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NAPLES AND THE VICEROY
Until the beginning of the seventeenth century, Naples was Europe’s largest urban area, and the setting for the sharpest of social contrasts. Legions of the underprivileged lived alongside the opulence of a barony which numbered among the richest, most ancient nobilities of the entire continent.
The city was also home to the greatest European concentration of churches and palaces, with an abundant clergy and an elevated presence of religious orders, some of whose convents and monasteries were organised like true islands within its urban fabric.
A vast number of ministers, meddlers, and underpaid soldiers, the latter clustered in the Quartieri and frequently in conflict with the local population, combined to make Naples “the richest and most vice-filled city there ever was in the whole world”, as Miguel de Cervantes described it: a social magma, as unstable as the lavas of Vesuvius, at constant risk of unrest thanks to the inefficacy of its numerous justice tribunals. This was the underworld which Caravaggio knew well and which he portrayed in La siete obras de misericordia.
In addition, this was the stage upon which the Spanish viceroys must carry out their mission. The two great fortresses of Castel Sant’Elmo and Castel Nuovo were intended to control the city, rather than to defend it. The viceroys, however, did not content themselves with this. Theirs was not exclusively a military command, and one of their earliest battles concerned the symbolic control of the urban landscape: from urban reforms to the construction of palaces, from sponsoring churches to the brilliance of ceremonial. This control, however, was a slippery goal, which frequently escaped their grasp, as Naples had its own ceremonial activity which the viceroys were not always able to control. In their favour, on the other hand, was an established monarchic tradition which had, since the time of the Angevins and the Aragonese, made Naples one of the most splendid courts in Europe.
To achieve this objective, they made use of the city’s intense, deep-rooted cultural and artistic activity, which they themselves helped to propel. As has been highlighted, some of the Spanish viceroys in Naples can be counted among the greatest artistic patrons of their era. Yet this was not simply a question of personal tastes: one of their chief responsibilities was to provide the royal court with cultural resources which would contribute decisively to forging the public image of the King of Spain.
Alessandro Baratta, Fidelissimae urbis neapolitanae cum omnibus viis accurata et nova delineatio aedita in lucem ab Alexandro Baratta MDCXXVIIII
Napoli, Gallerie d’Italia - Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo