When you look at Caravaggio's paintings you are also looking at Napoli. It is in the chiaroscuro, the contrast between the dramatic darkness and light, in the visceral depiction of bodies, dirty hands, expressive faces which are taken directly from the poor streets of Napoli.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) visited Napoli twice, in 1606 on the run from a murder charge in Rome and in 1610, just before his death on the way back to Rome. Napoli was a part of the Spanish Empire at that time and the city was a vibrant cultural and economic centre due to its important port. Many artists from all over Europe were attracted to the city by the commissions for the many churches and cathedrals.
In Napoli Caravaggio painted The Madonna of the Rosary (now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), The Flagellation of Christ (now at the Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli) and the stunning Seven Works of Mercy for the high altar of the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, which still stands today, together with the painting in its original position. This is definitely one of my favourite Caravaggio paintings. The architecture of the church seems to be constructed around the painting in a silent devotion to the artist. Caravaggio gave to Napoli one of his most breathtaking masterpieces. The painting is an image of the city where he tried to find comfort in a desperate time of his life.
Pio Monte della Misericordia was an institution founded by a group of noblemen dedicated exclusively to acts of human charity. The word misericordia means mercy. Caravaggio, portrayed in the painting the seven acts of physical mercy, which are; to bury the dead, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick and refresh the thirsty.
The scene is a revolutionary vision. All the acts are taking place in a mysterious dark neapolitan vicolo (alley) in the lower part of the painting, whilst in the top part are two floating angels supporting the Madonna of Mercy with Child.
Caravaggio was very successful and famous in Napoli, however after a few months he decided to leave the city and ended up in Malta with the Knights of St John and then Sicily.
He finally returned to Napoli in 1610 on the way to Rome, in order to receive forgiveness from the Pope for his misdeeds. This is when he painted The Denial of Saint Peter, (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and John the Baptist (now in Villa Borghese, Rome) and his last masterpiece Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, which has recently been attributed to him. This is the last dramatic painting of a unique artist. From the dark background, figures emerge in a silent procession of human bodies, the Saint and villains all together. Even Caravaggio himself participates in the scene, just behind Saint Ursula's head. The flesh is so pale in contrast with the black and the red of the clothes.
For sure, Caravaggio understood Napoli and the neapolitans like no other painter and after him the artistic life in Napoli would never be the same. He left behind a very prolific Caravaggesque movement with Neapolitan artists who kept alive his style, painting subjects that Caravaggio himself made popular. Artists like Mattia Preti, Salvator Rosa, Joseph de Ribera and Battistello Caracciolo, who was considered to be one of his truest followers.
Running until 15th January 2017 at London's National Gallery is the exhibition Beyond Caravaggio. It's worth visiting as there are many references to Napoli and Neapolitan artists which will make you understand better his his life and his connection with Napoli.
Where to see Caravaggio in Napoli:
Pio Monte della Misericordia, via dei Tribunali, 253 - 80139 Napoli. Tel. +39 081 44 69 44 / Tickets: €7 / Reduced: €5
Opening hours: Mon - Sat, 09.00 - 18.00 / Sun 09.00 - 14.30
Museum of Capodimonte, via Miano, 2 - 80131 Napoli. Tel. +39 081 74 99 154 / Email. firstname.lastname@example.org / Tickets: €8 / Reduced: €4
Opening hours: Every day except Wednesdays, 08.30 - 19.30
Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, via Toledo, 185 - 80132 Napoli. Tel. +39 800 454 229 / Email. email@example.com / Tickets: €5 / Reduced €3
Opening hours: Mon closed, Tue - Fri 10.00 - 18.00 / Sat - Sun 10.00 - 20.00