BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Who was your first friend?
The urbane and charming Vincent Buonanno proudly told cultural Chicagoans at a program recently that he was the first American Friend of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. His spirited remarks led many to befriend this palace, pleasure garden, and the site of perhaps the finest porcelain factory in the world.
“There are the American Friends of Versailles, Venice, and the Louvre, and when Sylvain Bellenger, formerly of the Art Institute and now Director of Capodimonte, asked me to start the American Friends, I was ready to refuse. Then I visited with my wife, Linda, and daughter Esther and saw a collection that was second to none. Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio . . . the list of great painters reads like the best book on Italian art you have ever read. The exceptional core group of Italian Renaissance painting was brought to Capodimonte in 1735 by Charles VII, who inherited the renowned Farnese collection.”
Working with Chicago pals Laurie and Jim Bay and Julius Lewis, the American Friends was incorporated as a non-profit recently, thus allowing tax-deductible donations from Americans. Laurie, a lover of the old masters, couldn’t resist the opportunity to volunteer.
“Jim and I first worked with Sylvain when he brought the magnificent Neapolitan Crèche to the Art Institute. If you are passionate about the old masters, it is hard not to love Naples and this Palace Museum.
“I am sure Sylvain interjects the same enthusiasm and energy there that he brought to the Art Institute and the Cleveland Museum. I always support the Art Institute and the art of my city first, but Jim and I both feel that art belongs to the world, and the world is getting smaller.
“We are very grateful to Julius Lewis for competing the legal work involved.”
Begun as his hunting lodge in the 18th century, Charles VII, the Bourbon king of Naples and Sicily, soon recognized its palace potential. Capodimonte continued as the royal residence of successive rulers of Naples. Bourbon dynasties, Joseph Bonaparte, and the House of Savoy each left their mark. A visit through the palace will lead you to regal ballrooms, reception rooms with vast chandeliers and elegantly frescoed walls, exquisite boudoirs, and even a room entirely decorated in porcelain.
In Chicago for the seasonal installation of the magnificent and monumental Neapolitan Crèche at the Art Institute, Bellenger joined Buonanno in recruiting new American Friends. Before telling us about Capodimonte, he talked about Chicago’s beloved crèche, now attracting so many visitors.
“The Neapolitan Crèche is a real eye-opener, just looking at it you enter into the 18th Century baroque vision of the world. This is a work that brings a spontaneous joy and curiosity. I wanted to bring to Chicago another story away from simplified stereotypes of the season. It grows on you, with the energy that contemporary art can bring. It is very popular, intellectually more complex, and has deep cultural roots.”
Celebrating his one-year anniversary in Naples, Bellenger calls this “The Year of Capodimonte,” stating his goal to elevate visitor numbers to one million a year. Re-establishing the view from the park to Naples below, reorganizing the collection, providing trolley buses to take visitors up the steep hill, and researching ways to get around Italian bureaucracy are on his ambitious list.
In honor of his first year and all the great work he has done so far, we were eager to pose a few questions about Capodimonte to Bellenger and learn more about his work there.
What do you enjoy most about being at the Museum?
That it is so splendid and that it is in Naples—this part of the world is now being discovered. Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and the ex-kingdom of Naples is the Toscana discovered by the Americans in the early 20th century. It is a true Italy—‘la vera Italia’—with a soul that resists globalization.
You have guests from around the world. What are they most drawn to, do you think?
Tonight I am having dinner with the Chinese minister of culture. Yesterday, it was the Crown prince of Sweden, last week the French Ambassador, the Princess of Bourbon, and some American adventurers, many of them being my American friends. Now the Russians are slated to come to town. We are going to create a Chinese website and, of course, an American one. The French and Spanish, both historic rulers of Naples, are the most numerous visitors after the Italians.
Capodimonte is still a very secret place, ignored by the masses and known and admired only by the elite. What bowls everyone over is the size and level of the collection. Capodimonte is the only museum in Italy that illustrates the whole story of Italian art, from the 13th century to contemporary art, and at the highest level.
What surprised you most about the museum?
I knew the museum pretty well, but my biggest surprise was the Bosco—the park that is so huge and so extraordinary. Thanks to the mild climate and centuries of careful planting by distinguished botanists, the park contains many rare and exotic seeds including camellias from Asia, cypresses from the Americas, and eucalyptus from Australia. It is really a second museum with trees that are botanic masterpieces. In 2014, it was recognized as Italy’s most beautiful park for its historical, architectural, and botanical heritage. In the park, I am also responsible for 17 buildings dating from the 17th century.
Many people, when hearing about Capodimonte, probably think first of the exquisite porcelain bearing the same name. The figurines and the signature floral detail enhance any museum or personal collection.
The manufacture of Capodimonte was created by Charles of Bourbon and his wife, Maria Amalia of Saxony. She had grown up in Dresden, where the early 18th century Meissen was created. She was very influential in the cultural life of the kingdom of Naples, a territory that included the whole Mezzogiorno—the Italian boot and Sicily. Our porcelain collection is gigantic, including the enormous white biscuit porcelain ‘Fall of the Giants.’ Visitors can walk to the factory, which is still an active school whose production needs to be upgraded to match the golden age of Capodimonte porcelain.
The growing number of the American Friends of Capodimonte agree with Bellenger that it is one of the top ten most important museums in the world.
To learn more, visit www.americanfriendsofcapodimonte.info. The Museum is open every day except Wednesday, from 8:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.