Two of the best exhibitions I’ve seen this year — Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum at the Kimbell in Fort Worth and The Glory of Spain: Treasures from the Hispanic Society at Houston’s MFA — are from a genre I usually detest. The treasures or masterpiece show starts with a fetching theme, gathers what a museum might claim as its highlights, assembles a catalogue of babytalk scholarship and pretty pictures, and sends it on a tour for fast cash. Impressionist Gold of the Pharaohs and Czars kind of thing.
Not much of a point, except to bring crowds and make money. Renting museums make money, too, in admission fees and shop receipts. Lines are long, and we can hear the “cha-ching” chorus a block away. These shows are often intellectually empty. I like seeing masterpieces but want some new scholarship, too.
Much of the art, in reality, might live in storage, though a few things are sometimes great, or the artists are marquee names. Years ago, the Louvre sent a treasures show to American museums at $1 million a stop. I saw it at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. There were some nice things in it, but visitors were paying for one word: “Louvre.” I saw mostly tier-two and -three things. The catalogue was a lot of blah, blah, blah platitudes. MIA is a great museum, and a short walk to its permanent-collection galleries shows countless works of better quality than what the Louvre supplied.
Flesh and Blood and The Glory of Spain are supreme and rare exceptions to the rule. The two institutions did indeed send their jaw-dropping best. Both — New York’s Hispanic Society and Naples’s Capodimonte Museum — have superb collections and, unlike the Louvre, are mysteries to most Americans. People are seeing art they haven’t seen and that’s almost never lent. The catalogues are meaty and informative. Both are now on view in Texas, an art mecca rivaling those in many European countries, and both the Kimbell and the Houston MFA are now open for the public to enjoy. I’ve already written about the Hispanic Society show and visited the Kimbell last week.
Texas is saying “enough already” to public-health bureaucrats with no credibility, a news media with no scruples, and politicians with no cojones. Alas, COVID-19 is a new virus, the barn door’s flung open, and the country can’t tolerate millions of workers unemployed and millions of children unschooled. We need to end this most unexcellent, reckless, hubristic, and ruinous adventure. We’ll need to integrate COVID-19 into our lives for the foreseeable future.
Museums need to do their part. Many can’t reopen because their state and local masters won’t allow them, but many others can and won’t. They’re “preparing” and studying statistics and convening special committees, we’re told, but the truth is their shelter-in-place directors and senior staff have grown accustomed to collecting fat paychecks for the once-in-a-while Zoom meeting.
Today I read a long list of California museums that won’t open to serve the public until September. “Surf’s up,” I imagine, since I doubt more than a few among their staffs can productively “work from home” for what will be six months, with no collection, no public, no library, no shows, and no files.
Millions of unemployed, millions of mostly low-income workers who drive trucks, stock our supermarkets, and grow food, and millions working in factories and hospitals aren’t such lucky duckies. In a world of “haves” and “have nots,” right now big chunks of the museum class have it made. “Just keep scouring the papers for spikes, anywhere,” cry the lucky duckies. I suspect many want to keep the Endless Summer going. Aren’t the directors embarrassed?
Trustees countenancing this are guilty of negligence. They’re allowing philanthropic, tax-exempt dollars to be used to pay staffs who aren’t working full-time and to support institutions that are closed to the public. When it comes to museums that can legally open but haven’t, I’ve got some advice to their donors. Don’t give them money. They don’t deserve it.
I went to the Kimbell on opening day. There, people were solicitous of others. Those in at-risk groups are capable of opting to stay home. Visitors know how they need to behave. The staff was welcoming, careful, and conscientious.
And everyone visiting there is rightfully delighted with the show. The Capodimonte holds one of Europe’s best art collections, located in what was once a Bourbon palace on the edge of Naples. Naples is probably the only big European city where tourism hasn’t changed the look or tone of the place. It’s a messy, smelly, noisy, rambling, ancient, and modern city, once a royal court, often invaded, and in 1500 second only to Paris in population.
Unlike most treasures shows, Flesh and Blood has intelligently defined themes driven by a slice of the Capodimonte’s great collection, and what a delectable slice. Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, Reni, and Ribera star, though less-known artists such as Battistello Caracciolo (1578–1635), Mattia Preti (1613–1699), and Lionella Spada (1576–1622) show us that Neapolitan Sturm und Drang had a vibe all its own.
The works date from around 1500 to 1700. The twin themes, neatly twined and told through art, are the history of the Capodimonte collection (which is the history of a line of Farnese and Bourbon collectors) and the course of Neapolitan baroque painting. Titian and Raphael launch the first storyline, Caravaggio the second. Thrill-seekers, look no further. You’ve hit the mother lode.
