Neapolitan School
17th Century Painting in Naples, by Ribera, Lanfranco, Guido Reni.

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The Liberation of St Peter (1615)
Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
By Battistello Caracciolo.

For a guide, see: Definition of Art.

Neapolitan School of Painting (1600-56)


Battistello Caracciolo
Jusepe de Ribera
Caracciolo and Vouet
Stanzione and Guido Reni
Giovanni Do and Velazquez
Neo-Venetian Idiom
Influence of Poussin and Van Dyck
Domenichino and Lanfranco
Cavallino and other Eccentric Neapolitan Painters
Classicism and Cardinal Ascanio Filomarino
Van Dyck's Neo-Venetian Style
Influence of the Baroque on Neapolitan Art

Drunken Silenus (1626) By Ribera.
Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

St Andrew (1630-2) By Ribera.
Prado Museum, Madrid. Note the
emphatic tenebrism, highlighting
the torso of St Andrew.


The arrival of Caravaggio in Naples and his work during his visits there (September 1606 to June 1607, and October 1609 to July 1610) produced a formidable shock in local artistic circles. (See also: Caravaggio in Naples.) A few Neapolitan painters may have had some earlier knowledge of Caravaggio, but most of them were confronted only with his last, most radical style, which was difficult for Mannerist artists to comprehend. Paradoxically, for such a violent man, Caravaggio's naturalist style of painting was the perfect vehicle for Catholic Counter-Reformation Art: a cause eagerly taken up by the devout city of Naples. (See also: Classicism and Naturalism in Italian 17th Century Painting.) For this and other reasons, painting in Naples - at least in the 17th century - would never be the same again.

Battistello Caracciolo

Apart from some copies of Caravaggio's Neapolitan paintings, most notably those of Louis Finson (1580-1617), the first sign of local caravaggism is found in The Immaculate Conception (1607, S. Maria della Stella, Naples) by Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635). Despite the crowded figures arranged in one plane and other obvious tricks of Mannerist painting, this was the first real response in Naples to Caravaggio's The Seven Acts of Mercy (1606-07, Pio Monte della Misericordia). Between 1607 and 1614, Battistello was to establish himself as Caravaggio's most faithful Italian follower with such works as The Baptism of Christ (Pinacoteca dei Girolamini, Naples) and Ecce Homo (Hermitage, St Petersburg). The dramatic presentation of a scene, the essential moment caught in a shaft of harsh light, the close grouping of the figures, the chiaroscuro accented with touches of red and white are all characteristics lifted bodily from Caravaggio's work of 1607-10, and confirm that Caracciolo must have copied Caravaggio's religious paintings as the sources indicate.

But Battistello's residual taste for linear outline and his instinct for creating forms through graphic means survived, and this later drew him towards Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) and the Bolognese school established by the Carracci.

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Carlo Sellitto (1581-1614) encountered greater difficulties. He was trained in the idiom of mannerism, but in the two Stories of St. Peter in the Cortone chapel, S. Anna dei Lombardi (1608-12) he plunged into an impossible contest with the contemporary work of Caravaggio and of Battistello in the neighbouring chapels of the Fenaroli and Noris Correggio families respectively. Sellitto died soon afterwards in 1614; his studio assistant was Filippo Vitale, who may have completed the pictures left unfinished after his master's death.

In 1614 Battistello had visited Rome where he encountered the work of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) and he adopted his rotund forms as can be seen in The Liberation of St Peter (1608-9, Capodimonte Museum, Naples) and the Trinitas Terrestris (1617, Pieta dei Turchini), the first works in Naples in which Caravaggio's style was adapted to meet the needs of local devotional painting. It was a very successful formula, surviving for at least a decade, and influenced the work of Paolo Finoglia (1590-1645) in, for example, the lunettes from the Certosa di S. Martino. Finoglia developed a highly individual style, with an almost obsessive insistence on the physical qualities of the materials portrayed, a factor usually associated with the presence of Antiveduto Gramatica (1570-1626) at the Certosa dei Camaldoli, Naples, around 1620.

Jusepe de Ribera

By this date Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) had appeared on the scene. The changes he brought about between his arrival in 1616 and 1630 make him a most important figure in the development of Neapolitan naturalistic painting. Ribera was at first associated with the group of northern Caravaggisti, whose frank naturalism was less tragic, desolate and monumental than Caravaggio's. The Drunken Silenus (1626, Capodimonte Museum, Naples and the Martyrs (1628-29, Florence and Budapest) show how his taste for vivid narrative could sometimes touch on the grotesque and the horrific. His brushwork, so dense and strong in impasto and colour, was imitated by his contemporaries including Caracciolo and Filippo Vitale (1589-1650). At the end of the 1620s Ribera held a sort of artistic hegemony in Naples and his work was lauded by the Spanish viceroys.

