Luca Giordano, Fapresto, Famolto, Proteo
Ribera, Caravaggio, Rubens, Dürer, Veronese and Titian revive in the art of Luca Giordano, turned into elements for a new painting style.
Prodigiously prolific, Luca Giordano (Naples 1634 – Naples 1705) was given the nickname “Fapresto” (quick maker) for his proverbial speed when it came to painting. At the same time, he was also “Famolto” (productive maker): his production is vast to say the least. Moreover, some of his works were signed as “Proteo.” He indeed had a taste for transformation. He became famous for his dazzling ability to recreate the work of his predecessors such as Ribera and Preti, but also his intellectual mentors such as Caravaggio, Rubens, Dürer, Veronese, and Titian. Nobody could escape from his brush. He would extensively embrace the personality of other artists as some kind of great virtuous forger. Luca Giordano may simply sound like a brush acrobat, an eclectic follower of styles, esteemed only because of his irrepressible speed, mimetic ability and prolificity. Yet was a lot more than this distinguishably changeable character.
Parabasis is a term from ancient theatre. It means to walk sideways, to deviate, to transgress. It was what the choir did when at the end of the performance actors took off their masks, showing who the histrion really was. Following this concept, it is necessary to discover Luca Giordano’s sidesteps to understand his work.
The artist’s biography is not essential for the construction of his myth like that of troublemaker Caravaggio. Giordano’s career is instead very straightforward: he is an irreproachable father, committed to work; a precocious talent, skilled at making money and getting things done. Caravaggio would end his days in despair. Giordano instead enjoyed a considerable income, a steadily rising success until his death in his seventies. Sometimes he would even work for free out of religious devotion, for example for his paintings for Santa Brigida church in Naples. He knew well how to exploit his craft, living a life full of commercial opportunities.
According to Stefano Causa, professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Naples Suor Orsola Benincasa, Luca Giordano’s work should be experienced only through his painting taken as a single and continuous body: a technical-pictorial miracle from 17th century Naples. Causa observes that “Giordano made a wild version of Roman Baroque, leaving aside figures such as Rubens, Cortona and Bernini, opting instead for older masters such as Titian and Veronese for his own style jump.”
One must be intoxicated with Dionysian spirit to discard mainstream models, which Giordano took only as copying specimens and transformed into tonic explosions and extendable soundscapes. Already in early works such as Saint Januarius Interceding from 1656, Giordano converted the references to Ribera, Preti and Micco into the symptoms of his new painting.
Plagues have always offered narrative and visual inspirations to artists: from Thucydides to Lucretius, from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Manzoni’s The Betrothed, from Defoe to Camus – who knows how the Covid pandemic will affect the imagination of today’s artists. The Neapolitan plague of the mid 17th century coincided with the artistic take-off of the young Luca Giordano, who received the commission to paint an altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria del Pianto next to the caves of the bats where the bodies of the plague victims were thrown.
Certainly Luca Giordano knew some of the frescoes by Mattia Preti executed in the same period as ex votos on the city gates. Today only the fresco of the San Gennaro door is still visible thanks to the restoration in 1997. Fortunately, the sketches are still preserved in the Capodimonte Museum.
[Here is our interview with Sylvain Bellenger, the director of the Capodimonte Museum. Ed.]
The carnage of Mattia Preti, where nurses dump corpses in piles and whirlpools of miasma rise from the city evokes horror and tears. Giordano adds the image of the carcasses in the lower part of the altarpiece with noteworthy skills: from the wounded feet of the dead that suddenly emerge in the foreground to the livid arm, which would enter the memory of the French a century and a half later – see Géricault’s Raft and David’s Death of Marat. Already in the 18th century Tiepolo would take the image of the child clinging to his mother’s breast for his Saint Thecla Frees the City of Este from the Plague.
In Luca Giordano’s San Gennaro a clear dust floats above the dead and an ethereal doctor wears a mask to defend himself from contagion. He is illuminated by the saint, depicted in elevation and rendered in three quarters as a suppliant. His robe is light blue with the foamy laces of great tailoring work. The darkness is sucked into a whirlpool in the cassock and light sprinkles in the upper part of the canvas, painted with the bright blue and red tones of Mary. Then Christ appears in a dust of gold, taking on himself the weight of the Triumph over Death with his cross.
