October 4, 2011

Francesco Solimena, a Forgotten Baroque Master

Self-portrait, Francesco Solimena

By Giovanni di Napoli
"Painting possesses a truly divine power in that not only does it make the absent present (as they say of friendship), but it also represents the dead to the living many centuries later, so that they are recognized by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration for the artist." – Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) *
As is my custom, I will visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art today to view Francesco Solimena's remarkable The Birth of the Virgin (ca. 1690) in honor of the artist's birthday. I do this whenever possible because I feel that members of our ethnos are part of my extended family and deserve (especially the great ones) the same respect and veneration afforded to my direct ancestors. Viewing the masterpiece in person, like reading the prose of a great writer or attending a concert by a preeminent composer, is my way of communing with our forebears.
While doing biographical research for this sketch I was unable to find a single book dedicated to Solimena. If that wasn't bad enough, with the exception of A Taste For Angels (Yale University Art Gallery, 1987), which has one chapter dealing with Solimena, and The Golden Age of Naples Vol. 1 (The Detroit Institute of Arts with The Art Institute of Chicago, 1981), which has eight pages, the rest of my art books devote only a page or two, at best, to the artist. This dearth is shocking when you consider some of the accolades written about him:
"Francesco Solimena was one of the most notable and influential figures in Neapolitan art, virtually dominating the scene from the end of the 17th until the mid-18th century. In fact, his vast and accomplished oeuvre, very much in demand throughout his career not only in Naples but throughout Europe, epitomizes the culture of southern Italy as it evolved over the course of the 18th century." (The Golden Age of Naples Vol. 1, p. 140)
"Francesco Solimena brought Neapolitan art to its greatest glory. After the death of Carlo Maratta in 1713, he was unarguably the most famous painter in Europe." (A Taste For Angels, p.163)
Art historian Pellegrino Antonio Orlandi (from Bologna), a contemporary and admirer of Solimena claimed, "Everyone has wished, and wishes to have his works" and an inscription on a portrait by famed caricaturist Pierleone Ghezzi (from Comunanza) says, "He is the best master we have this century." (Ibid)

One would imagine, with the ready availability of books about Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe or some two-bit graffiti artists that there would be no problem acquiring a book about one of Europe's renowned painters; but this is not the case. The paucity of books about Southern Italians in general (gangsters aside) is compounded with the fact that Baroque art, an exuberant idiom fully embraced by Southern Italy during the seventeenth century, has become unfashionable. With the exception of Caravaggio and Gian Lorenzo Bernini very few Baroque masters get the attention they deserve. 

I agree with the pundits when they say the Western masses are out of touch with and completely removed from their past, but this still doesn't explain the available alternatives. Sure, people aren't hanging prints of Jusepe de Ribera's Mystic Wedding of St. Catherine or Massimo Stanzione's Judith with the Head of Holofernes on their walls anymore, but I don't know anyone who has a copy of Serrano's Piss Christ either.

Mystic Wedding of St. Catherine by Jusepe de Ribera (New York Scugnizzo)

The lack of interest in Southern Italian art is often attributed to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), a Florentine painter, architect and writer, whose influential Lives of the Artist concentrates on the work of Northern Italian artists. While Vasari may have played a part in the marginalization of Southern Italian art, I think this is an oversimplification of the problem. As Bianca De Divitiis explains in her excellent essay, Building in Local All'Antica style: The Palace of Diomede Carafa in Naples:
"While the highly negative treatment of Neapolitan art and architecture can certainly be traced back to the writing of Giorgio Vasari, the influence of his ideas would not have been so harmful if they had not been reinforced by a range of different problems which arose in subsequent centuries. The attitudes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiographers were crucial not only in creating a homogeneous image of a backward southern Italy, which remained behind the rest of Italy and Europe, but also in interpreting the earlier history of the region in the light of this image. This particular historiographical approach has led to the creation of inadequate concepts such as centre and periphery, and development and backwardness, which have provided the framework within which the relationship between the Neapolitan quattrocento and the Renaissance in the rest of Italy have been interpreted and evaluated, not least by Neapolitan scholars themselves." (Art and Architecture in Naples, 1266-1713, Edited by Cordelia Warr and Janis Elliot, Wiley-Blackwell 2010, p. 83-84)
Subsequently, Northern Italian cultural hegemony has negatively influenced Italian-American scholars as well, who mostly hail from Southern Italy. Anyone doubting the veracity of this accusation should peruse Tom Verso's South of Rome—West of Ellis Island blog at i-Italy. Mr. Verso, whose essays are archived for anyone interested, documents the deplorable state of Southern Italian studies in America and cogently asserts the reasons why.  This Northern bias contributes to fewer English translations of Southern Italian works.  For example, Vasari's Lives is readily available in English; however, Bernardo De Dominici's (1683-1759) Lives of the Neapolitan artists, which was written to fill the void left by Vasari, is not.

