Caravaggio in Naples
Neapolitan Caravaggism, Baroque Caravaggesque Paintings.

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The Seven Acts of Mercy (1606-07)
Pio Monte della Misericordia.
By Caravaggio, one of the greatest
Old Masters of the 17th Century.

Caravaggio's Visits to Naples (1607-10)


Contemporary Reports of Caravaggio's Paintings
Confusion Over Caravaggio's Visits to Naples
Discovery of New Neapolitan Paintings by Caravaggio
Documentary Research into Caravaggio's Commissions
Caravaggio's Late Style of Painting
Final Paintings
Caravaggio's Final Public Works in the Fenaroli Chapel
Neapolitan Caravaggism
Analysis of Masterpieces by Caravaggio


A major focus for art historians investigating the life and career of the Italian genius Caravaggio (1571-1610) is the Baroque art he produced in Naples. This is the area in which major discoveries of both paintings and documents have been made in recent years. While it had long been recognized that Caravaggio's presence had a great impact on painting in Naples, research on his own work in the city was long overdue, given the comparative lack of familiarity with Caravaggio's late style.

The Flagellation of Christ (1607)
Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
By Caravaggio. A perfect example
of Caravaggio's Baroque art of the
early seventeenth century. See also: Classicism and Naturalism in Italian
17th Century Painting

Contemporary Reports of Caravaggio's Paintings

The reports of Caravaggio's movements when he left Rome after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni on 29 May 1606 were imprecise and fragmentary; his Roman biographers, Giulio Mancini (1620) and Baglione (1642), merely mentioned paintings done in Naples without giving any details. The manuscript additions made by an anonymous commentator on Mancini's Considerazioni sulla Pittura, based on information supplied by Teofilo Gallaccini (c.1570-1642), provide the first summary account of Caravaggio's paintings in Naples. Bellori (1672) and Scaramuccia (1674) first published references to the works painted for the churches, but their lists are either inaccurate or incomplete. The Flagellation of Christ (1607, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a particular masterpiece of Baroque painting - not least for its dramatic tenebrism - is mentioned only by Bellori, perhaps because it was difficult to see in the church of S. Domenico Maggiore; other works referred to include The Seven Acts of Mercy (Nostra Signora della Misericordia) (1607) in the church of the Pio Monte (the Mancini commentary speaks of other paintings by Caravaggio there) and the paintings made for the Fenaroli (a family from Brescia) Chapel in S. Anna dei Lombardi which were lost at the end of the eighteenth century. Caravaggio's Resurrection was on the altar of this chapel; it must have been an extremely important work, and also the most disconcerting, to judge from visitors' remarks (Scaramuccia 1674; Cochin 1763). In the eighteenth century The Flagellation was the most admired for its perfect composition and the noble figure of Christ of classical inspiration. Both Bellori and De Dominici (1742-45) accorded generous praise to a Denial of St. Peter in the sacristy of S. Martino, in place of which there is now a painting of the same subject, probably by a Flemish follower of Caravaggio.

David with the Head of Goliath (1609-10)
Galleria Borghese, Rome.

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Confusion Over Caravaggio's Visits to Naples

Bellori is the only author to give any information about Caravaggio's works painted in Naples as private commissions outside churches. One of these was 'a half figure of Herodias with the head of St. John the Baptist', which Caravaggio sent to placate the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Alof de Wignacourt, after he had fled the island. So this work, which has been identified with two different pictures, must have been painted after his return to Naples.

Bellori stated, or wanted to believe, that Caravaggio died in the summer of 1609, the same year in which Annibale Carracci and Federico Zuccari died, but in fact he died a year later at Porto Ercole on 18 July 1610. Until 1928, when Longhi published the two epitaphs by Marzio Milesi, Bellori's statement was accepted, despite the fact that the true date had already been published by Orbaan (1920). While this inevitably shortened the final period of Caravaggio's career, there were a number of scholars, like Mahon (1951) and Hinks (1953), who attempted to date some of Caravaggio's works to his final months in Naples. But the most significant contribution, the rediscovery of Caravaggio's final period in Naples after his Sicilian journey, was made by Longhi (1959, 1978). Caravaggio arrived in Naples in early October 1609; on 24 July 1610 the Duke of Urbino's correspondents wrote to say that the artist had been wounded or killed in Naples. This second stay in Naples lasted, therefore, about ten months.

