TWO FOREIGN GENTLEMEN FROM NAPLES
Or the Most Enigmatic Lives and Works of Monsù Desiderio
If art history (capital A, capital H) generally traces a pretty straight path through the rolling green countryside of painting, stopping only to inspect the work of masters and “significant” contributors to our vision of what art constitutes Art, (“All passengers for Memling and the Flemish Primitives please prepare to disembark, for those travellers going on to Rembrandt, kindly remain seated”) there are many overgrown sideways paths to explore, reminders that a trip through Art isn’t always as simple as buying a ticket and boarding the Express.
Thus, the other day, when I stumbled on the name of Monsù Desiderio, attached to a Tower of Babel that had come up on a net search for a newsletter a while ago…
Well, that’s all it takes.
Monsù Desiderio is one of the more enigmatic names in 17th-century Neapolitan painting. Behind it are two painters (three, according to some sources, more according to a few wishful thinkers) from the city of Metz, in the Lorraine: Didier Barra and François de Nomé. In most art encyclopedias, here is about what you find:
NOMÉ, François de
French painter, born circa 1593, Metz; died after 1623, Napoli
French painter, born circa 1590, Metz; died after 1647, Napoli (?)
Not much to go on, but everything is complicated and enigmatic with Monsù Desiderio. The name, first of all, means literally “Mister Didier”, “Monsù” being an Italianized version of Monsieur, a term which came to designate any foreign gentleman. “Desiderio” is Italian for Didier.
The first mention of François de Nomé appears on a fede di stato libero or statement of civil status, established in Naples on May 13, 1613, required of any foreigner wishing to marry. He is described as approximately 20 years old, born in Metz, son of Antoinette Cofiré and Simon Nomé, that his father is deceased. (The archives of Metz have so far revealed no mention of either parent.) He declares having lived in Rome for eight yars and Naples for three; by deduction, he was born around 1592 or 1593. How he arrived in Rome remains a mystery; he travelled, says Nomé, in company of persons whose names he does not recall. He was apprenticed, he resumes, to a certain Baldassare, whose family name he cannot remember, but who lived near the Castello Sant’Angelo. (Baldassare has been identified as Balthasar Lauwers, a Flemish painter of whose oeuvre only one drawing survives.
An aside here, if you’ll pardon me. Rome and Rome’s ruins represented a powerful attraction for artists. At the height of its power, the the 1st century AD, as the fat spider in the middle of the web of Empire, the Imperial city had a population of somewhere between 500,000 and 3.5 million, a midpoint of 1.6 million being the estimate most historians prefer. By the year 273, plague had reduced it to a half a million. When the various waves of barbarians were done sacking it repeatedly in the 5th century, its population may have declined to 50,000 and was reportedly only 30,000 by the 10th century, despite being the seat of Papal power. By the end of the 15th century, the population had struggled back to 50,000 again. The result is that Renaissance Rome was a vast ruin inhabited by a tiny populace. (Their number would only equal the Roman capital’s proportions in the 1940’s, 1800 years after its heyday.) Small wonder that the taste for depicting ruins was so pronounced amongst artists living there. Decay and decadence on such a vast scale can’t but have excited their imaginations.
The two witnesses at Nomé‘s marriage are Jacomo Thoma, German painter from Constance, and Nicola Romeo, shoemaker from Verdun, both living and working in Naples. Thoma, who is 24, close to Nomé‘s age, declares he has known him for 9 years, and that they met in Rome, where they shared the same passion for painting. The young lady whom he married was named Isabella Croys. Her father, Loys Croys, from Malines in Flanders, married to a Neapolitan, Anna Bernardi. The couple had six children, four girls and two boys. (That the boys left no traceable decendants may mean they died very young.) Isabella was born around 1599, and would have been 15 or 16 when she married François. Of them, no more is heard. No more documents carry François’ name after 1622, and the last paintings date from 1622 or 1623.
From left to right:
“The Judgement of Solomon”
“Ruins by night”
“Attack on an imaginary palace”, Paris, Musée du Louvre
“David in the Temple”
“Martyrdom of a Saint”
“The Destruction of Cairo”. The inscription on the base of the equestrian statue reads: GAIRUS OLIM BABILON EGYPTI AXIMA… S. ARMENIA ET MSOPOTAMIA POST… TU…
“Daniel in the Lion’s Den”, Musée de la Cour d’Or, Metz.
From left to right:
“Grand Renaissance portal”
Architectural fantasy depicting the martyrdom of a female saint
“Saint George and the Dragon”, dated 1622.
“Fantasy architecture and ruins”
“The legend of Saint Augustine”, London, National Gallery. This painting was attributed to the engraver Jaques Callot until 1923.
“Martyrdom of a Saint”, Ashmolean Museum of Art, Oxford. Attributed to de Nomé in 1944.
