Though it was known by different names in different countries, Art Nouveau swept across all Europe and much of the United States at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. Inspired by the natural world, this artistic style – with its sinuous lines and ornamental curves – came to be known as Art Nouveau in France, Jugendstil in Germany, Secession in Austria and Modernisme in Catalonia.
It was hugely popular in Italy, too, where it was called Stile Floreale (the Floral Style) or, more often, Stile Liberty (the Liberty Style). The latter was in reference to the Liberty store on Regent Street, in London, which did excellent business exporting Art Nouveau products.
One Italian city in which the style particularly flourished was Naples – and that’s the setting for a new exhibition, Napoli Liberty, at Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano (Intesa Sanpaolo’s gallery there).
“It’s perhaps not well known to the wider world, but Naples was one of the great epicentres of Art Nouveau,” says Fernando Mazzocca, the exhibition’s co-curator. “It wasn’t easy during the midst of a pandemic, but we managed to bring together a wide variety of objects to make that point.”
“Naples had something of a head start when it came to Art Nouveau. It had a historic, manufacturing tradition in fields such as cabinet-making, goldsmithing and ceramics, which could be adapted to the popular new style"
Featuring more than 70 works in all, the show begins with a selection of paintings by the likes of Edgardo Curcio, Francesco Galante and the Piedmontese artist Felice Casorati, who made Naples his home between 1908 and 1911. Neapolitan sculptors, such as Costantino Barbella and Filippo Cifariello, are also represented.
In the main, however, it’s with applied arts, not fine arts, that the Liberty style is most associated. One of the star exhibits is La fontana degli Aironi by Filippo Palizzi, an exquisite garden fountain that combines gilded bronze herons and a large maiolica bowl.
“Naples had something of a head start when it came to Art Nouveau,” says Mazzocca’s co-curator, Luisa Martorelli. “It had a historic, manufacturing tradition in fields such as cabinet-making, goldsmithing and ceramics, which could be adapted to the popular new style.”
Sala fontana aironi
Elena del Montenegro principessa di Napoli, 1899,
Pastello su cartone, 58 x 52 cm,
Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo
68,9 x 47,3 cm,
Treviso, Museo Nazionale Collezione Salce
Olio su tela, 62 x 42 cm,
Napoli, collezione privata
Beyond Naples, Art Nouveau flourished in cities from Barcelona to Brussels, Turin to Tallinn, and Glasgow to Chicago. It’s sometimes referred to as the first truly international style. Its heyday came at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, a world’s fair in Paris that featured exhibitions from 40 countries.
In Naples, however, the Liberty Style arrived under a particular set of circumstances. In 1884, the city had been hit by a cholera epidemic, the impact of which was made all the more devastating by the overcrowded, insanitary conditions in many areas. At the time, Naples was the biggest conurbation in Italy.
What followed was a period of great reform, during which slums were cleared, new buildings went up, and modern water and transport systems were introduced, including the opening of the funicular railway that still connects the city centre with the neighbouring hills of Vomero and Posillipo.
E. & A. Mele & C., 1907 ca,
211 x 150,3 cm,
Treviso, Museo Nazionale Collezione Salce
“It’s in this context of renewal that one can see the arrival of Art Nouveau in Naples,” says Mazzocca. “The subtitle of the show – N’aria ‘e primavera – sums this up. The words are taken from March, a poem of the day by Salvatore Di Giacomo, in which he writes that ‘spring is in the air’. Liberty was a radical style that seemed to be starting things anew, as the natural world does every spring.”
The show takes 1889 as its starting point, the year that the department store E. & A. Mele opened its doors. It sold fashionable clothes and luxury goods to Naples’ burgeoning middle class. The firm embraced the potential of billboard advertising to reach would-be clientele and employed a number of leading Art Nouveau illustrators such as Marcello Dudovich to this end. Examples of his work can be seen in a whole section of the exhibition dedicated to posters.
“It’s perhaps not well known to the wider world, but Naples was one of the great epicentres of Art Nouveau”
“The Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano is a most suitable venue for this exhibition,” says Martorelli. “Though it was built in the 17th century, it had a Liberty-style makeover in the early 20th century – including the transformation of the courtyard into a salon with an abundance of floral decorations.”
Further highlights of the show include a coral brooch by the jewellers of Torre del Greco and inlaid furniture by Almerico Gargiulo.
“Intesa Sanpaolo is proud to be staging this exhibition celebrating the elegance and excellence of Liberty in Naples,” says Michele Coppola, the bank’s Director of Art, Culture and Historic Heritage. “It forms part of Progetto Cultura, our policy of contributing not just to economic growth in society but to its cultural richness, too.
“Napoli Liberty confirms the strong connection between our bank and the city of Naples – and the role of the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano as a significant, cultural reference point there.”
With the First World War, Art Nouveau fell out of fashion. Its moment in the sun was brief, lasting a little over two decades. However, as this exhibition proves, while in bloom it was beautiful.
Manifattura Giovanni Ascione & Figlio
Collier con pendenti, ante 1906,
Corallo mediterraneo, Sciacca, oro filigranato a 18K,
lungh. 47 cm,
Napoli, Museo Ascione
Dolce minaccia, 1925 ca,
58 x 45 x 33 cm,
Napoli, Museo Civico di Castel Nuovo
Napoli, Vaso blu con fiori, 1882,
66 x 40 cm,
Napoli, Museo Artistico Industriale
“Napoli Liberty confirms the strong connection between our bank and the city of Naples – and the role of the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano as a significant, cultural reference point there”
The Napoli Liberty exhibition was open until 24 January 2021.
Olio su tela, 150 x 177 cm,
Courtesy Enrico Gallerie d’arte, Milano