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Body and Soul


Italian Baroque paintings on loan from Naples show how the Old Masters used the human body to express emotion and spirituality.

El Greco, Boy Blowing on an Ember, 1571–72

El Greco, Boy Blowing on an Ember, 1571–72, oil on canvas, 23 13⁄16 x 19 7⁄8 in.

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While not a “città d’arte” on the level of Rome or Florence, Naples has some special claims to distinction in the history of art production and art collecting. In the 17th century, under Spanish rule, the southern Italian city became a center of the Baroque movement, home base for a group of virtuoso painters who took realism to new, dramatic heights. With the patronage of the Habsburg court, artists such as Caravaggio, Batistello Caracciolo, Jusepe de Ribera, and Artemisia Gentileschi worked in Naples in the early part of the century, and a school of a painting developed there—influenced strongly by Caravaggio and the northern Italian Guido Reni—that flourished until a disastrous plague in 1656 killed off nearly half the city’s population. After a hiatus, though, Naples continued to be an important center of Italian art through the mid-18th century.

In 1738, Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples and Sicily (and later crowned King of Spain as Charles III), built a huge palazzo on the hill of Capodimonte in Naples, partly because he needed more space for his elaborate court but also to house the fantastic collection of art he had inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese. The Farnese family possessed the dukedom of Parma and were major players in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church—notably Pope Paul III and his grandson Alessandro Farnese. The family’s hoard of art and antiquities included works by many Neapolitan artists as well as by greats outside the region, such as Titian, Raphael, El Greco, and Parmigianino.

Today, the palace is a museum, the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, where anyone can pretend to be a Farnese for at least a few hours. Some of that experience is currently available to American viewers, as the Seattle Art Museum presents “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum.” The exhibition, which runs through January 26 and then moves to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, features 40 Renaissance and Baroque works—39 paintings and one sculpture—spanning the 16th through 18th centuries, a rare and generous loan from an institution that has never allowed so many of its works to travel abroad. The Capidimonte, moreover, flies a bit under the radar; despite the fact that it is one of Italy’s largest museums, it has been called “an under-visited treasure trove” (The New York Times) and “the most underrated museum in Italy” (Condé Nast Traveler).

Pope Paul III, patron of Michelangelo and Copernicus, began the Farnese art collection, and fittingly the exhibition begins with an oil on wood portrait of him by Raphael, done around 1509–11, when he was still just plain Cardinal Farnese. The clean-shaven young man, clad in red, has a sensitive, inquiring-looking face, and in his delicate right hand is a letter, indicating his literary nature and wide correspondence (his dissolute lifestyle, involving the fathering of numerous bastard children, is of course not alluded to). The exhibition also features a portrait of Pope Paul in old age, done by Titian in 1543. Here he is bareheaded and gray-bearded, looking almost ascetic although draped in a red velvet that almost matches the upholstery of the chair he is sitting on. He looks wise, statesmanlike, and patient, although he would die six years later of some sort of attack brought on by a violent argument with his grandson Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.


Paul III became pope in 1536, and although this was 15 years after the Protestant Reformation got under way, he was the first pope to take seriously the need to combat the movement. He advocated a combination of reforms and propaganda efforts that began in earnest with the Council of Trent in 1545 and came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation had a major effect on art in the Catholic countries. On aspect of it was a movement in the direction of heightened sensuality and theatricality; perhaps paradoxically, this was an attempt to make religion more appealing by investing sacred narratives with greater visual and emotional power. Dramatic lighting, detailed realism, sensuous surfaces, and above all the attention lavished on the human form all combined to create an effect that, it was hoped, would excite people about the Catholic faith by making it seem more real and immediate.