“Belisarius Recognized by one of his Soldiers”, 1630
From left to right:
“King Ada of Juda Destroying the Idols”, also known as “Explosion in a Church” – credited to “Francesco Desiderio”. De Nomé did many more scenes of this nature, with jaggedly buckling columns suspended in midair.
“Jonas at the Gate of Nineveh”, the Hermitage, Saint Petersbourg.
“View of Saint Mark’s Square, Venice”
“View of Saint Mark’s Square, Venice”
“Martyrdom of Saint Catherine”, dated 1617, City Art Gallery, Southampton. The figures in the foreground may be the work of another painter, given their mannerist style. The Greek painter Belisario Corenzio, or his entourage, are the most likely candiadtes.
“The Tower of Babel”
“View of Metz with a Descent from the Cross” (possibly a collaboration between Barra and de Nomé) Until 1992, this scene was considered to be a viw of Jerusalem. The figures in the foreground may be by Corenzio.
Didier Barra was also born in Metz, in all likelihood in 1589, son of Clément Barra, inkeeper, and Jeanne Pitelin. Didier is first mentioned in 1608, when he became a godfather, which means he was at least 18 at the time. His father died in 1614, his mother in 1633. Didier’s schooling included Latin, but little else is known about his youth. He left Metz around 1614, and turns up in a document in Naples in 1619, on a receipt for a series of portraits of emperors, painted in one month, delivered on June 17. Didier is a specialist of “veduta” or views – “portraits” of cityscapes, specializing in birds-eye views, or “veduti in alzato”. (Such paintings are seldom fully realist, the painter having the obligation to depict clearly buildings and features that might be lost in a conventional aerial view.) Of all the paintings attributed to Monsù Desiderio, the recognizable cityscapes may be be said to belong with certainty to Barra, or perhaps to both artists, and the fantasies to Nomé. Didier Barra married a German girl, Anna Tedesca; their first child, Anna, was born in 1621. Several paintings, signed and dated 1674, are his last.
A selection of views by Didier Barra.(Apologies for forgetting to note the titles before returning the book to the library.)
Then, they are more or less forgotten, until André Breton, looking for foundations on which to build Surrealism, and undoubtedly driven by a desire to flourish something obscure in order to raise a few eyebrows in the art world – extolling the virtues of artists wholly forgotten always obliges your detractors to clam up for a moment – exhumed Monsù Desiderio.
This said, circumstances did not help. A good number of their works are or were in private collections; a large number of fakes are in circulation, and a portion of their work has been misattributed to others, as others’ work has been atributed to them. Outside, of course, their art itself, unless artists leave words of their own, there are two major sources for tracking them down when they disappear: purchase receipts and inventories. In many cases, a payment for the purchase of a painting would be made through a bank, and the artist would then sign a bank receipt when he picked up the money. Inventories, generally done on the death of an owner of artists’ works, are even more precious, since they may provide quite a detailed itemization and description of each painting. In the case of Monsù, all the ambiguity of attributing work is revealed – inscriptions for the two painters varied considerably: Monsù de Napoles, Monsù di Nomé, Monsù Francesco, Monsù Francesco di Lorena, or Monsù lorenese. Didier Barra signed his name Desiderius, and de Nomé appears as either Francoys or Francisco, the last name as Nomé, Nomme or Nommée, often (but not always) preceded by De, Di or Did. Many collectors in Naples and elsewhere in Italy mention acquiring works by Monsù, and constitute a tantalizingly imperfect image of their careers. but beyond that…
Their lives raise more questions than they provide answers. How to explain their enduring Mannerist approach, in the face of Baroque spreading out from Rome in the first decades of the 17th century? How long did their partnership last? What was their real influence on other painters of their period – Palumbo, Belisario or Corenzio, to name a few. Why Naples? The last question, thankfully, is more easily answered.
Naples in the 1600’s was the best and worst place to live in Europe. Vesuvius erupted in 1631, an eruption equalling in violence the one that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Micco Spadario’s “Eruption of Vesuvius in 1631” gives some idea of the agitation during the event, with processions led by the church, carrying an effigy of patron saint Gennario as a sign of pennance. Two major earthquakes struck the region, first in 1660 and again in 1685. The Masianello revolt shook the city from 1647 to 1649. The Black Death came back for an encore in 1656. Between May and August, half the city’s population of 300,000 had died or fled. (Spadaro also survived – and painted – the outbreak: “The plague in Naples on the Piazza Mercatello” is a horrifying vision of apocalypse.) On the good side, the Spanish were leaving. The defeat of the Armada (1588) and Spain’s prolonged and calamitous wars with France, England and the Netherlands and of course the Thirty Years War (disastrous defeat at the hands of the young Duke of Enghien at the battle of Rocroy in 1643) meant that Spain’s attention was elsewhere, though Naples remained a Spanish vice-realm until 1660, when the Austrian Hapsburgs took over from the Spanish Hapsburgs. Beforehand, though, the Spaniards had fortified the port and modernized the city. At the dawn of the 17th century, the “Golden Age” of Naples, it was the second-largest city in Europe, second only to Paris. The city thrived, public theatres and opera houses went up, private villas and estates flourished. It was the place to be. It was the centre of the Italian art market, with dozens of foreign artists: Art Mitjens, Wenzel Cobergher, Cornelis de Smet and Jan Breughel being amongst the most famous.