Ms. De Divitiis continues:
"The so-called 'questione meridionale', or 'southern question', which arose after Italy's unification in the 1860s, not only relegated the south to a subordinate position in the national context as a whole, but also weakened the territorial and art-historical awareness which had been prevalent in the local and regional culture. ...Thus, since Naples has been regarded as a peripheral city merely waiting for the influence of the new Florentine style to reach it, little attention has been paid to the original character of local architectural forms and no detailed attempt has been made to understand the specific interpretation of the new language inspired by the antique which developed there during the quatrocento." (Ibid, p. 84)
Some might have noticed that, in apparent contradiction to Ms. De Divitiis, I used quotes from two Northern Italian artists who praised Solimena's work. This was done on purpose, not to contradict her, but to prove her point. Both artists made these statements prior to the Risorgimento. Before unification some animosity between regions did exist, but there was also a positive cultural exchange. It is ironic that the movement to unify Italy under one government (Savoy) did more to alienate its people from one another than unite them.

With this in mind, it is no longer surprising that most Baroque collections found in American museums lack Southern Italian paintings. Also, as taste changed and Baroque art fell out of favor, many collectors lost interest in the genre in its entirety. I suppose I should just be grateful the Met has a Solimena on display at all; very few American institutions do. The museum acquired The Birth of the Virgin in 1906, when it was misidentified as the work of Luca Giordano.

The Birth of the Virgin by Francesco Solimena (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)

Two additional institutions containing his work are The Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY, which houses several paintings by important Southern Italian artists, including Solimena's The Triumph of Judith; and, for our readers out on the West Coast, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA., which has three paintings by Solimena in their collection. However, as a word of caution, just make sure the paintings are on view beforehand; as of this writing two are currently NOT on view. 

Ultimately, one must still visit the palaces and churches of Southern Italy if one wants to get a fair assessment of Southern Italian Barocco.

Francesco Solimena was born in Canale di Serino, near Avellino, on October 4, 1657 to Angelo Solimena and Marta Grisignano. He was trained in the naturalistic tradition of painting by his father, a student of Francesco Guarino. Father and son collaborated on many paintings in Naples and its environs. The wonderful Vision of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, an alter piece for the Chiesa di San Domenico, Solofra, is perhaps the pair's finest work together. The canvas is an early example of Francesco's move from naturalism towards the more colorful and vigorous style of Luca Girodano, one of the most influential painters of the period.

In 1674, at age seventeen, Francesco arrived in Naples and studied in the workshop of Francesco di Maria. The impudent young Solimena quickly rejected di Maria's methods preferring to paint pictures than study figure drawing. According to De Dominici, Solimena told his mentor that it was paintings that were on display in churches and palaces, not drawings.

Nicknamed "abbate ciccio," Solimena, studied canon law and would later take minor clerical orders. In one amusing anecdote, Cardinal Vincenzo Orsini (later Pope Benedict XII) chided Angelo for encouraging his son to study law instead of pursuing art, insisting that one great artist was more valuable than many "dottori." 

Solimena soon fell under the influence of Giovanni Lanfranco and Mattia Preti, combining naturalism with tenenbrism and the baroque, creating his own unique style. He came-of-age in the 1680s acquiring many independent commissions, including the magnificent frescoes for the Chiesa di San Giorgio in Salerno. Solimena's work deeply impressed Luca Giordano on his triumphant return from Spain. For a short while the two masters vied for supremacy with Solimena playing second fiddle, but soon he would come to dominate the Neapolitan art world.

Solimena had a long and successful career producing many masterworks for the Church and private collections. His extensive oeuvre included still-lifes, landscapes and portraits, but was distinguished above all for his religious paintings. He was also a sculptor, architect and poet. Despite never traveling further than Rome, his artistic genius was celebrated across Europe and his work was in great demand. For over forty years he operated an impressive studio-academy, training many up-and-coming Neapolitan artists, most notably Gaspare Traversi, Francesco de Mura, Giuseppe Bonito and Corrado Giaquinto.  

At the age of 90, Francesco Solimena died at Barra, near Napoli, on April 3, 1747.

Madonna and Child with San Mauro Abate by Francesco Solimena 
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)


* Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was a north Italian polymath born in Genoa to a Florentine father and Bolognese mother. Quoted from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's introduction to the upcoming exhibit, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini (December 21, 2011-March 18, 2012).

The following sources proved invaluable to this post:
• Francesco Solimena, 1657-1747 by Carmen Bambach Cappel, A Taste for Angels: Neapolitan Painting in North America 1650-1750, Yale University Art Gallery, 1987
• The Golden Age of Naples: Art and Civilization Under the Bourbons, 1734-1805, Vol. 1, The Detroit Institute of Arts with The Art Institute of Chicago, 1981
• Art and Architecture in Naples, 1266-1713, Edited by Cordelia Warr and Janis Elliot, Wiley-Blackwell 2010
• Going for Baroque, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005
Painting in Naples from Caravaggio to Giordano edited by Clovis Whitfield and Jane Martineau, Royal Academy of Art, 1982