The reappearance of this hitherto unpublished canvas, unlined and in remarkably original condition, brings to light the most ambitious work known by Pietro Fabris, arguably the artist’s greatest masterpiece. Majestic and theatrical, the picture conveys both the impressive scale of a historic spectacle and enchanting anecdotal details of everyday street life. Presenting the full range of Neapolitan society, from elegantly-dressed ladies and gentlemen, to children playing with dogs and petitioning food vendors, this painting is a remarkable testament to the magnificent celebrations and civic culture of a bygone era.
On 2nd February 1778 the city of Naples staged an extraordinary carnival parade, referred to in contemporary accounts as the ‘Cavalcata turca’ or the Turkish cavalcade. This sumptuous, costumed procession filled the whole length of one of the longest streets in Naples, the via Toledo, and represented the imaginary pilgrimage of the Ottoman sultan or ‘Gran Signore’ to Mecca. The subject and the painting are evidence of the interest in Orientalism that spread throughout the European aristocracy from the seventeenth century onwards. In Naples, these turqueries may specifically have originated from the visit paid to the city by the Turkish ambassador and his brilliant retinue in 1741. The fascination with the Orient, which appeared at once sensual, sophisticated and mysterious to the European eye, made it an appropriate theme for carnivals, exoticism being used as an excuse to transgress the rather rigid traditional etiquette, while allowing for a grandiose display of material splendour.
In this monumental picture, Fabris decided to depict the moment when the march, coming out of the via Toledo, enters what is today known as the Piazza del Plebiscito, but was then called the Foro Reggio, or Largo di Palazzo. Naples’s civic and ceremonial centre, this large piazza was named after the Palazzo Reale, the elegant classical façade of which can be seen receding to the right of the composition. The parade circles around this heart of the city before exiting through the via San Carlo. The painter rendered all the picturesque elements of this main square, including the three-arched monument beyond the Palazzo Reale: the Fontana dei Gigante, which gained its name from the colossal statue next to which it stood (the fountain has now been moved to via Partenope). To the left is the Jesuit church of San Fernandino. The towers of the Castel dell’Ovo, arguably Naples’s most iconic building, are just visible through the via San Carlo. Fabris cleverly manipulates the perspective and flattens the space so as to provide a magisterial panoramic view that embraces the full scope of the procession.
The artist renders with astonishing accuracy and liveliness each of the eleven distinct divisions that formed the ‘Cavalcata turca’. Leading the parade are 61 musicians, followed by 84 janissaries on foot, wearing red and green uniforms seen here in the centre background exiting the square and entering the via San Carlo. The commander-in-chief of the janissaries, on horseback, follows his troops, leading a group of mounted trumpeters. Following them is a large division of the sipahi cavalry, riding along the Palazzo Reale and up to the Fontana dei Giganti. Next comes the Grand Vizier, beside whom rides a standard bearer carrying the banner of Mohammed. Behind them, to the right of the composition, are slaves on foot bearing vases of perfumed offerings for the Prophet, as well as a large jar filled with further gifts. The sixth division, made up of various Ottoman officials, even includes a camel carrying a rich Oriental rug. In the foreground of the composition is the sultan himself, wearing a green ermine-lined coat. The ambassador of China, with a distinctive triangular red and white-striped hat and coat, and the Mogol ambassador, both ride in front of the sultan, with the ambassadors of Siam and Persia following behind. The pinnacle of the procession is the three-tiered monumental chariot with its elaborate decoration and seashell shape, carrying the sultan’s seven wives accompanied by three eunuchs: the queen sultana sits at the top of the carriage, the Transylvanian sultana is placed between the two Moorish sultanas, and in the row below sit the Greek, Persian and Mogol sultanas. Finally an orchestra on horseback and a further division of sipahis and janissaries are seen emerging from the via Toledo on the left, closing this parade.
This festa was undoubtedly one of the most splendid Neapolitan celebrations of the century and word of its extravagance and brilliance soon reached the courts of Europe. The overall richness of the spectacle, which reportedly drew crowds of some 200,000 people, enticed a baffled Dominique Vivant Denon, the libertine writer and later first director of the Louvre, to drop his usual nonchalance and enthusiastically record:
‘On fait à Naples plus de dépenses en mascarades qu’ailleurs; on exécute de grands sujets avec magnificence, et on forme des marches et des cavalcades, dont les plus grands seigneurs font la dépense, et sont eux-mêmes les acteurs. Quelquefois le roi ne dédaigne pas d’en être. Je le vis exécuter une somptueuse mascarade qui avait pour sujet l’entrée du Grand-Seigneur à la Mecque. Le nombre des hommes, des chevaux, des équipages de suite, l’exactitude des costumes, leur magnificence, donnait à cette pompe une somptuosité toute asiatique’.