This discovery made it necessary to redate the works mentioned in the sources and the paintings that had later been identified with them. Even taking into account the great speed at which Caravaggio worked, there seemed to be too many paintings to fit into the space of the few months from October 1606, when Caravaggio first arrived in Naples, to July 1607, when he was already in Malta. The Seven Acts of Mercy was thoroughly cleaned and restored only for the exhibition of Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti (Naples 1962-63). Its poor legibility had contributed to misunderstandings of the work, even relatively recently.

Discovery of New Neapolitan Paintings by Caravaggio

In the years following 1970, when Causa published the X-rays of The Seven Acts of Mercy great progress was made on the study of Caravaggio's Neapolitan work, facilitated by the discovery of a number of original paintings, the majority of which were hitherto unknown, even through copies.

Among these, the Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist which was published by Longhi in 1959 as a very late work, was acquired in 1970 by the National Gallery, London. A few years later, Cellini discovered another original, the Denial of St. Peter (1609-10, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In 1975, a suggestion was made that Caravaggio was the author of the Martyrdom of a Saint which had been included in the 1963 Naples exhibition as a work by Mattia Preti (1613-99). Later documents discovered by Pacelli (1980) proved that the painting was the Martyrdom of St. Ursula (Banca Commerciale Italiana, Naples) painted by Caravaggio for Marcantonio Doria in May, 1610, two months before the painter's death. Since the mid-1970s, some experts consider that the painting known as The Tooth-Puller (1609-10, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), listed in a 1636 Medici inventory and described admiringly by Scannelli (1657), is a Caravaggio original, despite its exhibition by Evelina Borea in 1970 as the work of an 'Unknown follower of Caravaggio'.

These four paintings, which must beyond any reasonable doubt date from Caravaggio's second stay in Naples, make it necessary to reconstruct his final period of work. It is also worth considering whether the artist received commissions for large-scale religious art, as he had during his first stay of 1606-07.

Circumstantial documentary evidence suggests that the Annunciation painted for the Eglise Primatiale at Nancy, founded in 1609 through the endowment of Henry II of Lorraine who succeeded to the dukedom in 1608, dates from this time. The attribution of this painting to 'Michelangelo of Rome', whom it is hard not to identify with Caravaggio, was published by Pariset in 1948 and accepted by Longhi in 1959. Stylistic considerations also suggest that the Crucifixion of St. Andrew (Cleveland Museum of Art), which the Viceroy Conde de Benavente took back with him to Spain in 1610 (Bellori), was painted by Caravaggio in the months preceding his departure, probably on an ad hoc commission.



Documentary Research into Caravaggio's Commissions

The reconstruction of Caravaggio's two stays in Naples has been greatly facilitated by documentary research. Taking into consideration the new transcription of the documents in the Pio Monte della Misericordia made by Causa (1970), it seems very likely that documents found by Pacelli (1977) relating to payments of a substantial sum to Caravaggio by Tommaso de Franchis on 11 and 27 May 1607, evidently for an altarpiece, refer to The Flagellation. (Note: Caravaggio's 1607 Flagellation was for a chapel in the church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, whose family patrons were closely connected with the Confraternity of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, for whose church the artist had already painted The Seven Acts of Mercy.) The picture must, therefore, have been painted during Caravaggio's first stay in Naples, and not during his second, as Longhi had proposed (1959). It should be added that these payments were not final, and there was very little time left to work on the painting before 13 July, when we know the painter was already in Malta. Pacelli (1980) has made other important discoveries: the documents relating to the Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the Cappella Fenaroli in S. Anna dei Lombardi date both these works to the final Neapolitan period, as had previously been only surmised.

