BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

Naval Battle in the Gulf of Naples

1558-62
Oil on panel, 42 x 71 cm
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

We do not know when and where this important painting was obtained, but Camillo Pamphilj was a great admirer of this dynasty of Flemish painters. A Creation of the World, evidently to be identified with the following picture, was already in his possession before 1654. In that year he acquired some other works from Mme. de Belleville in Paris: "in view of the singular desire, that I had to accompany them with others in one of my cabinets owing to the esteem in which I hold that master of sign, from the imitation of whose style I cannot hold myself back...," wrote the prince to the Apostolic Delegate of Paris. Finally , in 1656 he got hold of another small picture: might this have been the Battle? After the death of Don Camillo, in 1666, the numerous paintings by the Brueghels that he had assembled as a result of this passion were hung in the second room adjoining the gallery of the palace in Piazza Navona. Among them was this painting, with a precious ebony frame. In 1669, another ten pictures, considered generically to be the work of "Brugolo Vecchio," were acquired in Villa Ludovisi: two Landscapes (one on panel and the other on canvas), along with another four paintings on panel and the same number on copper. Today the collection contains fifteen paintings (ten in the Gallery and five in the Apartments) in memory of this passion for collecting, which was shared by the Borromeo and Colonna families as well.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the greatest painters of all time, came to Italy in 1551 and 1553 in the company of the famous geographer Abraham Ortelius, visiting Messina, Naples, and Rome. It was undoubtedly in this period that the artist, probably at the request of his friend, made a number of drawings of topographical interest, which he took home with him. It is likely that among them was the drawing representing a Naval Battle in the Straits of Messina, which served as a model for an engraving by Frans Huys in 1561. Measuring 43,8 x 72 cm, its size is almost exactly the same as this painting, although the latter's unpainted edges have been cut off on all four sides. The veduta must date from around the same time, probably between 1560 and 1562 although a number of scholars believe it to have been painted around 1558. Unfortunately there is little evidence for a more precise date. It may be deduced that the painting was also based on a drawing of the same size and that the two compositions, stylistically similar, were intended as companion pieces, the first with the strait dominated by Etna and the second with the gulf overshadowed by Vesuvius. In any case both Battles are examples of artistic license, and not based on actual historical events, just as the semicircular form of the wharf in the View of Naples is a topographically inaccurate invention by the painter.

The depictions of the two volcanoes, which lead one to meditate on the mysterious and universal force of nature, reflect the artist's Neoplatonic pantheism, based on the belief that the Divine animates the world from within. This is expressed in the encyclopedic and profound observation to be found in his pictures, in which human activity is in continuous, predestined movement. The painting is a sort of 'teatrum mundi,' that also embraces this image of Naples, seen from above and far way, in which the foaming crests of the waves, driven by the wind, advance vertically (!) toward the shore, in a brilliant and courageous use of perspective.




© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.