"O dolce Napoli": Naples through the eyes of Russian and Italian Artists of the first half of the 19th Century

Lyudmila Markina

Magazine issue: 
#4 2011 (33)

The title of the exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery’s “Engineering” wing was borrowed from a Neapolitan folk song — and for good reason, since the lines epitomize the special feelings about this southern city, one unique in Italy. “Eternal Rome”, which became a recognized academy of European masters; classic Florence, a refuge of intellectuals and patrons of the arts; carnivalesque Venice — each city is enjoyable in its own way. But Naples is special because of its location, mild coastal climate and distinct blissful atmosphere of relaxed “do-nothing-ness”.

The Russian Empire established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Naples, the first state to emerge on the Apennine Peninsula, in 1777. During the first half of the 19th century, until 1861, when the unified Kingdom of Italy was formed, the two countries maintained friendly ties. Even during the 1820 revolution in Naples, Alexander I adopted a “wait-and-see” approach, as a result of which Russian troops did not take part in quashing the revolt. Under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, political, economic and cultural links between Russia and Naples were strong as never before. Visitors to Naples, at different times, included the historians Mikhail Pogodin and Stepan Shevyrev, the writer Nikolai Gogol, the poets Fyodor Tyutchev and Vasily Zhukovsky, the composer Mikhail Glinka and the singer Nikolai Ivanov, and the Karatygins — a family of actors. In Naples, Russian architects Nikolai Yefimov, Alexei Gornostaev, Mikhail Tomarinsky, and Sergei Ivanov worked on renovation of the cultural landmarks of antiquity. Alexander Ivanov, the creator of historical compositions, lived and worked near Naples together with his architect brother. For landscape artist Sylvester Shchedrin, the city was a place of true artistic pilgrimage.

Waterfronts and streets

Shchedrin’s “Naples. On the Riviera di Chiaia (Chiaia’s Riviera)” (1819, Tretyakov Gallery), created shortly after the artist’s arrival in the city, became the visiting card of the exhibition. “I live in Batyushkov’s place,” Shchedrin wrote to Samuil Galberg, “by the seaside, in the most beautiful surroundings with lots of people walking and driving by every evening”1. The composition features one of the main waterfront areas in Naples, with a magnificent view of Vesuvius in the background. The foreground is filled with numerous locals: fishermen hauling nets, a coachman (un vetturino), boys employed as guides (ciceroni), and a puppeteer with a portable theatre. This crowd of Neapolitans includes the artist himself as he bargains with a street vendor. In this early piece the landscapist attempted to reach beyond the classicist canon of painting with its dominance of local colour. His keenness on rendering the evening lights betrays some influence from romanticism.

An image of the same waterfront created by Shchedrin seven years later, during his second visit to Naples, deserves consideration. In his piece named “A View of Naples (Riviera di Chiaia)” (1826, Tretyakov Gallery) the painter pictures the locality at a greater distance, and genre scenes in the foreground are not as important as in the earlier work. The palette is different, too: his experience painting from nature gave Shchedrin a high level of mastery in rendering light and air effects.

Along with outstanding paintings by the Russian master, the exhibition featured 17 gouache pieces (from Moscow’s Historical Museum) made by Italian amateur artists in the mid-19th century. Practically every traveller to Naples wanted to take away a souvenir: a piece of the lava of Vesuvius, a shard of pottery from an excavation site in Pompeii, or an image by a local pittore (painter). The brightly-coloured graphic pieces were effectively the forerunners of postcards on which artists imaged the most popular and scenic spots in Naples. These views include, first of all, panoramas of the city as viewed from the Posillipo hill or from the palace of Capodimonte, views of Vesuvius, often featured with a smoking summit or during an eruption, and the islands and shores of the bay of Naples.

