Beyond Caravaggio: A New Account of Neapolitan Painting
On ViewMuseo E Real Bosco Di Capodimonte
March 31, 2022–January 7, 2023
Baroque Naples, the largest city in Europe after London and Paris, was devoted to visual excess. In his survey Neapolitan Baroque and Rococo Architecture, Anthony Blunt says that he counted more than two hundred churches, and a great deal of painting, sculpture, and decorative art was—and mostly still is—housed in these churches. But Naples’s artistic history has been marginalized. The great pioneering account of the baroque, Rudolf Wittkower’s Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750, devotes relatively little attention to the city. Recently there have been catalogued exhibitions of such major painters associated with Naples as Battistello Caracciolo, Bernardo Cavallino, Jusepe de Ribera, Mattia Preti, and Micco Spadaro. But there is, as yet, no replacement for Wittkower’s synthesis.
Accounts of the Neapolitan baroque tend to accept the viewpoint of Roberto Longhi, the greatest twentieth-century Italian art historian, who focused on the influence of Caravaggio. But Caravaggio, who made two visits to Naples, in 1606–07 and 1610, spent in all only eighteen months in the city. And although he was influential, the Neapolitan baroque gradually developed in ways which did far more than to merely accept and extend his style. To go beyond Caravaggio, as the title of this exhibition signals, means going beyond the analysis of Longhi. In support of this idea, Sylvain Bellenger, the director of Capodimonte, the public museum of Naples, has mounted consistently ambitious programing. In an earlier review, I discussed another exhibition which made a plea for the importance of Luca Giordano (1634–1705). Now going a step further, this vast show presents also the Emilians, Giovanni Lanfranco, Domenichino, and Guido Reni; the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera; two Frenchmen, Simon Vouet and Pierre-Jacques Volaire; Jakob Philipp-Hackett, who was German; Cosimo Fanzago, who was from Bergamo; the Romans Artemisia Gentileschi and Gregorio Guglielmi; and the Belgian Francois Duquesnoy. That these two hundred works drawn entirely from the archives of Capodimonte are on public display indicates the daunting magnitude of the art historical task. Naples, a port city, attracted numerous artists from other Italian states and other European countries. And of course, a great deal of additional relevant art is found still in the city’s churches and in foreign collections.
Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ (1607), which opens the show, is a masterpiece, but we quickly encounter works by other artists who developed its concerns in very diverse ways. (Titles given are my English translations.) Caracciolo’s Madonna of the Souls in Purgatory (1622–25) shows how early on Caravaggio’s spot-lit figures and intense black backgrounds provided an influential model. But by the time we get to Luca Giordano’s Madonna of the Rosary (1657), a very different palette, with a bright blue garment enveloping the Virgin, is found. And Matthias Stomer’s Death of Seneca (1638-40) offers yet another very different way of presenting a dark scene lit only by candlelight. After Caravaggio, the subjects of Neapolitan painting also often change. The content of Pacecco De Rosa’s Venus sleeping watched by a satyr (1645–1650), for example, owes more to Titian than Caravaggio. And the grotesque depictions of Silenus by Jusepe de Ribera (1626) and Francesco Francanzano (post 1635) are totally un-Caravaggesque.
How then do we understand this situation, in which one great artistic personality inspired emulation and also critical response, creating a tradition which draws on the visual concerns not only of the Italian Renaissance, but also Spain and even the Northern countries. The baroque, it has been noted, is the first truly International art style. Moreover, many of the painters included here also worked elsewhere in the Spanish empire. And what is the relationship of this vast artistic development to the economic and political crises of Southern Italy, which has been described by some historians as falling back into feudalism during this period? These questions are not easy to answer. Wittkower suggests that the economic decline of Italy matched its artistic decline. But now that claim seems an oversimplification at best.
Beginning with the one Caravaggio on view in Capodimonte, the Flagellation, offers a somewhat misleading image of his activities in Naples. The most important Caravaggio in the city is Seven Acts of Mercy (1607), which remains in its intended setting, the chapel of Pio Monte della Misericordia. This work is much harder to place in relation to the baroque tradition explored in this exhibition. (And there were three other Caravaggios in a Neapolitan church, all of which were completely destroyed in an earthquake.) Where Flagellation shows a very traditional subject in a brilliantly personal picture, Seven Acts tackles a theme not found in any significant earlier or later paintings, showing the seven distinct acts in a radically original composition. What does that work have to do with later baroque painting? That question is devilishly hard to answer. But it is clear that focusing on Seven Acts would make it much harder to sustain Longhi’s conventional view of the Neapolitan baroque.
This, the most ambitious old master exhibition that I have seen in many years, offers marvelous challenges for art historians. Connoisseurs need to sort out the attributions and art historians will want to theorize this period. A proper response to Beyond Caravaggio will require rethinking important fundamental issues, which will be a major task.