A view of Naples’ ‘head of the hill’

The Capodimonte Museum spans 16th- and 17th-century Italian art, but its Mannerist and Baroque works impress the most


Following the exhibition “Galleria Borghese” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum earlier this year, yet another famous Italian artistic institution is in town. This time it’s the Capodimonte Museum from Naples, with a show at the National Museum of Western Art. Like the Borghese show, this exhibition also focuses on 16th- and 17th-century, mainly Italian, art, creating a feeling of deja vu for anyone who has seen the earlier exhibition. But there are important differences as well.

The Capodimonte, as its name suggests (literally “the head of the hill”), overlooks the city of Naples and has an impressive collection, but it is best known for its Neapolitan artists, such as the Spanish-born Jusepe de Ribera, Luca Giordano, and the local followers of Caravaggio. Often in histories and exhibitions of Italian art, these painters come second to their Florentine, Roman, and Venetian counterparts.

The present-day status of Neapolitan art is possibly a hangover from the sharp cultural decline that Naples suffered in the Baroque period. At the start of the era (c. 1600) the city was one of the undoubted cultural capitals of Europe, with a population second only to that of Paris, and a must-see stop for any nobleman on the Grand Tour, but by the end of the period (c. 1750), after suffering plagues, earthquakes and outbreaks of lawlessness, the city had become a relative cultural backwater. This sense of lost glory pervades the exhibition, giving it a slight note of melancholy.

Although strong in Neapolitan art, the Capodimonte is weaker in wider Italian art. It is surprising, therefore, that the show also tries to serve as a primer for the history of Italian art in general. There is a small, unimpressive Andrea Mantegna from around 1470 and a few examples of High Renaissance art. These works, however, are by second-string artists, such as Bernadino Luini, whose sfumato-heavy style evokes Leonardo da Vinci, and Giorgio Vasari, who is now best known for his biographies of other artists.

While it is good to see such pieces, the attempt to tick more boxes serves to emphasize the collection’s shortcomings. In terms of period, the real strength of the Capodimonte’s collection is not its early or High Renaissance art; it is the slightly too rich Mannerist and Baroque art of the period that followed.

“Originally I wanted to organize a show of Mannerism to the Baroque,” the exhibition’s curator Shinsuke Watanabe confesses. “But the Capodimonte didn’t quite agree with this. They wanted to start from the Renaissance, also they wanted to show off Naples more.”

In addition to paintings that don’t fit smoothly into a coherent curatorial scheme, the exhibition also includes apparently random examples of craftsmanship, such as ceramic bowls, cups made from shells and marble and small pieces of sculpture. Following the curator’s original intention would have given the show a clearer identity and reduced the number of such distractions.

The real heart of the show, therefore, is the work that shows Mannerist and Baroque painters trying to improve on the near perfection of the High Renaissance. As often as not, this involved resorting to gimmicks. Parmigianino’s “Antea” (1535-7) and Bronzino’s “Portrait of a Lady” (1525-30) show the Mannerist trick of elongating the human form to create a heightened sense of elegance; while Guido Reni’s “Atalanta and Hippomenes” (1620-21) shows the swirling fabrics and over-elaborate compositions favored by the period.

Generally, it’s agreed that the high point of the Italian Baroque was the work of Caravaggio. In 1606, after one of his typical brushes with the law, the pugnacious painter was forced to flee Rome for Naples, where his style — a mixture of uncompromising realism and sharply contrasted lighting — had a major impact. Although the exhibition unfortunately doesn’t have any of his works, there are several by local Caravaggisti.

“When we talk about Baroque painting in Naples, we must mention Caravaggio,” Watanabe explains. “Lots of Neapolitan painters imitated him and lots of paintings were influenced by him.”

These include Jusepe de Ribera’s “Magdalen in Penitence” (1618-23), where the deep shadows add to a meditative mood, and the impressively violent “Judith and Holofernes” (1612-13) by the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Here the subject — the beheading of the Assyrian general by the Biblical heroine — is depicted with a shocking rigor and relish that brings the undercurrent of violence running through Baroque art into sharp relief.

“Masterpieces from the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, from Renaissance to Baroque” at The National Museum of Western Art runs till Sept. 26; admission ¥1,500; open 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.nmwa.go.jp/en/exhibitions/current.html After its run in Tokyo, the exhibition moves to The Museum of Kyoto from Oct. 9 to Dec. 5.