Neapolitans: types and personalities

Views of Naples have a distinct sub-category such as images of the city’s residents. Even the renowned landscape artist Sylvester Shchedrin took up “a completely new sort of pictures, tableaux de genre, which... [I] began to paint for amusement, in order to catalogue different costumes of the local men”2. Indeed, the Russian masters had always been interested in the ethnographic characteristics of different ethnic groups living in Italy — the particular details of their appearance, and the style and colours of their costume. Ethnic clothes from such areas as Cosenza, L'Aquila, Teramo, Prata di Principato Ultra and Catanzaro are featured in the pictures of historical and educational nature, such as the watercolour “Costumes of Residents of the Kingdom of Naples” by an unknown Italian artist, and in Consalvo Carelli’s3 picture “Woman With a Tambourine. Costume of a Resident of Procida Island” (mid-19th century, Historical Museum). Such “beautiful pictures” with boys shepherding cattle, sweet teenage girls and pretty lasses, like those in the compositions “Two Italian Girls Watching Dovelets” and “Neapolitan Women Against the Background of Vesuvius” (1850s, both at the Tretyakov Gallery), reflect this approach, only at an artistic level. The pictures feature the usual “Neapolitan combo” — Vesuvius, grapes, a tambourine. The natural grace of the southern beauties is emphasized by their colourful costumes — long skirts, snow- white blouses with wide sleeves, and shawls of different styles.

As well as pictures aimed at wealthy buyers, the Italian artists created realist images. One such image is a sketch by Franz Ludwig Catel “Two Pifferari (Pipers)” in Catel Institute, Rome. Itinerant musicians (pifferari) playing wind instruments along the lines of the bagpipes (piffero) were highly respected in Italy.

Their music was mostly of religious character, and they performed it near churches and statues of the Madonna. Most of the musicians were shepherds from the Abruzzo region. One of the artists painting images of the itinerant shepherd musicians was Filippo Palizzi, a native of Lanciano, a town in Abruzzo, and a graduate of the Naples Academy of Fine Arts. His sketch “Peasant and a Boy Playing a Piffero Pipe” (1840, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rome) reflects the artist’s poetic view of his fellow countrymen. “My drafts made in Naples,” Palizzi wrote, “are the simplest confirmation of that faith and boundless love which have invariably accompanied my long and arduous artistic explorations”4.

It is interesting to compare the Palizzi piece and Timofei Neff’s composition “Neapolitan Shepherd at the Seaside in the Light of the Rising Sun” (1841, Tretyakov Gallery). Both painters tackle the problem of lighting. The Italian artist’s piece painted from nature conveys the atmosphere of real life, as well as subtle nuances of light and colour, better than the Russian artist’s composition. The contrasted images of the boy and the old man are very realistic and true-to-life. Palizzi faithfully renders the soiled look of their shirts, their rumpled hats, and tattered clothes. Neff creates a “sweet” image of a young bronzed shepherd in a beautiful white-and-red costume surrounded, as on a pastoral picture, with little nanny goats.

Vasily Shternberg in his art treated the images of Neapolitans in a completely different fashion. “There is nothing so disgusting in a painting as pretty, smiling and nicely-clad little figures,” the artist wrote to his friend, the architect Nikolai Benois in 1844. “I much more enjoy a dirty beggar with character”5. As the artist Vasily Raev reminisced, the Ukrainian Shternberg “has been living in Naples for several months. He painted and drew lovely images of folk scenes.”6 Indeed, “Playing Cards in a Neapolitan Osteria” (1840s, Tretyakov Gallery) reflects not so much the commoners’ love for easy pickings as their volcanic character and appetite for excitement.


The volcano of Vesuvius is the centrepiece of the landscape of Naples, the city’s symbol and key landmark. After the horrendous eruption in 79 AD, which destroyed the city of Pompeii, Vesuvius was dormant for long, and its lower levels became gardens and vineyards. Even the inside of the crater was densely overgrown with shrubs. Yet, as time went by, the volcano became active again. During the period of monitoring, Vesuvius erupted more than 30 times7. Yemelian Korneev’s watercolour “The Eruption of Vesuvius on August 18 1805” (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) and an unknown artist’s piece “The Eruption of Vesuvius on February 5 1846” (in the Historical Museum) are documentary evidence of the natural disaster. A good illustration of the events can be found in Alexander Bulgakov’s letter: “I already described to you the capers of our Vesuvius. On the 30th of August (in the evening) the lava flew; its pace is one mile per day because it advances very slowly... I drove to see it and walked so close to it that I could touch it with a cane. It looked as if it was not lava streaming down but Vesuvius itself, from the very top to the bottom. The lava caused a lot of harm, engulfing many kitchen gardens and orchards that stood in its way.”8

