Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Oct 2008

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The Tavola Strozzi

The Tavola Strozzi is an oil-on-wood painting of medieval Naples as seen from above and in front of the main port of the city. It is the oldest depiction of the medieval city. It measures 82 x 245 cm (32 x 96 inches) and is in the collection of the San Martino museum. The painting was discovered in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in 1901 by archaeologist and art historian, Corrado Ricci.

A first interpretation of the scene depicted was offered by Benedetto Croce, who at first thought that the painting showed the arrival of the fleet of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Naples in 1479 for the signing of a peace treaty with the Aragonese rulers of the kingdom, a treaty worked out through the mediation of Filippo Strozzi the Elder, the Florentine banker and statesman.

Some subsequent interpretations hold that the scene is really the triumphant re-entry of the Neapolitan fleet after a naval victory against the Angevin pretenders to the throne of Naples, a battle that took place off of Ischia on July 7, 1465. In any event, the painting was apparently done for Filippo Strozzi as a gift to him by the Aragonese in thanks for his diplomatic efforts. He took it back to Florence with him and used it as a head-board for a bed!

The painting has been dated to about 1472-3, but certainly before 1487, the year in which a new lighthouse —not the one on the left in the tavola— was added to the main pier.* There are various claims as to the authorship of the painting; they range from one Francesco Rosselli, a Florentine cartographer and miniaturist all the way to the very ambitious claim that the tavola is the work of Leonardo da Vinci. (The obvious L-shape of the pier in the painting is supposed to be his signature; however, clever Leonardo usually signed his stuff in upside-down encrypted mirror-script, in which case you might expect a much weirder-looking pier than the one in the painting. It just looks like a pier to me.)

The detail is amazing. You see the San Martino hill with the monastery and adjacent Angevin Belforte fortification before it was transformed by the Spanish into the mammoth Sant’Elmo fortress. Many of the major landmarks of the city are also quite visible: Santa Chiara, San Domenico Maggiore, San Lorenzo, San Giovanni a Carbonara, Sant’Eligio, etc. The city wall at water’s edge is also detailed even down to the rendering of gates that allowed passage to the beach. The large Maschio Angioino (Angevin Fortress) (then only 170 years old) is as it was before the Spanish rebuilt it; the Castel dell’Ovo is at the far left and seen without the interposition of the vast new (from 1900) area along the sea-side.

*The dating is problematic. Croce's original interpretation of 1479 looks sound since there is credible documentation (see both Colombo and Spadetta in the bibliography of  "The Lighthouses in Naples") that the lighthouse in the painting is the Tower of San Vincenzo, built in 1477. A new lighthouse was built on the main pier in 1487. Since that new one is not in the Tavola Strozzi, the painting has to have been done between 1477 and 1487, unless the lighthouse shown is an earlier version of the Tower of San Vincenzo from 1477.

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