Neapolitan Baroque
17th Century Painting in Naples: Luca Giordano, Francesco Solimena.

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S. Cecilia in Ecstasy (1645)
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
By Bernardo Cavallino. A perfect
example of seventeenth century
Catholic Counter-Reformation Art.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

Neapolitan Baroque Painting (c.1650-1700)


Effect of the Plague on Neapolitan Art
Development of Baroque Painting in Naples
Giovanni Lanfranco
Neo-Venetian Painting Tendencies
Influence of Classicism
Religious Ideology in Naples and Rome
Political Benefits of Baroque Art
Luca Giordano
Mattia Preti's Paintings
1660s: Giordano's Baroque Style
Giovanni Battista Beinaschi
Internationalism in Naples
Other Neapolitan Baroque Painters
Francesco Solimena's Classicism

Phineas and His Companions
turned to Stone by Perseus (c.1680)
National Gallery, London.
By Luca Giordano.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

Effect of the Plague on Neapolitan Art

The idea that the tragic consequences of the plague of 1656 significantly altered the development of painting in Naples, or introduced Baroque art to the city, has now been disproved. The fact that the pictorial traditions of the first half of the century were superseded was not a direct consequence of the sudden disappearance of the painters who probably died in the plague and who had been the foremost artists in the second quarter of the century. Some innovations are already visible in various paintings dating from before 1656, and some leading Neapolitan artists after the plague had already produced significant work before the epidemic arrived. In any event, those who worked in the second half of the century — from Gargiulo to Vaccaro, from Giordano to Francesco Solimena - believed they were continuing the tradition of the Neapolitan School of painting, founded by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652). (See also: Caravaggio in Naples.)

This was an attitude shared by painters who, like Andrea Vaccaro or the younger Francesco De Maria and Giacomo Farelli, were conservative in their attitude towards earlier painting, and by those who tried to surpass the achievements of the earlier generation. There were precedents for the Neapolitan painters' interest in currents and styles emerging elsewhere in Europe. Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635), Jusepe Ribera, the Master of the Annunciations, Massimo Stanzione (1585-1656), Aniello Falcone (1607-56) and Bernardo Cavallino (1616-56) had all been aware of outside trends. So the plague did not fulfil a purifying and cathartic role; it was simply that Neapolitan painting of the second half of the century was less complex and more uniform in style. Apart from painters like Mattia Preti (1613-99) (whose stay in Naples was brief but prolific), Luca Giordano (1634-1705), Giovanni Battista Beinaschi, Francesco Solimena (1657-1747) and Paolo De Matteis, who were all independently engaged in reviving Neapolitan art and very aware of the developments in the rest of Europe, other artists active in Naples merely painted under the shadow of these masters or followed earlier models.



Development of Baroque Painting in Naples

Having established that the plague of 1656 played no part in the development of Neapolitan painting, despite its grievous consequences for civic life and society in Naples, it becomes necessary to trace the steps by which Neapolitan art was transformed in the second half of the century and the way in which this was effected without a break in continuity. The introduction of Baroque painting was in fact due principally to the presence in Naples of Mattia Preti between 1656 and 1660, and of the young Luca Giordano, who after 1656 embarked on an extraordinary adventure with the Baroque which carried him over into the Rococo movement of the eighteenth century.

One origin of this Baroque movement was the move towards painterliness which took place in the mid-1630s, both amongst naturalistic painters dependent on Ribera and the anonymous Master of the Annunciations, and amongst those of a classicizing tendency, whose chief protagonist was for a long time Massimo Stanzione. This change was prompted by local painters' contacts with the wave of Venetian painting in Rome in the years following 1633—34 and by the tendencies that developed in the wake of the visits to Italy by Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The artists who were involved in this development included both complex naturalistic painters such as Ribera, the Master of the Annunciations, Francesco Fracanzano (1612-56), Francesco Guarino (1611-54), Antonio De Bellis (active 1630-45) and Bernardo Cavallino and classicizing painters such as Stanzione, Aniello Falcone, Andrea Vaccaro (1605-70) and Pacecco (Francesco de Rosa) (1607-56). This new painterliness was, however, not a reaction against all earlier tendencies, but rather a desire to paint more broadly and tenderly.


