Allegory of Naples

The painting used as the basis of the decoration

of the inside of the lid of the new Neapolitan harpsichord number 1


          During a visit to Naples in the year 2000 I attended a conference that was held in conjunction with a concert advertised using a poster with an image of a seventeenth-century Neapolitan painting.  Because of the strong ties with Naples (the painting is indeed an allegory of Naples and, because the painting has a wide format which would be easily adapted to the inside of the lid of these instruments, it was decided to commission Stefano Pessione to copy this painting into the lid of at least one of the new harpsichords. 


Bacchus and Ceres, the mermaids Partenope, Leucosia and Ligeia, with the God Sebete

Painting by Paolo de Matteis, Naples, c.1690, Private Collection, Naples

 Allegory of Naples by Paolo de Mateis, Naples


The painting and its relation to the history and traditions of Naples

The double-tailed siren or mermaid painted on the left-hand side is Parthenope (Greek for ‘maiden-face’) who is one of Naples’ most important icons.  According to Greek myth Parthenope fell in love with Ulysses but he blatantly ignored her attentions.  She swam ashore in the Bay of Naples (seen here in the background) and died there of a broken heart.  Because of this Naples, in an attempt to live down this sad legend, has always been known as a place of safe and friendly harbour to anyone coming ashore there, and especially to anyone who may have fallen victim to misfortune and might be in need of nurture and sustenance.  The figure of Parthenope has thus become a symbol of Naples and is one of the most important images and icons for Naples and its harbour.  The large male figure with the crown of laurel leaves near the left is Sebete, God of the river, now submerged, that flows through Naples into the Bay of Naples.  The central figures being pulled along by the two dolphins are Bacchus and Ceres (the Greek Dionysus and Demeter) the God and Goddess of the harvest.  These figures therefore represent the bounty and great fortune brought to Naples by the trade and commerce which took place in its harbour, warehouses, shops and banks.  The sculpture, book, music, painter’s palette, mask and globe in the foreground represent culture, learning, the sciences and the arts for which Naples is both famous and important.

Parthenope is, for example, depicted as part of the stand of the Anonymous Neapolitan harpsichord in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,  Inv. No. 45.41.  Click here to see an image of this instrument.

In ancient times the place where Parthenope is supposed to have died became an early Greek settlement which was called Parthenope after this potent icon.  Later it was called Palaeopolis (The Old City) after subsequent settlers established Neapolis (The New City) nearby.  It is from the Greek name Neapolis that the modern city of Naples (Napoli in Italian) derives its name. 


 Click here to see details of the finished painting


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