BOOK II

THE FAITHS FIGHT FOR POWER

1556–1648

CHAPTER IX

Alma Mater Italia

1564—1648

I. THE MAGIC BOOT

AFTER the double fury of Renaissance and Reformation, Italy was subsiding into a Spanish subjection harassed with poverty, solaced with religion, and gilded with peace. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) had awarded the duchy of Savoy to Emmanuel Philibert. Genoa, Lucca, Venice, and San Marino survived as independent republics. Mantua remained obedient to the Gonzaga dukes, Ferrara to the Estensi, Parma to the Farnese. The Medici ruled Tuscany—Florence, Pisa, Arezzo, Siena—but their ports were under Spanish control. Through her viceroys Spain governed the duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, which included Sicily and all Italy south of the Papal States. These, running across the center of the peninsula from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic, were ruled by popes hemmed in by Spanish power.

That power was not militarily aggressive; it did not interfere in the internal affairs of the states, except Milan and Naples; but its distaste for commerce and its fear of the free intellect cast a pall over Italian life. The capture of Oriental and American trade by the Atlantic nations transferred to them the wealth that had once financed the Renaissance and now nourished the cultural blooming of Spain, England, and the Netherlands. Italy suffered further from the decline of papal revenues consequent upon the Reformation. The patient peasantry toiled and prayed, the innumerable monks prayed, the merchants lost caste and fortune, the aristocracy spent itself in the pursuit of titles and in extravagant display.

And yet amid this political debacle Italy produced the greatest scientist of the age, Galileo; the adventurous and prophetic philosophy of Bruno; the greatest sculptor, Bernini; the most influential composer, Monteverdi; the bravest missionaries; one of her greatest poets, Tasso; and, in Bologna, Naples, and Rome, schools of painting rivaled only in the opulent Netherlands. Culturally Italy was still supreme.

1. In the Foothills of the Alps

It is pleasant to traverse again, if only with mind and pen and haste, the garden and gallery called Italy. Turin became a major capital under the able rule of Emmanuel Philibert and the encouragement given to literature and art by his consort, Margaret of France and Savoy. Milan, though subject, was still magnificent; Evelyn described it in 1643 as “one of the most princely cities in Europe, with 100 churches, 71 monasteries, 40,000 inhabitants … sumptuous palaces, and rare artists.”1 After a fire gutted the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore (1573), Carlo Borromeo, the saintly Archbishop of Milan, commissioned Martino Bassi to rebuild the interior in the stately Byzantine style of San Vitale’s at Ravenna. Carlo’s nephew, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, raised the Palazzo Ambrosiano (1609), and established in it the famous Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The Palazzo di Brera, begun for a Jesuit college in 1615, has been since 1776 the home of the Accademia di Belle Arti, and since 1809 that of the renowned Brera Gallery, seriously injured in the Second World War but now handsomely restored. There one may find much of the work of the Procaccini and the Crespi, the two families that dominated Milanese painting in this age.

Genoa, La Serenissima, still proudly surveyed, from her palace-decorated hills, a Mediterranean dotted with Genoese ships. The merchant republic had lost its Eastern possessions to the Turks, and some of her trade with the Orient had passed to the Atlantic states; but her great mole gave her so fine a harbor that she remained (and is) the chief Italian port. Here the princes of commerce or finance built some of the richest homes in Italy. Evelyn thought that the Strada Nova, or New Street, planned by Rubens and faced by palaces of polished marble, was “far superior to any in Europe.”2 Galeazzo Alessi and his pupils designed many of these lordly mansions, which were famous for their art galleries, their stately stairways, their paneled or frescoed walls, and their luxurious furniture—”whole tables and bedsteads of massive silver”; the Genoese magnates were adepts at turning sweat into gold. In 1587 Giacomo della Porta raised the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, whose fluted columns, perfect pulpit, and ornate vault were the pride of Genoese piety. This and many another of Genoa’s churches and palaces were largely ruined in the Second World War.

