Filippo Napoletano alla corte di Cosimo II de’ Medici (1617-1621),

Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, 15 December 2007 - 27 April 2008.

1. Filippo Napoletano (c. 1587-1629)
Dante and Virgil in the Underworld
Oil on panel - 44 x 67 cm
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Usually, it is the book that accompanies the exhibition. In the case of the Filippo Napoletano exhibition in Florence, things are the other way around. Here it was the exhibition that was organised to accompany the publication of Marco Chiarini’s long-awaited monograph on this eclectic artist [1]. Giulio Mancini wrote of Napoletano that “in small things, in particular fires, boats and animals he gained a reputation and esteem, and in certain extravagant composition of animal skeletons he was very observing, and in history painting, such as battles, martyr scenes and the like he made good compositions” [2]. There is something paradoxical in Mancini’s list of specialisations that seem rather disparate. But as it appears from the exhibition in Florence, where Napoletano worked for a couple of years at the Medici court, the range of genres at which he excelled is indeed striking.

2. Filippo Napoletano (c. 1587-1629)
Two Shells
Oil on canvas - 39 x 56 cm
Florence, Galleria Palatina

However, in that sense Napoletano is precisely something of a representative of his era. Notwithstanding the diverse genres he worked in, the overarching principles are his attention to “small things” and, in more than one sense, to nature. Both of these characteristics connect him squarely with what were the specialities of Northern-European art, as well as with artists like Breughel and Elsheimer who were particularly popular in Italy for this kind of work. Napoletano’s numerous landscapes are clearly linked to this Northern tradition, and it is not surprising to see that some of these works had earlier been attributed to e.g. Cornelis Poelenburch. The same is true for the Plinian theme of the burning city at night, a specialty of Breughel, although, as Chiarini points out, the addition of Dante and Virgil in one of these scenes gives it a subtle Florentine touch (ill. 1). Related to Napoletano’s propensity towards detail, and again to some extent associated with Northern art, was the use of copper as a surface, because this facilitated the rendition of “small things”.

Napoletano’s landscapes are sprinkled with farmhouses, ruins and small figures going about their business. The room with drawings from his hand that is part of the exhibition makes clear that many (if not most) of these must have derived from out-door observations. The drawings of landscapes and squalid country-side buildings made from nature range from quick composition sketches, sometimes several on a sheet (e.g. exh. cats. 49 and 65 [drawings cats. 161 and 164]), to more detailed drawings of huts and farm houses. Even in his drawing technique Napoletano at times consciously adopts different styles, for instance in a small drawing of a soldier (exh. cat. 61 [drawings cat. 173]) that reveals his “profound knowledge of sixteenth-century German drawing”, as Chiarini rightly notes, or in a splendid landscape drawing (exh. cat. 60 [drawings cat. 166]) that recalls those by Titian and Campagnola.

3. Filippo Napoletano (c. 1587-1629)
Ruggero Liberates Angelica From the Orca
Oil on albarese stone - 27 x 43 cm
Florence, Istituto di Studi Etruschi

More than in his landscapes, however, Napoletano’s eclecticism and his position between two strands of representing nature appears from other works. On the one hand there are the works based on direct observation, on not just an intense attention to detail but a scientific, ontological gaze at the natural world. This is clear from a set of prints of the skeletons of various animals, but above all from the painting of two cedar fruits and that of two elaborate shells (ill. 2), both of which show the visual registration and description of the natural world that is best known from Cassiano del Pozzo’s paper museum, a project that took shape during these same years. This scientific approach to nature is contrasted by Napoletano’s series of works painted on pietre dure. In these there prevails an attitude of the marvellous and the wondrous, with Nature as an artist herself, with whom the artist enters at the same time in competition and collaboration, using the patterns in the stone itself as the basis for a composition (ill. 3).

Thus, this panorama of Napoletano’s work can be seen as highlighting the different roles and perceptions of the visual arts in the first decades of the seventeenth century, and as asking questions about how these various ideas could and did coexist, not only in one society but also in one person. In that sense this exhibition has a resonance that goes beyond that of Filippo Napoletano himself. That would also be the one small note of criticism on the small guide that accompanies the exhibition : a little more attention to this ambivalence that is precisely what, at least in this reviewer’s judgement, makes Napoletano such an interesting figure.

Filippo Napoletano alla corte di Cosimo II de’ Medici 1617-1621 ; Guida alla mostra, ed. Marco Chiarini, Florence, Centro Di, 2007, pp. 63, € 12, ISBN : 9788870-384604.

Visitor information : Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Piazza Pitti 1. Opened Tuesday through Sunday 8.15-18.50, Monday closed. Full price € 12.00 (includes admission to the rest of the Galleria Palatina and the Galleria d’arte moderna).


Huub van der Linden, mardi 15 avril 2008


[1] The catalogue numbers of the monograph are given after the exhibition catalogue numbers.

[2] Exhibition guide, p. 9 : “Nelle cose picciole in particolare di fuochi, navigli et animali si fece reputare e stimare, et in certe stravaganze d’animali fu molto osservato, et in composition d’historie, come battaglie, martirij e simili, buon compositore”.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : A Victorian Master : Drawings by Frederic, Lord Leighton

Next article in Exhibitions : Poussin and Nature