithograph brought to life on an imposing scale in dark grey marble and piperno rock. Needless to say it is several worlds away—aesthetic, geographical, temporal, social—from the rose tinted lips of the Marquise de Pompadour. 

The building was designed by Ferdinando Sanfelice, a leading architect in early eighteenth century Napoli. Rather than commissioned to house a specific patron it was here that the architect lived with his own family. The main feature of the building—its roughly symmetrical courtyard staircases punctured by arches—are reproduced in a more refined style in another, better preserved building nearby known as the Palazzo dello Spagnolo. Created several years earlier the Palazzo Sanfelice gave the architect an opportunity to test out this striking design and even live amidst it.  

Once inside the Palazzo one gets a view of the abandoned tropical garden that lies behind it, formerly part of a park. 

Flanking the street entrance are two mermaids representing the Sanfelice family. Pathos lies in the way their swelled abdomens and gently waving fish tales collide with their deteriorated condition. 

On many an evening walk through the Sanità I found myself at the Palazzo. The ease with which one can enter into the building and travers its vaulted staircase will be alarming to anyone accusomed to the privatisation of space that characterises most major European cities. It was within this building that Walter Benjamin's conception of Napoli as a "porous" city came alive for me. Benjamin wrote of Napoli's singular commingling of interior and exterior, street and hearth, public and private. In the centro storico the passions and pains of everyday life spill out from each of its many corners, spreading with liquid force onto its seemingly endless succession of communal areas. Still, after the century that has elapsed since Benjamin wandered through the quariteri, “each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life”. Indeed the building itself is quite literally porous; heavy, supernatural air heaves through its unique structure.

Grazie a Paola, la ragazza gentillisima di dodice ani che ci ha mostrato l’edificio quella domenica