As late as Vasari, Florence was still termed the Athens of Italy, for she was fertile in literature, scholarship, and science as well as art. Everything prospered there except chastity. Under Grand Duke Francesco I (1574–87) the great Medici family deteriorated into a mess of intemperance and adultery. Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici resigned his ecclesiastical orders to become Grand Duke Ferdinand I; for twenty-two years (1587–1609) he gave Tuscany a just and enlightened rule, he expanded Tuscan commerce by making Livorno (Leghorn) a free port open to all traders and faiths, and he restored the morals of his people by the morality of his life. His successors Cosimo II and Ferdinand II distinguished themselves by financing Galileo. Bartolommeo Ammanati carved the great fountain of Neptune for the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and designed the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca. Giovanni da Bologna finished in 1583 the Rape of the Sabines that stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and cast the statue of Henry IV which Cosimo II presented to Marie de Médicis to adorn the Pont Neuf in Paris. Alessandro Allori and his son Cristofano continued, diminuendo, the chromatic fantasy of Florentine painting, and Pietro da Cortona skirted mastery in frescoes picturing, on the ceilings of the Pitti Palace, the virtues of Duke Cosimo I.

Parma in this period had a renowned duke, Alessandro Farnese, who was kept so busy leading Spanish armies in the Netherlands that he never occupied his throne. Under his son Ranuccio the University of Parma attained European fame, and Aleotti built (1618) the Teatro Farnese, accommodating seven thousand spectators in a semicircular amphitheater rivaled only, in modern Italy, by the Teatro Olimpico of his teacher, Palladio.

Mantua now entered upon a period of prosperity recalling the great days of Isabella d’Este. A flourishing textile industry made Mantuan cloth popular even in rival England and France. The house of Gonzaga, which had ruled the duchy since 1328, was still producing able men. Duke Vincenzo I again incarnated the qualities of a Renaissance prince: handsome and gracious, patron of happy Rubens and miserable Tasso, collector of ancient and Chinese art, of musical instruments, Flemish tapestries, Dutch tulips, and beautiful women, lover of poetry and gambling, brave in battle and bold in statesmanship, but wearing himself out in adultery and war, and dying at fifty in 1612. Three sons ruled in turn; the last, Vincenzo II, left no children, and the competition of France, Austria, and Spain to determine and control his successor made the duchy the helpless theater of a devastating War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31), which almost blotted Mantua from history.

Verona idled culturally through this epoch, resting on the Renaissance. In Vicenza the classic façades of Palladio were setting a style for Christopher Wren. Vincenzo Scamozzi completed Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico and designed the Palazzo Trissino-Barton. A flair for ornament, hardly suppressed in Palladio, made Scamozzi a living bridge from classicism to baroque.

2. Venice

The Queen of the Adriatic, like ancient Rome, had a long and stately decline. She was losing to Portugal her sea trade with India and would soon feel the competition of the Dutch. She bore the brunt of Turkish maritime expansion; her navy and her commanders were major factors in the victory over the Turks at Lepanto (1571), but she yielded Cyprus a few months later, and thereafter her commerce with the eastern Mediterranean was subject to Turkish permission and terms. She struggled valiantly to meet the challenge of change. By connecting at Aleppo with caravans from Central Asia, she made up in some measure for the lessening of her seaborne trade with the East. Her vessels still controlled the Adriatic. She shared in the profits of the slave trade that was now disgracing Portugal, Spain, and England. Her mainland dependencies—Vicenza, Verona, Trieste, Trent, Aquileia, Padua—prospered in economy and increased in population. Her industries continued to excel in glass, silk, lace, and artistic luxuries. Her Banco di Rialto, established in 1587 after the failure of many private banks, put the strength of the state behind Venetian finance, and served as a model for similar institutions in Nuremberg, Hamburg, and Amsterdam. Travelers marveled at the beauty of her architecture and her women, the cleanliness of her streets, and the tenacious stability of her government.

