Caspar van Wittel – National Maritime Museum BHC1900. The Darsena delle Galere and Castello Nuovo at Naples (1703)
Materials: oil on panel. Dimensions: 75.5 x 141 cm. Nr.: BHC1900. Source: collections.rmg.co.uk/mediaLib/380/media-380929/large.jpg.
This painting depicts a highly detailed panoramic view of the arsenal, or dockyard, at Naples in 1703. An expanse of water in a basin, lies horizontally across the painting, surrounded by quays, jetties and the buildings of the waterfront. On the far left a building with a climbing plant is not a répoussoir but, instead, forms part of the church of San Vincenzo. The arsenal, which was used by the Neopolitans to store their supply of arms, is visible behind this building. Above the roof of the arsenal lies the Palazzo Reale. Whilst the light-coloured building, on the opposite side of the basin, housed the officials and officers of the galleys. The large fortified building, on the right, is the medieval Castello Nuovo, built on the small island of Megaride, and once the royal palace of Charles I of Anjou and Alfonso of Aragon. In the seventeenth century, it was converted into a prison. A salute is being fired from the outer gate to welcome the galley which enters from the bay on the right. The thick plume of smoke, which rises above the towers and the city buildings, draws the attention of the viewer to the fortifications of the arsenal. In the right foreground is the Bocca della Darsena, the mouth of the arsenal, which connects the water in front of the Molo Grande – the great quay – with the Darsena delle Galere. In the hills, in the distance, the San Martino monastery and the Sant’ Elmo castle can be seen above the city. Sant’ Elmo was one of the city’s fortifications from sea-borne invasion. The buildings, also, contained the Church of Sant’ Elmo and the Chapel of Santa Maria del Pilar. Around the arsenal there is much commotion. Two lateen-rigged galleys, covered with striped awnings, are moored at the quay on the left. To the left the prow of a French ship is just visible. The vessel is decorated with an ornately carved figurehead of a man and flies a commander’s pennant from her mast. Lying at an angle, to the right of centre, a Genoese merchantman is being careened for repair and undergoing repair to the stern frame. Careening took place in order to repair leaking seams, replace rotten planking and otherwise treat the underwater hull. It was a process which maritime artists often included in their paintings and, here, the ship is having its bottom cleaned. This usually included a process known as breaming. Breaming involved a controlled use of fire in order to burn off old pitch, weed or shellfish. No trace of careening tackle is visible. On the quay, in the foreground, various merchants, sailors and travellers are standing and a tree in a pot is carefully observed. The artist has combined Dutch genre with an innovative approach to depicting topography. Equipment associated with shipbuilding, coils of rope, piles of wood, tools, barrels, small boats, blocks of wood, piles of gravel and carts line the jetty. The vividness of the blue sky and sea indicates that this is a Mediterranean scene. The painting anticipates the work of Canaletto, the middle of the eighteenth century. According to Lione Pascoli, the eighteenth century Italian biographer, Caspar van Wittel stayed in Naples for two years and a few months from 1699. In 2002, thanks to the discovery of a ‘View of the Darsena delle Galere’, it was confirmed that van Wittel was indeed in Naples in 1699. The painting, which was signed by the artist ‘Gasp. Van Wittel 1699’, had been unknown until 2002. In total, there are eleven known paintings of the ‘Darsena delle galere’ (the arsenal of the galleys) by van Wittel. The present work belongs to this group of paintings which were created between 1699 and 1722. Van Wittel based this painting on an impressive drawing that he probably composed from sketches made from the Torre di San Vincenzo. This work, which van Wittel provided with a square grid, is in the collection of the Museo di San Martino in Naples. Thanks to annotated drawings by Francesco Cassiano de Silva, created between 1703 and 1707 and preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, the buildings in the Greenwich painting can be identified accurately. Although van Wittel observed the scene carefully, he added his staffage, consisting of ships, figures and goods, at a later stage from memory and fantasy. It is precisely on this level that his views of the arsenal and the Castello Nuovo differ. It is, also, worth mentioning, here, that van Wittel rather idealized his depictions. In none of his eleven paintings did he depict the scene as it would have been in reality; that is, with countless ships busily thronging the Neapolitan waterfront (http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/13378.html).