by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bourbons, Bonapartists and the Bay of Naples

By Roderick Conway Morris
NAPLES 9 May 1998
Museo Correale di Terranova, Sorrento
The House of Tasso at Sorrento by Theodore Duclère, c.1860



The Bourbon dynasty's rule in Naples was memorably described by a contemporary Italian journalist as 'the negation of God erected into a system of government.' The phrase was taken up by the English politician William Gladstone, who in 1851 witnessed show trials of the regime's opponents - a depressingly regular occurrence during the years of Bourbon absolutism, which invariably ended in multiple executions, imprisonments and further repression.

After the Bourbons gained control of Naples in 1734, their principal artistic legacy to the city lay in transferring from Parma the magnificent Farnese collection of classical and Renaissance sculpture and paintings, which they had inherited by marriage and played no role in building up. In addition, after 1748 their excavation of Pompeii and other sites brought to light an unimaginable trove of ancient finds.

The development of the arts in Bourbon Naples has received little attention even in Naples itself, so a large-scale survey, 'Culture in the 19th Century: From the Bourbons to the House of Savoy,' is welcome.

The main show is located at the impressively restored Capodimonte Museum, where the Farnese paintings are also housed, set in a palm-dotted park on a steep hill overlooking the Bay of Naples. Additional smaller exhibitions on architecture, town planning, music, illustrated books and so on are held at various venues around town until May 31. If the momentum for revitalizing the city's museum scene can be maintained, many of the key pieces here should be permanently on display in future.

In general, the Bourbons' taste followed the fashions of French and European courts, though some Bourbon 18th-century palaces, landscaped gardens and parks, notably Capodimonte and Caserta, are fine examples of their kind.

The interlude of Bonapartist rule, from 1806 to 1815, during which the Bourbons fled to Sicily, was extraordinarily influential in the decorative arts, considering its brief duration.

Napoleon first installed his brother Joseph as King of Naples and, two years later, his brother-in-law Joachim Murat. Murat and his wife Caroline took a strong personal interest in the visual arts and initiated an extensive program to transform the interiors of the royal palaces. Murat also increased the funding of art schools and promoted exhibitions.

The Empire style was at the height of its popularity and it was given a special spin here, with Pompeii close by. Among the most striking exhibits at Capodimonte are furnishings incorporating genuine ancient bronzes and marble, including a huge round table with a Roman mosaic top and modern marble supports, and a side table resting on a bronze tripod from Herculaneum. Many new pieces were made imitating antique originals. Interestingly enough, when the Bourbons made their comeback after Waterloo, they tended to leave these Bonapartist interiors and furnishings as they found them.

Naples had a considerable community of local and foreign artists earning a living by selling views of the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii and characteristic local sights. Out of this cottage industry emerged the School of Posillipo, whose leading exponents, operating outside the conservative constraints of the Academy, left some pictures that are both truly Neapolitan and rank among the best landscape painting of the last century.

Like the term Fauve, the expression Posillipo - from the name of the promontory to the west of the city that offers spectacular views of the bay, Vesuvius and the islands of Ischia and Capri - was originally dismissive, apparently used by loftier members of the Academy to denigrate the efforts of what they considered a ragbag of street artists serving the needs of passing tourists. In time, however, the label became a mark of distinction.

The founder of the Posillipo School was a Dutchman, Antoon Sminck Pitloo, who settled in Naples in 1816. His star pupil was Giacinto Gigante (1806-76).

Both Pitloo and Gigante were influenced by Turner. The best Posillipo paintings, done directly from nature in a variety of often mixed media - pencil, pen, ink, watercolor and tempera - combine spontaneity with exact observation and stunningly capture atmospheric lighting effects.

Pitloo died during the cholera epidemic of 1837, but left his mark on several distinguished followers, including Eduardo Dalbono and Teodoro Duclere. Gigante, who had become a hit with resident and visiting Russian aristocrats, was eventually summoned to court in 1850, became art master to the Bourbon princesses and was knighted.

In 1860, in his brilliant lightning campaign against overwhelming numerical odds, Garibaldi and his 1,000 'Redshirts' swept the Bourbons from Sicily and then Naples, and handed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on a plate to the House of Savoy's Victor Emmanuel II.

The heroism and self-sacrifice of the Garibaldian spirit is captured in a later canvas, 'The Breaching of Porta Pia,' by a Neapolitan, Michele Cammarano (1835-1920), on the storming in 1871 of the gate in Rome's walls, which ended the Popes' rule and brought the ancient capital into the new unified Italy. This enormous and exhilarating painting is placed alone at the far end of a large, otherwise darkened room, and as one walks toward it, the charging front rank of the shock troops seems actually to be in motion, hurtling toward the viewer.

Cammarano painted this splendid work, which closes the exhibition, on his return from Paris, much affected by Delacroix, Gericault and French Romantic art. Though Naples continued in the post-unification period to give rise to local schools of art, it was to Paris, by then the dominant force, that most Neapolitan artists looked for inspiration.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023