Painting in Naples
17th Century Neapolitan Baroque Art by Caravaggio, Ribera and others.

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The Flagellation of Christ (1607)
Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
By Caravaggio. A perfect example
of Caravaggio's Baroque art of the
early seventeenth century.

Painting in Naples (c.1600-1700)


17th Century Naples
Spanish Rulers: Patrons of the Arts
Greatest Neapolitan Painters: Caravaggio
Jose Ribera
How Ribera's Cabal Controled Painting in Naples
The Neapolitan Style of Painting
Salvator Rosa
The Plague of 1656 and Its Effect on Neapolitan Painting
Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena
Chronology of Painting in Naples

The Martyrdom of St Philip (1639)
Prado Museum, Madrid.
By Jose Ribera. One of the most
evocative religious paintings of
the Neapolitan Baroque.

For details of movements,
see: History of Art.
For specific styles,
see: Art Movements.

For the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

17th Century Naples

In 1600, at the beginning of the seicento, Naples was the second largest city in Europe, after Paris, and the largest in Italy. Its population was estimated at anything between 400/450,000: compared to the 80/170,000 of Rome, Milan Venice or Florence. Despite being a Spanish colony, fine art painting flourished in Naples during the seventeenth century under the domination of the Spanish viceroys. Otherwise it was a century memorable for disasters - earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, epidemics, famine and riots, caused by excessive taxation and culminating in Masaniello's revolt on 7 July, 1647, with its bloody aftermath.

In spite of the flagrant misgovernment, foreign visitors were as impressed by the splendour of Naples' Baroque architecture as by the beauty of its situation. The Baroque became accentuated in the vicinity of Vesuvius and, though commerce languished, the viceroys continued to build churches, palaces, bridges, new roads and grandiose public fountains, transforming the face of the ancient capital. In 1645, two years before Masaniello's rebellion, the prolific diarist John Evelyn wrote: 'The building of the city is for the size the most magnificent of any in Europe, the streets exceeding large, well paved, having many vaults and conveyances under them for the waste, which renders them very sweet and clean, even in the midst of winter. To it belongeth more than 3,000 churches and monasteries, and these the best built and adorned of any in Italy.' Not surprisingly for a city populated by so many ecclesiastical buildings, religious art was especially important to its Spanish rulers, especially the type of intense Christian art associated with Quietism. However, despite the success in Rome of the Baroque style of Catholic Counter-Reformation art, it wasn't until after the plague in the 1650s that Neapolitan Baroque painting took root in the extreme south of Italy, and it evolved alongside a strong streak of classicism. See also: Classicism and Naturalism in Italian 17th Century Painting.



Spanish Rulers: Patrons of the Arts

Whatever their sins of omission and commission as administrators, most of the viceroys were assiduous patrons of fine art, some of it on a prodigious scale, and gave a huge stimulus to oil painting in particular. During the first half of the seventeenth century the most energetic art patron among the viceroys was the Count of Monterrey, brother-in-law of Philip IV's favourite, Duke Olivares. Forty shiploads of Baroque painting and antique sculpture accompanied him when he sailed back to Spain in 1637. Many of these are now the pride of the Prado Museum in Madrid. And during the latter half of the century, that paragon of viceroys, the Marchese del Carpio, collected some 1,800 paintings and when he died in 1687 Luca Giordano, no courtly flatterer, said that Naples had lost a loving father and her artists a valiant support.

While the Neapolitans enjoyed the spectacular pageantry of their Spanish overlords, they ridiculed their bombast in the popular comedy of masks. The local nobility, as John Evelyn remarked, imitated their gravity, their pointed beards and moustaches and their elaborate courtesy, while resenting their claims to precedence on ceremonious occasions. They shared the hidalgo's addiction to sonorous titles and their poet laureate was Giovanni Battista Marini, whose florid Adone (1623), densely incrusted with rococo conceits, had innumerable imitators throughout Italy and even in France.

Greatest Neapolitan Painters: Caravaggio

Another paradox is that none of the founders of the Neapolitan school of painting were originally from the city of Naples. Caravaggio (1571-1610), the most influential, was a Lombard who fled from Rome to Naples after killing a rival ball player in 1606. He only stayed there till the late summer of 1607, but during that short period he painted The Flagellation of Christ for S. Domenico Maggiore and The Seven Acts of Mercy for the Monte della Misericordia, and other paintings which have since vanished. The dramatic intensity of this altarpiece art, which seem to have been improvised by flashes of lightning - the sculpturesque torso of Christ between two bestial executioners in sinister shadow; the variety of symbolic figures and properties in the latter, a problem-picture if ever there was one - had an overpowering impact on his Neapolitan contemporaries. Here was a style quite new to them, and its stark realism and vivid contrasts appealed to their passionate instincts. For details of his Neapolitan visits, see: Caravaggio in Naples (1607, 1609-10).