Caravaggio's first stay in Naples, which lasted only a few months and ended before 13 July 1607, is represented by three great examples of altarpiece art, The Seven Acts of Mercy, the Madonna of the Rosary (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and The Flagellation. The altarpiece commissioned by Niccolo Radolovich and paid for on 6 October 1606 (Pacelli 1967) should perhaps be added to this list. That Caravaggio should have received such important commissions for works destined for public exhibition in so short a period of time, is a measure of his fame on his arrival in Naples. This is confirmed by the payment of 400 ducats for The Acts of Mercy (twice the sum the artist had accepted for the Radolovich picture immediately on arriving in Naples) and by the jealous care with which the Pio Monte guarded the picture, in particular from the avaricious Conde de Villamediana. The interest taken in Caravaggio's painting in Naples, which, as one of the capitals of the Mediterranean, was scarcely less important than Rome, can be deduced from early sources. Bellori alluded to it and De Dominici wrote in the life of Battistello Caracciolo that 'the reputation of Caravaggio had grown greatly at this time' with both patrons and artists. And he added, 'Caravaggio came to Naples, where he was received with great acclaim by both artists and lovers of oil painting, and he painted many works there'.

Caravaggio's Late Style of Painting

Numerous Italian Baroque artists and other northerners - including Flemish painters like Anthony Van Dyck - came to Naples at the beginning of the 17th century. Since we know that Caravaggio was held in high esteem by many of these painters, of whom the most famous was Rubens (1577-1640), it does not surprise us that Pourbus the Younger (1569-1622), associated with Rubens and the court of Mantua, wrote from Naples to the Gonzaga family to urge them to buy the Madonna of the Rosary and the Judith and Holofernes, which were later purchased by Louis Finson (1580-1617) and Abraham Vinck, two northern painters resident in Naples. Their knowledge of the new painting style of Caravaggio through these two works and the Crucifixion of St. Andrew which they had copied before the Conde de Benavente carried it off to Spain, was something which was to have profound historical consequences. Recent research on Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635) and Carlo Sellitto (1581-1614), the two Neapolitan painters who were most directly involved in Caravaggism has led to the discovery of some very early dated works directly influenced by Caravaggio's new style. Caracciolo's Immaculate Conception in S. Maria della Stella which has been dated 1607 by recently discovered documents, although very different in interpretation and showing previous knowledge of Caravaggio's Roman works, was painted while Caravaggio was first in Naples. The Liberation of St. Peter of 1615 in the Monte della Misericordia is full of echoes of Caravaggio's picture in the same church, as well as of the later lost Resurrection.

The church pictures of the first Neapolitan period are still linked stylistically with the paintings of the Roman years. Just as The Seven Acts of Mercy recalls the S. Luigi dei Francesi scenes of St. Matthew, so two other paintings by Caravaggio show him developing ideas which he had begun to explore in Rome for public works of art. In the Madonna of the Rosary the figures are arranged according to a pattern from Venetian painting, and the hangings and the diffused lighting are repeated from the Death of the Virgin, while in The Flagellation the painter employed a traditional composition which allowed him to introduce explicit and brutal violence into the painting without it being rejected by the patrons.

Caravaggio's David (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was certainly painted in the same months as the Acts of Mercy and the Madonna of the Rosary, and its Neapolitan origin has given rise to the hypothesis that it is the same David taken to Spain by the Conde de Villamediana, the man who tried to gain possession of the Pio Monte's Acts of Mercy in 1613. Bellori recalls that Villamediana also owned A Youth Holding a Pomegranate Flower, of which we have no visual record.

Final Paintings

A different problem is posed by The Flagellation of Christ, for which we know that large sums had already been paid to Caravaggio up to May 1607 (Pacelli 1967): given the two documented payments, it is almost certain that Caravaggio had completed the picture by this date. The brutality of the representation, which is accompanied by a technique of unparalleled violence, seems to separate it from the other two church works of the first Neapolitan period. This explains why it had previously been suggested that the painting could be dated to Caravaggio's last months in Naples, between 1609 and 1610 despite indications in the sources to the contrary. Although we cannot entirely exclude the hypothesis that the work was finished after his return from Sicily, it seems more likely that Caravaggio's need to finish the painting before he left for Malta drove him to adopt the aggressive and summary technique which characterizes the later works, to be seen in Malta in The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (1607-1608, Co-Cathedral of St. John, Valetta) and, in a unique way, in the very tragic and intense Sicilian works.

