November 2010

Arts & Letters

Shadow play

By Sebastian Smee
Peter Robb’s ‘Street Fight in Naples: A Book of Art and Insurrection’

The first time I read Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily was also the first time I travelled around Sicily. The first and only. I remember at the time feeling terribly nervous about displaying the book in public. Robb’s portrait of Mafia activities in the ’80s and ’90s was so nerve-racking, so coolly damning, that I felt sure it must have earned him a place on some putative hit list, and that anyone caught reading it risked guilt by association, and the possibility of savage reprisals.

I was at an exaggerating age. But it wasn’t all me. Robb’s rich, descriptive prose veiled an intimate menace, like a burglar who comes into your home and talks about everything but the whereabouts of the jewellery. He had a way of circling around subjects with predatory guile. He favoured staggered, leapfrogging narratives peppered with excursions into art history, literary criticism and culinary appreciation, as well as pungent fragments from his own experiences in Italy. It all combined to put the reader in a highly susceptible state.

Robb is a historian, but his instincts are literary. He grasps history intuitively, and recounts it not for the purposes of edification but with a will to scuff and soil the accepted, sterilised versions of the past. His scepticism does not feel ideological (if anything, ideology is the problem). Rather, it comes from a gut-level identification with history’s outsiders, its suppressed agitators, its forgotten artists – anyone born, as the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower put it, “under Saturn”.

The epigraph to Midnight in Sicily is a poem from Eugenio Montale’s 1971 collection Satura, in which history is described as not “the devastating bulldozer they say it is” but as “a drag net / with a few rips” that “scrapes the bottom”. More than one fish escapes, notes Montale, but the escapee “doesn’t know he’s outside, nobody told him. / The others, in the bag, think they’re freer than him.”

Robb is deeply engaged by the idea of these unwitting free agents, these “ones that got away”, and he has set himself the task of writing historical narratives that take notice of them without scooping them back into history’s dragnet and thereby sacrificing the freedom they represent.

In attempting this, he has allowed himself liberties for which he is sometimes criticised. He opts for suggestion or evocation where a more conventional historian might strive for clarity. He favours effusive acknowledgements and generalised endnotes over the more finicky business of footnotes. And he puts quotations in italics, without attribution, so that the reader is left guessing whose words are being used.

In Midnight in Sicily, none of this was a problem. The book was a rare example of non fiction that casts a genuine spell over the reader, arriving at hard truths via unorthodox means. It was followed in 1998 by a controversial new take on Caravaggio. M, as the book was called (after Caravaggio’s real name, Michelangelo Merisi), came out just as the swelling scholarship on Caravaggio was cresting and spilling over into a vast popular excitement about the artist. Its epigraph was a marvellously apt quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Young boys take no care, and never finish off their things with shadows.” Robb wasn’t going to be accused of making the same mistake. His version of Caravaggio involved all kinds of shadow play. Indeed, the writing felt at times like a failed attempt to contrive a kind of literary equivalent to Caravaggio’s tenebrism: flashes of heightened, invigorating truth-telling against a backdrop always slipping into darkness. Published the same year as Helen Langdon’s more conventionally scholarly Caravaggio: A Life, M presented a very different version of the man. In place of the idea (Robb calls it the “libel”) of Caravaggio as a kind of criminal genius, he sought to present the painter as more purposeful and resolute, a man whose radical innovations put him on a collision course with the Catholic Church.

The result was rousing, but might have succeeded better if Robb hadn’t tried so hard to match his prose to the argument. Though characteristically robust and lively, the text was littered with Australian colloquialisms – “dirty yakka”, “wholly sus” – that came across as affectations rather than expressions of authentic directness. Robb’s account of Caravaggio was only, he claimed, “a working hypothesis, a preliminary outline”. Even so, the pudding felt over-egged.

