NAPLES, Italy — The portraits of patriarchs and prophets by Jusepe de Ribera in the church of the Certosa di San Martino are tucked into a dozen or so tight triangular spaces above the arches. Dark and high overhead, they’re easily overlooked.
“When the Baroque came to Naples,” Harold Acton wrote in his great history of the Bourbons, “it expressed itself like a swarm of nightingales released from a golden cage.” Ruled by outsiders for centuries, Naples has always worn its resistance to authority like a badge of honor. From Valencia, Ribera settled here while the Spanish viceroys ruled, a star in demand, painting his prophets and patriarchs during the 1630s and ’40s. They are expressions of the Spanish Counter-Reformation view of art: the more realistic, the more spiritual. The figures, occasionally on tiptoe, lean their books, backs, knees and elbows on the steep curves of the church’s archways. Daniel, one arm overhead, right leg in the air, alarmed, as if tumbling backward, seems crammed into a void he imagines collapsing around him. Jonah, in the opposite spandrel, turns partly toward him, as a subway rider might turn toward someone loudly mumbling on the train.
When I visit the church I always ponder Jonah’s dirty toenails, so lovingly painted, and also the tiny, feathery white dove poised at Noah’s feet, a tour de force of illusionism and unlikely poetry. Pigment is laid on thick. Amos, Joel and the others, against the murky backdrops, are coarse, ripe old men, taken from the street, leathery and distinct, with big ears, sagging flesh, balding heads and scruffy beards. They come across as endearingly down-to-earth folk, akin to the characters Caravaggio painted except more approachable, not frozen actors in the glare of a camera’s flash. They’re absorbed, slow and inward-turning, more like Rembrandt’s burghers or Velázquez’s philosophers: exalted by virtue of their humanity.
The Baroque art and architecture that the viceroys bankrolled gave license to a peculiar sort of cultural insurrection: an opulence of expression, specifically Neapolitan, proudly courting bad taste, which thumbed its nose at Spanish and Roman proprieties. Churches here during the 17th century became riots of jasper, porphyry and polychrome marble, with stone floors carpeted in patterned tiles, colors piled on top of one another like bowls overflowing with fruit: architectural feasts of abundance and stagecraft celebrating native obstinacy.
Ribera’s pictures portray Neapolitans with an outsider’s admiration and tact. I think this is partly why I am drawn to them. Their sympathy identifies something heartbreakingly beautiful about the city — that the patriarchs and prophets, like Naples’s grandeur and dignity, remain unbowed by age and a million tribulations.
You ascend to see these paintings, riding the funicular from the heart of the city, past satellite dishes and lemon trees, the trees strung with lines of drying laundry. Impatient, I skip a bakery beckoning near the top and huff the last blocks on foot up the Vomero hill, where the certosa, a former Carthusian monastery, now a labyrinth of nooks and treasures, commands a spectacular perch over the city and the bay. The view onto the urban amphitheater that is Naples attracts swarms of tourists.
But the church is a little overlooked. Crossing the threshold between sun-drenched forecourt and interior — where light pours like diamond dust through the doorway, bouncing off the inlaid marble floor — a visitor is transported from the gritty streets to someplace otherworldly.
Then Ribera’s patriarchs and prophets just as swiftly return the visitor to earth. Conceived to glorify God, their earthiness implies both Ribera’s devotion and the city’s profane glory.
I always leave the certosa full of life and starving, stuffing myself with a roll on the hike downtown.