The atmosphere of Naples must have suited Caravaggio's fiery temperament. He drew his models for saints from everyday life without attempting to sweeten or refine them. This was unbridled naturalism (more accurately, an early form of realism which remained unmatched until the 19th century) as opposed to the current classicism of the Bolognese school and, set against a gilded baroque setting, the result was sensational.


Jose Ribera

The strength of Caravaggio's influence is most obvious in the work of his follower Jose Ribera (1591-1652), known as 'lo Spagnoletto', born near Valencia but Neapolitan by adoption. Through Ribera and his patron, the viceroy Monterrey, Italian and Spanish painters developed in the same direction. Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) was a friend of Ribera and he, too, seems to have been affected by Caravaggio in Los Borrachos and in Vulcan's Forge. Some fifteen years younger than Caravaggio, whom he never met, Ribera soon endeared himself to the viceroy as a compatriot of genius. The sadistic martyrdoms he depicted with such gusto realized Monterrey's notions of what religious painting should be, and Ribera became an arbiter of taste at his court.

With Belisario Corenzio and Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635) - the former a Greek, the latter a true-blue Neapolitan - Ribera formed a tyrannical cabal. We know little that is nice about the personalities of this triumvirate. Bernardo de Dominici, the Neapolitan version of the biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), was prone to embellish his anecdotes, but they undoubtedly contain a foundation of truth since they have been corroborated by others. According to him, no painter could execute any major commission in Naples without the trio's consent. All the eminent artists who were invited from Rome to decorate the chapel of S. Gennaro in the Cathedral were driven away by their stubborn persecution. This Cappella del Tesoro, as it was called, is Naples' holiest shrine, for it contains the patron saint's skull and a phial of his blood which liquifies twice a year, so that the intrusion of outsiders to decorate it was bitterly resented.

How Ribera's Cabal Controled Painting in Naples

The trials of alien artists brave enough to accept the commission were prolonged over many years. When Guido Reni came in 1621, his assistant was so badly wounded that he hurried back to Rome; the vindictive Corenzio was arrested on suspicion but released for lack of evidence. After the indigenous Santafede failed to satisfy the commissioners Corenzio was offered the job, but even he failed and his frescoes were obliterated. The Bolognese classicist Domenichino (1581-1641) was then invited from Rome. This highly sensitive artist accepted the challenge with misgiving, and soon after his arrival he received a letter threatening his life unless he withdrew. He appealed to the viceroy for protection and though given assurances for his safety, he hardly dared to leave his lodging except to go to work. When the first of his frescoes was uncovered a year later he was so harassed by his local rivals, led by Ribera, that 'he rode day and night almost without rest' to Cardinal Aldobrandini's villa at Frascati in a state of collapse. It took him another year to decide to finish the frescoes in Naples. By then he had lost favour with the viceroy and the painters redoubled their vexations. Poor Domenichino was reduced to such a state of nerves, as Passeri wrote, that his meals become a torment for fear of poison, and his nights for fear of the dagger. And when he died at Naples in 1641 his widow was convinced that he had indeed been poisoned. Only the Parma-born Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647) seems to have genuinely thrived in Naples.

As we know from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, distinguished artists considered themselves above the law and even won respect for their arrogance. Caravaggio's brawls were essential to the image of terribilta he wished to impose. Ribera behaved despotically to his Neapolitan rivals. When Massimo Stanzione (1585-1656) painted a dead Christ for the entrance to the Certosa di S. Martino which won general admiration, Ribera persuaded the monks to let him clean it under the pretext that it was too dark. In doing so he ruined it with a corrosive liquid. Such malice is hard to reconcile with the piety of his devotional paintings. His disciples were legion and they exaggerated his gruesome traits - what one critic called 'the poetry of the repulsive'. Sometimes, these gruesome traits led to unexpectedly gruesome art. Agostino Tassi's rape of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654), for instance, led to her sublime rendering of Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620, Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

The Neapolitan Style of Painting

Some of Ribera's most lurid pictures were painted for Gaspar Roomer, a Flemish ship-owner reputed to be the richest man in Naples. One of the most voracious art collectors, he had a peculiar preference for the macabre-grotesque. Ribera's horrific Apollo and Marsyas (1637, Museo Nazionale di S. Martino, Naples) and his repulsive Drunken Silenus (1620-28, Capodimonte Museum, Naples) were originally in Roomer's collection; so were the Feast of Herod by Rubens and Susanna and the Elders by Anthony van Dyck, which exerted a cathartic influence on the Neapolitan artists who saw them, dazzled by their colour and bold brushwork. Bernardo Cavallino (c.1616-56) was the most deeply affected and the precocious Luca Giordano began to emulate Rubens.

