The triumph of the Neapolitan painting
November 14, 2019 – February 23, 2020
NaplesMuseo e real Bosco di Capodimonte
Luca Giordano, from Nature to Painting
October 8, 2020 – January 10, 2021
In his day, Luca Giordano (1634-1705) was famous, long-lived, and much travelled. Born in Naples, he worked there, in Florence and in Venice, and later in life for the court in Spain, before returning to paint in his native city, which was then under Spanish rule. By the 19th century, however, the baroque, and most especially the Neapolitan Baroque, was marginalized by scholars and the nouveau riche Americans who founded public art museums. While Renaissance art could readily be secularized, the Italian Baroque was seen, rightly, as all too Catholic. The 20th-century scholarship of Roberto Longhi, Rudolf Wittkower, and Denis Mahon led to a revival of interest in this tradition. Recently, there have been shows of such Naples-based artists as Bernardo Cavallino, Battistello Caracciolo, Paolo de Matteis, Jusepe de Ribera, and Micco Spadaro. Now it’s Giordano’s turn.
This exhibition, which includes nearly 90 works, is an ambitious revisionist exercise. Known by the infelicitous nickname “Luca fa presto,” Giordano did paint quickly, creating more than 5,000 frescoes and paintings. To be so productive he had, as you might expect, an army of assistants. The four self-portraits in this exhibition, which are surprisingly varied, hardly bring his personality into focus. In the second, from 1685, he looks dashing and has a mustache. In the third, done in 1688, he’s shaved and wears glasses. Early on Giordano painted some genre pictures, like Tavern Scene (1654), but mostly he stuck to subjects from scripture or classical mythology. Typically, he depicted crowds of figures in convoluted poses: in Michael the Archangel Driving Out the Rebellious Angels (1657) those angels fall as the saint swings his sword. Supplicants crowd around the saint in Saint Thomas Villanova Distributing Alms (1658). Giordano’s skill is manifest also in Saint Januarius Interceding to the Virgin Mary, Christ and God the Father for Victims of the Plague (1656), with its dramatic contrast between the saint rising up and the dead figures sprawled on the ground. And when we get to Saint Francis Xavier Baptizing the Indians (1680), an enormous crowd approaches to be baptized, as if this were a crowded Neapolitan street scene.
There is something exhausting about a painter always so determined to display his virtuosity. This is perhaps why I prefer his compositions with fewer figures, like the early Apollo and Marsyas (ca. 1660) or his late Minerva and Arachne (1695). “Perhaps the first virtuoso in the eighteenth-century sense, [Giordano] considered the whole past as an open book to be used for his own purposes… He played with all traditions rather than being tied to one,” wrote Rudolf Wittkower.1 And indeed, this catalogue links Giordano with other very diverse artists including not only Rubens and Manet, but also Ribera, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and, more eccentrically, with three American musicians, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, and Jimi Hendrix.
That he was famous for his swift execution and virtuosity does not nowadays inspire fascination. Giordano has none of the mystique that recently has been responsible for the enormous interest in Caravaggio, a brilliant, violent, rebellious, gay man, and Giordano’s problem, the catalogue rightly suggests, is that nowadays he is compared unfavorably with Caravaggio. That comparison, I agree, is surely unfair. Giordano’s orchestration of very large-scale works made his reputation. If you wanted to hire someone to cover an enormous ceiling, like his Glorification of the Medici Dynasty (1685), which is in Florence, or the vast wall with Jesus Driving the Merchants Out of the Temple (1684), in the Chiesa dei Girolamini, Naples, then you wouldn’t consider Caravaggio, who never worked in fresco. Isolating details from Giordano’s enormous pictures or focusing on the movable works to compare him to easel painters is to misapprehend his true achievement and underestimate his real accomplishments.
Giordano deserves to be judged on his own terms, such as his bravura technique and his adeptness at managing dynamic compositions, which are fascinating. But that’s very difficult in an art museum, for his grandest works were done for churches and palaces. Obviously, his paintings depicting saints or powerful political figures in the dome of heaven cannot be moved into museums. A ceiling fresco is not just a large canvas mounted above the viewer, but an essentially singular genre of artwork that develops a focused composition with a distinctive relation to the spectator. It is here that we see some of the vast differences between Giordano’s Catholic world view and our secular museum culture. A belated master of a very rich visual culture, he faced a real challenge in deciding how to deploy that tradition. Perhaps paradoxically, contemporary painters also face that problem, in our very different visual culture.
Giordano: is he not the Frank Stella of the Neapolitan Baroque? Would that I had a magic carpet to take me straight to Naples!2
Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 to 1750 (Harmondsworth, 1973), 462.
The review is based upon pre-pandemic experience of Giordano's art in Naples. I translate the titles in the French catalogue, Luca Giordano. Le triomphe de la peinture napolitaine (Paris Musées, 2020), which has unfortunately washed-out plates. Do see the vivid reproductions on the Capodimonte museum website.