Vesuvius “in rebellion” inspired many poets, composers and artists. The most stunning example is the historical composition “The Last Day of Pompeii” (1830-1833) by Karl Briullov, who visited Naples in the summer of 1827. The sight of the ancient city opened up after excavation staggered the impressionable artist. Like Batyushkov, he could have cried out: “.I know all the rocks in Pompeii by heart. A marvellous, unfathomable sight, the ashes with so many tales to tell!”9 Briullov’s painting, in a romantic vein, was not only a reflection of the real historical event: for his Russian contemporaries, who witnessed the execution of the Decembrists, the image evoked the eternal conflict between the untamed forces of state authority and the people. Batyushkov wrote to the historian Nikolai Karamzin: “Our Vesuvius changes every instant, like a sea or like the world of politics. It’s horrible and fascinating.”10 Revealingly, a notebook of the Decembrist Nikolai Kryukov, Pavel Pestel’s friend, contains an amateur picture of an eruption of Vesuvius. Researchers see in it a symbolical representation of the political conflicts in Russia at that time11 .

In late 1824, Alexander Briullov settled in Naples, in a house by the bay, in an apartment looking out on the waterfront neighbourhood, Santa Lucia. The Russian ambassador’s widow Yelizaveta Khitrovo attracted the attention of the Queen of Naples to the watercolour painter’s exceptional talent. This distinguished patronage secured for the artist a lucrative commission: “I was offered to create portraits of the royal family,” he wrote to his parents on April 19 1825. “I have already finished them, everyone was highly satisfied; so far, I’ve made only three: the King, the Queen and the Princess, their elder daughter — full-size images on Bristol paper; I was paid quite handsomely and the Queen also presented me with a watch and asked to have these portraits printed.”12 The exhibition featured these rarely seen images of Francis I, King of Naples and the Two Sicilies, and his spouse (1825, collection of Sergei and Tatiana Podstanitsky, Moscow). Once installed on the throne, the young Francis I (1777-1830) largely abstained from regal duties, letting his ministers take care of matters instead. He preferred to spend time in the company of his mistresses, carousing and feasting, surrounding himself with soldiers for fear of an attempt on his life. After fleeing in 1820 when revolt broke out in Naples, Francis I changed his life style: Alexander Briullov depicted the king in an elegant tailcoat, awards on his chest, with a black silk hat in his hands. However, despite the obvious mission to create a full-size gala portrait, the portraitist faithfully rendered the aged monarch’s ungainly stooped figure and unappealing facial features (the spiteful look in his eyes, and pursed lips). Maria Isabella (1789-1848), Infanta of Spain and the king’s cousin, married him after his first wife’s death. The watercolour features the lady in a luxurious white dress against a background of countryside. The mother of a large family (with 12 children), she had a good nature and love of life.

When Alexander Briullov lived in Naples, “there was an incursion of foreigners many of whom were Russians, and when they saw several portraits I made in my spare time, almost jokingly, they said, they wanted me to make their portraits as well,”13 he informed his parents. Briullov created several splendid watercolour portraits of Russian aristocrats “against the backdrop of Vesuvius”. These pieces include finely-crafted compositions such as the portraits of the Shuvalov children, Andrei and Pyotr (1825), the portraits of Yekaterina Vorontsova and Yelena Golitsina (1824-1825, Tretyakov Gallery), and images of Alexander Pushkin’s good friends — Natalya Golitsina (1824-1825, Museum of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), Yekaterina Tiesenhausen and Darya Ficquelmont (1825, Alexander Pushkin Museum). Each of the sitters is depicted on an open terrace with a view of the Bay of Naples, the waterfront, and the smoking Vesuvius in the distance. This particular background is repeated time and again because the clients wished to have themselves represented in surroundings they remembered. Vesuvius is featured in Vasily Tropinin’s “Portrait of Karl Pavlovich Briullov” (1836, Tretyakov Gallery). Although the serf-artist never visited Italy, he portrayed “Great Karl” holding a folder for drawings and a pencil against the backdrop of the smoking volcano. The artist Pimen Orlov, too, imaged himself against the background of Vesuvius. His “Self-portrait” (1851, Tretyakov Gallery), completed in Rome (as shown by the inscription on the canvas), is distinguished by its cheerfulness and appreciation of the fullness of life in Italy.