Neopolitan still-life painters were equally galvanized by the Flemish painting in Roomer's gallery, but their own still live painting was altogether fleshier and juicier, evoking the fertility of the Vesuvian soil. Giuseppe Recco (1634-95), Giovanni Ruoppola (1629-93), Paolo Porpora (1617-1670/80) - their very names suggest pendulous clusters of grapes and piles of purple figs.

Among the cabinet paintings, genre and topographical scenes, Monsu Desiderio's fantastic towers of Babel and Babylon quaking or licked by tongues of fire were perhaps the most extraordinary. According to recent research Monsu Desiderio was the pseudonym of two artists from Metz, of whom Francois Nome was the more prominent. These paved the way, as Wittkower pointed out, for the 'microcosmic views' of Micco Spadaro (1609-75) as well as the romantic battle-pieces of Salvator Rosa.

Salvator Rosa

Had he been less versatile, Salvator Rosa (1615-73) would have been a greater painter, for he was also a prolific poet, mime and musician. He learned more from Aniello Falcone (1607-56), the battle painter, than from his first master Ribera and he had so many imitators that the extreme originality of his landscape painting is often overlooked. During his lifetime they were more appreciated than his ambitious history painting. Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote of him, 'He has that sort of dignity which belongs to savage and uncultivated nature; but what is most to be admired in him is the perfect correspondence which he observed between the subjects which he chose and the manner of treating them. Everything is of a piece; his rocks, trees, sky, have the same rude and wild character which animates his figures.'

Lady Morgan's enthusiastic Life and Times of Salvator Rosa (1824) established his vogue in pre-Victorian England, where he was even more valued than in Italy. He was seen as a Byronic precursor, and his name became a synonym for the ultra-picturesque.

The Plague of 1656 and Its Effect on Neapolitan Painting

The terrible plague of 1656 exterminated over half the population of Naples. It raged furiously for six months and some 10/15,000 people perished every day in the height of the summer. The graves were so glutted that corpses were burned or thrown into the sea. Out of a population of 450,000 the plague had claimed 250,000 victims, according to Gino Doria's conservative estimate. Among the finest painters who succumbed were Bernardo Cavallino, Massimo Stanzione, Anniello Falcone, and Pacecco de Rosa.

The economic effects of this catastrophe and the timely reforms of more competent viceroys brought a return to comparative prosperity, so that by 1688 the population reached 286,000, including 12,000 clergy. The traumatic horrors of the plague may have helped to change the character of Neapolitan painting in the latter half of the century. There was a reaction from the brutal realism of Ribera, and artists borrowed luminous colour schemes from the Venetian painting of Titian (c.1485/8-1576) and Paolo Veronese (1528-88). Though traces of Caravaggio lingered in the frescoes of Mattia Preti (1613-99), known as 'il Cavaliere Calabrese' from his place of origin, his style of painting was more like that of Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666).

Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena

Following the calamitous effects of the plague, Luca Giordano and the long-lived Francesco Solimena (1657-1747) became the champions of Neapolitan painting, and their performances were universally admired until the nineteenth century. These opened Caravaggio's windows on to a blaze of light.

The most glamorous of Ribera's pupils, Luca Giordano (1634-1705) - dubbed 'Luca fa Presto' (Luke works fast) because of his phenomenal speed of painting - soon became celebrated for the rapidity and eclecticism of his performances. For his brilliant imitations of Titian, as well as Correggio, Guido Reni and Rubens, he was called the Proteus of painting, and at one time his pastiches were more prized than his original productions. Almost every church in Naples and gallery in Europe contains one of his works. For ten industrious years till the end of the century he frescoed vast areas of the Escorial, the palace of Buen Retiro, the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral, the Royal Palace and many churches in Madrid. The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence contains one of his masterpieces: a vast hall frescoed with the last of the Medici, depicted as gods of light among the deities of Olympus, on the ceiling, and a cycle of human life along the walls. On his return from Spain, when he was over 70, he completed a vigorous series of frescos in the Certosa di S. Martino within a couple of days.

His friend and successor Francesco Solimena, alias L'Abate Ciccio, leads us well into the eighteenth century. His enormous facility and speed rivalled Giordano's, and he was showered with far more commissions than he could cope with. Born in 1657, he died rich and famous at the age of 90. One of the English travellers who called on him, Edward Wright, wrote that in 1721 'Solimene was very civil and obliging, notwithstanding some reports we had heard of him to the contrary. He dresses as an ecclesiastic, which is very frequent there with those that are not in orders. Besides other works of art he showed us a large one he was doing for Prince Eugene, the story of Cephalus and Aurora, where Aurora is taking up Cephalus into Heaven, which she is said to have done when all other means of persuading him to break his conjugal vow to Procris proved ineffectual.'

