Caravaggio is one of those artists who lived a short life and left more of a legacy than many do in decades of a career. He never taught a workshop, but he had dozens of “followers” (loosely called Caravaggeschi, though scholars are moving away from this term), and wherever he worked, the local painting style was forced to confront change. Active in Florence, Rome and Naples, Naples may be where Caravaggio made his strongest mark. The city was fervent territory for the imposition of a strong style as it was lacking a home-grown artistic school. The rule-breaking, hot-blooded artist’s style rang true with Neapolitans who quickly took Caravaggio’s influence and developed their own forms of naturalism and what would eventually become Baroque in Naples.
On a recent visit to the Amalfi Coast, I spent a day in Naples with Context Travel docent Roberta and my parents on the path of Caravaggio and the Baroque in Naples. I learned a lot and know that I need to get back to Naples to experience even more!
Caravaggio in Naples
Caravaggio came to Naples from Rome because he had a price on his head. He had killed a man and had to escape, and he had connections in this city. Nonetheless, with an order out to kill him, he lived in constant fear of being recognized and killed on the street.
Despite his major artistic influence on the city, there are only three works by Caravaggio preserved today in Naples, and only one of them is in its original location. But it is spectacular.
The Seven Works of Mercy
I’ve always been interested in charitable institutions and their social role as well as their artistic commissions in early modern Italy (see here and here). So I was thrilled to hear that the important charity association, the Pio Monte della Misericordia, had commissioned a work from Caravaggio to depict their main actions. Seven noble Neapolitan men founded this association in 1602, and interestingly, unlike in many other situations, they didn’t have a religious order backing them – so it’s not a confraternity. They met weekly to discuss and address the problems of their city, each man with his own area of concern, kind of like ministers in a government. They owned a large building which now houses the many works of art commissioned by or donated to the Pio Monte, as well as other treasures. I love how some of the rooms are set up to show the real meeting space of these men, who met here for 300 years.
Inside their building is a small church with seven altars (and seven altarpieces). In 1607, they asked Caravaggio to paint the seven corporal works of mercy (that they helped carry out in their own city) over the seven altars. In a show of mastery, the artist said he could easily fit all that into one canvas. You might think that it would look very busy to include all of the following in just a few square meters: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Not to mention that the Madonna della Misericordia had also to be included (at the top) held up by two angels – but they didn’t tell Caravaggio this until after he’d turned it in without her, and so he was forced to paint it in as an afterthought!
With typical Caravaggesque brilliance, the artist fits 10 figures plus 2 angels and 2 the Madonna and child into the altarpiece, lit dramatically by a single internal source (a man holding a torch). And yes, there is the chiaroscuro or contrast between light and dark that is associated with this artist, but it’s tempered by a sense that there is something going on in the background – it’s not just pure black.
The figures Caravaggio represented were taken from real-life models whom he selected on the street, and who he then posed for hours in difficult positions. Look at the angel at the top with one arm pointing down and one to the right – he was probably set up hanging off the edge of a table to the point that all the blood drained to his hands, and that’s what the artist showed here. The choice of people on the street, and the ambience of this painting which could be a dark alley in Naples, is perfectly in line with the interests and activities of the Pio Monte.
The other altarpieces in the church were done by artists influenced by Caravaggio. While they drew from his naturalism, they also took is tenebrism to new levels, in a way that seems they “didn’t get it.” That is – while Caravaggio’s background is more brown than black, and provides depth and imagination to his painting, Caracciolo’s painting of the Liberation of St. Peter in the same church has a purely black background. His figures are dramatically lit, but as if on a stage, and their positions are derivative of those already invented by Caravaggio.
The Flagellation of Christ
Although our tour did not include a visit to the Capodimonte Museum for timing reasons, our list of the three Caravaggios in Naples wouldn’t be complete without this one. This dramatic image of flagellation was commissioned by Tommaso De Franchis, a member of an important family in Naples, for his family chapel at the Church of San Domenico Maggiore in 1607. The lighting here is truly a study in contrast, with darkness enveloping one leg, one head and more. For an interesting analysis of this painting as a portrait of a violent Naples see this article on Napoli Unplugged.
The Martyrdom of St. Ursula
The last painting Caravaggio ever did was the Martyrdom of St. Ursula, recently recognized for what it is, in the collection of the Intesa/San Paolo Bank group in the beautifully restored Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano. It had been in the bank’s storage for some years, acquired at an undefined price and attributed to a follower of Caravaggio. After restoration in the early 2000s, two scholars recognized the hand of Caravaggio. The restoration also brought out elements that weren’t fully visible, like a hand between the two central figures (missing a body, however).
The painting was, and still is, in not very good condition because it was painted hastily and bundled up, still wet, to be sent to the man who commissioned it in Genoa. Caravaggio had been asked to paint it by the Genovese merchant Marcantonio Doria in honour of his daughter’s joining the order of St. Ursula. Caravaggio did it, but he wasn’t feeling very well. He painted himself into the image, a pale figure in armour in the background who seems to cry out in pain in empathy for the female saint. He is the colour of death, having been suffering fever that doctors now believe may have been lead poisoning. And in fact, his haste was because he was leaving the city, heading back to Rome to receive a papal pardon. But he never made it – abandoned by the ship’s captain in Argentario, south of Grosseto in Tuscany, he died (there is a monument to him in the woods near Feniglia beach).
The Baroque in Naples
While you could spend an hour in front of each of these paintings and call it a tour, our guide Roberta contextualized the Caravaggio’s within the rest of the Baroque in Naples, let’s say the style he left behind. The whole 1600s felt his hand. It was also a difficult period for the city. The Spanish Viceroys in control of the city took much of its richness back to the “mother country”, plus Vesuvius errupted (in 1631) and there was a terrible plague in 1656 that killed many painters (and other people as well). In all this, the gritty, honest but dark naturalism and violence of Caravaggio’s Naples phases rang home clearly.
Pretty much anywhere you look you’ll find examples of the Baroque style, which evolved into the 18th century in a slightly different manifestation. It went beyond painting into sculpture, of which the major exponent was Cosimo Fanzango, and even into city planning and architecture, where archways and ondulations created dramatic light, shadow and motion.
The most spectacular place to take in the full impact of the late Baroque style in Naples is probably the Certosa of San Martino, high up on the hill above the city. The Carthusian monastery was one of the richest of the city, attracting its best artists. The huge complex is now also in part a museum that houses a fun collection of nativity scenes for which the city is famous.
Another don’t miss is the chapel of San Gennaro in the Cathedral of Naples. The bust of their patron saint is made in gold, while 54 other reliquary busts are made of silver and are the most astonishing thing I have ever seen. The light in this space encapsulates not only the late Baroque spirit but the spirit and spirituality of Naples.