Saturday, August 31, 2013
How do you ensure, in a free market, replete with competitors of equal skill, that you can carve yourself an unassailable niche that guarantees your business survival? No, this is not Mark Bouris’ money column. Yet a little knowledge of history does seem to assist, in particular when reviewing the extraordinary life and times of one Belisario Corenzo, Neapolitan Baroque painter, price fixer and cartel operator hailing from north western Peloponnesus.
Now various Greeks have, over the years, attempting to derive a Greek origin for the mafia. According to them, said organisation arose out of the native Greek opposition to French domination in Sicily, as expressed in the uprising of the Sicilian Vespers, which was funded by the Byzantine Emperor. Mere three hundred years transpire from that uprising to the date that Belisarios Korensios born in 1558, finds himself plying the trade of an artist, first in Venice, then in Rome and finally, in Spanish ruled Naples, where his career reaches its apogee, albeit at the expense of other deserving artists.
For Corenzio, though talented, and reputedly, a student of the great Tintoretto, was a complicated person. Yes, he was one of the pillars of Italian Baroque art. Undoubtedly he did more than anyone else to formulate the art of the Neapolitan School of Painting. Certainly, he is one of the most prodigious and prolific painters of his time, his surviving works gracing the walls of such august structures as the Royal Palace of Naples, the Stock Exchange, the Law Courts, a number of villas and a multitude of Jesuit and Franciscan establishments. Further, it is widely held that much of the flowing, gold dripping heavy Baroque interior decoration that characterises Naples of that time, is owed, in no small part to Corenzio’s skills as an interior decorator. For example, in 1609, Benedictine monks commissioned him to decorate the church of Saint Severino, where he provided the paintings for some of the side chapels and in which church he is buried. In 1615 he travelled to Constantinople where he painted the frescoes for the church of Saint Mary and also painted the frescoes for the dome of the famous monastery of Monte Cassino, in 1629 which was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944.
A talented painter in oils, the art of fresco painting seems to have captured his imagination and he was renowned for being able to execute his commissions four times faster than any other artist of his day. His enormous an highly individualistic “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” in which he expresses his Mannerist tendencies to their full extent, coupled with Raphaelite, classicist overtones and chiaroscuro in emulation of the great Caravaggio, was executed in the monk’s dining room at Saint Severino was completed in just forty days.
The main reason for Corenzio’s prolificacy seems to be his ability to obtain commissions from the highest echelons of Neapolitan society. This was effected by intimidating and threatening other artists, especially itinerant ones, in order for them to take commissions. For example, it is claimed that when Guido Reni came in 1621 to Naples to paint in the Chapel of San Gennaro in the cathedral of the Naples, Corenzio paid an assassin to take his life. The assassin killed Guido's assistant instead, and effectually frightened Reni, who prudently withdrew to Bologna. Corenzio was arrested as a suspect in the crime, but released because of insufficient evidence against him.
Scaring people off his turf seemed to be the key to his success, especially since it appeared that he could do so with impunity. Corenzio thus became part of a triumvirate of painters, the others being Jusepe de Ribera and Battistello Caracciolo, who formed the Cabal of Naples, leading local artists to harass, expel, or poison artists not native to Naples so they would not obtain commissions in the city.
According to the art historian Bernardo de Dominici, no major commission for art in Naples could be executed without the consent of these three painters. Artists who did so would be persecuted or threatened with violence, and often their in-progress works would be destroyed or sabotaged.
Not that the strenuous efforts of Corenzio always worked. It was for example, one thing to scare of Reni, and quite another to obtain the commission for himself. After Reni’s flight, a group from Naples known as the Santafede was hired to complete the work at Naples Cathedral. However, that group's work did not impress the commissioners, who ultimately hired Corenzio. His work was also found to be unacceptable by the commissioners, and was removed. The commissioners then sent a letter to the artist Domenichino in Rome requesting his services. On 23 March 1630, Domenichino accepted the commission, though which much trepidation, for rumours of Corenzio and his Cabal had by that time, spread to Rome.
By November 1630, Domenichino was resident in Naples . Not long after he arrived, he received a death threat warning him to abandon the commission. He requested protection from the Viceroy of Naples, and despite assurances that he would be safe, rarely left his home except to work at the chapel or at the school he had opened. He would often arrive at the chapel for work to find the previous night's work had been rubbed out. He was so tormented by the cabal that in 1634 he fled to Frascati, not yet having completed the commission, and became a guest at Villa Aldobrandini, the seat of the powerful Aldobrandini family. The representatives of the Naples Cathedral who had hired him did their utmost to convince Domenichino to return. Upon learning of Domenichino's flight from the city, instead of taking on the Corenzio and his Cabal the Viceroy of Naples arrested his wife and daughterand sequestered his property. Domenichino returned to Naples in 1635 to continue his work on the cathedral, but by then no longer had the favour or protection of the viceroy and descended into paranoia. According to journal entries by Giovanni Battista Passeri, Domenichino feared that his meals would be poisoned, or that he would be stabbed. On 3 April 1641, he wrote a will and he died on 15 April after several days of illness. His widow was convinced he had been poisoned, and it was suspected that it was Corenzio who had brought about his untimely demise in his quest to dominate the Neapolitan art market.
His florid style, well in keeping with the overladen architecture and full-blown decorative ornament peculiar to the Jesuit builders of the seventeenth century survives him just as much as his sordid reputation as a protectionist, extortionist and thug, proving that crime does indeed pay for through his nefarious activities, including turning on the fellow members of his Cabal, Corenzio ended up being appointed court painter to the Neapolitan Viceroy. When this perfidious Peloponnesian finally did perish, at the age of eighty-five, it is said that his demise was occasioned by a fall from a scaffolding. Other sources say he poisoned himself. From remorse perhaps? Considering his track record, highly unlikely.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 August 2013