Naples’ Surging Modern Art Scene

Italy’s southern city offers an eclectic array of contemporary galleries and modern museums sure to impress art aficionados.


On my various visits to Naples, I was surprised to discover that the city of Naples has a fast-moving and exciting modern art scene—and that it has been going strong for decades.

“Naples was one of the first cities in Italy to take an interest in contemporary art,” says Laura Trisorio, who runs one of the city’s most famous galleries—Trisorio—founded in 1974 by her father, Pasquale. “Almost all the most important artists on the contemporary art scene have passed through Naples.”

Outdoor Urban Gallery

More recently, in the mid-‘90s, visionary and popular former mayor Antonio Bassolino instigated and invested in a number of projects promoting the city’s affinity with modern art. One was to turn the very central Piazza del Plebiscito (Italy’s largest piazza) into a combined pedestrian space and a spectacular open-air art gallery. Every year at Christmas, the grandiose square hosts installations inspired by the city and crafted by the likes of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Anish Kapoor, Sol LeWitt and, most recently, Jan Fabre.

When Rebecca Horn filled the central square with shimmering light rings and cast-iron skulls in 2002, locals visited at all hours of the day and night; minimalist sculptor Richard Serra’s giant spiral made out of curved steel plates allowed people an intensely and unexpectedly private experience in a very un-private space.

Underground Subway Art

The new and ever-expanding metro system has also played its part in the city’s growing artistic significance, and since 2001 has become a captivating showcase for modern art courtesy of installations, sculptures and other works by top artists Mimmo Paladino, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Joseph Kosuth and Sandro Chia, with the stations themselves designed by Gae Aulenti (who designed the Musée d’Orsay museum in Paris) and Atelier Mendini.

The latter is behind the station called Salvator Rosa and is a particularly successful example of the subway art project. The stop emerges out onto a piazza that used to be surrounded by a series of decaying high-rise blocks with no green areas. Now it has a landscaped garden, plenty of free-standing sculptures, a steel and glass spire and even some Roman ruins, and locals hang around where before they used to flee. Another new station designed by Anglo-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor is due to open in 2010.

Museo Madre

The Palazzo Donnaregina, just steps away from the National Archaeological Museum, was spruced up by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza and opened as Museo Madre in 2005.

Its four floors offer about 4,500 square meters (14,800 square feet) of exhibition space lined with contemporary art installations or paintings made expressly for the venue by the likes of Francesco Clemente, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons and Sol Lewitt, and a collection of works that are on loan (in some case long-term) by the likes of Damien Hirst, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.

Past temporary shows held here have celebrated the work of Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg and Georg Baselitz. In the summer, the massive internal courtyard (which is used for installations year-round) hosts a series of night-time concerts, plays and dance shows.

Via Settembrini 79. Tel. +39-081-1931-3016. Admission: Free on Mon., €7 (about US$9.80), free for children under 6. Hours: Mon., Wed. to Fri., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. open until 12 a.m.

Chiaia District Museums

Most of the established and up-and-coming galleries and museums worth visiting in Naples are in the well-heeled Chiaia district. The municipal Palazzo delle Arti di Napoli (PAN) (Via dei Mille 60, tel. +39-081-795-8605) opened for business in spring 2005 and puts on striking thematic group shows, inviting local and international artists to display their work.

The Studio Trisorio (Riviera di Chiaia 215, tel. +39-081-414306), Alfonso Artiaco (Piazza dei Martiri 58, tel. +39-081-1936-0164), Galleria Fonti (Via Chiaia 229), Galleria Raucci/Santamaria (Corso Amedeo di Savoia 190, tel. +39-081-744-3645), Mimmo Scognamiglio (Via Mariano d’Ayala 6, tel. +39-081-400-871), T293 (Via dei Tribunali 293, tel. +39-081-295-882) and Manidesign Napoli (Via San Giovanni Maggiore Pignatelli 1/b), are all very active and mark Naples out as a modern art front-runner.

Another couple of spaces worth mention are the Hermann Nitsch Museum (Vico Lungo Pontecorvo 29/d), which opened in September 2008 in a former electric power station and offers breathtaking views of the Bay of Naples. (Nitsch was one of the major players on the international art scene in the second half of the 20th century and one of the principal advocates of the Viennese Actionism movement.)

The Fondazione Morra Greco (Largo d’Avellino 17), is a state-of-the-art museum facility with a significant programme of exhibitions by contemporary artists and an enviable permanent collection.

Traditional Museums

On the more traditional end of the scale, the three must-see museums in Naples are the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Piazza Museo 19, tel. +39-081-440-166), which houses an impressive—though sometimes frustratingly disorganised—collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts, mosaics and frescoes; the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte (Via Miano 2, tel. +39-081-749-9111), a former hunting lodge built by Bourbon monarchs that now houses works of art dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries by the likes of Masaccio, Michelangelo, Titian, El Greco, Raphael, Caravaggio, Carracci, Botticelli and Giordano; and the Certosa di San Martino (Largo San Martino 5, tel. +39-081-578-1769).

Certosa Monastery

Magnificently located atop a rocky promontory, the Certosa was founded in the 14th century as a Carthusian monastery and renovated in the 17th and 18th centuries by architects, painters and sculptors in the Neapolitan baroque style. The site’s church houses a Luca Giordano ceiling fresco of Judith holding aloft Holofernes’ head in the Cappella del Tesoro, a colorful marble work by Cosimo Fanzago in the Chiostro Grande (Great Cloister) and a depiction of the Nativity by Guido Reni in the choir.

Most of the monastery is now a museum of historical documents, porcelain, silver, paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, military costumes and armour, and an impressive collection of presepi (nativity scenes)—the Presepe Cuciniello stands out for the intricacy and liveliness of the details. What most visitors remember of their visit to the Certosa, however, is the panoramic, sweeping view of Naples and the bay that can be seen from the monastery’s lush gardens.

Destinations: Naples

Themes: Art and Museums

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums

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