Titian’s Pope Paul III Without Cap, from 1543, anchors the space dedicated to the Farnese family, notably to Alessandro Farnese (1468–1549). The relentlessly ambitious Farnese climbed the ecclesiastic pole, the tallest and greasiest, from low nobility to his reign as pope from 1534 to his death. He was a master networker and conniver, making friends and influencing people among the ranks of Borgia and Medici papal courts alike.
Farnese both collected and commissioned art during his rise to the top. Raphael’s three-quarter-length portrait of Farnese, then a cardinal, is in the show. It’s from around 1510. Farnese’s a cool cat. He’s poised and serious, and I like the cut of his power suit, layered enough to suggest mass and weight, but there’s no doubt he’s got the lean, hungry look, with a long, thin neck and a touch of angularity in his face.
He looks like a party-line, company man. His red mozetta cuts an emphatically straight line. Circuitry and stealth are essential in Farnese’s line of work — it’s the Roman Curia, not the Boy Scouts — but he has to pretend he’s reliable and transparent. That long neck is good for snooping.
It all served him well. Nearly 25 years later, Farnese sat for Titian as Paul III, still cadaverous, and still with those tough, penetrating eyes. Titian loves textures, and his Paul is cocooned in velvet, but don’t overlook those long, grasping fingers.
We see Farnese young and old together with Sebastiano del Piombo’s Portrait of Pope Clement VII, from 1527. He was Paul III’s predecessor and one of his Medici patrons. The three are studies in red, but they’re also reminders that the name “Farnese” ranks with the better-known Medici and Borgia families as top dogs in Italian and world politics.
Paul continued to hire artists and to buy art. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Ceiling and, over time, assembled a majestic antiquities collection. As pope, he organized the Counter-Reformation, excommunicated Henry VIII, and banned indigenous slavery in the New World.
He was one of those naughty popes, having a mistress and four children who, poof, were legitimized by Pope Julius II. His grandson, Alessandro Farnese (1520–1589), became a cardinal at age 14 and, in 1544, commissioned Titian to paint the luscious Danaë, also in the show. Alessandro’s taste was modern in that he invited artists to paint private, randy subjects in addition to religious pictures.
The exhibition charts the history of a great collection, a topic I enjoy because it’s lifestyles of the rich and famous and the history of taste. And I’ve never been to Naples and knew little about the Capodimonte aside from its renown. Following this storyline requires genealogy, very nicely presented in James Anno’s catalogue essay. By coincidence, or showing that the art world is small, he is the curator at the Houston MFA who arranged the Hispanic Society show I liked so much. He charts Cardinal Alessandro’s collecting, followed by that of his great-nephew, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese (1573–1626).
Pope Paul III fashioned nepotism into a fine art. He engineered his son’s elevation as Duke of Parma and Piacenza in 1545, a land-and-money grab leading to the younger Farnese’s assassination and a war finally won by the Farnese family, after which dissident Parmesan heads rolled. Farneses such as Odoardo shuttled between Rome and Parma. Odoardo quickly gave plenty of work to the Carracci family of painters, based in Bologna, and the aesthetic heavies in Emilia-Romagna.
There’s a good selection of Carraccis, but Agostino’s Hairy Harry, Mad Peter, and Tiny Amon from 1598 is the eye-catcher. They’re three Farnese court freaks. Ducal, royal, and papal courts served many purposes, political, religious, social, and an entertainment function as well, with entertainment embracing music and theater but also characters most of us would know from a circus, vaudeville, a TV variety show, or The Gong Show. Harry and his sister, Tognina, were covered with hair. Amon was a dwarf, and Peter probably had Tourette’s syndrome.
The Farnese collection grew to be massive, with art by Bellini, Bruegel, Correggio, El Greco, and many others. Pope Paul III’s collection soon gravitated to Parma, as did Cardinals Alessandro’s and Odoardo’s, though parts remained in Rome. The last Farnese Duke of Parma, a descendent of Pope Paul III, died in 1731. The art went to Charles of Bourbon (1716–1788), whose mother was Elisabeth Farnese, daughter of a previous Farnese Duke of Palma. Elisabeth was married to Philip V, the king of Spain. Charles of Bourbon, her eldest son, is best known as Charles III, king of Spain from 1759 to 1788.
Charles was the heir apparent to Philip V, but he whiled away the time as king of Naples from 1734 to 1759. Since Naples was Charles’s home base until he became the king of Spain, the Farnese art went south. Charles had the Capodimonte built as a picture gallery and hunting lodge in 1738. By 1799, the new museum held about 1,700 paintings and thousands of other objects consolidated from the Farnese family’s many homes in Naples.
The exhibition deftly places the Farnese story, the core history of the Capodimonte, as a hefty, compelling prelude to the Kimbell’s treatment of the Naples baroque style. The collection assembled by the Farnese popes, cardinals, and dukes wasn’t weighted to a Naples style of painting — they couldn’t have known the art would land there — and, in any event, until Caravaggio (1571–1610) arrived in Naples in 1606, there wasn’t one.