After M came A Death in Brazil, and now Street Fight in Naples: A Book of Art and Insurrection (Allen & Unwin, 424pp; $49.99), conceived as the second and third parts of a trilogy that began with Midnight in Sicily. Each takes a city (or island, in the case of Sicily) with which Robb is intimately familiar and weaves around it a complex pattern of interrelated narratives. Robb writes of his foreign abodes with the cold, unsentimental eye of the outsider (which, as an Australian, he is) but the intimacy, the relish, the personal investment of the insider. Yet the personal anecdotes that gave so much life to Midnight in Sicily and A Death in Brazil (the latter opens with a description of the author’s near-murder in Rio) are largely absent from Street Fight in Naples. Recent history, too, plays less of a part in the new book. The scope of the narrative is admittedly vast – from the time of Homer almost to the present – but the emphasis is very much on the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

During this period, Naples was increasingly volatile. “Teeming,” writes Robb (listing all of his favourite things), “with peasants, urbanised nobility, miscellaneous unemployed, homeless vagabonds, motherless children, teenage delinquents, professional criminals, and orphans and street people of all ages,” the city had, since 1503, been under the control of Spain. But by the middle of the sixteenth century, Spain was sliding into bankruptcy. Heavy military defeats against the Dutch and the English took a toll. And all this put tremendous pressure on Naples, “a vassal city governed by a viceroy taking orders from Madrid”.

This was the time, of course, of Robb’s hero, Caravaggio, but also an array of other painters – from the beguiling Monsù Desiderio (actually two Frenchmen, both of whom moved to Naples in the early seventeenth century) to the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera, who moved to Naples in 1616 and stayed for the rest of his life (and compared to whom Francis Bacon was, writes Robb, “a window dresser”).

Focusing on the hundred years between 1550 and 1650, Robb is especially animated by the various Neapolitan responses to the Spanish occupiers. He describes, for instance, the transformation of “the Mulberries”, a large grove of mulberry trees once used by the locals as a haunt for amateur alfresco sex, into the “Spanish Quarters”, a centre of prostitution originally catering to Spanish troops. “The huge and beautiful garden vanished and the sex went indoors,” laments Robb. “Recreation became business.”

Even before the Spanish Inquisition reached Naples, “heavy Spanish moralism was changing a socially easy-going city”. For a while, writes Robb, Naples was “a famous destination for people fleeing the Spanish Inquisition’s sexual persecution”. But in this city, which was home to more churches, convents, monasteries and clergy than any other in Christendom, tolerance of this kind was not to last.

Political freedoms disappeared as economic exploitation increased. Yet Naples was not easy to harness, and Robb details with evident relish the ensuing rebellions against Spanish rule, from Tommaso Campanella’s “failed communist revolution” in the Calabrian countryside in 1600 to the more successful 1647 uprising in Naples led by Masaniello, a market boy of extraordinary capability, who seemed to lose his mind just as his most ambitious aims were being realised.

Robb’s flair for scene-setting is as impressive as ever: we read of “hot fuggy nights at summer’s end”, the city’s “frantic dreamlike lethargy”, its “elaborate indolence”. Naples is described elsewhere as “a theatre of inner-directed intensities”, and at another point we learn of “the peculiarly Neapolitan sense of happiness glimpsed and never quite reached, of voluptuousness snatched away just as it was being realised”.

Unfortunately, the book fails to cohere. It takes on too much. It is too densely packed with names and unattributed quotes, and its blurring of the line between hearsay and fact actually interferes with the narrative, creating scepticism and confusion rather than the rich interconnectedness Robb seems to have sought. The idea of a trilogy is appealing, and there’s much about the result that works. But in trying to apply the same formula thrice, Robb proves only that there was nothing formulaic – or, at least, nothing easily replicated – about Midnight in Sicily.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.


Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Judith and Holofernes', circa 1612. Oil on canvas, 159 x 126 centimetres. Courtesy of the Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy and the Bridgeman Art Library.
Cover: November 2010

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