by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
Sleeping Venus with Cupid and Satyr by Luca Giordano, 1663

Will the Real Giordano Stand Up?

By Roderick Conway Morris
NAPLES 14 April 2001


Luca Giordano believed that when it came to art his patrons in particular and the public in general knew best, and he made it his lifelong business to give it to them good and hard. His rewards were immense popularity, considerable wealth and a posthumous reputation for superficiality and facile pyrotechnics.

Consequently, although the most ubiquitous and highly paid Italian artist of the second half of the 17th century, Giordano has never had a major exhibition devoted entirely to his work. But his native city is now the launch pad for 'Luca Giordano: 1634-1705,' a show of more than 130 paintings and nearly 60 drawings at the newly refurbished Castel Sant'Elmo and the Capodimonte Museum. The exhibition continues here until June 3, then travels to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (June 17 to Oct. 7), and the Los Angeles County Museum (Nov. 4 to Jan. 20).

Giordano was born the son of a minor painter and won recognition while still in his youth. A key element to his success was the phenomenal speed he operated at, which earned him the nickname 'Luca fa presto' (Luke Go-Fast). Stories relating to this abounded - one witness recording that in a single day's furious activity he completed a whole altarpiece, and another that when painting frescoes he had semi-draped models strategically placed on the scaffolding to copy direct from nature and cut out the drawing stage.

When he went to paint a series of enormous fresco cycles in Spain, the prior of the Escorial wrote to Charles II: 'Today your Giordano has painted ten, eleven, twelve figures three times life size, plus the Powers, Dominions, Angels, Seraphim and Cherubim that go with them and all the clouds that support them. The two theologians he has at his side to instruct him in the mysteries are less ready with their answers than he is with his questions, for their tongues are too slow for the speed of his brush.'

The young Giordano limbered up for his career like an athlete, traveling to Rome, Florence and Venice to get in trim, compiling as he went a personal encyclopedia of compositional strategies, brush strokes and other tricks of the trade gleaned from his scrutiny of the Old Masters of the past (and picking up along the way some valuable early commissions).

His earliest works were in a Caravaggesque manner derived principally from the Spanish artist Ribera, who had settled in Naples and with whom Giordano may well have studied. But in due course he drew on a host of others, from Durer, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and Veronese to Rubens, Cortona, Bernini and Reni. And strolling through this exhibition, spotting the myriad sources for structures and color schemes here, a figure, facial expression and gesture there, becomes a positively diverting pursuit.

Giordano's stupendous talent for imitation and amalgamation makes it difficult to discern where the real Giordano lies - if, one begins to wonder, he ever in fact existed - this task being rendered more complicated by his use of different styles for religious and secular paintings, his tendency to revert to previous modes later in his career and the input of a studio consisting of some 30 assistants. The marshaling of this platoon of helpers led to accusations that he offered a first-, second- and third-class service according to how much his patrons were willing to spend, and there is an unevenness of quality not only in his oeuvre in general but often within the same painting.

Yet, when he put his brush to it, he could, for example, produce beautifully subtle flesh tones, which he used to pathetic effect in his renderings of the deathly white skin of prophets, saints and martyrs and for delivering a surprisingly powerful erotic charge in his nudes and mythical compositions. He could be a convincing portraitist, particularly when he himself was the subject, but this was a skill he never fully developed.

He also reveals a telling eye for detail - he was rather good at painting animals, notably dogs, sheep, oxen, not to mention the odd more exotic creature, such as bulbous-eyed, paranoid ostriches - but these tend to get lost in the sheer tumultuous busy-ness of his pullulating heaps of figures and stage props. Like a filmmaker whose vision seems to derive wholly from other films, the artificiality of much of Giordano's output is so all-pervasive as to rob it of anything approaching real emotional force.

Although hugely influenced by other painters, he was not without influence himself on art that followed. The blithe shallowness of the universe he depicted, his treatment of the entire human and natural world as essentially decorative and his breezy lack of interest in probing beneath the surface of things, made him a forerunner of rococo, some of whose exponents, both in Italy and France, certainly found inspiration in him.

In 1702, Giordano returned to Naples after a triumphant decade in Spain to end his life loaded equally with riches and praise - 'a marvelous painter, created by God for the satisfaction of Princes,' as the Grand Duke of Tuscany described this most prolific of artists, who never appears to have agonized about anything and who could guarantee his clients instant gratification.

By the time of his death, his charitable works had become exemplary, his open-handedness, especially when it came to less fortunate followers of his own calling, legendary, and scarcely a church was left in the city of his birth that did not contain his canvases or frescoes, some executed free of charge. And his last words were: 'O Napoli! Sospiro mio!' (Oh Naples! Darling of my heart!)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023