Sep 13th 2009
A young damsel and Old Masters await in Naples
It might seem odd for the Museo di Capodimonte to conclude our summer series about hidden-gem museums. How is it that this national museum, in a former royal palace at the top of a mountain (or sizeable hill) with grand views
After all, the Capodimonte is filled with masterpieces from the world famous Farnese Collection, some 800 paintings by such artists as Titian, Raphael, Masaccio and Mantegna. Caravaggio’s searing “Flagellazione” stands out among the dramatic pictures in the Neapolitan Galleries. And then there is Parmigianino’s beloved “Antea”, an arresting portrait of a beautiful young woman (pictured). In Italy images of this woman, whose identity is not known, can be found on everything from fridge magnets to tea towels and Christmas ornaments.Yet the contents of the Capodimonte are best known from reproductions or loans to international exhibitions. Only 86,000 people visited last year, few of whom were foreigners. Sadly, the city's daunting reputation may put many off, and the museum’s website is too limited to lure the uninitiated. But courage is no longer a prerequisite for a stay in Naples. The city has cleaned up its act (or, in the case of its garbage, had its act cleaned up for it). Handbag snatchers are now far less common than opportunities for delectable pizza. The Capodimonte is not the only reward for spending time in Naples, but it may be the most lasting one.
The striking hilltop site for a new royal palace was chosen in 1734 by Charles, the first Bourbon king of Naples. Its wooded surroundings suited his passion for hunting; its capacious interior provided room enough for the enormous art collection amassed by his forebears. (The family of Elisabetta Farnese, his mother and Queen of Spain, had been great collectors for more than 200 years.)
An enormous room hung with Farnese family portraits soon greets visitors. Do not yawn: this is no tedious group of ancestor likenesses. It is somehow shocking to come upon so many pictures of such high artistry, which reveal so much about the variety and vagaries of human character. Among the seven Farnese portraits by Titian on view (seven Titian portraits in one room!), the most haunting may be that of a white-bearded, hunched over Pope Paul III, weary but majestic. Raphael also painted two of the portraits here.
In addition to the museum’s Old Master paintings, there is a suite of royal apartments as they looked in the 19th century. One large room is hung with “The Battle of Pavia”, a masterly cycle of early 16th-century Brussels tapestries. Based on drawings by Bernard van Orley, it is an exceptionally honest look at men making war. And then there is “Antea”. Yes, this is an Old Master painting, but in a sense this is a work apart. She is “our Princess,” says Mariella Utili, the museum’s director. “Antea”, it seems, has been exercising royal prerogatives since she first came into being.
During the sack of Rome in 1527, Parmigianino’s studio was broken into by German soldiers. Besotted by the woman in the painting, they left him unmolested. In 1799, when Charles’s son, Ferdinand IV King of Naples, fled advancing French troops, he took with him to Palermo some 20 works from the Farnese Collection—its Titians and “Antea”. During the second world war, many masterpieces were removed from Italy’s museums and hidden, only to be taken as booty.
A cache of works was discovered in 1945 in a Salzburg cave, including the Farnese Titians and “Antea”. Much celebrating greeted her return to Naples with the others, and they were honoured with a grand “new” home in the former palace at the top of the hill. The Capodimonte Museum opened to the public in 1957. To say a visit it is worth a detour is an understatement.