Little remained of the naturalism of Caravaggio. Ribera already rethought styles and subjects after arriving in Naples in 1616. In his creations the paint begins to vibrate in a sort of magic rendering, following the teachings of the philosopher Tommaso Campanella. Giordano took this lesson even further into explosive virtuosity. After his stay in Rome where he studied and copied every painter he could find, from Raphael to Caravaggio, his dream became to equal the great Venetians: Titian, Tintoretto and his model Veronese, without ever putting down the experimenter’s dress and appropriating everyone in chameleonic manner.
Luca Giordano’s reputation leaves its mark in the city of the Doges. The artist was called “a genius to import” and was commissioned by the Marquis Augusto Fonseca and the merchant Simon Giogali to paint an assumption scene in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute in the 1660s. This painting refers to Titian’s assumption scene in the Frari church, especially the backlight that welcomes the apostles. Giordano accentuates the dynamism of the scene. The elevation of Mary to heaven is so rapid as to overwhelm and turn upside down the cherubs who accompany her in celestial glory.
In 1667 Giordano received an assignment in the least Baroque city of Italy, that is Florence. He only completed the large frescoes in the Galleria degli Specchi at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in the 1680s. It is a surprising work, a great theatrical machine. It can be considered as the first “continuous ceiling,” a great experimentation of daring spatiality. Above all, it is a visual shock for those who see it right after the sombre 15th century frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli nearby: golden and reflecting sparkles illuminate the space, where baroque skies of vaporous clouds and characters soar in very clear and vivid colors. The lack of frames collapses the boundary between the virtual space of painting and the real one, and the visual instability is amplified by perspective distortions. At the center of the whirlpool is the apotheosis of the Medici family.
Finally Luca Giordano moved to Spain, becoming the court painter for the powerful of el siglo de oro. He would remain there for a decade until 1702. Accredited as a frescante, he became pintor de càmara among the finest artists at the service of the King. He took care of an entire decorative cycle in the Escorial, the sacred temple of the monarchy. The artist began with the vault of the escalera, exalting the deeds of Charles V and Philip II as a divine mandate. Giordano designed the vault as a perforated and deep space to extend the verticality of the environment into infinity, yet avoiding the use of linear perspective as Pietro da Cortona did. “Luca Giordano reaches an implosion of space, a suction of the outside world in a close environment instead of an explosion. It is as though the world of the street penetrates and expands through a breach” says Nicola Spinosa, former Superintendent of the Naples Museum Complex and promoter of the first exhibition entirely dedicated to Giordano in 2001 at Castel Sant’Elmo in Naples. Spinosa continues: “This invasion of the world in enclosed spaces creates a work that lies between dream and truth, which for a true Neapolitan is a daily psychological dimension: the ability to combine body and spirit, misery and nobility.” Thanks to this intersection of depth and lightness, a century later the young Francisco Goya would elect Giordano as one of his reference models. Roberto Longhi would describe the “eighteenth-century breeze” that Giordano delivered to Goya and the French.
See Naples and die
During his Journey to Italy at the end of the 18th century, Goethe discovered the Neapolitan “pazza gioia” (mad joyfulness) and the city’s special relationship with death. After a visit to the Girolamini church, he wrote: “It is necessary to see Naples in order to understand and appreciate the Neapolitan school of painting. Here you can see the entire façade of a painted church with wonder, from top to bottom. Above the door Christ chases sellers and buyers out of the temple, who in fright all tumble down the stairs, right and left. […] Luca Giordano must have worked quickly to complete such important works.” In 1684, between two stays in Florence, the artist managed to complete the façade of the church.
Back to his hometown in 1702, he dedicated his last energies to the works at the Santa Brigida church and at the Cappella del Tesoro in San Martino, “painted all in one breath and with a single stroke of the brush” as the 18th century commentator De Dominici noted. In 1703 he painted the six pictures for the chapel of San Carlo commissioned by the Girolamini’s, who were convinced there would be no “brush like that of S.r Don Luca” in the future. The final work is from 1704: The triumph of Judith. In this painting the biblical subject does not matter: among the intense and luminous colors, among excited actions, in close contiguity of figures and story, Giordano demonstrated how speed certainly doesn’t equate with lousiness. He showed how art is not the union of two immeasurable worlds, the divine and the human, but itself a world in outline: an endless work in progress.
November 9, 2020