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A bracing brush with Naples: On the eve of a rare UK Caravaggio show, follow in the artist’s footsteps on a tour of his spiritual home


If only Caravaggio had stopped at the artichokes.

The Italian artist, one of the greatest of the 17th century, had a prodigious talent — and a temper to match.

Smashing a waiter in the face with a plate of the vegetables was the most restrained act in a criminal career that featured bar brawls, drunken rampages, alleged sexual assault and a prison breakout.

So far, so bad. Then in Rome, in 1609, things turned even uglier.

Getting into a fight, allegedly over a game of tennis, he drew his sword, murdering his opponent. With a death warrant on his head, he fled south to Naples. Ruled by Spain, this thriving city was out of Rome’s jurisdiction. So here, at least until his next act of stupendous folly, he was safe. It was here that he produced some of his most famous paintings.

Masterpiece: Deirdre Fernand travels to Naples (pictured) to explore the legacy of Italian artist Caravaggio, who fled to the city in the 17th century

Masterpiece: Deirdre Fernand travels to Naples (pictured) to explore the legacy of Italian artist Caravaggio, who fled to the city in the 17th century 

So it is to Naples that the National Gallery is looking for its latest exhibition, The Last Caravaggio, which opens in London next Thursday. It will focus on his final work, The Martyrdom Of St Ursula.

He has inserted himself into the picture. It was to be his final self-portrait. Nine weeks later he was dead from a fever aged 38.

What better place to go in search of Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Meravisi in 1571) than Naples, Italy’s third largest city after Rome and Milan.

The gateway to the Amalfi coast and Pompeii, the city rarely features as a destination in itself. More’s the pity.

‘Best view ever,’ whooped my husband from the balcony of our hotel, the Paradiso. Beyond us lay the silvery-blue bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius gleaming in sunshine.

When Caravaggio arrived in 1610, he was already a Baroque-star, lauded as a successor to Leonardo and Michelangelo. Just three of the 80 or so paintings attributed to him remain in the city.

Caravaggio's Seven Acts Of Mercy on display at the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia

Caravaggio’s Seven Acts Of Mercy on display at the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia

Above, a portrait of Caravaggio

Above, a portrait of Caravaggio

This historic settlement, first colonized by the Greeks in 600BC, has more than 450 churches and a tangle of medieval streets.

Feeling lost, panic seized us. Then we clapped eyes on the artist himself. A miracle?

No, just a Caravaggio lookalike, in 17th century garb, drumming up business outside the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia.

Here, we found ourselves in front of the artist’s imposing altarpiece, The Seven Acts Of Mercy. 

It depicts a series of good works, such as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.

His genius was to combine these deeds into one grand composition and place all the actions on an ordinary Naples street.

The city has always been a place of pilgrimage for more than just art lovers. Some ask for miracles from San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Others come to pay homage to Maradona, the legendary Argentinian football star who brought glory to Napoli in the 1980s. The player, who died four years ago, features on a giant mural in the Spanish Quarter.

And then there are the millions who come for the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Visiting the former on a bright afternoon with guide Luca, we tramped up and down ancient roads, trying to imagine the lives of the citizens who met their death when Vesuvius erupted in AD79.

Deirdre reveals that Naples has some 450 churches and a 'tangle of medieval streets'

Deirdre reveals that Naples has some 450 churches and a ‘tangle of medieval streets’

Naples is the gateway to the Amalfi coast and Pompeii, above, with Mount Vesuvius in the background

Naples is the gateway to the Amalfi coast and Pompeii, above, with Mount Vesuvius in the background

Luca was unimpressed by our knowledge of Roman emperors and made us promise to go to the city’s National Archaeological Museum to learn more.

Buying a children’s guide to the ancient world (plus a slice of Neapolitan pizza), we sat in the cafe and swotted up.

Augustus, Nero, Titus… how much there was to know.

We promised to return to this teeming but thrilling city. Come for Caravaggio, stay for Caesar.

TRAVEL FACTS 

The Last Caravaggio is open at the National Gallery in London, free admission (nationalgallery.org).

Four nights at Hotel Paradiso Napoli from £599 pp B&B including return Gatwick flights and transfers (citalia.com).

Guided tours to Pompeii including transfers from £390 for two; for Herculaneum, £410.



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