Note: Although Ribera and others painted numerous secular works, the Catholic character of Naples ensured that Christian art was the dominant genre.

Caracciolo and Vouet

In the years 1618-26 Caracciolo was travelling between Rome, Naples, Genoa and Florence and was open to many different influences. It was he who first established the artistic link between Naples and Genoa with a painting commissioned in 1610 which was sent by sea and which was followed before 1620 by other works of his, as well as paintings by Ribera, Azzolino and Domenico Fiasella (1589-1669). The alliance formed between Caracciolo and Simon Vouet (1590-1649) strengthened during the 1620s and formed the basis of a reaction against the artistic hegemony of Ribera and his followers. Vouet's style was known through two pictures - St Bruno Receiving the Rule of the Carthusian Order (c.1620, Certosa di S. Martino, Naples) and The Circumcision (c.1622, Capodimonte Museum, Naples) - sent to Naples in the 1620s; they were of fundamental importance for Caracciolo and influenced his Washing of the Feet (1622, S. Martino).

Stanzione and Guido Reni

Massimo Stanzione (1585-1656), initially a follower of Battistello and Vouet, began to form his mature style in Rome. One of his most important works from this period is The Adoration of the Shepherds (1627, S. Martino). By 1627 Stanzione had monopolized prestigious commissions for fine art painting to the exclusion of Ribera and his followers. In 1622 the celebrated Guido Reni (1575-1642) had come to Naples for a visit of much longer duration to paint the most prestigious commission available in the city, the Oratorians of the Girolamini. He painted three pictures there, including The Meeting of Christ with John the Baptist (late 1620s, Church of Girolamini, Naples), which are typical of his mature style - elegant, clear-cut and with a predilection for luminous surfaces. Reni's art became a component of Stanzione's style, and the young Andrea Vaccaro (1605-70) used it to modify his Caravaggesque tenebrism.

Giovanni Do and Velazquez

In the later 1620s, Ribera's Neapolitan followers elaborated endless variations on his 'new' naturalism, and influenced artists in both Spain and Italy. From 1623 another Valencian, Giovanni Do (c.1600-56), the author of the Adoration of the Shepherds (after 1626, Capodimonte Museum, Naples), introduced more Spanish elements into Neapolitan painting. It is also possible that some of the naturalistic paintings of Velazquez (1599-1660) appeared in Naples during the 1620s; he himself came in 1630-31. This is suggested by the work of another great master in Ribera's workshop, the so-called 'Master of the Annunciations to the Shepherds'. During the 1620s and 1630s his work developed from the tremendo impasto towards an increasingly radical naturalism; he depicted a social class which had never appeared so plainly in paint before. The early work of Francesco Fracanzano (c.1612-56) is very close to the anonymous Master's. In 1635 Fracanzano produced his masterpieces, the two paintings in S. Gregorio Armeno (St Gregory of Armenia Thrown into the Well, and A Miracle of St Gregory of Armenia). These display a luminosity, a painterly interpretation and a refinement of colour which were to remain typical of the artist.

Neo-Venetian Idiom

From 1630-36 the fashion for Ribera's tremendo impasto declined and there was a move towards a new type of Venetian painting. Ribera was in the vanguard of this movement which suggests that he must have been in close contact with Velazquez when he came to Naples in 1630-31. After meeting Rubens (1577-1640) in Madrid, Velazquez was already moving towards a lighter, brightly coloured palette. The naturalistic revival affected many artists outside Ribera's circle, both the older generation of Caravaggesque painters and those who had previously used a precise brushwork like Vitale, Aniello Falcone (1607-56) and Guarino (1611-54) and who now adopted a more vigorous, open technique. Although Guarino was said to be a pupil of Stanzione, his early paintings - such as the Annunciation to the Shepherds (c.1630) in the Collegiata, Solofra - are violently naturalistic in style, portray the humblest social classes and parallel the Master of the Annunciation's work.

Influence of Poussin and Van Dyck

Yet even at this time, at the height of this naturalistic phase, a neo-Venetian painterliness and classicism imported mainly from Rome were both evident, and indicated the course that Neapolitan painting was to take in later decades of the century. The sources of the neo-Venetian current were two-fold: Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who had studied Titian's Bacchanals in Rome, and Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), two of whose pictures (Susanna and the Elders and St. Sebastian) were in the Gaspar Roomer collection by about 1630 and whose work became better known in Naples after the arrival of Novelli about 1632-3.