Her foreign policy aimed to keep a balance of power between France and Spain, lest one or the other absorb the weakened republic; hence her early recognition of Henry IV to strengthen war-torn France. In 1616 the Spanish viceroy at Naples, the Duke of Osuna, entered into a conspiracy with the Spanish ambassador at Venice to overthrow the Senate and make the republic a dependency of Spain. Philip III, after the delicate fashion of governments, gave the enterprise his blessing, but bade Osuna proceed “without letting anyone know that you are doing it with my knowledge, and make believe that you are acting without orders.”3 The Venetian Signory had the best spies in Europe; the plot was detected, the local conspirators were seized, and one morning the people were edified to see them hanging in St. Mark’s Square, gazing with dead eyes upon happy doves.

This quiet and austere oligarchy, holding commerce with—and giving religious freedom to—men of any creed, took a remarkably independent attitude toward the papacy. It taxed the clergy, subjected them to the civil law, and forbade, without its consent, the erection of new shrines or monasteries and the deeding of land to the Church. A party of Venetian statesmen, led by Leonardo Donato and Nicolo Contarini, especially resisted the claims of the papacy to power in temporal affairs. In 1605 Camillo Borghese became Pope Paul V; a year later Donato was chosen doge; these two men, who had been friends when Donato was Venetian envoy at Rome, now confronted each other in a struggle between Church and state, echoing across five centuries the contest between Gregory VII and the Emperor Henry IV. And Pope Paul was shocked to find that the intellectual leader of the anticlerical party in Venice was another Paul, Fra Paolo Sarpi, a Servite monk.

Sarpi, said Molmenti, was “the loftiest intellect that Venice ever produced.”4 Son of a merchant, he entered the Servite order at thirteen, absorbed knowledge passionately, and at eighteen defended 318 theses in a public disputation at Mantua, so successfully that its Duke made him court theologian. At twenty-two he was ordained priest and became a professor of philosophy; at twenty-seven he was elected provincial of his order for the Venetian Republic. He continued his studies in mathematics, astronomy, physics, everything. He discovered the contractility of the iris. He wrote scientific treatises that are now lost, and took part in the investigations and experiments of Fabrizio d’Acquapendente and Giambattista della Porta, who said that he had never met a “more learned man, or one more subtle in the whole circle of knowledge.”5 Perhaps these profane studies injured Paolo’s faith. He welcomed some Protestants to friendship, and charges were lodged against him before the Venetian Inquisition—the same body that was soon to capture Giordano Bruno. Thrice he was nominated to bishoprics by the Senate; thrice the Vatican rejected him; and the memory of these rebuffs accentuated his hostility to Rome.

In 1605 the Senate arrested two priests and convicted them of serious crimes. Pope Paul V demanded that the men be turned over to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and also ordered the repeal of the laws against new churches, monasteries, and religious orders. The Venetian Signory courteously refused. The Pope gave the Doge, the Signory, and the Senate twenty-seven days within which to comply. They called in Fra Paolo as counselor in canon law; Sarpi advised resistance on the ground that papal power extended only to spiritual concerns; the Senate adopted his view. In May 1606 the Pope excommunicated Donato and the Signory and laid an interdict upon all religious services in Venetian territory. The Doge instructed the Venetian clergy to ignore the interdict and continue their functions; they did, except the Jesuits, the Theatines, and the Capuchins. The Jesuits, pledged by their constitutions to obey the popes, left Venice in a body, despite the Signory’s warning that if they left they would never be allowed to return. Meanwhile Sarpi, answering Cardinal Bellarmine, published tracts limiting the papal power, and proclaiming the superior authority of general councils over the popes.

Paul V appealed to Spain and France. But Spain had often rejected papal edicts, and Henry IV of France was grateful to Venice. However, Henry sent to Venice the judicious Cardinal de Joyeuse, who devised the necessary face-saving formulas. The priests were released to the French ambassador, who soon released them to Rome; the Senate refused to repeal the protested laws, but (hoping for papal aid against the Turks) it promised that the Republic would “conduct itself with its accustomed piety.” The Pope suspended his censures, and Joyeuse absolved the excommunicates. “The claims of Paul V,” says a Catholic historian, “were too medieval in character to be made good.”6 This was the last time that an entire state was placed under an interdict.

