Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Apr 2003,   rev. Nov 2009   add June 2016 & June 2019

he Capodimonte Palace (National Art Gallery) & Royal Wood

  - in order, below:
1. General Intro to and history of the Capodimonte Palace (directly below)
2. Section on the National Art Gallery, itself, and Sergio Ortolani
3. The Grotto of Maria Cristina


The Royal Palace at Capodimonte was begun in 1738 during the reign of Charles III of Bourbon. Eventually it would be one of four such palaces used by the Bourbons during their rule of the Kingdom of Naples. (The others are: the Palace at Caserta, another on the slopes of Vesuvius in Portici near Herculaneum, and, of course, the Royal Palace in the heart of the city, itself.) The palace and grounds at Capodimonte were spread over 300 acres of farmland, converting the land from agricultural use into a vast hunting reserve for the royal family(see box below). The original wish of Charles III of Bourbon was for a “royal pleasure haunt” at Capodimontea hunting ground with a lodge. The grounds were thus turned into a botanical marvel, with brushwood, evergreen oak, chestnut, elm, fig trees, wild olives and myrtle groves, all designed to foster the various types of game introduced into the wood. The original design for the whole area, both palace and hunting grounds, was probably by Antonio Canevari (also the architect for the palace at Portici); Ferdinando Fuga laid out the entrance courtyard with four radiating avenues and the central drive. Ferdinando Sanfelice designed the Royal Porcelain Works on the grounds as well as the nearby church of San Gennaro, ordered built by Charles as the house of worship for workers involved in the construction and maintenance of palace and grounds.

Part of the grounds was turned into a well-husbanded ‘English Garden’ in the 1820s. Much of the grounds, however, was kept in a wild and natural state until the middle of the nineteenth century when broad footpaths were laid, radiating out from the palace, itself, such as to give the grounds more the effect of a garden for strolling rather than hunting. Over the years, a number of secondary buildings were constructed, some of them self-perpetuating in the sense that they provided agricultural services to maintain the grounds, themselves.

This site was one of the 22 Royal Bourbon properties in the Kingdom of Naples. They range from the large Royal palaces to smaller residences and hunting lodges. This is the complete list with links to entries:
Palace Naples
Palace Capodimonte
Palace Portici

Palace Caserta
villa d'Elboeuf 
Villa Favorita
Palazzo d'Avalos
Lake Agnano
San Leucio
Palace Quisisana
Demanio di Calvi
The palace itself was not completed until 1838. In the interim, of course, the Napoleonic wars had taken place, one result of which was that the King of Naples, Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother), had a magnificent new boulevard, Corso Napoleone, built in order to facilitate passage from the palace to the city. The Bonapartes left the scene, and their sworn enemies, the Bourbons, returned to find a brand-new avenue waiting for them. Today that thoroughfare bears the name, Santa Teresa degli Scalzi.

Today, the palace houses a number of significant displays, among which are the Historical Apartment, the Armory, the Porcelain Room, and, of course, the items in the collection of the National Art Gallery (see separate section, immediately below). The former Royal Wood is a public park, well frequented by Neapolitans.


add National Art Gallery & Sergio Ortolani     June 2016

The Pinacoteca nazionale di Napoli / National Art Gallery of Naples

The current collection of the Capodimonte National Art Gallery of Naples comprises some 1700 paintings and other objects of arts, including works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Botticelli. As noted above, the premises started life as one of the four Bourbon Royal Palaces. It was a royal residence, but one particularly well stocked with art since the first Bourbon monarch, Charles III, inherited a vast collection from his mother Elisabeth Farnese. (That collection, in turn, had been assembled from various Farnese estates in Parma and Piacenza and the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, and that latter collection had been started by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III - 1468-1549). Some portions of the inherited Farnese collection are elsewhere in Naples at the Archaeological museum.) The Farnese collection plus later additions under the Bourbons are the nucleus of the gallery.

the following two paragraphs were added in July 2019
The French in Naples

The entire Bourbon art collection at Capodimonte underwent dramatic changes as a result of both the short-lived Parthenopean Republic (1799) (a home-grown sister republic to Republican France) and, later (1806-1815), by the more substantial presence of Napoleon Bonaprte's brother Joseph and then by Gioacchino Murat, both installed as kings of Naples. Strangely, the first episode (1799), though very short, was worse for the museum regarding the works of art in the original museum.  Even though the Parthenopean Republic did not make any attempt to despoil the art museum, the fleeing Bourbons had already started that process by fleeing to Sicily and taking a number of paintings with them, 14 masterpieces by most counts. Then, French soldiers, present in Naples to stabilize the Republic also sent 30 of the original 1,783 works of art in the collection back to France and sold 300 others. When the Bourbons returned to power in Naples in late 1799, King Ferdinand tried to find out what had gone missing and get the items returned. Many were not located. Some were found and returned to Naples, but not to the Capodimonte museum, but rather to palazzo Cellamare, then also called palazzo Francavilla (see link) which had been selected as the site of a new Civic museum.

