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Navigating Naples

History of Art

Published August 2013

Naples is the Marmite of all Italian cities. But whether you love it or hate it, you cannot ignore its artistic significance or rough, rich flow of life. The city's proximity to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius only adds to Naples' sense of danger and volatile connection to its own land. Despite the pick-pockets and elusive churches, Dr Joris van Gastel finds solid ground in a fluid city.

“The main sites of our study are the numerous churches and chapels that are scattered broadly over the whole of Naples. Frequently, these are not easy to find, and most of the time they are reluctant to give up their treasures. Often enough, these churches lie hidden in some indescribably dirty quarter of the city, and the locals give them other names than the travel books and guides. When, after a few failed attempts, the goal is reached, it is probably closed; the sacristan is nowhere to be found, or one needs a special permission to visit the church, for which, again, one has to go to a lot of trouble to obtain it, if it is granted at all.”

Bust in Naples

In the somewhat more than a century that has passed since the German art historian Wilhelm Rolfs wrote these words, little appears to have changed in Naples. For me too, the numerous churches and chapels of Naples are among the main sites of my research, and even if the guide books might have become a bit more reliable, I too often encounter closed doors. Nor does the trouble stop there: museums that close off whole sections, websites that haven’t been updated since January 2009 – Naples breathes a condition of poverty and neglect. And yet, I have returned, now determined to develop a new research project which focuses on the city and its art. Indeed, Naples’ attraction might lie precisely in the kind of Pavlovian response triggered by what psychologists call 'intermittent reinforcement' - as it does not give up its treasures easily, one keeps coming back for more.

Naples, more than any other city, is a city one either loves or hates. For me, it was a love at first sight. Its rough edges lend it a great sense of authenticity; one feels the presence of history, but it is also a city where people actually live, many still in the historic centre. Where in most European cities the historic centre has become the site of big companies, in Naples, which boasts one of the largest historic centres in Europe (put on the UNESCO world heritage list in 1995), the ancient palazzi are still inhabited. Often, they have been divided up, whole families sharing not more than one or two rooms. They have made the streets part of their homes, and as a result the boundaries between private space and public space have become fluent. Walking the streets of Naples, one gets glances into the private lives of the inhabitants, and it appears no fortuity that the commedia dell’arte flourished here. On set evenings the locals flock to the many pizza places, blocking the narrow streets of Spaccanapoli to order their takeaway. But then again, this dense network of alleys, loosely following the grid of the ancient Greek city of Neapolis, is always hectic; scooters manoeuvre at irresponsible speed through the crowds of street vendors, beggars and – a relatively new phenomenon – tourists. A purse is snatched away before you know it.

But Naples has other sides too. From the living room workshops of the Sanità quarters to the stores of the luxury brands in the Via Chiaia, Naples is a city of contrasts. He who climbs the hill to the monastery of San Martino will not only find one of the most impressive artistic achievements Naples has to offer – paintings, sculptures, and inlayed marble compete here for the visitor’s attention – but also a terraced garden offering spectacular views over the bay. With the bustling city reduced to the occasional sounding of a distant car horn, one can imagine what attracted the eighteenth-century grand tourists to Naples. Indeed, Naples was then still regarded as a city of gardens; today, the only more outstretched patch of green is that of the park of Capodimonte, towards the north of the city. Here one also finds the Museo di Capodimonte. Housing, on the first floor, the stunning Farnese collection – Titian’s portrait of the aged pope Paul III Farnese alone makes the museum worth the visit – it belongs to one of the top collections of Italian painting in the world. It is the second floor, however, that is the real treat. This is where the works of the Neapolitan school are brought together: Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano, Francesco Solimena, and, above all, Jusepe de Ribera. Although textbooks always stress the persistent influence of Caravaggio, whose dark, monumental Flagellation, painted in Naples around 1607, marks the beginning of the baroque section of the Neapolitan galleries, it is the differences that are of interest. Look, for example, at Ribera’s virtuoso handling of the brush, how he paints the wrinkled skin of his Saint Jerome, or the fat belly of his Drunken Silenus. Here we find something that is wholly alien to Caravaggio’s art: the paint is applied in thick layers, its texture, the very materiality of the paint, used to give physical presence to the figures.

Notwithstanding its amazing collection, the museum is always empty – no waiting lines, no annoying tourists with cameras. Nor seem the locals much aware of the museum’s treasures; upon asking them about the city’s history, one is without exception sent to its underground caves and catacombs: Napoli sotteranea or, more often, the Cimitero delle Fontanelle. The latter, a system of artificial caves under the hill of Materdei gives a place to thousands and thousands of skulls and bones, many the remains of the plague epidemic of 1656. This is, together with the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, the traditional site of the skull cult of the capuzzelle. Prohibited by the official church and today actively practiced only at the outskirts of Naples, it involves the adopting of anonymous skulls, cared for in the hope that they will provide a link to the souls in purgatory. Placed in small altars the skulls are presented with seemingly insignificant offerings: coins, cigarettes, prayer cards. Whereas most skulls remain anonymous, a lucky few have develop characters of their owns in the popular imagination: 'the captain' and 'the bride' play a morbid role in folk tales, echoing, again, the commedia dell’arte.

Between the theatres of the living and the dead, Naples’ history unfolds as layers upon layers intertwine and interact. Here one can stumble upon the traces of the Roman theatre where once the infamous Roman emperor Nero performed his songs; two arches in a back alley, lined with linen hanging out to dry. Of course, Naples is not the only city with such a rich history. But where in Rome, Florence or Venice everything appears to have been brought back to an ideal state, here one has the feeling that something is still to be discovered. An yet, notwithstanding its cultural riches, Naples is seldom studied by art historians and has remained but a footnote to the larger narrative of the history of art. This may be partly the result of the more practical problems already noted by Rolfs. I believe, however, that there is also a more historical reason. Art historians have tried to capture Naples in terms that have been developed by studying other cities, indeed, the same Rome, Florence, and Venice. Only very recently, awareness is growing among scholars that Naples needs a different approach altogether. But where to start in all this confusion?

Interested in art? Find out more about studying the History of Art at Warwick.


Dr Joris van GastelDr Joris van Gastel studied Psychology and Art History at the VU University Amsterdam and the Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice. Between 2006 and 2011 he was part of the interdisciplinary research project Art, Agency and Living Presence in Early Modern Italy based at Leiden University, in the context of which he wrote his PhD thesis Il Marmo Spirante: Sculpture and Experience in Seventeenth-Century Rome. He has held fellowships at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, the Fondazione Ermitage Italia, Ferrara, and the Kolleg-Forschergruppe Bilddakt und Verkörperung, also in Berlin.


Image: A Quizzical Look by Trey Ratcliff (via Flickr)