Light and Shadow: Art Tourism in Naples (Part II)

The Nolè Sisters “Tour to the Roots” in Basilicata, Italy
October 29, 2014
Meet Paul Marinaro
November 20, 2014

by Mark Russell

Crossing the long Piazza del Municipio and heading up via Medina and via Monteoliveto we are soon drawn into the narrow, dimly-lit, congested streets of the historic center. This is the heart of the Spanish city cut through by the Spaccanapoli (the street that “splits” Naples) and its dilapidated buildings, many of them Medieval and Renaissance palazzi. Here everything is cheek-by-jowl; washing is hung out to dry in sun-less streets; litter is scattered on the ground; street markets bustle; children and dogs scamper here and there; people come and go in all directions as scooters dart past at dangerously-fast speeds and small cars attempt to squeeze through the pedestrians; residents emerge from dark courtyards, lean from the doors and windows of their cramped apartments, and call to each other in a dialect that is incomprehensible. rnertardfd

It is in this warren of streets that comprise old Naples that its finest treasures are to be found. Locals advise visitors not to miss the Veiled Christ in the Sansevero Chapel. This truly impressive marble sculpture, completed by Giuseppe Sammartino in 1753, is one of the most visited of the city’s monuments. But it represents only a very small part of the artistic activity that occurred in Naples during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
To begin with, Naples is home to impressive examples of church architecture from the Baroque age. Dark, narrow, and congested streets open onto magnificent interior spaces. One of the most impressive and opulently decorated examples is the Gesù Nuovo, built for the Jesuit order at the end of the sixteenth century. Its vast, centrally-planned space, decorated with colored marble and frescoes, rivals that of the Gesù in Rome.

sangencapChapel of San Gennaro Another Baroque masterpiece is the Chapel of San Gennaro (the patron saint of Naples) in the city’s medieval cathedral. A vial containing a solid red substance, reputed to be his blood, liquefies when exposed to the faithful three times a year. The artistry of the chapel containing San Gennaro’s relics is of a richness comparable to the more famous Borghese Chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore. Here, and in many other Neapolitan churches, one can admire the works of important Italian Baroque painters including Luca Giordano, Caravaggio, Salvatore Rosa, and Mattia Preti.

But what is especially overlooked about Naples is that it is also home to important examples of Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture of very high quality and art-historical importance. Severely damaged in the Second World War, the fourteenth-century Franciscan Church of Santa Chiara preserves the remains of Angevin royal monuments including the large and elaborate tomb of Robert the Wise that was erected in the 1340s. The Gothic Church of San Domenico Maggiore was the church of the Aragonese nobility and many of their sarcophagi are preserved in the sacristy. The church is home to a wealth of artworks including a wonderful cycle of frescoes attributed to Pietro Cavallini, the important late-medieval Roman artist. Another great Franciscan foundation, San Lorenzo Maggiore, features an impressive group of Medieval and Renaissance tombs including that of Catherine of Austria who died in 1323.
And there are several Renaissance gems in Naples, one of which is the Church of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi that contains many fine examples of Renaissance sculpture of the Neapolitan school. The sacristy ceiling was frescoed by Giorgio Vasari and its walls decorated in 1510 with exquisite intarsia work by Giovanni da Verona. Of the city’s many Renaissance palazzi, the Palazzo Gravina is a very fine example in the Tuscan style and is now home to the university’s Faculty of Architecture. Lovers of Renaissance sculpture should not miss the tomb of Cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci executed around 1425 by Donatello and Michelozzo for the Church of Sant’Angelo a Nilo.
Naples also boasts world-class museums which alone warrant a visit to the city. The holdings of the Archeological Museum are truly spectacular. Its Farnese Collection of ancient sculpture contains some of the most famous statuary of antiquity and is astounding in its breadth and quality. There is also a rich collection of Roman mosaics of incredible refinement, and the many frescoes from Pompeii and elsewhere left me marveling at the mastery of Roman painters. The Capodimonte Museum is also home to a collection of international importance. Housed in the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte, perhaps its most famous work is Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. But its treasures include works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bruegel, El Greco, and many other Italian and European masters, along with a series of impressive royal apartments.

But one need not pursue an exhausting itinerary of art tourism to enjoy Naples. The city is a wonderful venue for pastimes of all sorts. Strolling the streets of old Naples is an experience in itself. There is the hustle and bustle of via San Gregorio, lined with the shops of craftsmen who produce figures for the famous Neapolitan nativity scenes. One can browse in more relaxed fashion in the bookshops near Piazza Dante. And there are many parks and promenades in and near the city. On summer evenings via N. Sauro and via Partenope are alive with diners and pedestrians. Running along the waterfront, lined with luxury hotels, and punctuated by the Castel d’Ovo (the twelfth-century seat of Norman rulers) these avenues offer beautiful views over the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius. sgregarm

And then there is the food. Naples is famous for its pizza, sea food, mozzarella di bufala, sfogliatelle, and babà, a sponge cake soaked in rum syrup. There are many upmarket restaurants, but one can often eat just as well, if not better, in a small trattoria or in one of the many eateries, bars, and cafés that line the streets of the historic center.
And so I returned from Naples, to the surprise of friends, not only unscathed but enthralled. Are there problems with the city? Of course there are, and it is common sense for visitors to take precautions against petty crime. Also, of the many affable people I met, more than one told me that many Neapolitans do not value their city’s cultural heritage. Recent reports of chronic neglect at the Royal Palace of Caserta, the so-called Italian Versailles built by Bourbon rulers in the eighteenth century and a forty-minute train ride from the city, are indicative of ongoing problems. Shadows remain. Yet there is no question that Naples is a treasure of European civilization that will delight tourists of all sorts. To anyone considering a visit, perhaps retracing the journey of an ancestor, I can only repeat the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Run, fly to Naples!”