Situated on top of Castel Sant’Elmo in Naples, Italy, Museo Novecento documents the progression of Italian art through the twentieth century. The castle itself is stunning, with 360° views of the city of Naples. The admission price is fair: €5 for an adult, €2.50 for 18 to 24-year-olds, and free for kids. It gets you into the castle (which is actually more of a fortress as there is nothing inside ‐ the main event is walking around the top and taking in the views), and into the beautiful art museum.
As you can see from the museum’s name, the collection covers Italian art spanning the twentieth century. I feel it is important to share this artistic period, because when we think of art and Italy, we can rarely see past Botticelli and Michelangelo. The Museo Novecento is organised into small yet comprehensive rooms which encapsulate the Italian art of its period. The exhibition is chronological, and to give you a sense of the progression I am going to write about some of the rooms of the exhibition individually (don’t worry – I’ll only stick to the best bits!).
“From the windswept seascapes of Giuseppe Casciaro, to the dreamlike compositions of Edgardo Curcio”
Each room is small, but big enough to fit 6 or 7 works of art. The focus is on painting and sculpture, and we are introduced to the early twentieth century by the work of Vincenzo Gemito. A renowned Neapolitan sculptor, his ‘Busta di Fanciulla’, 1922, is a bronze bust which embodies sculptural expressionism. There are clear links between nineteenth century French sculpture from the like of August Rodin, and the classically inspired works of Gemito. This isn’t the only work that echoes the work of neighbouring French artists. If you’re a fan of Impressionism, then you will love Italian modernism. From the windswept seascapes of Giuseppe Casciaro, to the dreamlike compositions of Edgardo Curcio. The colours are bright and yet simultaneously soft, the figures are fleeting, and the overall effect of these works is mystifying.
This first room was one of my favourites. The viewer is taken on a journey of Italian modernism in its earliest form, and the works in the room visually complement each other. The swirling colours and exploration of form rivals some of the best-known European paintings of this time.
“This is Futurism: melancholy, obscure, and unforgivingly modern”
Here we are introduced to Futurism. You might not know a lot about the Italian’s role in modern art, but without people like Carlo Carrà, Umberto Bocconi, Giorgio de Chirico, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, we would never have seen Surrealist works from the likes of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. They founded the Avant Garde Futurist Movement in 1908 to celebrate industrialism and modernism. It embraced many art forms but was visually centred around the abstraction of shape and form.
One of my favourite works from this room is an abstracted watercolour and pen portrait by Guglielmo Pierce, ‘Silenzio dell’Aurora’, 1930. Over a melange of melancholy blues, we see an woman’s profile drawn with a frail line of black ink. Her smudged lipstick wants to tell us something more, but the artist has left the image intentionally enigmatic. Her harsh features, cropped curly hair, and vacant eyes give us a surprisingly intimate image of a woman we know nothing about.
This is Futurism: melancholy, obscure, and unforgivingly modern. The period existed across both World Wars, and provides valuable insight into the thoughts and reactions of artists during this time.
“…the progression from Impressionistic landscapes and palatable colours to dark portraits and experimentation is clear”
In this room we progress into portraiture and the human form, as seen in the 1930s and 1940s. Mario Cartiello ‘Nudo (o La Dormiente)’, 1936 is particularly reminiscent of Modigliani. The flat planes of colour are strong, confident, and almost voyeuristic. The woman’s shape is natural yet flattened. The edges of the canvas have been left unfinished, showing the artist’s desire to create something beautiful out of the imperfect.
Reflecting on this room, the progression from Impressionistic landscapes and palatable colours to dark portraits and experimentation is clear. The 20 years of Italian art that we have seen up to this point have progressed almost flawlessly, and the gallery has done an exemplary job choosing artworks which illustrate this journey clearly.
“This painting celebrates simplicity and is wonderfully nostalgic”
This room showcased many lesser known Italian artists, such as Euginio Viti, whose painting ‘Capri da Massalubrense’, c.1930, shows a warm and expressive landscape, with bold brushstrokes; it captures the heat and beauty of the Italian countryside and makes a valuable contribution to the collection.
I was particularly intrigued by a painting by Giovanni Brancaccio, entitled ‘Risposto’ (Rest), 1928. It depicts two male figures resting, out of the midday sun, and enjoying lunch accompanied by wine. The image is rendered with such simplicity that there is barely a need for facial features or frivolous detail, yet the scene is perfectly conveyed. I could almost feel the cool of the dappled shade. To me, this picture epitomises the Italian countryside in the 1930s. The men wear simple smocks, and their set up is basic, yet enough. This painting celebrates simplicity and is wonderfully nostalgic. This is another example of the beautiful work produced by unknown Italian artists, and highlights the importance of exploring art that you might not know anything about!
“We are surrounded by emotion, tension, political presence, and anxiety”
Here, we enter a post-World War II theme. The feeling of the room is a dramatic change from the restful and curious artworks of before. The war left an indelible mark on these artists, and so the theme and attitude of painting evolved. Here we are surrounded by emotion, tension, political presence, and anxiety. The selection of works in this room carefully explore these palpable themes. An oil on canvas portrait of a man laying on his side, arms above his head, engulfed by his drab clothing, reflects a scene of despair and weariness. Beside this painting, there is a fast and fleeting sketch of a man, which in this scenario, hints towards aggression and resentment.
The whole room is dominated by a large canvas by Emilio Notte, ‘1 Maggio’ (1st May), 1956. The painting is a sea of red communist flags, protest, and uproar. In the background, we see the factories and industry that link the workers to May Day or Labour Day as seen in the title. Even the 1956 sculpture by Emilio Greco shows a woman with her hand to her neck, in a distressing combination of dreaminess and strangulation.
“Italian modern art reaches its pinnacle in terms of minimalism and egotism”
Room 7 and onwards…
Italian abstraction began in the 1950s, with its focus on the purity of form and shape, combined with the expression of basic colours.
This room has some great examples of mid-century abstraction, displaying Mondrian-esque artworks of primary shapes and grids. We are given a fleeting glimpse into Italian abstraction, which could really be an exhibition in itself, to make room for the more modern periods, from the 1960s to the 1980s. This is the period in which Italian modern art reaches its pinnacle in terms of minimalism and egotism. There are a lot of plain colour canvases, exploring the limitations of a single tone and pushing the boundaries of “art for art’s sake”. These oversimplified concepts mark an important point in the history of modern art: it demonstrates how art can be whatever the artist wants to create. It no longer must be beautiful, or decorative, or functional, or even enjoyable ‐ it is about breaking down barriers and exploring controversy and provoking the viewer.
The nice thing about the selection of more contemporary works on display at Museo Novecento is that they maintain an aesthetic interest. Some of the works are intriguing and visually engaging, and it is refreshing to not have to understand the artist’s complex intentions.
A photograph which I particularly liked is Giuseppe Desiato’s ‘Monumento’, 1965. It is nostalgic and vintage, but accurately captures an authentically Italian moment in the 1960s.
Museo Novecento a Napoli has curated a fine exhibition that truly celebrates 20th century Italian art. It is a period which has been unforgivably overlooked in the history of art yet has a huge amount to offer, visually and academically. I think that the display could have sacrificed one room of contemporary art for another room dedicated to turn of the 19th century art, but that’s just what I prefer. Overall it was well balanced, and it effectively taught me more about how the Italian art world progressed. If you’re ever in Naples, I highly recommend a visit to the Museo Novecento, as well as a scenic trip around the walls of the Castel Sant’Elmo. I can’t wait to go back!