On October 5, 1607, Sarpi was attacked by assassins, who left him for dead. He recovered, and is said to have remarked, in an epigram almost too good to be true, “Agnosco stilum curiae Romanae” (I recognize the pointed style of the Roman court).I7 The assassins found protection and acclaim in the Papal States.8 Henceforth Sarpi lived quietly in his cloister saying Mass every day; but his own stilus was not idle. In 1619 he published, under a pseudonym and through a London firm, his Istoria del Concilio Tridentino, a voluminous indictment of the Council of Trent. He gave a quite Protestant account of the Reformation, and condemned the Council for making the schism irreconcilable by yielding completely to the popes. The Protestant world hailed the book with enthusiasm, and Milton called its author “the great unmasker.” The Jesuits commissioned a learned scholar of their order, Sforza Pallavicino, to write a counter-history (1656–64), which exposed and rivaled Sarpi’s bias and inaccuracy.9 Despite their parti pris, these two books marked an advance in the collection and use of original documents, and Sarpi’s vast brief has the added and dangerous attraction of fiery eloquence. He was far ahead of his time in advocating a complete separation of Church and state.

Under that proud government, on and between those placid and odorous canals, Venice continued to pursue money and beauty, appeasing Christ with architecture and the Virgin with litanies. Every week had some festival, for which any saint provided excuse; we see such collective raptures in the paintings of Guardi; and in the portraits we note the sensuous, Oriental prodigality of costumes and jewelry. Almost any evening one could hear music coming from the gondolas. If you stepped into such a magic bark and gave no directions, the gondolier would, with no word spent, take you to the house of some associated courtesan. Montaigne, who had as few prejudices as any man, was surprised at the abundance and freedom of the Venetian filles de joie. They paid a tax to the state, which in return allowed them to live where they liked and dress as they pleased; and it defended them against defaulting customers.10

The Grand Canal and its tributaries grew fairer year by year with lordly churches, gay new palaces, or a graceful bridge. In 1631 the Senate commissioned Baldassare Longhena to build the noble Church of Santa Maria della Salute as a votive offering to the Virgin for restoring the health of the city after a great plague. In 1588–92 Antonio da Ponte replaced an old wooden bridge with a new Ponte di Rialto, spanning the Grand Canal with a single marble arch ninety feet in length, flanked by shops on either side. About 1600 the Bridge of Sighs (the Ponte dei Sospiri) was built high over a canal between the Palazzo dei Dogi and the Prigioni di San Marco—“a palace and a prison on each hand.”11 Scamozzi completed Palladio’s Church of San Giorgio and Sansovino’s Libreria Vecchia; Scamozzi and Longhena raised the Procuratie Nuove (1582–1640), adjoining St. Mark’s Square, as new offices for the Venetian administration. Some famous palaces now rose along the Grand Canal: the Balbi, the Contarini degli Scrigni, and the Mocenigo, where Byron lived in 1818. Those who have seen only the exterior of the Venetian palaces can never visualize the luxury—redeemed with taste—of their interiors: the frescoed or coffered ceilings, the painted or tapestried walls, the satin-covered chairs, the carved seats, tables, and chests, the cabinets inlaid with marquetry, the stairs majestically broad and built for centuries. Here a jealous oligarchy of a few hundred families enjoyed all the wealth of merchant princes and all the discriminating standards of old aristocracies.

