Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.
It is undeniable that plagues have left their mark on popular culture. From Biblical to medieval times, bubonic plague has, in the words of Mary Shelley, ‘reared its serpent head’ not only in religious writings but also in novels, such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old Saint Paul’s (1840) and Jack London’s Scarlet Plague (1912), as well as in fine art—previous posts have examined the works of Michael Sweertz and Antoine-Jean Gros. It is to another piece of fine art that we now turn as we take a look at Domenico Gargiulo’s Largo Mercatello a Napoli durante la peste del 1656.
Domenico Gargiulo (1609–75), also known Micco Spadaro, was born in Naples and studied art under the tutelage of the Neapolitan painter Aniello Falcone. Gargiulo specialised in the production of landscapes and history paintings but also turned his attention to the portrayal of catastrophic events in his own era. One of his most famous paintings, for example, was The Eruption of Vesuvius in 1631. Another one of his ‘catastrophe’ paintings was the one in question here: a depiction of the plague in Naples. There were periodic outbursts of bubonic plague in Italy during the seventeenth century, with the worst striking the region between 1629 and 1633. As is usual with seventeenth-century plague paintings, the scene is one of confusion as dead bodies lay in the street. In this picture, however, God looks on from above—does he feel sympathy for the plague victims, has he caused it, or is he simply indifferent?
Gargiulo has given us no easy answers here, and it is left up to the viewer to decide. The painting went on to inspire Alessandro Mazoni’s novel set during the time of the Plague of Naples titled The Betrothed, which was published in 1834. One fan of Manzoni’s novel was Edgar Allan Poe,[i] who no doubt drew upon Manzoni’s depiction of the plague to write The Mask of the Red Death.