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A Brief History of Neapolitan Art

The Art Timeline

Art and humans have a connection since before we could speak. The earliest cave paintings from The Stone Age, are 30,000 years old, pre-dating writing by 27,000 years. Art as we refer to it, can be assorted into seven distinct periods for simplicity’s sake, as follows:

  • Prehistoric Art
  • Ancient Classical art
  • Medieval art
  • Renaissance
  • Neoclassicism
  • Romanticism
  • Modern art

Our focus on Neapolitan Art in particular and Italian Art in general for this article, shall be the Renaissance. The word itself means rebirth. The rebirth was of artistic and classical works, often reflecting classical themes, and Greek deities. After the stifling violence and brutality of medieval times highlighted by famines, war and pandemics and ignorance, the Renaissance swung the pendulum back to appreciation of the finer things in life. The movement began in Italy (Florence to be precise) which was then governed by powerful city-states, namely Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples, and Rome.

Art of Presepe Napoletano. S, Gregorio Armeno

Famous Renaissance art such as the Mona Lisa, the Primavera and the Sistine chapel, along with The Last Supper, the Kiss of Judas, the Sistine Madonna inspire art lovers all over the world, and forever will.

This rebirth also asserted itself in the arts through painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, music, and philosophy, but also through science, technology, and exploration.

The Advent of the Renaissance in Naples

Naples was one of the last city-states to embrace the movement: though it ruled much of southern Italy at the time of the Renaissance. It is primarily in 1443 when Alfonso I (also known as Alfonso V, King of Argon) conquered the city that art began to flourish again.

Alfonso the Magnanimous foray into Naples began in 1421 upon the childless Queen Joanna II of Naples adopting him as heir to the Kingdom of Naples. He promoted and commissioned Mediterranean art especially through oil paintings, and this made the city-state a center for Renaissance art.

Under Giovanni Pontano, he instituted the Academy of Naples, and to commemorate his entrance into the city in 1443 had a magnificent triumphal arch added to the main gate of Castel Nuovo, a medieval castle in the center of Naples. The ancient Neapolitan art and architecture of the arch was based on Roman style and building techniques. Alfonso V supplied the theme of Renaissance sculptures over the west entrance, and artists such as Laurana, da Messina, Sannazzaro and Poliziano arrived in the city under his commision.  He also helped found the Academy of Naples, and had a magnificent arch created.  He establish museums and libraries throughout the city which furthered the Renaissance ideals of the time.

At his height of power, Alfonso controlled large portions of land, including all of southern Italy.  This helped expand the influence of Naples throughout the region. His support of Renaissance artists, writers, and philosophers and other creative endeavors made Naples popular for its music and art. The mandolin was invented in Naples.

The end of the Renaissance

The Renaissance style caught on slowly in Naples but is displayed in its full potential through the work of Antonello da Messina, the greatest master of southern Italy of the fifteenth century, who also trained in Naples, near Colantonio. His initial works, such as the Salvator Mundi, adhere to the Flandro-Burgundian principles of iconography, technique of execution and character features, however the setting of the figures and the spatials are typically Italian.  Naples was captured by Spain in 1504. Possibly the last Renaissance project would be by Giovanni Cola di Franco on the church of Santa Maria la Nova.