Giovanni Lanfranco

One painter who was a catalyst in this change to the Baroque was Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). He was in Naples from 1632, working in the Cappella del Tesoro, at the SS Apostoli, at S. Martino and on the cupola of the Gesu Nuovo, creating the astounding spatial illusionism (see also below) which he had already painted in S. Andrea della Valle, Rome. At the same time Naples painters were visiting Rome, where they could study the decoration of Palazzo Barberini, the sacristy of the Chiesa Nuova and the work of Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). Works by Cortona and Guercino (1591-1666) had already arrived in Naples, both in private collections and in churches. One might expect that, as a result of these contacts, Neapolitan Baroque would have paralleled developments in Rome. But an examination of the painting produced in Naples 1635-1650 makes it apparent that the legacy of Venetian painting, the painterliness of Rubens and Van Dyck, the work of Castiglione (1609-64) and even the work of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) before his final turn to classicism did not produce the same results in Naples as in Rome. Until the middle of the century, the attitude of the Neapolitans was, if not one of decided opposition to Baroque tendencies, either one of indifference or of almost total incomprehension.

The early presence of works by Guercino and Pietro da Cortona passed almost wholly unnoticed in Naples and patronage was determined by the taste of local religious bodies (in particular Theatines and Jesuits) who were influenced in their choice of Christian art by the directives of the Counter-Reformation. Lanfranco's paintings were understood locally not to be examples of the rising tide of the Baroque, but rather the last off-shoots of the classicizing current deriving from the Annibale Carracci (1560-1609).

Neo-Venetian Painting Tendencies

The influence exerted by the various protagonists of Venetian altarpieces and Venetian portrait painting did, however, succeed in producing a wide variety of tendencies in Neapolitan art, even if they did not produce a specific Baroque style. In the case of painters with a background in naturalism, their attention to some aspects of Rubensian and Vandyckian painterliness produced an extraordinary refinement of the original qualities of their work, in terms of both colour and light, and a softening and greater intimacy in their expressive powers. This reached its peak in the religious paintings of Cavallino such as his S. Cecilia in Ecstasy (1645, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence), but was pushed still further by Ribera between 1646 and 1652, who produced works of exhilarating pictorial beauty and truth of expression, without yielding to classicizing solutions or studied academicism.

Influence of Classicism

Amongst Stanzione's followers, things developed differently. Although they shared in the common move towards a painterly style, their ideological notions drove them to refer back to the classicism of Guido Reni (1575-1642) and Domenichino (1581-1641). Consequently they preferred to study the neo-Venetians who had combined precious colouring with balanced compositions and refined elegance of form, artists such as Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661), Poussin of the late 1630s and Charles Mellin (1597-1649) at the time of his work in S. Luigi dei Francesi and Montecassino where his innate classicism was combined with a cultured sensitivity of expression. (See also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting.) Given these strictures, little or nothing could be conceded to the new style of the Baroque. In fact, Stanzione's late works, with their monumental compositions, solemn content and reasoned articulation in terms of the structure of the painting reached solutions that were utterly at variance with the overwhelming illusory exuberance of Baroque painting.

In broad outline this was the situation in Neapolitan painting from the mid-1630s until the sad days of the plague in 1656. Only Cavallino seems to attempt something different in his small-scale compositions after the S. Cecilia of 1645. He followed his own poetic ideal of highly refined images and fragile sentiments which was very different from the sustained courtly elegance of Stanzione.

Religious Ideology in Naples and Rome

So it might be argued that for all those infected by the new painterliness in the 1630s, there had been little advance in comparison with the progress made in the same period in Rome. The 'crisis of painterliness' that was so rich in consequences for painters in Rome, did not succeed in abolishing the local naturalistic or classicizing tendencies in Naples. It was only after 1656, with the work of Preti and Giordano, that Neapolitan oil painting came into line with the modern tendencies that had developed in Rome in the climate of the Baroque.

The reason that Neapolitan painters developed independently may be sought in a variety of causes, including the local political, economic and social situation, local cultural patterns and Neapolitan religious attitudes. In this context, it is necessary to recall the influence exerted in Naples by the monastic orders linked to the Theresian and Alcantarian reform over an extensive period and by quietism, which found fertile ground in the south of Italy. This movement favoured a form of mystical devotion with a high emotional content and it revived and diffused devotional practices which encouraged a more direct link between the believer and the divine.

These ideological tendencies were substantially different from those of the Roman church, particularly the Jesuits, who exalted the value of the universal over the particular, favoured religious practices that promised the possibility of overcoming the limits imposed on the human condition and reaffirmed the role of the ecclesiastical institution as the sole valid intermediary between believers and the deity.

