Neapolitan painting of the early seventeenth century is characterized by dramatic expression, emphatic naturalism, and intense chiaroscuro derived from the profound influence of Caravaggio (1571–1610), who spent a number of his later years in the port city. The Denial of Saint Peter (1997.167) exemplifies the works painted in Naples by the Lombard master and typifies the kind of psychological intensity common in his late paintings. In contrast to the naturalism of Caravaggio, the younger Neapolitan artists were also influenced by the classicism of the Bolognese painter Guido Reni (1575–1642) (among others). Thus, when the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) arrived in Naples in 1616, he encountered an artistic community of two opposing factions, one leaning toward a progressive naturalism only recently introduced by Caravaggio (he left Naples in 1610), the other trying hard to retain a rigid but successful classical style fostered by Reni. The legacy of Caravaggio prevailed in the end, and Ribera’s painting developed into lyrical and naturalistic depictions of figures and scenes that convey believable and immediate reality in every subject. Ribera also began to make prints soon after his arrival in Naples. Saint Jerome Hearing the Trumpet of the Last Judgment (53.512.5) and The Poet (30.54.69) illustrate the artist’s experiments with etching and his fascination with hermit saints, philosophers, and poets.
Ribera’s career in Naples is highlighted by several commissions for the monastic complex of Certosa di San Martino. Initially, from 1638 to 1643, he painted a series of prophets for the facade interior and side chapels of the church. His realistic portrayal of the figures evokes a hypersensitive naturalistic style not unlike his earlier pictures derivative of Caravaggio. Later, in 1651, he completed a large picture, the Communion of the Apostles, for the choir in the same church. In addition to his work at San Martino, Ribera achieved masterful success in his San Gennaro Emerging Unharmed from the Furnace, completed in 1647 for an altar of the Cappella del Tesoro in the Cathedral of San Gennaro. (Competition for commissions at San Gennaro was fierce. It has been suggested that Domenichino [1581–1641], an artist working in a classical style, was poisoned during work on his commission, six altarpieces on copper; he died after completing only four.) Ribera’s late masterpiece, The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria (34.73), shows a developed style combining Caravaggio’s naturalism and a restrained nod to the formal compositional structure of classicism.
As a key city under the Spanish Habsburgs, Naples was governed for decades by wealthy Spanish viceroys, a system that benefited Ribera and the artistic milieu. However, the city was not without its tensions during these years of Spanish rule. In 1647, an anti-Spanish revolt prompted by an increase in taxes on produce was led by Tommaso Aniello da Amalfi, known as Masaniello, and resulted in the death of some Neapolitan nobility and the beheading of Masaniello. In addition, the plague of 1656, which reduced the population by extraordinary numbers, left an indelible mark on painting and spurred the consecration of new churches and monasteries.
Ribera’s naturalistic style resonated throughout the new work produced by the young Neapolitan painters. The artist who built most upon this naturalism was Luca Giordano (1632–1705), who created a vibrant new approach to painting through an amplified sense of color and a particular sensitivity toward light. Giordano’s work energized the staid conventions of native Neapolitan painters. The Annunciation (1973.311.2) shows his distinct palette, which evolved during a long stay in Venice as a youth, while The Flight into Egypt (61.50) demonstrates his notorious skill at adapting to a variety of styles depending upon patron demands. Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), another Neapolitan painter who may have studied under Ribera, was much sought after for his talents as a landscape painter (34.137), skills equally evident in his drawings and etchings (11.66.7; 17.50.17-90). Following in the fertile tradition established by Giordano, Francesco Solimena (1657–1747) employed the methods of the great Neapolitan painter and, in addition, built upon the early naturalism of Ribera, but with even deeper gradations of shadow and a more refined portrayal of luminosity ultimately derived from Caravaggio (07.66).
Naples was ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs from 1707 until 1734, when the Bourbon dynasty took the city by force. Charles VII was crowned king of Naples and Sicily (r. 1734–59; later Charles III, king of Spain, r. 1759–88). The new king immediately commissioned Solimena to paint his portrait, fueling a surge of royal commissions and a renewed interest in Neapolitan art. The Bourbon court initiated a number of building projects, including the aggrandizement of the viceregal palace (today the Palazzo Reale), and the restoration of royal residences at Portici and Capodimonte. At Portici, the king supervised the excavations of Herculaneum, which had begun in 1738, almost twenty years after its discovery in 1709. In addition, he began construction on an enormous palace complex designed on the scale of Versailles, just outside Caserta.
Charles’s primary interest was architecture, but the queen, Maria Amalia of Saxony-Poland, commissioned Neapolitan painters such as Solimena, Francesco de Mura (1696–1782), Domenica Antonio Vaccaro (1678–1775), and Giuseppe Bonito (1707–1789) to provide palace decoration and individual works for the crown. Bonito, an apprentice of Solimena, employed a shadowed and richly pigmented version of the Baroque style. He is known for his simple genre scenes and representations of working-class domestic interiors. Gaspare Traversi (ca. 1722–1770) produced similar narratives of the working class, but in a more satirical, biting manner. Teasing a Sleeping Girl (1976.100.19) represents his witty approach to depicting carefree genre scenes. In Saint Margaret of Cortona (68.182), he placed the religious figure of Saint Margaret in a simple, austere context, and clad her in garments typical of the peasant class. Besides substantial Bourbon commissions, artistic sponsorship was supplemented to an even greater degree by patronage from the religious orders, which were restoring or building an enormous number of churches. Many of these were dedicated to the cult of the Madonna and patron saints such as Gennaro and John the Baptist. The Assumption of the Virgin (1971.243) by Francesco de Mura may be a preparatory drawing for a monumental fresco painted by the artist for the ceiling of the Nunziatella in Naples.
The patronage of Charles VII was critical to the development of the Neapolitan character and the artistic growth of the city as it ushered in the golden age of Naples. In addition to the king’s ambitious building campaign, he founded a porcelain factory at the royal palace in Capodimonte in 1743. The factory’s early production included luscious translucent soft-paste porcelain items such as snuffboxes, candlesticks, figurines, tea services, vases, and eventually even larger pieces such as chandeliers and an entire porcelain room. The principal modeler at the factory was Giuseppe Gricci (1700–1770), who worked with the chief paste-maker Gaetano Schepers (died after 1764) to create these highly prized objects. The Mourning Virgin (1971.92.1) represents the type of refined and delicate products made by Gricci, and is the only extant Capodimonte piece that bears his signature. The factory was dismantled in 1759 upon Charles’s departure for Madrid, and the young king Ferdinand IV (r. 1759–1825) eventually established a new factory, the Royal Porcelain Manufactory, at Portici in 1771. Although porcelain was regarded as the “white gold” of the royal crown under Charles, the production of works in silver—such as the statuette of Saint Michael (1976.46ab), probably by Gaetano Fumo (active 1737–59)—demonstrates the refined detail in which silver objects were produced in Naples.
Scenes of antiquity on porcelain, and in painting in general, became prominent about this time due to a European interest in all things antique, inspired by illustrated publications of the archaeological findings at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The classical motifs found on recently excavated wall paintings from Pompeii, and the looming presence of Vesuvius, made a substantial impact on young artists. These images and ideas would eventually usher in the nineteenth-century movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
Voorhies, James. “Art of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Naples.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/npls/hd_npls.htm (October 2003)
Bologna, Ferdinando. "Caravaggio: The Final Years (1606–1610)." In Caravaggio: The Final Years, edited by Silvia Cassani and Maria Sapio, pp. 16–47. Naples: Electa, 2004.