Luca Giordano. The Triumph of the neapolitan baroque at Petit Palais in Paris

Luca Giordano was born in Naples in 1634. Possession of the Spanish kingdom, governed by a viceroy directly appointed by the King of Spain, Naples was then the most populated city in Italy. It is a merchant city, very cosmopolitan. Luca Giordano learned painting there from his father, himself a painter and art merchant. He quickly reveals a particularly precocious talent. His technical virtuosity and rapidity of execution quickly earned him the nickname « Luca fa presto » (Luca goes fast).

At the beginning of his career, he produced numerous pastiches and imitations of Raphael, Titian or Corrège. This enabled him to sell copies to a clientele of copy enthusiasts but also to assimilate the lessons of these great painters.

Virgin to child, 1655, Oil on canvas, Madrid, musée du Prado

Giordano imitated Raphael’s style and pushed the pastiche to the point of using the same type of format (tondo) and support (wood) that were no longer in use in his time. He even went so far as to sign « Raffaello ».

Around 1653, Luca went to Rome where he immersed himself in the art of the great artists whose works he saw, from Raphael to Peter of Cortona via Rubens or Poussin. He returns with a style that is his own, dynamic, luminous and clear, which is well suited to the great religious compositions in vogue at the time.

Madona of the rosary, 1657, Oil on canvas, 253×191 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum

The composition, based on a series of diagonals, is very dynamic and is clear and legible. The colours are extremely bright.

The painter’s early works are also marked by the teaching he received from the leading painter of Naples, Jusepe de Ribera, who himself was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s aesthetics. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Neapolitan artists were very receptive to Caravaggio, and Luca Giordano had to confront painters such as Caracciolo and Ribera, of course, who were a little older than him, and then Mattia Preti. He often competes with them by treating identical subjects.

Battistello Caracciolo, Christ at the column, 1620, Oil on canvas, 184×132 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum

The style is very clearly influenced by Caravaggio: naturalism of the bodies, violent light, tight framing. The painting is inspired by Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ.

Caravaggio, Flagellation of Christ, 1607, Oil on canvas, 390×260 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum

Juseppe Ribera, Apollo and Marsyas, 1637, Oil on canvas, 182×232 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum
Luca Giordano, Apollo and Marsyas, 1660, Oil on canvas, 207×261 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum

While Ribera emphasizes the figures of Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, treated with great naturalism, Giordano shifts his subject slightly to the right, leaving more room for the fright of the satyr attending the scene.

Mattia Preti, Martyrdom of saint Peter, 1658/60, Oil on canvas, 336×242 cm, Grenoble, museum of fine arts
Luca Giordano, Martyrdom of saint Peter, 1660, Oil on canvas, 173×222 cm, Ajaccio, Fesch museum

When Mattia Preti proposes a monumental painting, full of characters, which allows him to show a great talent as a colourist, Giordano prefers to concentrate on the figure of the saint which occupies almost all the space and on a rather restricted chromatic range of browns.

One of the exhibition rooms synthesizes these different trends by showing three versions of the figure of Saint Sebastian, one by Ribera, one by Preti and one by Giordano.

While these three versions are treated in a realistic vein, Ribera moves away from Caravaggio by using a softer, golden light, close to Venetian painting, and opens the space to a background of sky. Preti highlights the emotions of the saint while Giordano, very close to Ribera in the composition, remains on a very bright light contrast and a limited range of colours, in an attempt to dramatise the scene.

Like many other painters of his time, Giordano treated the theme of philosophers. Indeed, the era placed great importance on images of exemplary lives and rediscovered ancient philosophical currents such as stoicism and cynicism.

Philosopher holding a scroll, 1660, Oil on canvas, 128×103 cm , Paris, musée du Louvre

Through its destitution (neutral background, patched clothing, limited number of colours), the painting invites the viewer to question the primacy of intellectual value over the world of appearances. The philosopher is devoid of all material possessions and is entirely preoccupied by his reflection, hence his melancholic attitude, head bent over, looking out of the painting.

During his trip to Rome the painter had also assimilated the lessons of the great Baroque decorations of Pierre de Cortone or Bernini. From the 1650s onwards, he took full advantage of this and used the Baroque vocabulary which tried to involve the spectator in the scene represented. The canvas becomes a large theatre stage, designed to move the viewer.

Saint Lucia led to the martyrdom,1659, Oil on canvas, 143×193 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum

There is a great dynamic of lines that seem to pull the subject to the left of the painting. The painter works with different plays of light: reflections on the armour, divine light falling on the columns and the face of the saint, the executioner’s arm seen against the light.

He also began to paint secular subjects in which he often referred to Titian’s painting.

Lucrèce and Tarquin, 1663, Oil on canvas, 138×187 cm, Naples Capodimonte museum

There is a contrast between the sensuality in the very carnal representation of the female body and the violence of the subject, since it is a rape.

In 1656, a dramatic episode upset the city of Naples. The plague fell on the city, which lost half its population in six months. For artists who had escaped the plague, such as Giordano, the event became a source of inspiration. The viceroy commissioned an altarpiece dedicated to Saint January, which would have saved Naples from the plague. According to legend, the painter would have executed it in only two days.

Saint January interceding for the end of the plague, 1656/60, Oil on canvas, 400×315 cm, Naples, Capodimonte museum

Luca Giordano contrasts the miraculous vision of Saint January, treated in light and luminous tones, with a macabre foreground composed of a tangle of corpses. Géricault was undoubtedly inspired by this foreground to elaborate his figures of dying people in the foreground of the « Radeau de la Méduse ».

Géricault, detail of the Radeau de la Méduse

Around 1687, Charles II of Spain invited him to Madrid to fresco the monastery of El Escorial and the palaces of Madrid, Toledo and Aranjuez.

Assumption of the Virgin, 1690, Oil on canvas, 134×95 cm, Toledo

Notice the magnificent « trompe l’œil » of the faux wood.

Luca Giordano returned definitively to Naples in 1702 and began a final cycle of six paintings for the Girolamini church. They are dedicated to Saint Philip of Neri and Saint Charles Borromeo, two emblematic figures of the Counter-Reformation.

Philippe de Neri and Charles Borromée, 1704, Oil on canvas, Naples, Girolamini’s Church

The artist died in 1705, leaving a particularly important work in Naples that would strongly impress 18th century French painters such as Fragonard or Hubert Robert, and 19th century painters such as David or Géricault.

Luca Giordano. The Triumph oh neapolitan baroque. Paris, musée du Petit Palais , until 23 february
A very beautiful exhibition, clear and didactic, which allows one to familiarize oneself with the work of a painter little known in France. Special mention to the very beautiful scenography which allows the spectator to immerse himself in the Italian or Spanish settings.

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