It is clear that such a duality would also be reflected in all religious art, especially painting, given its function as one of the chief instruments of religious propaganda and as a tangible form for the expression of religious abstractions. It is not without significance that the impulses and certainties of the Roman Church Triumphant in the early seicento were best expressed in optimistic and overwhelming Baroque visions of unlimited space (realized, for instance, through dramatic di sotto in su ceiling decorations and other forms of trompe l'oeil painting), while in Naples the type of religiosity favoured by the Alcantarines, the Theresians and quietists showed itself in the preference for subjects which dwelt on, and even exalted, the pain and suffering of human existence.

Political Benefits of Baroque Art

In explaining the comparative indifference to the Baroque in Naples, we should not forget that the political, economic and social situation of Naples was very different to that of Rome. In these years Rome was dominated by the splendours of a papal court that was intent on reaffirming its past role as a great temporal power and as the universal guide of Christendom by whatever means were available. Both the religious orders and the great patrician families were involved in monumental artistic projects to celebrate the prestige they derived from offices assigned to them within the new organization of the papal state. In a society governed by precise and rigorous hierarchical laws, fine art became an instrument to promote a policy of consensus among all social classes. And the Baroque, in which every element, iconographical detail and the materials used were built into a unified whole presenting the image of an infinite universe directed by Divine Providence, was the most appropriate style with which to convey the principle of hierarchy. (See: Baroque architecture as well as Baroque architects and quadraturisti).

But in Naples, there were deep rifts in society. The increasing political and administrative weakness resulting from the control of government from Madrid with the viceroy as its sole guarantor, the attempts of a fractious nobility to defend its ancient privileges and the existence of an ecclesiastical and monastic class that was powerful both in numbers and property, served to bind the function of images almost exclusively to individual or factional needs. Works of art interpreted the conservative tendencies of the ruling classes. It was only after the uprising of 1647—48 and the plague of 1656 that the politicians realized how paintings could be used as an efficacious instrument of ideological affirmation and began to comprehend the great potential of the Baroque as it had been employed in Rome.

While in Rome fresco painting had been open to the daring experiments of Baroque illusionism and quadratura since the late 1620s, in Naples, with the exception of Lanfranco and Domenichino, it remained the exclusive domain of painters either tied to the late mannerist tradition (like Belisario Corenzio, Luigi Rodriguez), or dependent on the classical tradition and Domenichino (like Massimo Stanzione).

By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were signs of artistic exhaustion in Naples. Apart from Ribera and Cavallino, the Neapolitan artists, for example Francesco Fracanzano and Antonio De Bellis, were producing works that were facile and incapable of giving life to new forms of art. In Stanzione's circle, despite some efforts to transcend local experience, Vaccaro and Pacecco de Rosa evolved styles of controlled elegance with increasingly obvious academic diminution.


Luca Giordano

All these traits must have been apparent to the young Luca Giordano when he entered Ribera's workshop around 1650. His work until the eve of the plague of 1656 reflected his desire to retrace the last 15 years of Ribera's activity, from the time of the painterly crisis of 1633—34 to his work after 1646. He was also impressed by the mature work of Stanzione and Francesco Fracanzano, Aniello Falcone and Vaccaro, but the impact of Ribera and the Master of the Annunciations, and his study of Caravaggism, clearly shows what aspects of the recent history of Neapolitan painting seemed, to the precocious sensibility of the young Giordano, worthy of consideration.

In particular, he studied the art of the 1630s during the transition period from naturalism to painterliness. The young artist, still not 20 years old, fully understood the richness and fertility of that moment and perceived the value of the way that it had opened up Neapolitan art to the influence of European paintings as a whole, and rescued Naples from the incipient cultural provincialism towards which its painting seemed to be drifting at the beginning of the 1650s. In this regard, his versions of earlier compositions by Ribera, his first, timid imitations of Lanfranco's and Pietro da Cortona's work in Naples and his early adhesion to the ideals encouraged by the Accademia degli Investiganti all yielded fertile results.

But it was above all his journey to study at Rome, Parma and Venice around 1653 that affected the direction of his art. The journey assumed a symbolic value, for it was a journey back in time, to study what seemed to him the most important sources for the development of modern art. In Rome he studied not only Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520), as was customary, but also Lanfranco, Pietro da Cortona and neo-Venetian works, especially those of Rubens in the Chiesa Nuova. Later he studied Rubens' sources: Correggio (1489-1534) in Parma and finally, in Venice, Fetti, Liberi, Strozzi and, most important of all, the paintings of Titian (c.1485/8-1576), Paolo Veronese (1528-88), Tintoretto (1518-94) and Jacopo Bassano (1515-92), which he recognized as the source of all that was good in contemporary painting.