Only one Venetian sculptor, Alessandro Vittoria, stands out in this period, but Venetian painting produced two men of the second rank. Across the generations Palma Vecchio (d. 1528) handed the colors to his grandnephew Palma Giovane—i.e., Jacopo Palma the Younger—who died just a hundred years later. Giovane is put down as a decadent because he painted with careless haste, but some of his pictures, like the Pope Anaclytus in the Church of the Crociferi, come close to greatness; and in some lines of Molmenti’s this careless Younger leaps to life:

Palma il Giovane had no other object… than his work, from which the profoundest grief was powerless to distract him. In his art he sought consolation for the death of his two sons, one of whom died in Naples, the other ended in a life of debauchery. As his wife was being borne to the tomb he set himself to paint to escape from his pain.12

Bernardo Strozzi straddled the top of the Magic Boot, getting born in Genoa, dying in Venice (1644), and leaving pictures for almost every gallery between. For a time he was a Capuchin monk; he unfrocked himself, but could never shed the nickname II Cappucino. After many trials he found tolerance and prosperity in Venice, and there he produced his best work. One example must suffice: his Portrait of a Dominican Friar (Bergamo)—the high beret setting off the spacious forehead, the eyes frowning and intent, the nose and mouth breathing character, the fine hand proclaiming pedigree; Titian himself could hardly have done better. These heirs of the giants would have been giants in any other land.

3. From Padua to Bologna

Padua’s glory was now all in her university; there in this period Harvey studied and Galileo taught. At Ferrara Alfonso II (r. 1559–97) showed no slackening of vigor in that Este family that had ruled the principality since 1208. An anonymous print in the British Museum gives him a powerful head, authoritative beard, eyes expressing a resolute and somber intelligence. He could be merciless to those who crossed him, kind to others, patient with Tasso’s tantrums, fearless in battle, limitless in taxation. He continued the Estensi tradition of favoring literature, science, and art, and gathering their products into the culture, splendor, and gaiety of his court. The people had to be content with subsistence, and to enjoy vicariously the fruits of their toil. With all his power, and three successive wives, Alfonso failed to beget a son; and by an agreement made in 1539 Ferrara, long a papal fief, became in 1598 a papal state. Her cultural history came to an end.

Bologna, under papal rule since 1506, had in this age a second flowering, in a school of painting that dominated Italy for two centuries and spread its influence into Spain, France, Flanders, and England. Lodovico Carracci, son of a prosperous butcher, returned to Bologna after studying art in Venice, Florence, Parma, and Mantua. Tintoretto had warned him that he had no genius for painting, but Lodovico felt that industry could substitute for genius, and that he had genius too. He stirred with his enthusiasm his cousins Agostino and Annibale Carracci—one a goldsmith, the other a tailor. The two went off to Venice and Parma to study Titian and Correggio. When they came back they joined with Lodovico in opening (1589) the Accademia degli Incamminati—”of those setting out on the road.” They provided instruction in the elements the history, and the technique of art, and a careful study of the masters; they rejected the “manneristic” stress on the mannerisms or peculiarities of any individual master; they proposed, rather, to unite the feminine tenderness of Raphael, the delicate eloquence of Correggio, the masculine vigor of Michelangelo, the chiaroscuro of Leonardo, and the warm coloring of Titian all in one comprehensive style. This “Eclectic school” made Bologna rival Rome as the art capital of Italy.

The pictures bequeathed by the Carracci are countless; many of them are in the Bolognese Accademia di Belle Arti; some are in the Louvre; but one finds them anywhere. Lodovico’s own product is the least attractive, but appears at its best in a luminousAnnunciation and an excellent Martyrdom of St. Ursula, both in the pinacoteca of the academy. Agostino is represented by a powerful Communion of St. Jerome—which did not prevent him from meeting a wide demand for obscene prints. Annibale was technically the most gifted of the clan, having derived from Correggio a refinement of line and color rarely achieved by his cousins; see the voluptuous elegance of his Bacchante in the Uffizi Gallery, the perfect female form in The Nymph and the Satyr in the Pitti Palace, and the perfect male form in The Genius of Fame in Dresden; and in Christ and the Samaritan Woman (Vienna) he produced one of the masterpieces of this period—figures worthy of Raphael, a landscape anticipating Poussin.