[In Naples, more is spent on masquerades than anywhere else; great subjects are executed with magnificence, and marches and cavalcades are formed, for which the greatest noblemen pay and in which they act themselves. Sometimes, the king himself does not disdain taking part. I witnessed him executing a sumptuous masquerade which had as its subject the entry of the ‘Grand-Seigneur’ to Mecca. The number of men, of horses, of the retinue, the accuracy of the costumes, their magnificence, gave this pomp a distinctly Asian sumptuousness.] (Cited by P. Rosenberg, ‘Una Cavalcata turca de Desprez au Museo di San Martino’, L. Olivato, G. Barbieri, eds., Lezioni di metodo: Studi in onore di Lionello Puppi, Vincenza, 2002, p. 280)
According to Vivant Denon, the entirety of the Neapolitan aristocracy participated in this masquerade, including: Count Pignatelli, the Prince Caramanico, the Dukes of Salandra and of Cassano, the Marquis of Altavilla and King Ferdinand IV himself, who assumed the role of the captain of the sipahis, with his powerful wife Queen Maria Carolina of Austria as the Mogul sultana. Interestingly, Fabris has depicted the Neapolitan monarchs twice - they also appear as elegant spectators in the carriage in the lefthand corner of the picture, Maria Carolina looking out at the viewer. Young aristocratic beauties formed the rest of the queenly contingent on the chariot and the Marquis of Clermont d’Amboise, the French ambassador in Naples, rode in the guise of the colourful Chinese ambassador. As another anonymous contemporary account elegantly puts it: the parade was ‘cosa nuova e fatta con molto spese, veramente da re, e non mai forse sortita di Napoli’ [something new and made to much expense, truly royal, and never perhaps done outside of Naples] (R. Muzii, Civiltà del ’700 a Napoli, 1734-1799, Naples, 1979, p. 334).
The ‘Cavalcata turca’ was not only recorded through textual accounts, it was also the subject of various visual records, some of which undoubtedly provided a basis for Fabris’s epic canvas. A large watercolour drawing by the French artist Louis-Jean Desprez, as well as an engraving attributed to Carlo Vanvitelli (both in Naples, Museo Nazionale di San Martino) record the parade marching along the Darsena in a frieze-like manner. In comparison to Fabris’s daring elliptical arrangement, they are more static and seem unlikely to have influenced the painter. More convincingly, Fabris would appear to have looked at a series of 12 engravings by Raphael Morghen titled Celebre Mascherata fatta nella Splendissima Città di Napoli In Campagna felice nel Carnevale dell’anno 1778. Rappresentante nella Verità della sua Maestosa Comparsa Il viaggio del Gran Signore alla Mecca opera ripartita in undici divisionim e esemplarizzata in dodici Rami. Each print was devoted to one of the sections that made up the procession. Although Fabris was present in Naples at the time of the carnival and would surely have attended it, he evidently used Morghen’s print as a valuable aide-mémoire in order to accurately render all the various and flamboyant details of the parade. Fabris himself made a first attempt at depicting the 1778 event in a smaller and less ambitious picture (last recorded Erzherzog Friedrich Sale, A. Kende, Vienna, 8-10 February 1933, lot 53), in which he renders the curvature of the piazza more faithfully, thus hindering the legibility of the whole procession. In the present picture, he masterfully solves this difficulty to create a more coherent and readable composition. By carefully recording these ostentatious yet fleeting events, organised to enhance the prestige of the Bourbon court in Naples, Fabris was working in the same tradition as his elder contemporary Antonio Joli, who depicted similar ephemeral festivities in his painting A Cuccagna in the Largo di Palazzo (Beaulieu, The Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Palace House).
The scale and ambition of this picture suggests it is likely to have been commissioned for a specific aristocratic patron, who probably participated in the procession themselves. Given the strong links between Naples and Spain at the time, it is unsurprising that the painting was discovered in a Spanish noble collection. Fabris also had notable connections with Britain, and his spirited depictions of Naples and its various feste found their way into many prestigious English collections, for example The Festival of the Madonna dell’Arco now in Compton Verney. Although Fabris was working for the Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, and dilettante geologist Sir William Hamilton at the time of the present picture – he notably produced a series of 58 gouache paintings to illustrate Hamilton’s publication Campi phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies in 1776 – the original context of commission for this lavish work unfortunately remains unknown.
We are grateful to Professor Nicola Spinosa for proposing the attribution to Pietro Fabris and for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.