The “flesh and blood” of the exhibition title refers to the human body as a vehicle for conveying emotion and spirituality (with an allusion, of course to the transfiguration of the body and blood of Christ), but without a doubt the attitude toward the body in Baroque art is ambivalent, with plenty of eroticism and horror deployed for their own sake as well as to make a point about religion. The Counter-Reformation gave artists permission, as it were, to dwell upon physicality without needing to feel abashed about it. The Renaissance rediscovered the body as a locus of beauty and ideal proportion, a confirmation and mirror of God’s greatness and wisdom. The the Baroque body in the Counter-Reformation era is more real, grittier and sweatier, more overtly erotic. It is also often the victim of violence. The Renaissance body is content to be, while the Baroque body is often in a state of becoming or suffering—undergoing some strife or change, functioning as a vehicle for the expression of strong feeling, whether sacred or profane.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes (1612–13) is a classic work that unites several of these threads. The stark chiaroscuro and tight cropping provide the scaffolding for the dramatic scene from the Apocryphal Book of Judith. The Jewish heroine, a widow, gains access to the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, who is plotting to destroy Judith’s home town, on the pretext of gratifying him sexually. Instead, she gets him drunk, severs his head, and bears it away with the help of her maid. This violent story likely had particular significance for Artemisia because of her personal history; in 1611 she was raped by the artist Agostino Tassi, who had been hired by her father, the artist Orazio Gentileschi, to tutor her in painting. In this version of Judith and Holofernes (Artemisia painted the story several times), the bodies stain against each other, Holofernes’ arm pushing back against those of the two women even at the moment of death, and the artist spares us nothing of the knife, guided by a twisting hand, as it slices into the reprobate’s neck. Here, human flesh and blood are characters in a drama of righteous revenge.

A completely different view of flesh can be had in Titian’s Danaë (1544–45), in which the Venetian artist portrayed the mistress of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as the princess of Greek myth. Danaë was immured by her father in a bronze tomb to prevent any suitors from reaching her, to avoid fatal results prophesied by the Delphic oracle. Zeus, however, came to her in the guise of a shower of golden drops, and the resulting child was the hero Perseus. It is believed that this very erotic work was intended for private viewing only. The creamy skin and soft flesh of the princess and of the cupid figure next to her bespeak a guiltless, uninhibited sexuality that, presumably, was not seen as being in any kind of conflict with the vows and life mission of a prince of the Church. Another work in the exhibition, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus (1626), seems to parody the kind of erotic female nude epitomized by Titian’s painting. We are shown the slightly grotesque body of a middle-aged man, the familiar companion of Dionysus, sprawled on his side, the unlovely, sagging flesh of his belly occupying center stage. The satyrs who surround him are not much better looking, with scrawny bodies and ropy-looking muscles.

In Annibale Carracci’s Pietà (1599–1600), Jesus’ flesh is a locus of cosmic drama, its death betokening the redemption of mankind. The clearly depicted color contrast between his grayish skin tone and the warm, ruddy tone of Mary’s heightens the drama, vividly juxtaposing life with death. And yet the body of the savior is still beautiful in its slim tenderness and graceful posture, not grotesque or off-putting at all. In Ribera’s Saint Jerome (1626), holiness shines forth from an aged, emaciated body. As the angel in the upper right blows its trumpet, the saint looks up in reverent astonishment as divine light transfigures his flesh.

Guido Reni—who spent a brief time in Naples in 1618 working on a commission before being chased out by local artists, including Ribera and Caracciolo, who threatened to physically harm him—uses the body in a choreographic way in his mythological composition Atalanta and Hippomenes (circa 1620–25). Fleet-footed Atalanta agreed to marry the man who could beat her in a race, which Hippomenes managed to do by distracting her with Venus’ golden apples. The two runners point in opposite directions, their left legs crossing in the center of the composition. The swirling bolts of cloth that barely cover their nudity seem to echo the movements of their bodies. Again there is an artificial-looking contrast between the flesh tones, but in this case it serves to differentiate male from female.

Sometimes flesh and blood are simply the basic elements of human existence. In their quest for convincing realism, Renaissance and Baroque painters made sure to give flesh and the blood that runs beneath it their undivided attention. An early work from the exhibition, Parmigianino’s Antea (1524–27), portrays an elegant woman of fashion. The silk and fur she wears define who she is in society, but the clear, smooth skin of her face and neck make her come alive as an individual, even if she is named only by a generic Greek word for flower. In depicting a Boy Blowing on an Ember (1571–72), El Greco lets this tiny source of light play over the slightly rough skin, pink lips, and spiky reddish hair of his subject, granting him immortality.

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By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2019

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