In 1600 Annibale and Agostino accepted the invitation of Cardinal Farnese to come and paint the gallery of his palace in Rome. They chose an appropriate subject and painted The Triumph of Bacchus, a Rubensian riot of feminine charms. Thence Agostino went to Parma, where he painted a great fresco for the Casino; and Annibale proceeded to Naples, whose Museo Nazionale still shows his characteristic counterpoint of The Holy Family with Venus and Mars. The three cousins, so long united in art, were far apart in death: Agostino in Parma (1602), Annibale in Rome (1609), Lodovico still faithful to Bologna—the first to come and the last to go (1619).

The new school trained several of the most famous painters of the period. One of them, Guido Reni, had the largest following of any painter in Europe. After his early budding under the care of the Carracci, he yielded to the lure of Rome (1602), worked there for twenty years, then returned to Bologna to produce pictures whose pious sensuality and sentimental grace made them a welcome bridge between the orthodoxy of the faith and the heresies of the flesh. Guido himself seems to have been sincerely religious, and is reputed to have kept himself virginally intact to the end. The self-portrait in the Capitoline Museum shows him in youth, pretty as a girl, with blond hair, fair complexion, and blue eyes. His masterpiece is the Aurora frescoed on the ceiling of the Rospigliosi Palace in Rome: the goddess of the dawn flying through the air, followed by gallant horses drawing a disheveled Phoebus in his chariot, and accompanied by dancing females of lovely face and form, representing the hours, with a winged cherub giving a Christian imprimatur to a pagan ecstasy. Guido painted other mythologies—the Rape of Helen in the Louvre, the Apples of the Hesperides in Naples, the voluptuous Venus and Cupid in Dresden. From the Old Testament he took his famous Susannah and the Elders (Uffizi). But for the most part he was content to picture again the old themes dear to the people and the Church, the story of Christ and his mother, all suffused with what merciless critics denounce as a maudlinII exaggeration of sentiment. He did well, however, with the Apostles, as in the St. Matthew of the Vatican; he painted a magnificent head of St. Joseph (Brera), and in the Vatican’s Martyrdom of St. Peter he tried the harsh realism of Caravaggio. Returning to sentiment, he painted for the galleries his famous St. Sebastian,showing the saint calmly receiving arrows into his perfect frame. In all this oeuvre we perceive the skill of well-trained technique; but when we compare these saccharine sanctities with Raphael’s Stanze or Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, we are moved not by the fullness of color and the smoothness of line, but by the “loss of nerve” in Reni’s art. He dreamed forgivably when he wrote, “I should like to give to the figure I am about to paint such beauty as that which dwells in Paradise”;13 but he gave himself away when he boasted that he had “two hundred ways of making the eyes look up to heaven.”14

Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri) followed Guido’s policy of pleasing at once the pagans and the devotees; and as these two were often one, it proved a profitable plan. He was more complex than Guido, modest and shy, in love with music and his wife. He too learned his art in Bologna and then sought the fauna and florins of Rome. His success there aroused the envy of his local competitors; they accused him of plagiarism; he retired to Bologna, but was recalled by Gregory XV to be chief architect, as well as chief painter, to the Vatican. With some of the old Renaissance versatility he designed the now vanished Villa Ludovisi at Rome and part of the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati. Moving on to Naples, he began a series of frescoes in the cathedral. Despite difficulties multiplied by the Neapolitan painters, he had almost completed his assignment when he died (1641), aged sixty, still in the vigor of his art. His greatest picture is The Last Communion of St. Jerome, in the Vatican. On the basis of this chef-d’œuvre Poussin ranked Domenichino second only to Raphael among painters;15 we respect the enthusiasm more than the judgment. Ruskin thought Domenichino “palpably incapable of doing anything good, great, or right in any field, way, or kind whatsoever”;16 we admire neither the judgment nor the rhetoric.

The last of the three famed pupils of the Carracci was lamentably called Guercino—”Squint-eyed”—from an accident that distorted his eye in infancy; but his mother called him Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. He was already a painter, influenced by the masculine style of Caravaggio, before he came to study with the Carracci; so he mediated in art between Bologna and Rome. Like Guido he remained unmarried, lived semimonastically, and displayed the best qualities of the Catholic Reformation in his quiet and decent life. He has left us many pleasing pictures, scattered from Rome to Chicago. He was the weakest and most lovable of the Bolognese school.

