Making and Living in Cortile delle Camelie

We are in the hot spot of Naples, a town universally known for its wonderful harmony between physis and polis.

Naples is a unique city, what the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte describes as “the other Europe. The one who Descartes’ reasons can’t penetrate.” And on a hill behind the Spanish Quarter we can admire the Suor Orsola Benincasa citadel. A monastic complex of beauty indeed: it is a “symphonic harmony” between natural environment, architecture and social body able to generate a rare physical and emotional experience as we walk through its 33,000 square meters of sublime architectural and natural landscape — churches, chapels, gardens and vegetable garden, court perimeters, kitchen and forges with fantastic vaults, flights of stairs and a mysterious dark underworld that leave us astonished and enchanted.

Naples map by Federico Pesca circa 1688. The Courtyard of the Camellias is located on the north side, just behind the hermitage (indicated by a red ellipse)

It is a living experience that involves each of our senses and our hidden emotions. Its architectural configuration is a unique example in the monastic/religious architecture. And this reflects the atypical nature of its founder: Orsola Benincasa, a paradigmatic socio-religious figure who founded in 1578 on San Martino hill, a small chapel and a house to accommodate the first secular prayer community. After a century this small community became the fantastic citadel that we can see today.

During the XVII century the citadel became a monastic complex and only at the end of XIX century was it transformed into a knowledge citadel dedicated, in particular, to improve the situation of the southern women. Soon the Institute (now University) became one of the most influential educational structures in Naples. It combines a social mission with an educational approach that unite humanism and science as evidenced by its extraordinary museums and laboratories where manual dexterity is part of its astonishing cultural heritage.

A view from the citadel courtyard where Building Beauty students will live and work

In the midst of this extraordinary environment is Building Beauty’s home: the “Courtyard of the Camellias”. This space in located in the living body of the monastic citadel and encased by its system of exhibition spaces (the Pagliara Museum, the Toys museum, and the University Historical Museum), the Historic Library and Historic Archive, and few of the university’s laboratories of conservation and restoration, which are part of one of the most renowned restoration schools in the world. On the north side of the courtyard a flight of ramps takes visitors to the terraced “Five Continents Garden”.

This quadrilateral space appears the first time in 1872/1880 on the Naples’ Municipality map. In the Duca di Noja map (1750–1775) this space was occupied by garden and vegetable garden. And even today on the hill behind the citadel grapes, fruit trees, and other Mediterranean products are grown.

The Courtyard of the Camellias is our home and also our building site. Here we will have our laboratory, spend most of our time, build models and rebuild construction elements at full scale, and, finally, here we will build a new structure with the ambition to make such stunning beauty even better.

Some of the Building Beauty teaching staff experiencing the courtyard

Here is where we will return every day after manufacturing ceramics or jewels in the University restoration labs, or attending a lecture on evolutionary biology or complex networks. The courtyard will become the musical space that through rhythm, light, colours, smell and local living experience will accompany students and researchers in a life-changing journey, as they explore the way to mobilize the forces which can help us recreate beauty on the Earth [i].

The Building Beauty journey is divided into three steps: Construction; Seminars; and Self, Community and Space. Together, researchers and students, will analyse and understand the notes that embody harmony in the monastery’s architecture, and explore the process that generated it in time. We will first replicate such process with our own hands in the lab, through the direct hands-on construction of ornamental elements and parts of the original complex. We will also build a model of the way the monastery evolved in time.

At the same time, we will look at the courtyard not just as a testimony of the morphogenesis of beauty, but also as a project site. In the second semester we will challenge the impossible, push the boundaries of our abilities, and build something new in the courtyard that would make it even better. And we will make it, for real.

Our goal is to expand the wholeness and beauty of the place by building a new structure that will play its part not just in the preservation and continuation of the courtyard’s life, but even in its enhancement.

But we cannot understand these charmed spaces and its living architecture without reflecting on the nature of life, as well on the process that generates it in space, defined as “a general condition which exists … in every part of space: brick, stone, … building, … human being.” “Every part of space … has some degree of life … well defined, objectively existing, and measurable” [ii].

In the same way, we cannot understand living architecture without disclosing the deep nature of our being, because “the philosophical work is properly — as in architecture — an exploring of the self” [iii].

That is why here, in the courtyard, we will work with our feelings, systematically, experimentally and scientifically. We will play and dance, move and measure, celebrate and endure, search for the right words, and listen to what all that does to us as individuals as well as a community.

There’s a chair for you

Come and join us in this unique experience. The Courtyard of the Camellias will be a game changer, a true joy and an authentic challenge. You will do things that you did not know you could do, talk to people you didn’t know you could reach, learn from some of the best scholars in the world, as well as some of the its most beautiful people, places and manifestations of human spirit.

The new millennium calls for a new generation of architects capable of going beyond the obsolete mainstream, taking risks, feeling deeply and enjoying it all along the way. We need a new architect/builder who feels a sense of responsibility for enhancing the life of all the spaces and places of our cities, and that of our people exactly in the same way; one who holds both the bravery and knowledge to generate beauty that makes a difference for the people.

[i] Christopher Alexander, Making the Garden, 2016
[ii] Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Vol. 1, pag.77
[iii] L. Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, 1977

Photos From Staff Members’ Visit to Naples

In And Around The Cittadella