Any sightseeing tour of Naples invariably included a climb to the crater of Vesuvius. Yet, the ascent of the mount by foot was a long and difficult enterprise, “because the cinders come off in flakes under the feet. The further and the higher, the hotter the cinders are. Bronnikov, as the most judicious among us, stopped and said: ‘Well, gentlemen, what are we going to see up there on the crater? Even here we can hardly breathe because of the sulphurous smoke, and higher up it’ll get even worse.’ At that moment we were hit from above with a blast of heated sand, and suddenly darkness fell all around us. The next thing we saw, our guides were off running down the slope, and we followed them.”14 This passage is the artist Alexei Bogolyubov’s emotional description of his climb to Vesuvius. At the service of people wishing to attempt the risky ascent were guides, lazzaroni, who carried rich travellers on special sedan chairs. Alexander Briullov captured this scene in a watercolour “The Ascension of Baron Shilling” (1824, Russian Museum). A baron of Baltic German descent, Pavel Schilling (the inventor of the world’s first electromagnetic telegraph) was a translator at the Russian embassy in Naples. Briullov, with his characteristic irony, imaged a dozen or so Italians carrying the elephantine foreigner like ants. The artist chose a diagonal arrangement, artfully placing the figures and vividly conveying their movement. Walking on foot was the only available transportation until 1880, when cable cars were put in place15.

Amalfi, Sorrento and other spots

As a counterweight to the volcano-torn image of the city and the disruption of the world order on its terrain, the landscape artists painting Naples began to work with alternative motifs such as its surrounding islands, bays and harbours. The entire Amalfi coast, from Salerno to Sorrento, astounds with its singular appearance and landmarks whimsically combining the features of Roman, Byzantine and Arab architecture. Buildings on the hill slopes are linked together by stairways, passages and little stone bridges. Cliffs hanging over the sea and irregularly-scattered houses with patches of Mediterranean vegetation between them create an impressive interplay of colours and forms. The scenic beauties of the coast deservedly attracted the “masters of landscape painting”.

The following passage from a journal of the sailor and artist Alexei Bogolyubov reflects this ecstatic delight: “How can one not admire Sorrento! This is the birthplace of folk songs. Here Torquato Tasso’s house stands and the spectre of Eleonora roams about every now and then. Here Shchedrin lived — the Sylvester! <...> Here Lebedev, Shternberg, Alexander Ivanov worked. <.> Oh well, you can hardly find anyone who hadn’t worked here to their heart’s content! And then the sinful me occupied the same spot which Shchedrin once occupied and began to frenetically paint a composition directly from nature, in a morning. It was very daring, but I always adored this master and lovingly copied his sketches in our Academy.”16

Indeed, the pieces created by Sylvester Shchedrin during his second stay in Naples from 1825 to 1830 can be ranked among his true masterpieces. The artist loved this city so much that he signed his letters to Samuil Galberg in Rome: “Your Neapolitan friend and companion”. Shchedrin would spend the full summer in the environs of the city, on Capri, in Sorrento. The coastal views replaced the previously-favoured vedute in his artwork. He produced a series titled “Harbours in Sorrento”. In these pieces, landscape and genre elements blend in the harmony of serene nature and quiet, calm human existence. All these images are full of light, air, and fresh sea-winds. Shchedrin’s contemporaries admired his compositions — a reviewer of the 1836 academic exhibition in St. Petersburg, where the Russian public saw these works, noted: “The fascinating Shchedrin, who captured for us so sweetly and faithfully the neighbourhoods around Naples, the city which, as an Italian proverb goes, lets the lucky man who has seen its paradisiacal splendours die in peace.”17

These words echo the belief of Shchedrin himself: “I’ll live in Naples until the last carlino [a coin],” he wrote to the sculptor Galberg, “even if it lasts for more than a year, unless some special circumstances force me to do this. ‘ Vedi Napoli et poimori’ [See Naples and die. — L.M.]. The city’s location is most alluring, the environs are singular, the city is noisy, people are aplenty, plenty of theatres and puppeteers, what else you can wish for?”18