This was a far cry from Caravaggism with its scenes of martyrdom and massacre which had predominated in the first half of the century. There is no crude realism in this ethereal sphere, no leprous limbs or mud and blood-stained feet. The cherubs on fleecy clouds herald the coming of the rococo genius Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), while the mythological nymphs anticipate the French master Francois Boucher (1703-1770).

It is a curious fact that most of the exponents of tenebrism (tenebrosi) - as the realist-naturalists were called, from Caravaggio on - died before middle age, as if consumed by the intensity of their involvement with Biblical tragedies, whereas their illusionistic successors were constantly rejuvenated by their protean qualities and lived to a ripe old age. Thus, the Neapolitan school may be divided between the exponents of chiaroscuro and those of light. Luca Giordano and Solimena experimented in many styles before they found their own — the former at his zenith in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi frescoes, the latter in the Gesu Nuovo fresco painting of Heliodorus being driven out of the temple.

Chronology of Painting in Naples

For reference, here is a short chronological timeline of selected events in Neapolitan art during the 17th century.

1598 Philip III becomes King of Spain and Naples.
1601 Foundation of Pio Monte della Misericordia.
1606 Caravaggio's 1st visit to Naples; Seven Acts of Mercy and Flagellation.
1607 Caracciolo paints his Immaculate Conception.
1610 Caravaggio's second visit to Naples; dies at Porto Ercole, 18 July, 1610.
1610-16 Vice-Regency of Conde de Lemos, important social reformer.
1611-12 Reni's first visit to Naples.
1616 Arrival of Ribera in Naples.
1618-48 Thirty Years' War in Europe.
1620-22 Social unrest and risings in Naples due to economic difficulties.
1621 Philip IV succeeds Philp III as King of Spain and Naples.
1621-22 Reni's second visit to Naples.
1622 Influenced by Caravaggio, Simon Vouet paints Circumcision.
1623-44 Papacy of Urban VIII, an important patron of the arts.
1623-56 Cosimo Fanzago is director of building at Certosa de S. Martino
1624 Van Dyck's visit to Palermo.
1625 Death of poet Giovanni Battista Marino, court poet to the viceroys.
1626 Ribera paints Drunken Silenus.
1626 Artemisia Gentileschi's arrival in Naples.
1629 Velazquez's first visit to Italy and to Naples.
1631 Arrival of Domenichino in Naples to paint the Cappella de Tesoro.
1631 Eruption of Vesuvius.
1631-37 Vice-Regency of Manuel de Guzman, Conde de Monterrey.
1634 Arrival of Lanfranco in Naples.
1635 Castiglione's visit to Naples.
1637 Ribera paints his Pieta.
1638-47 Deterioration of economic climate.
1639 Departure of Salvator Rosa from Naples
1640 Arrival of Rubens' Feast of Herod in Gaspar Roomer's collection.
1641 Death of Domenichino.
1641-67 Archbishopric of Cardinal Ascanio Filomarino, patron of arts.
1642 Death of Reni; arrival of his Adoration of the Shepherds in Naples (1645).
1646 Don Antonio Ruffo of Messina begins collecting contemporary painting.
1647 Death of Lanfranco.
1647-48 Masaniello's Revolt, fired by reimposition of tax on fruit.
1649-50 Velasquez's second visit to Italy and to Naples.
1650 French offensive at Portolongone; successfully repulsed.
1652 Death of Artemisia Gentileschi.
1652 Giordano travels to Rome and northern Italy.
1654 French offensive at Castellammare led by Duc de Guise.
1656 Plague kills over half the population of Naples.
1656-60 Preti's visit to Naples.
1665 Charles II succeeds Philip IV as King of Spain and Naples.
1674 Arrival of Solimena in Naples.
1674 Death of Gaspar Roomer; leaves collection to Ferdinand Van den Einden.
1674-78 French occupation of Messina.
1683-87 Vice Regency of Marchese del Carpio.
1688 Major earthquake; damages many buildings in city centre.
1705 Death of Luca Giordano.
1707 Beginning of Austrian rule.

Neapolitan Baroque art can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Harold Acton's essay on Neapolitan visual arts, published (1982) by the Royal Academy, London.

• For a guide to the evolution of Baroque painting in Italy, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about Neapolitan altarpieces and oils, see: Homepage.

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