Naples and San Carminiello ai Mannesi: Constant Variable
permanence is in changes
This article originated as an exploration between the ephemeral and eternal, the discovery of architecture as a display of permanence with reflections of change, and made me contemplate about sources of inspiration it had. It was, of course, about the Alps last February, right after the start of the war in Ukraine, that seemed the traitors in their unchangingness in that shaken by the events Europe, and the ancient architecture Italy had to offer. It made me think, that, no matter the events, wars, pandemics and calamities – architecture and nature remain and observe the world, making us at times negligible as individuals, sand particles next to the ocean of time.

A building is, especially when it comes to ancient Roman architecture, indifferent to the changes, unless directly affected by those. Still, it embraces the change in its permanence, encompasses history in all its vectors, to eventually tell a story that says: hey, I am a constant variable – I shall remain unless the world around me touches my walls; however, I reflect the changes, and show the nature of the times I was built in. Buildings keep the bullets in their walls or the remnants of bomb attacks, they stay for as long as they can persist – unless, as today happening in Ukraine, directly destroyed by missiles. While, indeed, the architecture possesses both permanence and transience, it was not the only inspiration for the article – seeing the Alps and being impressed by their silence. Besides, it was Naples that once again convinced me – in a world that is continuously changing, everything is a variable, and Naples, as a bright example of chaos and movement, is full of those. Nevertheless, as soon as you get into one of the Neapolitan courtyards you might discover its ancient specialties, such as the described later San Carminiello ai Mannesi, or, perhaps, famous Neapolitan staircases, as shown by the example of San Felice Palace. It shows that, once again, while we are, both small and large scale, constantly facing (at times heartbreaking) changes, the permanence is there, in architecture, as we are still following Vitruvius's rules when taking design decisions. Therefore, both architecture as a matter, and in this specific case the story of Naples as a whole, are constant variables, saying: the most constant thing in the world is change (and nature with architecture, of course).

When visiting Italy as an architecture student, be prepared to have your heart stolen by Roman ruins. Naples caught me in its net in various ways: architecture and chaos, voices and motorcycles, its narrow streets and wide gestures. I felt dissolving in this urban entanglement, being surprised by the flow and trusting its lively nature.
Now, reminiscing one year later on the chaotic essence of Naples, there are a few things that emerge in my mind. Those are, of course, the monumental staircases of various Neapolitan Palaces, beautiful window shutters, or the sea with the three of us getting into Castel dell-Ovo along the seaside by talking to the guard who allowed to get in with no ticket (hello, covid regulations). Naples is full of colors – both figuratively and literally, and both of these are keeping you awake to enjoy the city while still having your wallet. I dissolved in Naples and it seemed to me as if I belonged to the place; I only noticed that cars-motorcycles-people were all together in one narrow road when my mom pointed that out to me; I had not realized before how unnatural the trait was for a city to have.
Another emerging memory is the walk with Eliana and Fabrizio – two young architects and native Neapolitans who took me on an amazing architecture tour, passionately telling me about streets, building corners, materials, and history – and I could have not wished for a better tour guide than they were. It is a memory of me with the sketchbook writing down the quotes from them that the main question of current architecture is 'where to put an elevator?' or that the famous staircases of Naples are called ali di falco – the hawk wings – in some of the most famous Neapolitan palaces. One of them is Palazzo Sanfelice that Eliana and Fabrizio showed me, and I would love to stop a bit more, by quoting here a part of my small research on the topic earlier this year.
Palazzo Sanfelice is a historic building in the city of Naples built by the architect Ferdinando Sanfelice between 1724 and 1728. Sanfelice played a major role in developing the famous monumental Napolitan staircase which is commonly known as the falcon wings (it. Ali di falco). As his activity has been mainly carried out in Naples, it is the place of his most famous projects such as Palazzo dello Spagnolo and Palazzo Sanfelice. Exemplifying the Neapolitan Baroque style, the staircase serves not only as the main vertical circulation node but the access point to different rooms, as visible on the floorplans. Representing one of the traditional palaces with Napolitan courtyards, many of those have been reorganized into residential buildings. Palazzo Sanfelice was initially designed as the home for the architect's family – Ferdinando Sanfelice, in an area outside the city walls. Today the location is still a dense urban area with one of the traditional narrow and chaotic Naples streets: Via Sanita, and is considered a monument which, however, requires restoration.