Several of Poussin's pictures are recorded in Neapolitan collections before 1630, including the large Adoration of the Golden Calf admired by Valguarnera in the collection of a certain Signor Gosman in about 1630. This neo-Venetian influence was reinforced by the arrival in Naples in 1635 of Castiglione (1609-64) who had transformed still-life painting and animal scenes of the Genoese and Flemish tradition by using a rich and Titianesque technique in emulation of Poussin. His visit had a profound effect on Andrea di Lione (1610-85), who held a well-attended Academy for the study of the nude in his house. Poussin and Castiglione inspired him to abandon painting pastoral subjects and turn to ancient Rome for inspiration, hence the strange phenomenon of his Gladiators and the Entrance to the Circus in the Prado. He also painted still-life pictures, and had links with Luca Forte (1610/15-1669) and Paolo Porpora (1617-1670).

Domenichino and Lanfranco

During the first 30 years of the Seicento an undercurrent of classicism had persisted amongst those artists who chose to study in Rome, but in the 1630s two of the protagonists of the school came to work in Naples, preceded by a fame and welcomed with expectations (and suspicions) comparable only with those that had accompanied the earlier advent of Caravaggio. Domenichino (1581-1641) was in Naples for much of the 1630s working on the decoration of the Cappella del Tesoro. Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647) was there almost continuously between 1632 and 1646 painting fresco cycles in the Gesu Nuovo, SS Apostoli and S. Martino.

These two Italian Baroque artists did not have the instant success which might have been expected in the South. But one result of Domenichino's visit was the development of the mature style of Stanzione, the 'Guido of Naples', in which Domenichino's influence was at least as important as that of Reni. Stanzione's naturalism was now tempered by an increasing classical rigour, as can be seen in the paintings in the Chapel of St. Bruno in S. Martino: the Last Supper (1638-9) and the Pieta (1638-9) were in a sense a challenge to Ribera. His former magniloquent rhetoric was filtered through a simple and sentimental religiosity, and it was precisely because his classicism was not all-pervasive that his work proved so popular. In his later works Stanzione was influenced by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) - best-known for her masterpiece Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620, Uffizi, Florence) - who arrived in Naples after 1630; they collaborated at Pozzuoli Cathedral. He may also have been affected by the possible presence of Spadarino.

1630s: Cavallino and other Eccentric Neapolitan Painters

The 1630s was the most volcanic and contradictory decade in the history of seventeenth-century Neapolitan art, when many disparate currents converged. Several eccentric individuals were active there, each using an idiosyncratic and complex language, the most important of whom was Bernardo Cavallino (1616-56). According to source-books he trained in the studio of Stanzione (c.1632—35) and was in close contact with Artemisia Gentileschi. His earliest works, such as the Adoration of the Shepherds (1635-40, Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Brunswick) show he studied Caravaggio and Caracciolo as well as their Roman followers and in them he used only large-scale figures. From Stanzione he inherited a great sensitivity to sentiment, but he paid close attention also to Riberia and the work of the Master of the Annunciations. In the 1630s he was in contact with Falcone and through him with Castiglione, who directed him towards painting compositions with small figures; by 1640—50, he had become the undisputed master of this genre. Similar attitudes can be found in the work of Giovanni Battista Spinelli (active 1630-50), which is sometimes extravagant to the point of being grotesque. The third, and probably the most decidedly naturalistic of this group of eccentrics active in Naples in the 1630s was Antonio De Bellis (active 1630-45); a fourth was Bartolomeo Passante (1618-56), a pupil of Ribera's.

1640s: Classicism and Cardinal Ascanio Filomarino

At the beginning of the 1640s poor health forced Ribera to entrust the execution of some of his pictures to assistants. At the same time the rising popularity of the classical idiom led him to play down his earlier aggressive naturalism, as is evident in the large Communion of the Apostles at S. Martino which was begun in 1638 but only finished in 1651-52. The same tendency can be seen in works such as the Marriage of St. Catherine (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

One of the determining factors in the fashion for classicism in the 1640s was the clearly defined taste of the new Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Ascanio Filomarino, who took office in 1642. It is not known to what extent Neapolitan painters had access to Filomarino's collection. But even before he become Archbishop he had made public his preferences in the Chapel of the SS Annunziata, built between 1636 and 1640 in the church of SS Apostoli, which was one of the most original pieces of ecclesiastical Baroque architecture in Naples with the altar designed by Borromini. When Filomarino became Archbishop in 1642 he chose Lanfranco to fresco the Archbishop's Palace and to paint the altarpiece in the chapel which includes a portrait of Filomarino.

