The Seven Acts of Mercy (1607) by Michelangelo Merisi detto CaravaggioPio Monte della Misericordia
On the Run
In Rome, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was always on the wrong side of the law. He was in and out of prison. He carried a sword. He loafed about taverns. He didn't pay his rent for six months. He harassed women, rival artists—anyone who slighted him. He assaulted waiters, notaries, and other public officials. He was also the greatest artist alive. Perhaps only in Rome, Europe's art capital, could a man like Caravaggio enjoy the protection of the powerful elite who depended on art for their prestige. Rome needed Caravaggio, and Caravaggio needed Rome. Then, on May 28, 1606, the great painter killed a man named Ranuccio Tommasoni. The reckoning had come: Caravaggio was sentenced to death. So he fled South.
In a Lonely Place
Caravaggio's disappearance was reported on May 31, 1606—three days after the killing of Tommasoni. His flight was made possible by one of Rome's most powerful dynastic families, the Colonna. Duke Marzio Colonna helped Caravaggio escape and gave him refuge in Zagarolo, the village south of Rome under his domain. Marzio then shuffled the artist further south to the town of Paliano, another Colonna possession effectively under Marzio's control. During these summer months, Caravaggio continued painting, executing a version of "Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy" and the "Supper at Emmaus" (Milan, Brera).
Going Down to the City
In 1606, Naples was the capital of a Vice-Kingdom belonging to the Spanish crown, as well as the second largest city in Europe, after Paris. Yet in the arts, the southern capital lagged behind Italy's great northern cities. That was about to change. On October 6, 1606, Caravaggio received his first commission from a Neapolitan merchant named Niccolò Radulovich. This painting, now lost, established Caravaggio's foothold in Naples. On January 9th the following year, the new church of Pio Monte della Misericordia commissioned Caravaggio to paint its high altarpiece, "The Seven Works of Mercy." The Neapolitan school of painting was born.
"Our Lady of the Misericordia," said the great Neapolitan art historian Raffaello Causa, was "the principal work of Caravaggio's maturity, which decisively began the course of modern painting in Naples."
An Enduring Legacy
Since the seventeenth century, Caravaggio's "Flagellation" has been seen as one of the master's most powerful works. Tommaso de Franchis, a Neapolitan nobleman, commissioned the painting for his family's chapel in one of the city's greatest churches, San Domenico Maggiore. Only one month after Caravaggio had been paid for the altarpiece in May 1607, he embarked for Malta. Nevertheless, the "Flagellation," and its author, left a lasting impact on Neapolitan artists.
Christ at the Column (ca. 1630) by Battistello (Giovanni Battista Caracciolo)Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
The Lessons of a Master
Battistello Caracciolo (1578–1635) was one of the first Neapolitan painters to engage with Caravaggio's new insights into the depiction of religious subjects. As early as 1607, he took up Caravaggio's style and reworked it in dozens of paintings that, at their best, approach the aesthetic and intellectual depth of Caravaggio himself.
"Christ at the Column" is one of Battistello's most explicit allusions to Caravaggio's work, the "Flagellation" above all. Both paintings pay homage to antique sculpture in their treatment of the male nude.
Annunciation to the Shepherds (17th century) by Fabrizio SantafedeMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
Not all painters absorbed Caravaggio equally. Of an earlier generation, Fabrizio Santafede (c. 1555–1626), painted plenty of nocturnal scenes, yet the psychological power of Caravaggio eluded him.
St. Jerome and the Angel (1626) by Jusepe de RiberaMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
Spanish master Ribera settled in Naples in 1616, and his fleshy, earth-toned variation on Caravaggio's style dominated Neapolitan painting for thirty years.
The trope of angels above acting upon mortals below was one of the key inventions of Caravaggio's Neapolitan years, as seen in the "Seven Works." In this "St. Jerome," Ribera uses the motif to great effect.
Martyrdom of St. Agatha (1623-25) by Massimo StanzioneMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
Ribera's primary rival, Massimo Stanzione, painted brightly colored frescoes and preferred a domestic style. Yet even he produced Caravaggio-inspired works early in his career, as in this "St. Agatha."
Martyrdom of St. Ursula (1610) by CaravaggioMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
A Second Neapolitan Sojourn
Caravaggio painted some of his greatest masterpieces in Malta and became one of the island's famous Knights of St. John. Yet the volatile artist was soon back in jail and expelled from the order. He escaped to Sicily and returned to Naples in October 1609. He had less than a year to live. During these final desperate months, Caravaggio painted understated works like the "Denial of St. Peter" (New York, Metropolitan Museum) and the "Martyrdom of Saint Ursula." The latter reached its patron, Marcantonio Doria of Genoa, on June 18, 1610—exactly one month before Caravaggio died attempting to return to Rome.
To learn more about Caravaggio and Naples, visit the exhibition—caravaggio napoli—which retraces the master's years in the southern capital step by step. Curated by Maria Cristina Terzaghi and Sylvain Bellenger, the exhibition is on view at the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte from April 12 to July 19, 2019. Additional stories on Caravaggio's Neapolitan works are also available on Capodimonte and Pio Monte della Misericordia's Google Arts & Culture pages.
Curated by Christopher Bakke.
The "Martyrdom of St. Ursula" is the property of Intesa Sanpaolo, Le Gallerie d'Italia, Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples.