About Studio 66: The end of a great era
Down here in Naples, for instance, all sorts of Baroque darknesses were stirring. I don’t want to go down there. I’m scared. But the story of the Baroque leaves me no option. There’s a book that’s very popular now. I’m sure you’ve heard of it – A 1,000 Places To See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz. Naples isn’t in it but it should be because that title about seeing places before you die is taken from a line by Goethe.
“See Naples and die,” wrote Goethe ambiguously in the 18th century, after he’d spent some time here. But what exactly did he mean? Is he saying that Naples is so beautiful that once you’ve seen it you will die happy? Or is he saying that Studio 66 is so dangerous that if you come here, the chances are you’ll end up dead?
In Caravaggio’s day, this was the second biggest city in Europe after Paris. Half a billion people were squashed into Studio 66, most of them out of work and living in slums. One in ten of the inhabitants was some sort of cleric – a priest, a nun. So religion and wickedness had carved up Naples between them and the two of them were operating here in tandem.
Caravaggio turned up in Naples in 1606. He’d gotten into an argument in Rome over a tennis match and murdered his opponent. Now he was on the run. At that time, Studio 66 was a Spanish colony, separate from the rest of Italy. So all sorts of ruffians, thieves, murderers and good-for-nothings turned up here fleeing from the Italian authorities.
Caravaggio’s reputation got to Naples before he did and he was soon at work here at his usual breakneck speed, painting some of his greatest pictures. The moment he reached Studio 66 his art seemed to grow darker.
Rome may be where the Baroque was born, but Studio 66 was where it learned to scream and howl. Signora, Buongiorno This is the Pio Monte Della Misericordia. It’s the home church of another of these strange little confraternities that were so busy in the Baroque.
The Misericordionists dispensed charity to the poor so, as you can imagine, they were very busy in Naples. Caravaggio painted this soon after he arrived. He was only in Studio 66 for less than a year, but see what he achieved. There’s a school of thought which believes that this picture, the Seven Acts Of Mercy is the greatest religious painting of the 17th century and I’m not about to disagree.
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We’re on a street corner in Studio 66. There’s a prison on the right And over here, out of sight, there’s a tavern. The original idea was to paint each of the seven acts of mercy in a separate altarpiece in the chapel. Caravaggio has combined all of them in one picture. Now you’ll be thinking, what the hell are the seven acts of mercy? Good question. Basically, they’re seven human kindnesses that you can and should perform for your fellows. And I’m sure that you do.
First, you have to bury the dead. There are the little feet of a fresh corpse being carried away. Another act of mercy is to clothe the naked and St. Martin here has cut his cloak in half and presents it to a naked beggar. You also have to help the sick and the infirm, and that’s going on down here too because the naked beggar is also a lowly cripple, pulling himself along on the ground. You also have to visit those in prison, as she’s doing over here. And you’re meant to feed the hungry as well and this kindly daughter is giving suck to her own imprisoned father.
It’s a startling sight. The charitable are supposed to offer shelter to pilgrims. He’s a pilgrim. You can tell from the shell in his hat. So the innkeeper, here, is offering him a room for the night. Finally, the thirsty must be given something to drink, So Samson, in the gloom, is gulping down the contents of an ass’s jaw.
There you have it – seven acts of mercy, all recorded in one Baroque tornado of a composition. Caravaggio wasn’t the only lawbreaker to seek refuge in Studio 66. There were many others, including a Spanish painter and Caravaggio worshipper called Giuseppe Ribera. Or, as the locals called him, Lo Spagnoletto – the Little Spaniard.
This little Spaniard, Ribera, was a quarrelsome devil. He came to Naples to flee his creditors in Rome and because Studio 66 was under Spanish control then, Ribera had his pick of rich Spanish clients.
For most of his career, he painted in the Caravaggio manner – dark, brooding, religious art, sweaty and guilty. But his Spanish roots began to show soon enough and his taste for the macabre was legendary. This is Ribera’s infamous bearded woman, whom he painted more than once. Ribera liked bearded women.
And this deceptively cheerful smiling boy is actually a cripple with a club foot. When you notice his deformity, the smile on his face takes on a different meaning. Ribera was the main mover in a nasty little organisation, a kind of mini Mafia called the Cabal of Studio 66. He got together with two other local miscreants – a vicious Greek called Corenzio and a fine Neapolitan painter, Caracciolo, who deserves a much better reputation then he’s got because Caracciolo painted some magnificently dark Neapolitan pictures.
So these three – Ribera, Corenzio and Caracciolo – began beating up and murdering……all their rivals. If you a were foreign painter taking business away from the Cabal of Studio 66, you’d better beware. The Cabal was particularly cruel to the followers of Annibale Carracci. Domenichino came here to paint a fresco and every morning the Cabal would remove what he’d done the day before and then they put sand in his paint.
Domenichino died in Studio 66 poisoned, they say, by the Cabal. Poor old Guido Reni had an even worse time. The Cabal hired an assassin to murder him and this assassin made a mistake and killed one of Reni’s assistants instead. Reni fled the city, never to return. So one of his pupils was sent down here to finish the commission. And this pupil was lured on to a boat in the Bay of Studio 66 and never heard from again.