Entrance from a busy street is arranged through a distinctive for Naples gates: a massive wooden gate with a smaller 1.8-meter door located within, which allows people to open it separately with less effort. It becomes a first step for accessibility, where from a public street the semi-public courtyard is accessed through the tunnel. Today in the tunnel a small cabin presumably for security is located. It could also become a point of mail delivery, whereas anything else could be brought straight to the doors. The courtyard is used for unintended parking, resembling the chaotic driving and parking culture of Naples. The characteristic of such a palace's courtyard creates and ensemble with the grandiose staircase that in the meantime becomes another threshold between the semi-public courtyard and semi-private staircase even without obvious physical barriers. Therefore, the rooms can be accessed from the outside, where the entrance door becomes a threshold between the exterior and interior with the corresponding thermal skin. The main material is a typical material for Naples architecture, too – piperno. Piperno is a magmatic rock present due to volcanic activity; especially common in the area of Campania in Italy because of Vesuvius.
This small extract from my research about entrances made me once again review the Naples memories I had, and, with a fresh mind, see: I absolutely loved the place. It is the city where I would love to come back to, would love to explore it in all its details and meet people. I would love to learn to ride a motorbike and wear a leather jacket to blend in, I would probably become a football fan that is, quote in quote, a religion in Naples; or would I occasionally stop for getting a Neapolitan pizza and, perhaps, an espresso in a hot mug at a bar.
Coming back to architecture and its relation to permanence, the role of history in architecture cannot be overestimated. Through various excavations aligned with books and ancient drawings, we can trace back its consistency, define typologies and establish values. It allows us to formulate conclusions through new discoveries, and to base ourselves on what is already long-term approved and tested. We distinguish and notice the consistency of architecture, long time ago discovered rules and fundamental principles still held to be true.
Again, the architecture of Naples has its gems, both modern and, of course, ancient. On the topic of modern developments, you can read about the disagreements that come in regards to the Piazza Municipio project by two Pritzker Prize winners – Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, that is in the city of Naples. Short but sweet, while the project takes into account all the cultural specialties of the region and history, it does not offer greenery, which became a point of heated discussions for its residents. This way, the project conceived by two of the most influential architects of the time, still raises questions for the people living in the region. It is surely worth the attention to look into it a bit more.

In the meantime, the remnants of Ancient Roman Architecture can be found in various hidden spots. San Carminiello ai Mannesi excavations, discovered in one of the central Neapolitan courtyards, illustrated the consistency of architecture.
Archeological complex San Carminiello ai Mannesi is situated in the ancient historical center of Naples from Roman times, being accessible from Via Duomo – one of the main streets of the city. Visible ruins cover the area of 700 m2, while the remnants are, presumably, kept under existing buildings. The site was one of the first areas to be excavated in order to preserve the historical value of Naples. Discovered by accident during the bombing of 1943, which destroyed the church Santa Maria del Carmine ai Mannesi from the sixteenth century, the large Roman thermal complex is a powerful example dated back to the 1 century, previously concealed beneath the bottom part of the church. The block represents the original Greek urban system and demonstrates the average size of the urban tissue of Naples: approximately 35x180 m, keeping the traditional width-to-depth ratio of 1:5.
The building had to be 27 degrees rotated based on the positioning of the sun in order to get as much sun benefit as possible. This was a common technique back in the day, which can be observed via other examples of the time. More conclusions about its function are drawn based on the geometry: curvilinear forms are typical for such complexes. The entire site visible in nowadays ruins demonstrates the result of careful planning and architectural sophistication. While historically it has been through major changes, originating as a thermal complex which was later replaced by the church, now we see it as the exhibition site, which still tells a story of the ancient architecture and life of Romans. Many things remained: the modern orthogonal street structure comes from Greek architecture, structural elements, and the cladding stayed consistent to a certain degree. Even an old arch, which resisted not only the two thousand years' time but wars, bombings, and the strongest Neapolitan earthquakes, persisted and still stands, embracing the change within.