Metz, out of interest, was and remains a much more modest city. From the 9th-century capital of Lotharingia (which sounds like something out of the Lord of the Rings, as Lorrain sounds rather like something that might be spoken in Edoras) it became part of the Holy Roman Empire (which, as one historian has put it, was not Holy, not Roman, and not an Empire) and then free city under the rule of its burghers, it finally became French in the late 1500’s at the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia. An imposing citadel was constructed in the late 1550’s, further fortified by Vauban in the mid 1600’s, when France was busy acquiring the Alsace. In the 17th century, it would not have counted more than 20,000 inhabitants.
As for our two gentlemen from Metz, what a shame they never set up two easels face to face and painted each others’ portraits, or drew up an inventory of their paintings, or gratified us with a diary or two.
While Barra is a precursor of the “vedutisti”, or “painters of views”. (Canaletto is the best example in Italy, making Venice a captial of the genre, though of course Vermeer pursued a similar route in the Netherlands.) To make it a little more complicated, “veduti” has sub-genres: “veduta esatta” or extremely detailed and accurate depictions of the landscape and of its monuments, and “vedute ideate” or “veduta di fantasia”, idealised lanscapes strewn with ruins and overgrown with allegory. The latter is also know as “capriccio”, though the two terms don’t quite overlap. the style of François de Nomé is firmly rooted in the “capriccio”, a genre that would carry on doing for centuries under the able brushes of artists like Giovanni Paolo Pannini and Joseph Gandy.
Art History is a curious exercise, full of paradoxes. Art History lauds the exceptional artist, but only if he (never she; women are always treated as a negligible quantity by mainstream art historians) leaves a legacy, a school, a movement or followers. Art History prefers order, cause and effect, influence and confluence, it has little patience with eccentrics, especially those who ungraciously disappear for centuries. (Conversely, occult historians privilege secret brotherhoods, cryptical interpretations, da Vinci codes and the like; they could not care less about the art itself, only the meaning the are able to inject.) Hence my interest in Monsù Desiderio, who did not start a school or a movement, who left no easily identifiable followers or provided something easily qualified as novel in art history. (Art History is also enamoured of “firsts”, tending to present itself contempocentrically, so to speak, as if all Art worthy of a capital A was a slow improvement towards our century.)
I’ve always had a soft spot for eccentrics and misfits, and Monsù Desiderio (the singular is used for convenience, referring principally to Fançois de Nomé, also to reflect the fact that he was only discovered to be plural quite recently) is a perfect candidate. Also, he proposes a vision which is wholly his own. The elimination of natural light in favour of what amounts to a form of artificial, or non-light, is unique. Many scenes give no indication of being lit by a sun, the backgrounds are often dark, like the wings of a stage, or in some great cavern whose ceiling is beyond reach in the gloom. The human drama – often violent, either by action or sentiment, is an alibi, not even providing focus, but nevertheless offering a notion of scale, though the scale itself is out of proportion with the humans present. These structures are not inhabited by humans, they offer no protection, no more comfort that a stage set. While Monsù‘s treatment of perspective is conventional, the structures are empty of humanity, and curiously disposed, as if they are set pieces, crowded together but not part of a whole, as if they had been trundled out of storage and jimmied together as best they fit, like some sinister Vegas strip or an amusement park not so amusing at all, with the same uncomfortable copy-paste feel. Detail, and accumulation of detail, but no unity or continuity, they are the visual dystopias, painted a century and a half before J.S. Mill even coined the word, three centuries before Orwell’s 1984. They are oddly prophetic, and it is easy to see why Breton was in Monsù Desiderio the precursor to Surrealism.
Another unique aspect to the work of Monsù Desiderio is his snapshot suspension of time. He depicts collapsing structures, columns buckling in mid-air, caught with the clarity of a high-speed shutter. I don’t know of any other artist of the period who so lucidly predicts the day when images will be snatched out of an instant. Clearly prophetic.
Even de Monsù‘s humans are often intriguingly lacking in humanity: many of the figures in his allegorical scenes are given the same visual treatment as the statues amongst which they wander or flee, requiring a second close look to distinguish between lifelike and living, establishing an ambiguity between metaphor and action which is wholly out of place in his day and truly close to what we would consider “modern”..
Alas, it is not enough to make them part of Art History. More’s the pity. They are well worth getting to know.
There is an exhibition catalogue; in French naturally, but it’s worth it for the images. (I checked, it’s still available.)
Catalogue Enigma. Monsù Desiderio.
Un fantastique architectural au XVIIe siècle,
192 p., 29 €.
ISBN : 2-9520773-I-2.