The basic theory of the Eclectic school, that a great artist can be formed by trying to unite the diverse excellences of his predecessors, was surely a mistake, for it is often the character of genius to express a personality and strike out new paths; but the Accademia degli Incamminati served well to transmit a tradition and a discipline without which genius may run to excesses and bizarreries. The prosperity of the school was due in part to its ready co-operation with the needs of the Church. The reformed papacy and the expanding Jesuits required fresh representations of the Christian story, and vivid incitations to piety and faith. The Bolognese painters touched every chord of feeling in the worshiper; their Madonnas and Magdalens spread throughout Catholic Christendom. Who shall deny that the people were grateful for these inspirations, or that in providing them the Church proved herself the most understanding psychologist in history?

4. Naples

The Papal States had long since absorbed Forlì, Ravenna, Rimini, and Ancona; Urbino was added in 1626, Pesaro in 1631. Thence southward through Foggia, Bari, and Brindisi to the heel—and through Taranto, Crotone, and Reggio Calabria to the toe—of the Magic Boot, and across from Scylla to Charybdis through Sicily, and northward along the west coast to Capua, was the Kingdom of Naples, since 1504 a viceroyalty of Spain. A population of three million passionate souls labored in burning poverty throughout that sprawling realm to finance the splendor of its brilliant capital. Evelyn saw and described Naples in 1645:

The chief magistrates, being prodigiously avaricious, do wonderfully enrich themselves out of the miserable people’s labor … The structure of the city is, for its size, the most magnificent of any in Europe: the streets exceeding large, well paved, having many subterranean passages for the sewerage; which renders them very sweet and clean … To it belongeth more than 3,000 churches and monasteries, and these the best built and adorned in Italy. The people greatly affect the Spanish gravity in their habit; delight in good horses; the streets are full of gallants on horseback, in coaches and sedans … The women are generally well-featured, but excessively libidinous.17

Everybody seemed jovial, full of music, romance, and piety; but under that singing surface, and under the eyes of the Inquisition, heresy and revolution brewed. In this regno the philosopher Telesio lived and died (1588); in Nola, near Naples, Bruno was born (1548). In 1598 Campanella took part in a rebellion that aimed to make Calabria an independent republic; the plot failed, and the poet-philosopher spent the next twenty-seven years in jail.

In 1647 Naples went hysterical with one of those operatic uprisings that periodically disturbed agrarian exploitation in Italy. Tommaso Aniello, popularly known as Masaniello, was a fish hawker whose wife had been heavily fined for smuggling corn. When the Spanish governor laid a tax on fruit to finance a navy, and the growers and the vendors of fruit refused to pay the imposition, Tommaso called for an armed revolt. A hundred thousand Italians followed him as he marched to the viceregal palace to demand withdrawal of the tax. The frightened Viceroy yielded; Tommaso, aged twenty-four, became master of Naples, and he ruled it for ten days. Fifteen hundred opponents were executed in a delirium of dictatorship; a lower price was decreed for bread, and a baker who failed to comply was roasted alive in his own oven18—but Tommaso’s enemies wrote the history. We are told that Masaniello dressed in cloth of gold, transformed his humble home into a palace seething with authority, and cruised about the bay in a sumptuous gondola. On July 17 he was assassinated by desperadoes in the pay of Spain. His dismembered body was recovered and reunited by his followers, who gave him a lordly funeral. The leaderless revolt died away.

A somber religious art maintained itself under the archbishops and the viceroys. In 1608 the Church spent a million florins to build, in the Cathedral of San Gennaro, the Cappella del Tesoro as a shrine for the two phials containing the coagulated blood of St. Januarius, patron of Naples. Twice a year, the people were told, the blood must liquefy and flow in order that Naples should prosper and be safe from Vesuvius.

