Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy, Detail, 16067-1607, Oil on canvas, 102.4 x 153.5", Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples
A On Foot through the Centre of Naples to Discover Masterpieces by Caravaggio
Among the artistic marvels to be discovered in the historic centre of Naples, the works of the great Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, truly stand out. Three canvases in all which, in themselves, are well worth a trip into this city which, for centuries, has been a crossroads for illustrious characters and a source of inspiration for numerous works of literature and art.
Within the arc of a particularly restless life, marked by episodes of violence and sudden escapes, Caravaggio stayed in Naples twice. The first time was in 1606, when the artist fled from Rome, having killed a man, and sought refuge in a apartment in the Spanish Quarter. The second time was between 1609 and 1610 on his way back from Malta, awaiting the pardon that would allow him to return to Rome.
Near Piazza Santa Maria la Nova and the Port of Naples, the painter often spent time at the Locanda del Cerriglio, a local restaurant. It was here, one night in 1609, that Caravaggio was attacked by several people, probably for an offence to someone’s honour. Even today, it is still possible to visit this restaurant, which is also known for its excellent cuisine.
Giuseppe Carelli (Naples, 1858 - Portici, 1921), Taverna del Cerriglio
Caravaggio created several paintings in Naples, some of which, unfortunately, were lost in the earthquake of 1805. Today, three absolute masterpieces can still be admired and they stand out among the artist’s works for their immense dramatic vitality: The Seven Works of Mercy kept at the Pinacoteca del Pio Monte della Misericordia, The Flagellation of Christ at the Museo Bosco di Capodimonte and The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula at Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano.
Before dying at the age of 39, all alone, on the beach of Porto Ercole, the Master was a regular guest in the most important salons of the 1600s in Rome and Naples, but also in Malta and Sicily, where his art, known for its particular realism which almost forces the spectator to enter into the depicted scene, was highly in demand.
Visit to Pio Monte della Misericordia to admire The Seven Works of Mercy (1606-07)
Pio Monte della Misericordia is an ancient institution founded in 1602 by some Neapolitan nobles with the aim of helping the needy. In 1606, Luigi Carafa-Colonna, a nobleman that was a member of the congregation, that had offered to protect the artist after he fled from Rome, commissioned Caravaggio to execute what would be one of his great masterpieces, depicting the seven works of corporal mercy to which the activities of Pio Monte were dedicated: give drink to the thirsty, bury the dead, house pilgrims, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry and comfort the sick.
The Holy Mother, flanked by two angels, that of Good and that of Evil, observe the scene from on high. The work seems to be set in one of Naples’ characteristic side-streets and was probably inspired by the local reality with which the artist was in contact. The wonder of the painting comes from the artist’s incredible use of light and colour to sculpt the forms that seem to emerge from the darkness.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy, 16067-1607, Oil on canvas, 102.4 x 153.5", Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples
A Monumental Work: The Flagellation of Christ (1607-1608)
Tommaso De Franchis paid 290 ducats for this painting which can now be found in the Museo Bosco di Capodimonte. The monumentally-sized altarpiece was destined for the Church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples for the family chapel and is considered one of the artist’s most celebrated works, thanks to the study of light involved in its creation. In the scene, in fact, Christ appears tied to a column, fully illuminated, while in net contrast with the dark tones of his three torturers in the background, almost lost in darkness, while Christ’s face is shown clearly, exhausted and resigned to his fate.
The composition is truly dramatic and is an innovation for the time with its harsh, blinding contrasts of light and shadow, fragments of bodies in movement, sustained by an immense tension, not just physical, but, above all, emotional.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Flagellation of Christ, 1607-1608, Oil on canvas, 83.8 x 112.5", Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
Caravaggio at Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano: The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula
Also known as “The Last Caravaggio”, it is probably the last painting that the artist created, quite quickly, just a few weeks before his death, right before leaving Naples. The painting was commissioned by Marcantonio Doria of Genoa, whose family considered Saint Ursula their guardian.
The canvas communicates a true terrestrial desire: the Saint as depicted by Caravaggio, as pale as moonlight, seems to be trying to remove the arrowhead that has pierced her flesh with her own hands to continue to live. Acquired in 1972 by the Banca Commerciale Italiana, headquarters of Banca Intesa, the work can be found in the Gallery of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, in front of the Spanish Quarter.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, 1610, Oil on canvas, 67.1 x 55.3", Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples
Perhaps it is not a common fact that Caravaggio’s good fortune was quite brief: twenty years after his death and for more than three centuries, another great Renaissance artist overshadowed him - Raphael, certainly more elegant and refined than the painter from Lombardy. Only after the Second World War did interest slowly become renewed in the works of Caravaggio as they were re-evaluated for the first time in ages. Thankfully, today, the artist is admired by a vast and appreciative public.