Although Poussin apparently never reached Naples, a few of his paintings did. His rival Charles Mellin stayed in the city between 1643 and 1647: Mellin's works, such as the huge altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception (1646) now in the Gallery of the Incoronata del Buonconsiglio, Capodimonte, Naples, are as cold and classical as Domenichino's. It was at this date, between 1640 and 1642, that the monks of the Certosa di S. Martino rejected Ribera's Holy Family with St. Bruno and considered replacing it with Guido Reni's Adoration of the Shepherds.

It was against this background that Stanzione, who had anticipated these developments as early as 1635, enjoyed his years of triumph from 1640 until 1656, the year of the plague. With an ever-increasing number of assistants he turned out a huge series of canvases and acres of fresco painting. Seduced by the easy possibilities of this academicism, Pacecco (Francesco de Rosa) (1607-56) and many other painters tagged on to Stanzione's style.

Even an artist of quite a different calibre like Aniello Falcone reacted to Stanzione's success. In his rare pictures with large-scale figures, such as the Flight into Egypt (1641, Naples Cathedral), he modified his naturalism in imitation of Stanzione. But in his small pictures he started an anti-academic reaction which brought him close to the genre painting of the Roman Bamboccianti, some of whom were in Naples at this time. See also the battle-scenes and landscapes of Falcone's pupil, Salvator Rosa (1615-73).

Van Dyck's Neo-Venetian Style

For Stanzione and his followers, the only valid alternative to this dying naturalism was Van Dyck's new version of Venetian portrait painting. By the beginning of the 1640s his paintings were in several art collections in Naples and it was these that provoked the most interesting developments in Neapolitan painting, particularly amongst the group of artists working between 1640-41 at the Sapienza which included Cesare Fracanzano, Matthias Somer (1600-after 1650), Carlo Rosa and Micco Spadaro (1609-75), the most interesting of the group, whose use of light owed much to Van Dyck.

De Dominici relates that in 1640, on the arrival of Rubens' Banquet of Herod (National Gallery of Scotland) in Roomer's collection, Cavallino was among the first to admire it, which is probably true. In addition, although De Dominici does not say so, Cavallino must have studied the various paintings by Van Dyck which we know Roomer possessed by this date. The result of this study was a series of half-length figures rich in grace, vivacity and colour and sufficiently erudite in subject matter to be a great success with collectors and amateurs. A devoted reader of the scriptures, the Metamorphoses, Josephus and the Gerusalemme Liberata, Cavallino replicated and extended the sentimental tone and theatrical potential of Stanzione's art. Cavallino was an isolated figure, whose natural elegance distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries. The influence of Van Dyck is also evident in his late work.

Influence of the Baroque on Neapolitan Art

The time was approaching when it was possible for Naples to appreciate Baroque art, and several paintings by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) were already in Neapolitan collections. It was only after Masaniello's Revolt in 1647 when several classicizing painters fled the city that the Neapolitan painters began to look again at Rubens's Feast of Herod, at the great Van Dyck in the Oratory of the Rosario at Palermo, at the Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni at the Certosa, and at Lanfranco's fresco in the dome of the Cappella del Tesoro, which, though not as important as that in S. Andrea della Valle, was one of the foremost works of Baroque illusionist trompe l'oeil art in Italy. (For more about this type of work, see: Quadratura.)

After the plague a new type of artist who was closer in mentality to the founders of Baroque painting, appeared in Naples. The two guiding lights were Mattia Preti (1613-99) and Luca Giordano (1634-1705); both had originally studied Caravaggio and both had absorbed the legacy of Venetian painting from the cinquecento, particularly the work of Paolo Veronese (1528-88). Although they were painted before the plague of 1654-55, Giordano's pictures in S. Pietro ad Aram and S. Brigida, enveloped in light and shade, close one chapter of art in Naples and open another, entitled Neapolitan Baroque Painting (c.1650-1700). The third key figure was Francesco Solimena (1657-1747), whose fresco style ranged from High Baroque to Rococo, reflecting the naturalism and dramatic chiaroscuro of Lanfranco, Preti and Giordano, but also the classical structure of Bolognese classicists like Annibale Carracci.

A key feature of the eighteenth century Grand Tour around Europe, 17th Century Neapolitan paintings by Caravaggio, Ribera and others can be seen in several of the best art museums in the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of content from Pierluigi Leone de Castris's eminent article on the evolution of Neapolitan art, published by the Royal Academy, London (1982).


• For the chronology of 17th century Italian painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
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