Naples was a big, dynamic city but an aesthetically inert one. Naples evaded the Renaissance. Its monied class was baronial, feudal, and rural. Commissioning religious or civic art wasn’t their thing. Naples’s history is tumultuous, with Aragon, and later, Spain, Swabia, and Anjou ruling it, and as a fiefdom it wasn’t positioned to become an art center.
Not until a vast urban renewal starting around 1565 did a robust local school start to emerge. The Counter-Reformation redefined church messaging, which meant a new look for the city’s 300 churches. After fits and starts involving mostly imported art, it was Caravaggio who delivered the “blood and glory” style that clicked with the local mood.
Caravaggio painted The Flagellation of Christ in 1607 for a family chapel in San Domenico Maggiore. The Capodimonte, by the way, is still a collecting museum. The painting came there from the church in 1972. This picture, his Seven Works of Mercy, and his Christ at the Column were all painted in Naples about the same time. Caravaggio arrived a fugitive wanted for a murder in Rome, and since Naples wasn’t Rome, and Caravaggio enjoyed the protection of the local Colonna family, he was able to stay and thrive. He brought to Naples the tenebrism style (from tenebrosin — dark, gloomy, and mysterious) that had made him Rome’s art revolutionary and, in his new home, sharpened and toughed it. The new amalgam was the style Neapolitans craved.
The Flagellation is a torture scene. It’s got his Roman chiaroscuro and his earthy cast of characters, but his theme is less salvation or revelation than the breaking of a body. It’s a raw, carnal look, airless and with a gritty back-alley feel. It’s not a bright, boulevard picture but a film noir one. Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, from 1601, where the muscular saint is hoisted upside down, points toward the Flagellation, which is more explicitly violent. Jesus’s contorted neck — he’s kicked in the back and his hair is pulled — is action drama.
In the exhibition, the Flagellation is displayed in the back of the big gallery in the Kimbell’s new Renzo Piano building. The curator used freestanding walls to divide the entire exhibition space, with the early Farnese story — the portraits and Danaë — front and center. The Carraccis dominate the middle of the space. Their work is mostly from the 1590s. They anticipate Caravaggio’s earthiness, but they’re smoother. Bodies are more sinuous. They are, after all, venturing from Mannerism, with its stretched, excessively elegant figures and bright colors, toward something new: more realistic body types and subjects and settings that promote empathy rather than fancy.
It was brilliant to juxtapose the Flagellation against Guido Reni’s big, splendid Atalanta and Hippomenes, from the early 1620s. It was a Farnese purchase in the early 18th century. Reni came to Naples to work around 1618 but fled because he thought a cabal of local artists, intensely jealous of their territory, planned to kill him. Reni’s inky setting is his debt to Caravaggio, and both paintings are balletic, but Reni’s is graceful while Caravaggio’s is choreographed hell.
I watched the George Floyd video earlier this month. That was real-life, but Caravaggio got the mood of visceral violence. His Flagellation decorated a church, so it’s, well, decorous, but with those guardrails he gave us a “you are there” moment, with as much awkward brutality as a viewer could bear. Caravaggio trucked with the high, like his Colonna patrons, and the low, walking as he did on the wild side. He knew the seamy side of life and, if we believe reports from the time, had just killed someone. A few weeks ago, I wrote about painters from Lombardy and the still-life tradition there, another component Caravaggio emphasized. Caravaggio was from a town near Milan and learned a microscopic, particularist aesthetic. Jesus’s body and his torturers’ faces are still lifes, too.
Caravaggio influenced many artists throughout Europe, but his impact in Naples was long-lasting and metamorphic. Battistello Caracciolo was an early Neapolitan acolyte of Caravaggio’s. Ecce Homo, from the 1620s, is a dark painting but essentializes Caravaggio’s approach. The Flagellation has, for all its violence, a complex, choreographed look. Jesus is centered and flanked by menacers. Ecce Homo pits Jesus against Pilate in a deep focus, close up.
The exhibition doesn’t take a dive into Neapolitan psychology, but blood, gore, and chaos figure in its brand of baroque. Caravaggio also invested his Seven Works of Mercy, which isn’t in the show but is a major altarpiece in Naples, with lots of asymmetry, multiple storylines, and figures swooping and spilling from darkness. Battistello Caracciolo and Lionello Spada took Caravaggio’s cues early on some of these points.
In Lionello’s Cain and Abel, from around 1613, a nude, muscular Cain hovers over his legs-akimbo, nude brother as he beats him to death. The Flagellation seems static by comparison. It’s fast-action violence versus slow-motion violence, and presented with deep darks and garish brights; both are gruesome.
