Forced to keep one step ahead of the papal authorities, and racked by guilt, Caravaggio nevertheless found the time and strength of mind to complete a series of works that displayed a new power and urgency, alongside a brooding, tenebrous note that surely derived from the painter’s desperate state of mind. Chaotic, cultured and cosmopolitan, Naples seems to have suited the artist’s mood at this time – but it was too close to Rome, and the mandate for his arrest, for him to stick around for long.
‘Caravaggio Napoli’, an exhibition that has just opened at Naples’ Capodimonte museum (until 14 July), charts the artistic legacy of this brief sojourn and a second, three years later, after the restless genius’ self-imposed exile in Malta and Sicily. On display are six paintings known to have been carried out by the artist during these two short Neapolitan stays, alongside 22 works by artists active in the Bay of Naples area who were profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s dramatic chiaroscuro technique, as well as his use of models taken from the street to depict Biblical saints and the Holy Family – something that profoundly shocked the Catholic establishment of the time.
A shuttle bus has been laid on to take visitors from the leafy heights of Capodimonte palace, originally founded by Charles III of Naples, to the city centre, where one of Caravaggio’s most important works still stands in the chapel of the charitable institution that commissioned it. The Seven Works of Mercy is an extraordinary composition, a swirling press of figures human and celestial, far darker than one would expect of a canvas designed to celebrate the seven charitable acts (like healing the sick or sheltering the homeless) that are required of all good Catholics.
Back at Capodimonte, the main exhibition offers some juxtapositions visitors may never get the chance to see again. There are two different versions of the Flagellation of Christ, one already in Capodimonte’s permanent collection, the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen, and two of Caravaggio’s dramatic takes on the Bibical story of Salomé with the head of John the Baptist, on loan from London’s National Gallery and the Palacio Real in Madrid. It also presents what may well be the tortured genius’ last painting, the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (pictured above), which was finished just two months before Caravaggio’s death while attempting to return to Rome, the city where his talent had blossomed despite his stormy character and the hardships and uncertainties of his everyday life. He was just 37.
Caravaggio Napoli. Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte,12 April-14 July.
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