A similar problem of dating is presented by the St. Sebastian, going by the copies corresponding to Bellori's description from which we know this splendid conception. The victim inclines his head like the Christ in The Flagellation and the nude figure must have been painted before Caravaggio's departure for Malta, at the same period as the picture in S. Domenico Maggiore. We have to think along the same lines for the Flagellation of Christ in the Museum of Fine Arts, Rouen, in which Caravaggio abandons a central composition and follows an engraving by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) that had been already imitated in north Italy in the sixteenth century; the first executioner might be taken to be a work of the Roman period. There is a psychological balance and a mental and cultural cohesion characteristic of Caravaggio's first Neapolitan period.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist in Malta represents the artist's identification with the victim and subject of the painting which imbues it with a strong autobiographical presence, a tendency constantly present thereafter in Caravaggio's work. It prompted the painter to choose subjects, such as the Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1608-09, Museo Regionale, Messina), in which the sense of the painting could increasingly be turned in this direction. This consideration is an essential premise for reconstructing Caravaggio's work in his last Neapolitan period and has helped to revise the dating of the St. John the Baptist (c.1610) and the David with the Head of Goliath (c.1610) in the Borghese Gallery, Rome. We now know the date of the Martyrdom of St. Ursula, which was sent to Marcantonio Doria in May 1610 just after its completion, two months before Caravaggio's death. This painting has obvious similarities with other works painted for private patrons that also contain half-figures, such as the Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10) and the Denial of St. Peter (1609-10). These works, alongside which we should place the Tooth-Puller, constitute a compact and representative group painted in Caravaggio's late style; they are characterized by rapid brushstrokes employing few colours, a kind of pictorial shorthand, and sudden flashes of light which at times appear almost mannered.

Caravaggio's Final Public Works in the Fenaroli Chapel

The only works of public art that Caravaggio seems to have painted in the months between 1609 and 1610 were the pictures for the Fenaroli Chapel at S. Anna dei Lombardi.

The Circumcision destined for Santa Maria della Sanita, for which Caravaggio received 100 aureos, was completed in 1612 by Giovan Vincenzo Forli and it is impossible to discern Caravaggio's original intentions. The pictures he painted for the Fenaroli Chapel, for which Pacelli published useful documents in 1980, were the Resurrection on the altar, a St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata on the wall, attributed to Caravaggio by the anonymous commentator to Mancini; a St. John the Baptist, mentioned by Cochin without naming its creator (he was also unaware of the painter of the Resurrection), was also probably by Caravaggio.

The Resurrection in the Fenaroli Chapel, which showed Christ leaving the tomb and walking forth among the soldiers instead of rising heavenwards, was a singular conception as commentators have always noted. A picture of this subject, signed by Louis Finson (one of Caravaggio's earliest imitators) in 1610 (in St. Jean de Malte, Aix-en-Provence), corresponds to the description of Caravaggio's original and we may guess that it was directly inspired by it. The dazzling lights in Finson's Resurrection strike one even more than the armour of the soldiers and if, in our mind's eye, we integrate this copy with the flickering light and clots of chiaroscuro that characterized Caravaggio's late style, it can be imagined that the original must have seemed an impressive anticipation of Rembrandt (1606-69). These characteristics recur in the soldier in the Denial of St. Peter, the armed man in the Martyrdom of St. Ursula, and, finally, the armour of the Proconsul Aegeas in the Crucifixion of St. Andrew. Some experts believe that the Resurrection, together with the Nancy Annunciation, is part of the small group of large-scale religious works painted by Caravaggio during his second Neapolitan period. The choice of subject and the presence of the crowd reflect the deep transformation that had led Caravaggio to epitomize the massacre of the eleven thousand virgins in the martyrdom of a single figure.