I’d forgotten that Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) worked mostly in Naples. One of her early Judith and Holofernes murder scenes is in the show. It’s from between 1612 and 1617 and is a variation of The Flagellation. Judith cuts off Holofernes’s head while her maid holds him down using less balletic movements than machine-like ones.
Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) is the heavy hitter among the post-Caravaggio generation. Like many Neapolitan artists, he’s from someplace else — Spain — though sorting out his Spanishness from what he’s drawing from Naples is a distraction I brought with me and needed to discard. There are three great Riberas in the show. Saint Jerome and Drunken Silenus are both from 1626, about ten years after he got to Naples from Rome and Parma.
Saint Jerome is his trademark withered old man, presented with dramatic lighting. It’s a big, striking thing and addresses a big Caravaggio problem: His scenes were often so gruesome, like his Flagellation, or so acrobatic, like The Seven Works of Mercy, that viewers forget they’re devotional images meant to encourage prayer. Saint Jerome is more to-the-point and, for Ribera’s patrons, dogmatically suitable.
Silenus is a triumph of the grotesque, which shocks and awes like the gruesome. Here, the muscular male body goes the way of all flesh — it can wither or it can bloat. Silenus is a clever addition to the show. It’s a parody of Titian’s Danaë — if Danaë was porn, Silenus is kinky porn — but it also comes from the freak-show aesthetic of Agostino Carracci’s Hairy Harry.
Silenus is a figure from Greek myth — he was Dionysus’s drinking buddy and onetime tutor — and is often a comic icon of excess but a voice of wisdom, too. A third Ribera, Still Life with Candles and a Goat’s Head, is from around 1650, a generation later. It’s riveting. A goat’s severed head, splashed with blood, rests against a copper pot, beside a loaf of bread and a basket of eggs. It’s very modern — in your face, arbitrary, and a study in shapes.
The exhibition ends with three types of painting. Massimo Stanzione (1585–1656) and Bernardo Cavallino (1616–1656) are Caravaggio followers who were among the swath of Neapolitan artists killed in the 1656 plague, in which 60 percent of the city’s people died. I keep reading about the devastation the Chinese coronavirus has delivered upon us with its 0.26 percent death rate, a little worse than a bad flu, and wonder why history isn’t taught anymore.
The genuine devastation in Naples in 1656, as opposed to hypochondriac, hyperbolic “devastation” today, opened doors for Mattia Preti and Luca Giordano (1634–1705), who managed not to die of the plague. I like Preti a lot. He’s over the top, as in St. Nicholas of Bari, from 1653. He’s the oddest saint, the patron saint of sailors, a spur to Christmas gift giving, and doer of such miracles as the resurrection of the three pickled children — yes, a mad butcher killed them and aimed to sell their corpses as hams, but Saint Nicholas brought them back to life.
I’m a Methodist, so count me among the skeptics. I wonder if he’s one of the fake saints the Vatican hasn’t fully vetted. The painting in the show is dramatic and grand, though I have to say that I’d run the other direction if he came to my house with a bag full of presents.
The show ends with Caravaggisti still lifes from the late 1600s bought at the end of the Farnese period. Does it fizzle? No. Andrea Belvedere (1652–1732) and Giovanni Ruoppolo (1629–1693) are stunningly good, and the tenebrist still life is a thing unto itself, with splashes of intense blues, whites, and yellows exploding from darkness.
Luca Giordano is a great artist, and the Capodimonte has a hoard of his work. His touch is lighter, and he points forward, toward the rococo period, and that’s a point worth examining. I know that negotiating objects lists for a treasures show is a tough job, and I wondered whether the Capodimonte felt it had given so much and didn’t want to part with more. I learned later that the Kimbell show coincided with a big Giordano exhibition in Paris that consumed the best things at the Capodimonte. I’m looking forward to seeing the Giordanos in Naples.
The catalogue is good. The authors, James Anno and Christopher Bakke, wrote rich, deep essays. It was assembled by the Italian Embassy in Washington, with production values that, for the next book, need enhancing. The essays are first-rate, but the book itself feels rushed and flimsy.
I admire Sylvain Bellenger, the director of the Capodimonte. He is one of the 20 or so new directors hired by the Italian state a few years ago, all with training and experience in America, the U.K., or Germany, to reform the sclerotic Italian museum system. I knew Bellenger when he was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Italy is seriously committed to modernizing its museum system but knows it can use the perspective of outsiders in areas such as the enhancement of buildings, marketing, fundraising, technology, and outreach to world audiences. Flesh and Blood is a must-see show that will rightly put the Capodimonte in the spotlight. Partnering with the Kimbell was smart since it’s one of the great museums in the country, a distinctive trove of the best art with a serious academic mission and national reach.