Sylvester Shchedrin and Franz Catel

In the opinion of the scholar of Russian landscape painting Alexei Fedorov-Davydov, Shchedrin “was superior to other landscapists of the Neapolitan school close to him”19. The “Posillipo School” (the name coming from the name of a hill on the outskirts of Naples) emerged as an antidote to Italian classicism, whose exponents depicted nature in landscapes adhering to a set of conventions and in a decorative vein. The Posillipo painters (Antonie Pitloo, Giacinto Gigante, the Palizzi brothers, Consalvo Carelli) preferred plain motifs and views.

In Naples Shchedrin often visited the workshops of these landscape painters. Most frequently, he visited the Dutch painter Antonie Sminck Pitloo, who settled in Naples in 1815 and lived there until his death. The Dutchman successfully taught landscape painting at the Naples Institute of Fine Arts and in his private studio. Pitloo was regarded as the founder of the “Posillipo School”. According to Shchedrin, the Dutchman’s style is “casual but so agreeable” that he spent as much as an hour watching him create one of his compositions. The Russian landscape painter also singled out the works of the German artist Wilhelm Walkhof, who made in 1817-1820 a series of “Sicilian drawings that deserve every accolade”20.

Shchedrin’s own comments about his contemporaries are revealing: “I’ve found the Neapolitan artists not as unsatisfactory as they are presumed to be,” he wrote about his impressions of a show in Naples in Autumn 1827, “although the best of the works have been created by foreigners. The best among the landscapes — and one can say the best at the entire exhibition — are the Pitloo pieces, one featuring a view of Eboli, another, temples in Paestum. Sweatless brushwork, agreeable colours, good proportions of the temples do him credit. Next to these hangs a small piece by Catel: you look at it and think it’s good, you look at it again and it seems not quite as good, you look at it for the third time, it seems worse still, and so on, worse and worse, and this is what remains with you when you walk away. ”21 For reasons easy to imagine, Shchedrin disliked Catel’s unemotional compositions filled with architectural motifs and surrounding background figures, fashioned along classicist lines. Paradoxical though it may seem, later viewers would confuse the two masters’ artwork. Thus, the Irkutsk Art Museum holds a composition called “A View in Italy” (previously owned by a Moscow collector, Felix Vishnevsky), which is attributed to Shchedrin — mistakenly, as this writer believes. Comparing it with Catel’s “Neapolitan Landscape by Night” (1821-1822, Catel Institute, Rome), one clearly sees resemblance between the compositional arrangements, treatment of human figures and colour schemes.

The genre and landscape painter from Germany, Franz Ludwig Catel, who had lived in Rome since 1811, travelled in 1824 together with the French archaeologist A. Mailain to Pompeii, Paestum, Salerno and Naples. The purpose of their visit was producing pictures for a publication devoted to the landmarks of Pompeii22. A convert to Catholicism, Catel made a financially beneficial marriage — his wife was a rich Italian lady, Margarita Prunetti. The couple’s hospitable home, on the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps), was open to musicians and artists from different countries (Russian guests included Karl Briullov, Pyotr Basin, Alexander Ivanov, and Vasily Raev). The painter Pyotr Basin used to say that Catel was a landscape painter “of great abilities” and that he was “famous for his talent”. Many of the generous host’s colleagues, on their visits, presented him with their watercolour pieces, drawings, and prints. The collection features a profile portrait of an unknown man by Karl Briullov in Italian pencil. In 1830 the outstanding Russian painter began a portrait of Catel and his wife (“Portrait of Franz Catel and Margarita Prunetti”, Catel Institute, Rome), which remained unfinished23. It had never left Rome before, so the work was shown to Russian viewers at the Moscow exhibition for the first time.

In Naples Catel made friends with Giacinto Gigante and experienced the influence of other artists of the “Posillipo School”. In 1826, together with Gigante, the German artist worked on a series of graphic landscapes “Journey to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies — in Pictures”, published by R. Liberatore in Naples in 1834. The Neapolitan vedute of Catel gained wide popularity and society ladies and gentlemen, including those from Russia, bought them up with enthusiasm. In Russia his artwork was well known and in great demand. For instance, Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaevich, visiting Naples in January 1839, expressed the wish to obtain views of the city by Catel.

