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.

Flagellation

Flagellation

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: belsannino@gmail.com or at 3393982433

Walking through the ancient town of Herculaneum (buried in A.D. 79)

© by Dr Maria Sannino

Herculaneum

The ruins of ancient Herculaneum

The little hamlet of Herculaneum was situated on a high bluff overlooking the sea, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, which dominated the bay of Naples, in the Campania region, South Italy.Two small streams, gliding down from the volcano, were flanking the cliff supported by ramparts. Coloured wooden fishing boats were on the black sandy beach. High fornices had been built right underneath the temples where the Gods would watch the sailors leaving for a fishing trip and would protect them. To the right of the temples area, a terrace had a white marble cenotaph in its centre. Decorated with marmoreal reliefs, it was dedicated to Marcus Nonius Balbus, a very important personality who became the patron of Herculaneum.

Decumanus Maximus

Decumanus Maximus

Over the centuries, the small village had been transformed into a resort town for wealthy people and during the forth century b.C., soon after the Samnites wars, it became a flourishing vacation centre for Roman patricians. Many successful philosophers and writers used to gather here to talk about philosophy and poetry. Up above the reef, imposing dwellings had their terraces facing the bay. The view from those residences was magnificent. The spectacular bay of Naples was opening, like an amphitheater, right in front of them. Their beautiful sweet-scented gardens, were adorned by many marble statues portraying Greek Gods or heroes, according to the taste of the owner of the lodging. The timber roofs were elegantly decorated either with basreliefs or frescoes. A rare example of a well preserved carbonised wooden roof, with a set of garnished panels, was found on Herculaneum’s ancient shoreline, in the year 2010. Most of the houses had an inlaid coloured marble floor, the walls were painted with delicate frescoes, the internal gardens were surrounded by rooms which were used for different purposes. An efficient sewerage system, collecting the waters from the houses, the shops and the thermal baths, was placed underneath the roads and drained on the foreshore.

The recent excavations and investigations along those sewers, gave us the opportunity to have an idea of the life and the sort of diet that the Herculaneans had, before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius of the year A. D. 79 covered every single inch of their town. The city was, in fact, buried under some 25 meters of a pyroclastic flow during one of the most catastrophic eruptions in the world. The liquid hot material penetrated inside the houses and preserved almost everything: from carbonized wooden furniture, doors and windows, to jewels, seeds, fruits, bread, payri scrolls and even clothes. For more than sixteeen centuries Herculaneum remained buried beneath the medieval town of Resina, which was built, on top of the ancient city, a few years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It was only in 1709 that a worker, digging a well, discovered, by chance, the theatre of the ancient buried town and the real adventure of the excavations of the ruins of Herculaneum began.

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Roaming the streets of ancient Herculaneum means to take a trip into the past. Every corner has its own fascinating bit of history and culture, which are easily traceable from the well preserved houses and their gardens, which were recreated exactly as they were before the cataclysm of the year 79.Crossing a high bridge and entering the town, the bastion used by the army, is still visible to the left. To the right, a huge mansion made the archaeologists think that this was a hotel. Its garden must have been so fragrant and so well looking. In fact, it had been planted with pomegranate and quince trees, among which beautiful scented roses were flowering into the sun. A street is leading to the centre of the town and towards the volcano. It is flanked by the remains of many elegant mansions and shops.

House of the deers

House of the deers

A hotel is in sight close to the man section of the thermal bath and its gym. To the left, a private basilica which was enriched with the statues of the most important emperors, is still beneath a thick layer of solid volcanic material. At the end of the road, just before entering the forum, which is still hidden under a huge amount of pyroclastic material, there is, to the right, the famous Collegium of the Augustales, a collegial shrine where the Roman priests (called Augustals) attended to the religious rites connected with the worship of the Emperor Augustus and the Julia gens. This large hall is decorated by frescoes portraying the mytholigical founder of the town: Hercules. Exiting this suggestive building, an arch decorated by stucco reliefs will introduce the forum area which was facing the decumanus, the most important street in the city. This is a marvellous street, bordered by imposing architectures. Here, well-preserved carbonized wood is astonishingly conspicuous: shelves, roofs, doors, windows are all clearly detectable. The shops are still decorated with frescoes and the wooden shelves are still hanging from the walls. Limestone drinking fountais, decorated with sculptures representing Gods, are located at each crossing. The decumanus was probably the location where a daily market was held, and many shops were allineated along the road. A few impressive dwellings were facing it. One of them would go down in history as many crucial wax tablets were found in a box inside one of its rooms. They were reproducing the important court case relative to Petronia Justa, a complicated process of the Roman time to determine whether she was a slave or a free person. Going down the forth street, called cardo, the gorgeous, marble embellished women section of the thermal bath is placed to the right, soon after the house of the Black Hall, considered one of the most beautiful homes in Herculaneum. To the left, a series of stunning marble mosaics are visible into the houses facing the road. Here there is one of the most amazing shops where terracotta amphoras are kept inside the original wooden shelves which are still hanging from the wall. Entering the apartment to the left, the eye is captured by a marvellous wall mosaic representing Amphitrite and Neptune. Continuing along the road the Samnite House to the left is worth a visit.

Herculaneum from the top

View from the top

Passed the intersection, another dwelling to the right is characterized by a wooden partition which was used to give some privacy to the owner’s office. Pristine mosaics and frescoes clearly show the importance of the family living here. Close to this building, an ironing wooden press, still untouched, gives us an idea of how laundries were organized two thousand years ago. Returning to the crossing with the Decumanus inferior, which ends right in front of the Palestra (the gym), the small reliefs of winged Victories are traceable to the left. Reaching the next crossroad and turning to the left, a few shops, among which a laundry and a bakery, are aligned to the right. After the visit of the gym, returning to the intersection and continuing along the 5th cardo, it is possible to visit the most impressive Herculanean dwellings: the house of the deers to the right and the Telefo’s house to the left. Heading down towards the sea, the steep road leads towards the terrace of the cenotaph, to the left, and the temples, which are aligned to the right, and are overlooking the ancient marina. The underneath beach was the place where in 1981 a wooden Roman boat was uncovered, and recently, in 2010 an entire timber roof was discovered together with the set of the wooden panels which decorated it. It probably belonged to the House of the Relief of Telefus fronting the bay. Returning to the main road which takes towards the exit and turning back, it is possible to see, at a distance, the location of the spectaular villa of the Papyri from which a library full of bookcases with carbonised papyri scrolls was found. Unfortunately the villa is still under 25 meters of volcanic material that hopefully will be removed in the near future so to open, to the public, this area too.

For a walking tour of the ancient town, please contact me at belsannino@gmail.com