Francesco Solimena
Biography of Neapolitan Baroque Painter.

Pin it

Madonna of the Rosary (1680-2)
Staatliche Museen,
Pruussischer Kulturbesitz,
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

Francesco Solimena (1657-1747)


Training and Early Works
Style of Painting
Rivalry with Giordano
Fame and Fortune
Solimena's Classicism

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.


One of the most successful Old Masters of the Neapolitan School of Painting during the early 18th century, Francesco Solimena was strongly influenced by the dramatic lighting and tenebrism of earlier Naples-based painters such as Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635), Lanfranco (1582-1647), Mattia Preti (1613-99) and Luca Giordano (1634-1705). But his style of Baroque art had a greater focus on structure and formal composition, which he absorbed from both Raphael (1483-1520) and classicists like Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), leader of the Bolognese school. Indeed, his wall and ceiling paintings are characterized by a wealth of figures, a dramatic sense of movement, as well as dramatic chiaroscuro. In addition to his mural fresco painting, he produced some exceptional panel paintings in oils, as well as portrait art. Most active in Naples, where he settled in 1674, he made an immense contribution to Neapolitan Baroque Painting, and by the start of the eighteenth century, he had become one of the great international artists, sought after by several European courts. His best Baroque paintings include: Madonna of the Rosary (1680-2, Staatliche Museen, Pruussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin); frescoes (1689-90) for the sacristy of S. Paolo Maggiore, Naples; Samson and Delilah (c.1690, Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Brunswick); Virgin and Child with St Francis of Paula (c.1705, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden); the enormous Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (1725, Gesu Nuovo, Naples); Virgin and Child with St Philip of Neri (1725-30, Capodimonte Museum, Naples); and SS Trinita with Saints (1741) for La Granja near Segovia, Spain.



Training and Early Works

Born in Canale di Serino, near Naples, Solimena learned about painting in the provincial workshop of his father Angelo Solimena (1629-1716), where he absorbed the naturalism of the Neapolitan tradition - begun by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and developed by Jusupe Ribera (1591-1652) - and was strongly influenced by Francesco Guarino (1611-54). This initial phase is represented by works such as The Vision of St. Cyril of Alexandria (Church of S. Domenico, Solofra), a work on which he collaborated with his father.

Style of Painting

He arrived in Naples about 1674, joining the workshop of first Francesco di Maria and then Giacomo del Po, and was greatly inspired by the oil painting of Giovanni Lanfranco and Mattia Preti, previously two of the most influential Italian Baroque artists in Naples. In 1675-77 he worked with his father on the fresco of Paradise in the cupola of the Chapel of the Rosary in Nocera Cathedral. It was during these early years that he joined the priesthood, and met the influential Pietro Francesco Orsini - later Cardinal and ultimately Pope Benedict XIII - who encouraged him to become a full-time painter.

Solimena reached his maturity in the frescoes of 1680 in S. Giorgio, Salerno, with Stories of the Saints Tecla, Archelas and Susanna. Although there are echoes of Luca Giordano's slightly earlier frescoes in S. Gregorio Armeno, Solimena's solid forms and firm constructions offer an alternative to the animated compositions and the dissolving light and tones of Giordano. He also adopts some compositional devices from the great High Baroque artist Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). The lost picture from Montecassino (1681) and the frescoes for S. Giorgio ai Mannesi were in this style.

During the 1680s Solimena found his own style of Baroque painting in which naturalism and warm brownish shadowing of Preti and Lanfranco were merged with northern classicism. The two altarpieces for S. Nicola alia Carita, one dating from after 1681 and the other c.1684, and the frescoes in S. Maria Donnaregina Nuova, also of 1684, are all from this period.

Rivalry with Giordano

These works impressed Giordano after his return from Florence in 1683, when he reassumed his place as the foremost Neapolitan painter during the vice-regency of the Marchese del Carpio. While Giordano dominated painting in Naples, Solimena was momentarily relegated to second place. This he quickly overcame and reached the height of his powers with the frescoes of 1690 for the sacristy of S. Paolo Maggiore. In this cycle, Solimena equalled Giordano in the allegories on the ceiling but surpassed him in the Conversion of St. Paul and in the Fall of Simon Magus. These frescoes, and his reworking of themes of Preti's after 1690, were inspired by the ideal of 'naturalness' derived from the literary society Arcadia, to which Solimena belonged.

Fame and Fortune

Solimena's work from the second half of the 1690s, of which the St. Christopher of Monteoliveto and the Adoration of the Shepherds (one of six canvases for S. Maria Donnalbina painted between 1699 and 1701) are typical examples, kept to the purist canon. With the departure of Giordano for Spain in 1692, Solimena's workshop was now the dominant force in the artistic life of Naples, and would remain so for the next 40 years. His many pupils and assistants included Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), Francesco Campora (c.1693-1763), Francesco de Mura (1696–1784), Corrado Giaquinto (1703-66), Giuseppe Bonito (1707–89), Gaspare Traversi (c.1722-70). (Of course the studio also benefited from the generous patronage of Pope Benedict XIII, 1724-30.)

Solimena's Classicism

Solimena's time in Rome in 1700 and his contact with the work of Carlo Maratta (1625-1713) further reinforced his classical inclinations. Using numerous preparatory sketches, often combining pen-and-ink drawings, with chalk drawings, he developed a delicate academic formula which perfectly matched the courtly taste in lofty classicism. His settings are typically suggested, using a minimum of detail - some steps, an archway, a balustrade, or a few columns - so as to focus attention on the figures and their drapery, typically illuminated by pools or shafts of light.

In his last paintings, however, just as France and much of Europe was in the throes of the Rococo style, Solimena returned to his initial Baroque style, once more echoing Preti. His SS Trinita with Saints of 1741, for La Granja near Segovia, is one of the most captivating paintings of this period. During his long and successful career, he taught many pupils - not least the Scottish master Allan Ramsay (1713-84) - built up a huge fortune, and lived in considerable luxury. He passed away at Barra, near Naples, in 1747.

Paintings by Francesco Solimena can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe, including the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

• For more about Italian Baroque painting, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important frescoes, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© All rights reserved.