Such imagery of Naples was created not only by local Italian masters but also by nearly all of the foreign artists who visited the city — Germans, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, and Russians among them. At the Tretyakov Gallery, the display of their works from Moscow’s museums and private collections alongside works by their contemporaries that came from Rome for the show afforded an excellent chance to identify distinctive features of each country’s national outlook and original traditions. The talented artists sensitively captured the clamour of the seaport town and the peace and quiet of its surrounding regions, and the distinct character of the Neapolitan temperament, the life of which goes on literally “under a volcano”. The painted compositions and sketches, bright gouache pieces and delicate watercolours, drawings in travel sketchbooks — all these works provide the modern viewer with an opportunity to see and feel the “miraculous Naples where the canopy of heaven smiles”.


  1. Shchedrin, Sylvester. “Letters”. Moscow, 1978. P. 33.
  2. Quote from: Fedorov-Davydov, Alexei. ‘ Sylvester Shchedrin and Landscape Painting’. In: “Russian Landscape of the 18th-early 20th centuries”. Moscow, 1986. P. 144.
  3. Consalvo Carelli (1818-1900) was an Italian painter and graphic artist of the Neapolitan school. Due to the patronage of distinguished Neapolitan families, he quickly gained fame in the city’s artistic circles. In 1845 he created two paintings featuring views of Naples for Emperor Nicholas I.
  4. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, le collezioni il XIX secolo. Roma, 2009. P. 158
  5. Stasov, Vladimir. ‘Painter Shternberg’. In: Vestnik izyashchnykh iskusstv (Messenger of Fine Arts). 1887. Vol. 5, issue 5. P. 409.
  6. Rayev, Vasily. “Memories From My Life”. Moscow, 1993. P. 173.
  7. In the first half of the 19 th century the volcano erupted in 1805, 1822, 1834, 1839, 1850, 1855 and 1861.
  8. Bulgakov, Alexander; Bulgakov, Konstantin. “Letters in 3 Volumes”. Moscow, 2010. Vol. 1. Letters from 1802 through 1820. P. 59.
  9. Konstantin Batyushkov to Sergei Uvarov. May 1819. Naples. In: Batyushkov, Konstantin. “Works in 3 Volumes”. Vol. 3. St.Petersburg, 1886. P. 552.
  10. Konstantin Batyushkov to Nikolai Karamzin. May 24, 1819. Naples. Ibid., p. 557.
  11. Nechkina, Militsa. “The Decembrists”. Moscow, 1982.
  12. The Briullov family’s archive belonging to V. Briullov. St. Petersburg, 1900. Pp. 74-75.
  13. Op.cit., p. 74.
  14. Bogolyubov, Alexei. ‘Journal of the Seaman and Artist’. Volga magazine. Special issue (2-3). Saratov, 1996. P. 57.
  15. The song “Funiculi, Funicula” (music by Luigi Denza, lyrics by Guiseppe Turco) was composed to advertise the new service. Because of frequent crashes, in 1944 the funicular was closed.
  16. Bogolyubov, Alexei. ‘Journal of the Seaman and Artist’. Volga Magazine. Special issue (2-3). Saratov, 1996. P. 60.
  17. ‘Exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts’. In: “Khudozhestvennaya gazeta” (Arts Newspaper). 1836. December. Nos. 11-12. P. 177.
  18. Shchedrin, Sylvester. “Letters”. Moscow, 1978. P. 40.
  19. Fedorov-Davydov, Alexei. ‘Sylvester Shchedrin and Landscape Painting’. In: “Russian Landscape of the 18th-early 20th centuries. Moscow, 1986. P. 140.
  20. Shchedrin, Sylvester. “Letters”. Moscow, 1978. P. 69.
  21. Shchedrin, Sylvester. “Letters”. Moscow, 1978. P. 159.
  22. Descriptions des tombeaux qui ont été découverts Pompei dans l’année 1812. Naples. 1813.
  23. Stolzenburg A. Der Landschafts - und Genremaler Franz Ludwig Catel (1778-1856). Rom. 2007. P. 131.





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