Painting in Naples was for a time controlled by a triumvirate of jealous artists, Corenzio, Caracciolo, and Ribera, determined that all Neapolitan painting should be done by themselves or their friends. They sent such threats to Annibale Carracci that he fled to Rome, where he died soon afterward from the effects of a hectic journey under a hot sun.19 When Guido Reni came to decorate the Chapel of the Treasure he received a warning to leave Naples or die; he left almost at once, his work hardly begun. Two of his assistants, who stayed behind, were put on a galley and never heard of again. Domenichino came, completed four frescoes in the Chapel despite repeated erasures of his work, and then fled before Ribera’s threats; he returned under the Viceroy’s pledge of protection, but died shortly afterward, possibly by poison.20

With all his crimes, José or Giuseppe Ribera must be commemorated as the greatest painter of this period in Italy. Spain claims him through his birth at Xátiva, near Valencia (1588); he studied for a time under Francisco de Ribalta; but in early youth he made his way to Rome. There he lived in ragged poverty, copying frescoes and gathering crusts, until one of those art-loving cardinals who still felt the afflatus of the Renaissance took him into his palace and gave him bed and board, colors and clothes. Sedulously Giuseppe copied the works of Raphael in the Vatican and of the Carracci in the Farnese Palace. Then, finding his passion dulled by comfort, Lo Spagnoletto—”the little Spaniard”—ran away to Parma and Modena to study Correggio. He returned to Rome, quarreled withDomenichino, and moved to Naples. There or at Rome he fell under the influence of Caravaggio, whose brutal style confirmed him in the dark naturalism that he may already have learned from Ribalta. A rich picture dealer took a fancy to him and offered him a pretty daughter in marriage. The penniless Giuseppe thought the proposal a joke, but when it was repeated he leaped into marriage and prosperity.

Now he painted The Flaying of St. Bartholomew, with such bloody verisimilitude that when it was exposed to public view it drew a crowd of gazers more interested in blood than in art. The Viceroy—that same Osuna who conspired against Venice—asked for the picture and its author, was fascinated, and gave Ribera charge of all decorations in the palace. The insatiable Spaniard frightened off all competitors until the commission to fresco the Chapel of the Treasure was given to Giovanni Lanfranco, his friend. He himself executed the altarpiece, representing the incombustible St. Januarius issuing unsinged from a fiery furnace.

Thereafter Ribera was the unchallenged master of his art in Naples. He seemed able at will to rival the tenderness of Raphael and Correggio without falling into the sentimentality of Guido Reni or Murillo, and to raise the realism of Caravaggio to a higher power by the intensity of his conception and the depth of his coloring. Let us instance only the Pietà and the Lamentation in the church and monastery of San Martino—”a work before which, as an embodiment of the solemn majesty of grief, all similar representations of that century sink to mere theatrical spectacles.”21 Or, from the mythologies, take the Archimedes in the Prado—precisely such a wrinkled old Sicilian as one might find in Syracuse today. Stepping out from the Bible and history into the streets, Ribera found variety for his art in realistic snatches from common life; and in the Barefoot Boy of the Louvre he gave a lead to Velázquez and Murillo.III

Ribera’s defects leap to the eye—an exaggerated violence, a fondness for wrinkles and ribs, and a thirst for blood; Byron noted that

Spagnoletto tainted
His brush with all the blood of all the sainted.22

His dark colors and somber emphasis frighten and depress us, but in a Naples inured to Spanish rule and moods this tenebroso style found a ready acceptance. Every new church or monastery competed for him; Philip IV and the Neapolitan viceroys were avid customers; Ribera’s paintings and etchings were more widely diffused in Spain than those of Velázquez—who visited him twice in Italy. His home was one of the finest in Naples, and his two daughters were paragons of brown loveliness. One of them had the distinction of being seduced by another Don Juan, Philip IV’s natural son, who carried her off to Sicily and, soon tiring of her, abandoned her to a Palermo nunnery. Ribera almost succumbed to grief and shame; he sought consolation by giving to pictures of the Virgin the remembered features of his lost Maria Rosa; but within four years of her tragedy he died (1652).

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