Giordano's decisive break with Neapolitan traditions and his adoption of the Baroque style were prompted by Preti's arrival in Naples with his 'full-bodied thunderous, realistic and apocalyptic Baroque' (Longhi). Preti's brief but fertile Neapolitan stay (1656-1660) was exceptionally important, not merely for Giordano's development, but for the quality of the painting he produced there. In this period, just after his stay in Modena and before he went to work for the Knights of Malta, he produced several frescos, as well as panel paintings and vast canvases for church vaults and private residences. Preti managed to show what Giordano had already sensed: that Neapolitan painting could be revitalized and lifted above the merely provincial through a reconciliation of the naturalistic tradition and the full-blown aesthetics of the Baroque.

Mattia Preti's Paintings

The early Neapolitan work of Mattia Preti (1613-99), which still echoes Lanfranco, also approaches Battistello and Ribera, but the dark, thick paint is interrupted by flashes of incandescent light. He had already absorbed the influence of Caravaggio during his training in Rome; the other artist of fundamental importance to his art, both in terms of breadth of composition and colour, was Paolo Veronese. This is particularly obvious in Preti's later Neapolitan paintings - the celebrated feasts reminiscent of Veronese and the canvases which decorate the ceiling of S. Pietro at Maiella in the Venetian manner which Giordano must have appreciated. These works show Preti's modern feeling for vast, extended space and his transposition of Caravaggism into Baroque terms. His technique is broad and fluent, his paintings enveloped in a warm luminosity which amplifies the space of the compositions and enhances the florid forms and colouring derived from Veronese.

He avoided any facile fashionable illusionism; in his work the Baroque style, perhaps for the first time, communicated clearly authentic sensations and emotions which retain intact the image of a 'true' humanity capable of deep and real feelings and, as a result, the effect was all the more sincerely 'heroic' and monumental.

Preti's example accelerated tendencies which were already present in Giordano's art. These two Italian Baroque artists worked on equal terms. From Giordano's assimilation of the neo-Venetians, Rubens and the masters of the Venetian cinquecento, Preti was prompted to return to his early study of Veronese's sunny, grandoise compositions. In return, Preti set Giordano 'the valid and stimulating example of a mental attitude which considered the art of the present and the past as an open field that did not impose awe or 'academic' norms, but was freely available for new experiences'.

1660s: Giordano's Baroque Style

When Preti left for Malta, Giordano resumed his polemic against tradition with fresh energy, as if he were taking up a sort of crusade entrusted to him, and returned to the study of the Venetians of the cinquecento and to Rubens. He still made passing references to Ribera, the late work of Annibale Carracci, the young Poussin and, in particular, to Pietro da Cortona. In his middle phase he had reconsidered Pietro da Cortona's Florentine work, the Correggesque qualities of Lanfranco's painting and Maratta's classicism, but above all his art had been enhanced by contacts with Gaulli's art with its echoes of Correggio and Bernini (1598-1680).

The resulting style was certainly Baroque. By this stage Giordano went beyond imitation, giving free rein to his heart rather than his mind, and he translated into coloured fantasy the intense emotions generated by the endless spectacle of light, form and colour in which natural and supernatural reality presented itself to his restless, dreaming mind. He painted with a feeling for the variety and vastness of Nature and the Universe, translating that Baroque idea of unlimited, continuous space into images painted in his own modern style.

His altarpieces and secular works were of extraordinary pictorial intensity and he had painted vast, exhilarating fresco cycles in Florence, Naples, Madrid, the Escorial and Toledo. His last work, significantly painted at the beginning of the eighteenth century, was the decoration of the small dome of the Treasury of S. Martino. These Stories of Judith and other Heroines of the Old Testament are the most radiant introduction to the new, refined style of the European Rococo movement, the source of all art from Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) to Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), and from Corrado Giaquinto (1703-66) to Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). They constituted a passionate plea by the aging Giordano to future artists to free creative fantasy from the limits of the real and mundane.

So, after the hesitations and difficulties earlier in the century, the Baroque style finally emerged fully with Preti and the classicizing tendencies of Francesco Solimena at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Giovanni Battista Beinaschi

The art of Giovanni Battista Beinaschi (1636–1688) is less innovatory than that of Giordano, but has signs of modernity never found in De Maria or Farelli. He was born in Piedmont and was long active in Naples; he worked in a markedly neo-Lanfranchian vein, close in style to Giacinto Brandi (1621-91) in Rome. His vast frescoes and canvases at S. Maria degli Angeli at Pizzofalcone, S. Maria delle Grazie at Caponapoli and SS Apostoli show a successful integration of the proto-Baroque characteristics of Correggio present in Lanfranco's work and demonstrated his importance as an artist and source of a Baroque style and sensibility who had not renounced, as Giordano had, the need for formal clarity.