Later, Both Murat and his queen (Napoleon's sister!) were very popular. Murat, as you might expect from one who was born the son of an inn-keeper and had "worked his way up" to king (!) set about to make Capodimonte a "people's museum". He got rid of a lot of the original works of art by moving them to the premises of the Palazzo degli Studi (the university, now the National Archaeological Museum) and promoting at Capodimonte a section for local artists, a Neapolitan Room. It still exists. And since the monasteries had been closed in all of Napoleonic Europe (though churches remained open) he saved many of the precious works of art in the abandoned monasteries by moving them to Capodimonte in order to, as he put it, "stir the creative impulses of our youth by letting them study the old masters." Even after Napoleon's demise, Murat's influence continued to be felt. It still is. Yet the confusion in the museum remained and in some sense you could say that in the early-to-mid 1800s the original Bourbon art collection no longer really existed. It had got dispersed, lost in the shuffle of war and changing dynasties.

At the unification of Italy in 1861, Bourbon properties, including the Capodimonte palace, "defaulted" to the new dynastic rulers of united Italy, the House of Savoy, who donated it all (premises plus works of art contained therein) to the state in 1920. The museum houses, as well, many items not part of the original core collections, such as Egyptian and early Italic, works moved from other Bourbon palaces (such as the palace at Portici), donated private collections, a number of religious items from churches in southern Italy and Sicily, modern works of art (such as Andy Warhol's "Vesuvius") as well as a significant number of works of the so-called Neapolitan School of the 19th century. There are also sections for armor, gold- and silverwork, and examples of other decorative arts, including Capodimonte porcelain. Structurally, the building is enormous (image at top of page), with dozens of exhibition spaces and mezzanines spread over three floors.

The Influence of Sergio Ortolani (1896-1949)

Cursory sources simply say that Capodimonte opened as the National Art Gallery in 1957. That is true, but it is hard to see how that might have happened without the lifelong dedication of Sergio Ortolani, one of the most active Italian art historians of the 20th century. It is hard to overstate his importance as somewhat the father of modern museology (or museography or —in plain language— how museums should be set up and run) in Naples. His main interests were art history, art restoration, and, importantly, organizing the vast amount of visual art on Italian territory, his own specialty being southern Italy and, in particular, the Campania region, particularly the Capodimonte palace. He started actively publishing monographs in art history in the 1920s in Florence and Rome and was appointed inspector for the administration of Antiquites and Fine Arts, specifically within the Royal Supertendency for Medieval and Modern Art of Campania, at which point he moved definitively to Naples from Florence, where he had studied and been active.

In 1937 he finished the reordering of the art gallery and published the results in the Bollettino d’arte (“Il riordinamento della Pinacoteca del Museo nazionale di Napoli", s. 3, XXXI [1937-38], pp. 44-46). It took years, was a stunning undertaking but largely unheralded, not the least reason for which was that Ortolani never joined the Fascist party, remaining life-long friends with liberal critic of the government, Benedetto Croce. During the years of WWII, he did his part and helped set up the art exhibits at the Fascist showcase Overseas Fair Grounds, but was otherwise passed over because of politics. To his credit, he was very active in efforts to protect art from wartime damage from bombs, vandalism, theft, etc. He also began a photo archive of works of art in southern Italy and set up a department for art restoration in Naples, seeking the latest technical innovations such as the use of x-rays, etc. He did not live to see the definitive opening of the Capodimonte museum. It was completed in 1957, overseen by art historian, Bruno Molajoli.

source: I have relied on information in the
entry for ORTOLANI, Sergio by Federica De
  Rosa in the Treccani Dizionario Biografico

update: April 2011: see this short miscellaneous item


ADD - Dec 2014 -                                The Grotto of Maria Cristina

If you are fascinated by caves and grottoes, you may know that there are some 700 of them in and under Naples. They are usually remnant limestone (tuff/tufa) quarries where rock was extracted for use as construction material. (There is a portal on this website for Underground Naples, here.) The Capodimonte Park has a large ex-quarry that provided the building material for the Royal Palace there. It is the “Grotto of Maria Cristina.”

(image courtesy of Napoli Underground)

The Bourbons —those who built the palace— at first decorated the entrance to the quarry with Greek and Roman relics, no doubt to make the gaping hole in the mountain a little more aesthetic than just a gaping hole in a mountain. A generation of Bourbons later overdid it a bit (or more) by filling the grotto with imitation relics of the many Christian catacombs in the area. (Capodimonte is one of the hilltops that surrounds a large hollow known as the Sanità. Once upon a time, it was outside the Greek and Roman walls of the city, the place where the Greeks, Romans and then Christians buried their dead. It is strewn with underground tombs and catacombs. Real ones.) Thus, the grotto filled up with columbaria (dovecote-like receptacles for funeral urns) and all manner of other catacomb spookiness; mystery and legends grew and the quarry/cave/grotto took the name of the king's wife, the tragic young queen, Maria Cristina di Savoia, one of the best-loved members of royalty in the history of the Kingdom of Naples.

Maria Christina of Savoy was the first wife of king Ferdinand II (the “Bomber King”). She died very young after giving birth to the future (and last) king of Naples, Francis II.  She was very devout, dedicated to good works and charity, had a mitigating and soothing influence on her artillery-minded husband, had also a few miracles attributed to her (she was beatified in 1872) and was more than well-loved —she was revered by Neapolitans. And so the stories spread about what was now called the “Grotto of Maria Christina.” This was where she came to pray —or even prey, for this is where she threw her secret lovers to their deaths (which, of course, is ridiculous. People were no doubt thinking of Joan II, the real preying mantis of queendom many centuries earlier). Yes, all of that. Kids in those days would dare each other to go in there alone. I went in alone one time, and I came back. At least I think I did. Actually, I don't think it is currently open to visitors.

[Also note this entry on the Porcelain factory at Capodimonte.]

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