The change was striking – from the place of worship to the fort of Camorra, from sacred to cursed, from ancient Roman architecture to the plain concrete wall. With the church built on top of the thermae, the complex was later forgotten, being rediscovered by bombing. Destruction, which violently imposed the change, led to the unveiling of eternal architecture. After being found, a couple of decades of ignorance later it was taken over by the Neapolitan Mafia, who built a concrete wall around it to confine the limits of their illegal activities and make them invisible. The so-called 'wall of decay' is still there; however, today the site is at the center of many projects, being the subject of discussions of who and how should manage it.

The function and attitude vary over time in San Carminiello ai Manessi, where the physical, material structure remains constant– even the vault arch is still there. This is where architecture becomes a constant variable, achieving its perplexity.
We aim to get in-depth comprehension; we strive to design valuable buildings which would make good architecture. Nevertheless, we can only attain it when keeping in mind all the timeless examples, studying Egypt and Ancient Rome, thumbing through thousands of floorplans and sections, and digging into the countless colonnades. Restoring the treasures, or their less successful brothers, reading between the lines of architectural remnants, helps us redefine its order into more advanced principles with the same time-approved foundation. Our case studies still comply with the rules of Vitruvius, obeying the order; the influence of a specific building can only be seen after at least half of the century, and architects educate themselves slowly, only with gradual changes. However, architecture, the same as the world, is never the same, and there might not be a timeless approach, therefore forcing us to stay open and flexible, questioning the design decisions we make day by day.

Being surrounded by the ruins which managed to withstand the life clashing into it, forcibly implementing the change without giving it a choice – it is still here, it is constant; as well as the arch, which, despite all the bombings, the earthquakes, and Camorra inhabitants, still serves its function. In the meantime, within the core of this continuity and apparent stability, there is always a flow of events, a variable, which affects the way we see those ruins. This powerful mixture of functional fluidity is incorporated into the framework of the constructional unchangingness. While the walls, even though ruined, still tell a story of a thermal complex once existed, which is illustrated through the floorplans and the walls, and the arch is still there to give the past its credits, we see it in a trivial residential courtyard with panel construction and plain green balconies. Change is around it, throughout time the role of the buildings alternates: now we are looking at Carminiello ai Mannesi through the lenses of a monument, while some very brief 2000 years ago someone was spending their relaxing times.
This resistance to time is striking: you can see the change acting on it. It once again shows that the timeless architecture (if there is such a thing at all) comprises the history within its walls, saying: everything is subject to changes, and I am here, despite my consistency, no exception. Still, I am ignorant of events and will survive much longer, observing life from a different perception, unless someone decides to drop a missile on me, of course (even then – some parts will remain, and I shall continue talking, unbreakable). And this architectural power – the ability to be 'the constant variable' (even though I doubt that architecture itself can properly appreciate this feature) – is something that helps embrace the impermanence within our own heads when things seem unbearable, knowing: this too shall pass (and actually pretty quickly – since all of us are here short-term). As architects then, we are sand particles that create long-lasting things: architecture. We are constantly solving the equation by finding what are the constants we want to add, and what allows fluidity, separating the complexity of architecture in layers, figuring out the problem, and finding our x. Meanwhile, we see Naples in its liveliness, the place that displays the chaos with pride, as its inherent element, that cannot be anyhow divided from its architectural and urbanist image. Then, it is not only architecture that is a constant variable – but it is our life as a whole, that is forcing us to be open and less reluctant to change.
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