Some of the most fanciful and regionally distinctive buildings of the later Baroque period are found in southern Italy, especially in Naples, the province of Apulia, and Sicily. Historical factors undoubtedly played a part in isolating this region from the rest of Italy. The lands south of Rome remained under foreign control throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, passing in 1713 from the Spanish to the Austrian Hapsburgs, and then to the Bourbons before the shortlived Napoleonic conquest in 1806. Only in the south did the feudal system of land ownership still hold sway, concentrating great wealth in the bands of a few barons while most of the people lived in miserable poverty. The Church, while offering spiritual succor to the poor, itself retained vast tracts of land -- for example, it is estimated that the Church owned one half of the total acreage of the city of Naples. Such unique economic and social conditions were important factors in the commissioning of architecture.
The earliest south Italian buildings that can be called Baroque date from the mid-seventeenth century in Naples, then the largest city in Italy and the fourth largest in Europe. The exoticism of this bustling port has been described by travellers from Goethe to Mark Twain. Dickens called it the city of "buffoons and pickpockets, opera singers and beggars, rags, puppets, flowers, brightness, dirt, and universal degradation." The religious ardor of Neapolitans is legendary. Out of a population of around 300,000, there were some 20,000 clerics, a ratio that exceeded even that of Rome. 1 Backed by the substantial wealth of the religious institutions, more than 170 churches and dependent