Ransacking Naples

  • Themes: Art

The Museo e Bosco Reale di Capodimonte – Naples’ foremost museum of art – has decided to lend an unprecedented number of its artworks to the Louvre. But this glittering display of Neapolitan treasures lacks coherence.

A board promoting the exhibition Naples in Paris is pictured at the Louvre museum in Paris.
A board promoting the exhibition Naples in Paris is pictured at the Louvre museum in Paris. Credit: Aurelien Morissard / Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

‘In Europe,’ wrote Stendhal, ‘there are only two capitals: Paris and Naples’. And for once, he wasn’t all that shy of the truth. Ever since Charles of Anjou seized the Neapolitan throne in the late thirteenth century, the two cities have been bound together so closely that it has sometimes been hard for Frenchmen to believe that there are any others worth bothering about. In 1494, Charles VIII plunged the whole of Italy into war, just so that he could rule Naples for a few months; in 1808, Joachim Murat nearly shed tears of joy when Napoleon made him its king; and since then, no end of writers, artists and musicians have waxed lyrical about its supposedly ‘French’ charms. As the Marquis de Sade famously quipped, nowhere but in Paris and Naples could you find such fearful beauty – or such delightful squalor.

Now, you might think that this is a bit overblown, especially if you happen not to be French; but this centuries-long love affair is exactly why the Museo e Bosco Reale di Capodimonte – Naples’ foremost museum of art – has decided to lend an unprecedented number of its artworks to the Louvre while its buildings are undergoing restoration. The sheer scale of it is impressive. Over sixty pieces are on display across three areas of the museum. The focus is, naturally enough, on Italian artists – Masaccio, Michelangelo, Titian, Artemesia Gentileschi, and Caravaggio, to name just a few. But there are a few others, too. Among the treasures on show, you’ll see El Greco’s wonderfully understated portrait of Giulio Clovio, Joos van Cleve’s almost overpowering Adoration of the Magi, even an Andy Warhol. And that’s not all. While most of the works are paintings, other media are also well represented, including drawings, sculpture, porcelain, silverware, even furniture – all of which are exhibited alongside a selection of the Louvre’s own holdings to considerable effect.

Besides making sure that Capodimonte’s collection remains accessible during restorations, the exhibition has two goals. The first is to raise Capodimonte’s profile outside of Italy. As its director, Sylvain Bellenger, recently told Le Monde, its collections ‘are well known to specialists, but less so to the growing number of tourists who visit Naples today.’ While more than 2.5 million people visit Pompeii each year, only about 300,000 make the trip to Capodimonte. So, one objective is simply to draw people in. The second goal is political. Emmanuel Macron is currently trying to reboot France’s relationship with Italy; and – in a small way – this exhibition is intended to contribute towards that by celebrating the artistic ties between the two nations. As Italian president Sergio Mattarella puts it – with the blandness that only a politician can muster – ‘culture unites peoples. It is the surest foundation of our shared European home and inspires us to build… an ever more advanced collaboration between our countries.’

The trouble is, I’m not sure it really accomplishes either of these goals. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fantastic exhibition – not to mention a unique opportunity. We probably won’t see so many works from the two galleries side-by-side again for many decades, if ever. And it does allow some intriguing comparisons to be drawn. Seeing Titian’s Man with a Glove (Louvre) alongside his Portrait of Alessandro Farnese (Capodimonte), for example, really brings home his capacity to convey everything from wistfulness to hauteur in a single, distant gaze. So too, if you move from Raphael’s relaxed, almost playful Self-Portrait with a Friend (Louvre) to Parmigianino’s Antea (Capodimonte) – in which a young girl on the verge of womanhood seems weighed down by the rich mantle she is just beginning to put on – and from Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo’s Gaston de Foix (Louvre) to Sebastiano del Piombo’s imposing Clement VII (Capodimonte), you can see, almost in the same glance, pretty much all the major varieties of early sixteenth-century Italian portraiture. The comparisons are even more striking among the drawings. Not only do we get a sense of how drawings gradually evolved from being ephemeral, preparatory works to desirable oeuvres in their own right, but also of how individual compositions could echo and re-echo down the generations – a phenomenon most vividly illustrated by a series of three sketches by Tuscan artists after Michelangelo’s lost Cupid and Venus.

But for all its richness, the exhibition just doesn’t hang together. At its heart is a clutch of works from the Farnese collection. This was begun by Pope Paul III and his two grandsons, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and Ottavio, Duke of Parma and Piacenza. After taking many twists and turns, it then passed to Charles de Bourbon, who became king of Naples in 1734 – before eventually coming to the Museo di Capodimonte. By any standards, it is a magnificent collection. Even when seen only in part, it reveals a great deal about the practice of collecting, dynastic politics, even the history of Italy itself. And at times, it feels as if this exhibition was really meant to be about the Farnese. But there is so much else, too. As well as a number of paintings with quite unrelated provenances (such as Masaccio’s Crucifixion, which came from Pisa to Naples via the collector Gaetano de Simone), there are a couple of chairs commissioned by Caroline Murat; a few nice enough views of Vesuvius from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and a whole mass of porcelain from the Reale Fabbrica Ferdinandea – all of which are fascinating in themselves, but which make little sense when shown together. Why they have been included is anyone’s guess. Even the curators seem uncertain. Although they are keen to cast the loan as an ‘anthology’ of works from Capodimonte’s collection, they never explain why these particular pieces have been chosen, what criteria have been used, or what any of this is meant to show. It all looks rather arbitrary – so much so, in fact, that you feel almost as if someone has ransacked Naples in a hurry.

This robs the exhibition of much of its purpose. Given the randomness of the selection, it isn’t much of an advert for Capodimonte. Granted, most visitors will – like me – be dazzled by the exceptional quality and range of the works on loan. But it’s hard to judge whether they are representative of the rest of Capodimonte’s collection or just the highlights unless you already know the museum – which rather defeats the point. Nor, indeed, does it do much for Franco-Italian relations. It certainly doesn’t illustrate anything about Naples per se, much less about its relationship with Paris. If, as Mattarella claims, ‘culture unites people’, this exhibition achieves that only in the crudest, most superficial way.

This is a real pity, because there is so much that this loan could have done, if handled differently. It could quite easily have traced the history of French patronage of art in Naples, the exchange of cultural and scientific ideas between the cities, or even the evolution of art collecting across Europe. At the very least, it could have told the story of Capodimonte itself in a vaguely coherent way. As it is, it is a glittering – but possibly wasted – opportunity.

To January 8 2024, louvre.fr


Alexander Lee