Skip to Content

Reviews & Articles

The Road to the Baroque
at 4:01pm on 22nd April 2024


1)  El Greco, Boy blowing on an ember, 1571-2, oil on canvas. Collection of Capodimonte Museum, Naples


2)  Titian, Danaë, 1544-5, oil on canvas. Collection of Capodimonte Museum, Naples



The Road to the Baroque

by David Clarke


From 15 July to 2 November 2022, the Hong Kong Museum of Art exhibited ‘The Road to the Baroque’, a selection of paintings from the rich collection of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Italy. This was a show well worth seeing, as it contains (alongside the works of lesser-known figures) a number of paintings by extremely well-respected artists, almost all Italian.  Amongst these are Titian, El Greco, Bronzino, Parmigianino, Annibale Carracci, Artemisia Gentileschi, Ribera, and Luca Giordano. El Greco and Ribera are the two non-Italians in this list.  El Greco - Domenikos Theotokopoulos - was (as his widely-used nickname suggests) Greek by birth, and although he spent some time in Italy he is most well-known for his contribution to Spanish art (made after his move to Toledo in 1577). He is represented in this exhibition by ‘Boy Blowing on an Ember’, a relatively early work from 1571-2, painted while he was based in Rome. It comes from a period before his signature style had fully developed - it is interesting precisely because of that. Ribera is Spanish, although his mature works were all executed in Italy, and he moved to Naples in 1616 after spending time in Rome. He lived in the city till his death in 1652. Both the ‘Apollo and Marsyas’ and ‘Saint Sebastian’ paintings in the exhibition belong to this Naples phase, dating from 1637 and 1651 respectively. Certain other artists featured in this exhibition also lived in Naples for part of their career – Artemisia Gentileschi, for instance, moved there in 1630, spending most of the rest of her life in the city.


Although the title of the exhibition foregrounds the notion of the Baroque, this is somewhat misleading. Titian is of course an artist of the Venetian Renaissance, and Bronzino and Parmigianino are key figures of the Mannerist phase which occurred between the High Renaissance and the Baroque eras. El Greco can also be related to Mannerism. Indeed, the first room of paintings from the Capodimonte Museum that one encounters includes works from a period subsequent to the Baroque, such as ‘Eruption of Vesuvius from the Maddalena Bridge’ of 1782 by the French-born artist Pierre Jacques Volaire (who died in Naples in 1799). The reason for placing this and other such post-Baroque works at that starting point of the exhibition is to introduce visitors to the location of the Capodimonte Museum itself, but this completely upsets any chronological order to the display. Indeed, before one even gets to such paintings one has already encountered (in a room to the left of the entrance) a selection of works by the Hong Kong artist Chow Chun-fai. Clearly Chow is one of Hong Kong’s more significant artists, but to place his works at such a location, before the visitor has had a chance to encounter any of the artworks visiting from Naples, is a strange decision. Clearly the idea is to include a Hong Kong ‘response’ as part of the exhibition, but if that is to make sense then it should be presented at a point when the visitor has already themselves seen the artworks included, and is thus able to investigate how Chow’s art may relate to them – and indeed to compare Chow’s take on the art to their own.


The work by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) is her ‘Judith and her Maidservant Abra with the Head of Holofernes’ (c. 1640s), which illustrates a story from the biblical ‘Book of Judith’ about the killing of the Assyrian general Holofernes by the Israelite heroine Judith. This is one of several versions of this subject which she painted. Other earlier versions are in Florence and Detroit, and indeed one from c. 1612-13 is in the Capodimonte Museum itself. That version shows the actual decapitation of the drunken Holofernes – a directly violent presentation of the story – but in this later interpretation the murder has already take place. The subject had been treated by many other artists, and Artemisia Gentileschi is directly indebted to the precedent offered by Caravaggio (whose canvas of this subject dates either to c. 1598-1599 or 1602).  Art historians have sometimes interpreted her engagement with the theme in relation to her own biography. Artemisia Gentileschi had been raped at an early age by the artist Agostino Tassi and the paintings of this theme are sometimes seen as a response to that event. The story of Judith and Holofernes is not one of revenge, however, and biographical readings are not forthcoming to explain the engagement with the theme made by male artists.  Possibly a less biographical reading of the work is therefore called for if we are to gain a balanced picture of Artemisia Gentileschi’s artistic achievements. Because her father Orazio was an artist she was in a position to obtain an artistic training of a kind few women of that era were able to gain access to, and she enjoyed great success in her own lifetime. Possibly she can be considered the most significant female painter in Europe before the modern era.


Amongst the Titian paintings in the exhibition arguably the most significant is his ‘Danaë’ of 1544-5. This represents a story from Greek mythology of the daughter of Acrisius, who consulted an oracle and was told that a son of his daughter would kill him. He locked her away in an attempt to prevent this happening, but without success.  The god Zeus came to Danaë in the form of a shower of gold, and impregnated her, and their son Perseus does eventually kill his father, albeit accidentally.  The moment of the god’s appearance as a shower of gold is shown, and a cupid stands by observing it. Titian (and his workshop) went on to produce a number of later versions of this subject, and in these the figure of cupid tends to be replaced by that of an aged maidservant who is shown gathering the falling gold.  This helps to introduce a contrast between youth and age, beauty and plainness, and nude and clothed  figures into the work, and also accentuates the implication of a mercenary transaction which the presence of gold already brings.  


In Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’, the second revised and enlarged edition of which was published in 1568, this artist and pioneer of art history, or at least art biography, recounts a visit he and his friend Michelangelo paid to Titian while the latter was in Rome. The Capodimonte Museum Danaë painting was seen during their visit. ‘Then one day Michelangelo and Vasari went along to visit Titian in the Belvedere, where they saw a picture he had finished of a nude woman, representing Danaë, who had in her lap Jove [Jupiter, the Roman equivalent to Zeus] transformed into a rain of gold: and naturally, as one would do with the artist present, they praised it warmly’.  As Vasari’s account continues (in this third person voice) the difference between the Venetian artist’s emphasis on colour and the Florentine emphasis on drawing becomes clear: ‘After they had left they started to discuss Titian’s method and [Michelangelo] Buonarroti commended it highly, saying that his colouring and his style pleased him very much but that it was a shame that in Venice they did not learn to draw well from the beginning and that those painters did not pursue their studies with more method. For the truth was, he went on, that if Titian had been assisted by art and design as much as he was by nature, and especially in reproducing living subjects, then no one could achieve more or work better, for he had a fine spirit and a lively and entrancing style’.


The Road to the Baroque - Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum                                                                                     

Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong

15 July to 2 November 2022


Search by Writer: