Masterpieces of Naples: Caravaggio

The Flagellation, The 7 Acts of Mercy and the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

© by Dr Maria Sannino

Caravaggio's self-portrait

Caravaggio’s self-portrait

The town of Naples has always been a magnet attracting the most exceptional people. As a matter of fact, there have been extraordinary people who came to Naples, apparently for specific reasons, and they ended up leaving their prints in the cultural life of this unique wondrous town.

One of those remarkable fellow was Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio. He was twice in Naples but only for a couple of months. Neverthless he produced here many of his masterpieces, three of which are still kept in this beautiful town.
Caravaggio came to Naples in 1606 when he was forced to leave the town of Rome, having killed a man after a fight, and he stopped in Naples, a city which has always been ready to welcome those who lost their ways.
Naples proved to be the most suitable environment for the subjects of Caravaggio’s works: the darkness of the intriguing maze of narrow lanes of the ancient city, the Spanish quarters, taverners, delinquents, gamblers, beautiful women and young boys resembling angels.
The muscular, strong men that Caravaggio used as subjects of most of his works were met in the streets of Naples and looking at them carefully, we notice that their feet are dirty, meaning that they were also poor people or outcasts, and those were the ideal subjects for a painter who used to live in misery notwithstanding the enormous amount of works that he produced during his short life. The Church commissioned him various paintings and although Caravaggio created masterpieces, the clergy did not always appreciated them, nay it often rejected them, as it considered those paintings halfway between the sacred and profan. Caravaggio’s works were snapshots of reality which were in contrast with the idea of spirituality that the Church required. Nevertheless Caravaggio’s works were appreciated by other people and they were soon acquired by private collectors. His production was always attracting artists who noticed the grandeur of this promising young painter and many followed his prints.

7 Acts of Mercy

7 Acts of Mercy

The 7 acts of Mercy was one of those impressive paintings that caused such an astonishing reaction by the public and art critics, that it may be considered one of the most beautiful works ever produced by Caravaggio and surely one of the most superb religious paintings of the 17th century. It could even claim to having given birth to the Neapolitan Baroque.
Caravaggio was commissioned this work by the Pio Monte di Misericordia deputation and he was supposed to represent all the 7 works of Mercy in one painting. This was not an easy task but Caravaggio never refused a challenge, so he decided to divide the work into two parts: the bottom of the painting illustrating the earthly 7 works of Mercy and the top part of it portraying the spiritual side of it, with the Virgin and the angels overlooking the entire scene of Mercy. He created a very dynamic composition exalting the contrasts of human experiences represented in a torch-lighted street scene where the characters are performing the acts of Mercy in a natural and realistic way.



Another splendid work that Caravaggio made for a rich Neapolitan family was the Flagellation, now kept in the Capodimonte museum. It is one of Caravaggio’s best works. Tied to the column, Christ is surrounded by three men trying to hurt him. Their faces seem not to show any regret for what they are doing while Christ seems to be reacting to whipping as any human being would do. The use of colour in Caravaggio is very unusual but the right usage of some palettes of warm flesh tones renders its works very peculiar. The figures of the torturers are revealed in such a natural and realistic way that it seems that they are moving. For the first time a brawny Christ is portrayed almost naked, wearing only a single piece of cloth wrapped round the hips. His head reclining to the left. The entire scene seems to come out of a dark street corner or a dungeon where nobody could see what is happening and Christ is left alone in the hands of those violent soldiers.

The martyrdom of Saint Ursula

The martyrdom of Saint Ursula

A red colour, linked to blood, characterizes the last work, the famous Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, that Caravaggio created a few days before his tragic lonely death. A woman who was the symbol of beauty was killed by an arrow that Attila shot in anger . Here the killer’s face ( a self-portrait) seems to be a regretful one while, behind the wounded lady, Caravaggio’s face is once more clearly visible. He was regretting his omicide and from this last work all his sorrow is expressed without any doubt. It seems that Caravaggio’s self-portriat was reproduce three times in this work, the third being drawn by the slightly visible hand close to Ursula’s body, that Caravaggio added as if he was trying to avoid Attila’s omicide, without any success.
The tree works can be admired in Naples on the special Caravaggio’s tour that I lead.  The Flagellation is in the Capodimonte Museum, the 7 works of Mercy is in the Pio Monte della Misericordia and the Saint Ursula is in the famous Palazzo Zevallos museum.

For those interested in the guided tour, please do not hesitate to contact me at: or at 3393982433


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