Beinaschi's admiration for Lanfranco not only reflected a desire for stylistic continuity, but also coincided with an enthusiasm for Giordano.

Internationalism in Naples

But while Giordano was the single most important artist in Naples during the second half of the Seicento, at least until Francesco Solimena's maturity, Neapolitan painting was not entirely dominated by the art of the Baroque. Despite the vast number of prestigious commissions that Giordano received from churches and palaces in Naples, he assumed an attitude of almost ostentatious independence from the local environment, preferring his art to be regarded in an European context. It was only on rare occasions that local patrons could grant him the scope offered by the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, the Monastery of S. Lorenzo at the Escorial, the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid or the Cathedral of Toledo.

So while Giordano was painting his airy Baroque visions, and injecting into Neapolitan painting a new life that was vital for later developments, there was greater local enthusiasm for painting of a more traditional nature. Apart from those who belonged to the older generation, like Andrea Vaccaro or Giuseppe Marullo (c.1526-85), or whose work was modest in quality, like Giacomo di Castro (c.1597-1687), we should mention some painters who were trained almost at the same time as Giordano and who set out to compete with him.

Other Neapolitan Baroque Painters

Francesco Di Maria (1623–1690) and Giacomo Farelli (1629-1706) resisted Giordano's innovations and upheld classical values, maintaining in traditional fashion that form was more important than painterly qualities. However, they did not completely ignore recent developments; in fact, Di Maria often attempted to graft Preti's finer modelling onto his classical style and Farelli borrowed from both Preti and Giordano. But the attitude of Di Maria and Farelli represented an artistic philosophy that, revived by the Arcadian movement, was later the background to the re-evaluation of his painting that had already had a significant impact on Preti's work at Modena, Naples and Malta and even on that of Giordano. Lanfranco's influence was to be decisive for Francesco Solimena's development around 1665-70, after his naturalistic beginnings with his father Angelo and his early interest in Giordano.

Francesco Solimena's Classicism

With Francesco Solimena, who was after Giordano the greatest artist active in Naples in the second half of the Seicento, the various tendencies that had emerged in painting over a span of more than 50 years, from Lanfranco to Preti and Giordano, reached the point of greatest visual impact. His work up to the beginning of the eighteenth century, though showing an awareness of the Neapolitan naturalistic tradition, as well as of Lanfranco, Pietro da Cortona, Giordano and Preti and even of Maratta's tempered classicism, is marked by a sense of compromise between old and new, between tradition and modernity, that distinguishes it from the work of Di Maria and Farelli.

Unlike Giordano at the same period, Solimena, from the time of his earliest maturity and increasingly around the turn of the century, endowed his art with an ethical as well as an exquisitely aesthetic value. It was a method of presentation, which, while appearing direct, in fact concealed a complex cultural background and it represented a synthesis of the artistic tendencies of the whole century in its pursuit of a style rather than a formula. A style capable of fulfilling needs that went beyond the intentions of Baroque painting and of meeting the demands of Neapolitan religiosity, with its Counter-Reformation impulses and quietism as well as the rationalist tendencies of some of the more progressive sectors of southern society.

In this Solimena was close to, and possibly influenced by, Paolo De Matteis (1662-1728) who, after a period in Rome in the circle of Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), engaged in a sort of compromise between classicism and Baroque around 1690. This phase of his work influenced various painters who began with a more Rococo manner, such as Francesco De Mura (1696-1782) and Fedele Fischetti (1734-89). Solimena's work, in particular at the turn of the settecento, surpassed even the brilliance of De Matteis' reinterpretation of Maratta in terms of light and colour.

So while the lesson of Giordano, now tempered by the influence of Genoese late Baroque painting, petered out in the decorative, subtly Rococo and secular work of Domenico Antonio Vaccaro (1678-1745) and Giacomo del Po (1654–1726), Solimena - already one of the foremost protagonists of the new painting in Europe and the only painter in Naples with a positive sense of an uninterrupted continuity of ideas, even more than of style - stood poised between the tendencies of the great seventeenth-century tradition and the new direction of the century that had just begun.

Seventeenth century Neapolitan paintings can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world, notably the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and the Prado Museum, Madrid.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Nicola Spinosa's scholarly essay on the evolution of the Neapolitan Baroque, published by the Royal Academy, London (1982).

• For a chronological guide to Baroque painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about 17th century Neapolitan painters, see: Homepage.

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