The removal of the Martyrdom of St. Andrew to Spain by the Conde de Benavente in the summer of 1610 is perhaps the most famous example of Spanish interest in Caravaggio, but it was evident also in the Conde de Villamediana's attempt to obtain The Seven Acts of Mercy and the anxiety of the Conde de Lemos, Viceroy of Naples from 1610-16, to obtain any of the paintings - but especially the St. John the Baptist - on board the felucca on which Caravaggio had been travelling near the time of his death at Porta Ercole. Knowledge of Caravaggio's work reached Spain through the Neapolitan viceroys, and even the greatest Spanish Baroque artists would not have painted as they did without Caravaggio. Indeed, the whole thrust of Spanish Baroque art might have been different without him. At any rate, Naples served as a centre from which Caravaggism was widely diffused to Flanders and Spain.

Neapolitan Caravaggism

We should also consider the local consequences of Caravaggio's presence in Naples for almost two years. The Neapolitan school of painting, more than any other in the Italian seicento, continued Caravaggio's innovations in a powerfully popular vein and echoes of his naturalism prevailed for generations, despite attempts to sweeten the style. His immediate followers were Caracciolo and, at a certain distance, Carlo Sellitto. By comparing Caracciolo's Caravaggesque work with Sellitto's luminescent painting grafted on to a fundamentally mannerist style of draughtsmanship, it becomes possible to understand better how Caravaggesque elements entered Neapolitan Baroque painting later in the 17th century.

Sellitto's St. Cecilia of 1613 (Capodimonte Museum, Naples), the most advanced of his works and the closest to Caracciolo, was particularly innovative since, by combining an intensely luminescent naturalism with elements of form or drawing, it created a formula acceptable to other Neapolitan painters. While it would be incorrect to define the naturalism which continued in Naples until 1630 as strictly Caravaggesque, there is no doubt that a current of realism unparalleled in any other Italian centre had been established there; it expressed itself in the popularity of rustic subject matter and in the depth and truth of its emotional charge. In this wider sense, Neapolitan painters were the heirs of Caravaggio.

Battistello was, in contrast, a straightforward Caravaggist. His reported apprenticeship to Caravaggio could mean that he had learnt from Caravaggio the method of painting directly from life without drawing. This separates him from Sellitto, as does his use of living models to study expression and to increase the charge of feeling like Caravaggio. His interpretation of sacred subjects and their prevalence in his work put him, together with Serodine and a few others, among Caravaggio's closest followers.

Jusepe Ribera - the leading representative of Spanish painting in Naples - also made a decisive contribution to Neapolitan naturalism. He drew on Caravaggio in his youthful Roman works before 1616. The Seven Acts of Mercy was also one of his sources; the innkeeper was the model for Taste (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut), one of the personifications for the Five Senses which Ribera painted in Rome (Mancini) and the presence of Samson in Caravaggio's painting, evoking the antique and the rustic, showed Ribera how to represent the subjects that were later popular with the stoical painters of the 1630s in Rome. From Ribera came the taste for painting rough and silky textures and fine material, which met the demands of the new painterly style; these tendencies show that he had finally departed from the austerity of Caravaggio's painting.

Other famous artistic visitors to or residents of Naples, who were influenced by Caravaggio's unique handling of light, include Velazquez (1599-1660) and the tragic Artemesia Gentlieschi (1593-1654).

Analysis of Masterpieces by Caravaggio

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601)
Cerasi Chapel, Rome.
Supper at Emmaus (1601)
National Gallery, London.
Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601)
Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
Death of the Virgin (1602-3)
Louvre, Paris.
The Entombment (1602-4)
Vatican Museums, Rome.
Amor Vincit Omnia (Victorious Cupid) (1602)
(1602, Staatliche Museum, Berlin)

Paintings by Caravaggio are in many of the best art museums around the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Mina Gregori's fascinating article on Caravaggio and Naples, published (1982) by the Royal Academy, London.

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