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The Conquest of Naples

For this assignment, the painting The Conquest of Naples by Master of Charles of Durazzo was chosen. Made in Florence, in the late 14th century, the artwork depicts Charles III and his forces taking Naples in 1381. In this battle, Charles III crushed the armies of Otto of Brunswick. This event was memorialized for future generations by an unknown court artist, who depicted three episodes of the battle in fine detail. Despite the technique and composition that are rather usual for the era, the painting is, particularly, interesting for the intriguing and tragic story behind its plot.

The 14th century was a disturbing time for the Apennine Peninsula and its inhabitants, as well as for the whole continent (“Italian Peninsula, 1000–1400 A.D.”). It was a time of wars, unrest, riots, and changes in economic life that will lead to the emergence of a new Europe in the near future. The papacy is in a severe crisis due to the collision with the young national states that culminated in the events around Avignon; it was the only period in European history when we had two Popes at the same time. France and England are getting drawn into an endless war that is going to change the shape of both countries. The eastern European states are beginning to play an increasingly important role in European affairs. The fall of Byzantium under the onslaught of the Turks brought the end to an entire era in European history (Jordan).

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For future Italia, it was a time of shifts of almost tectonic scales. In a period between 1268-1492, there were taking place processes like the struggle of the Angevin and Aragonese houses in the South, the emergence of the later Church region and the development of large kingdoms in Tuscany and upper Italy (Jordan).

Charles III was the son of Louis I of Naples (also known as Louis of Taranto) and Margaret Sanseverino and great-grandson of Charles II, the king of Naples. He was also the second cousin of Queen Giovanna I and after his father’s death (he died in prison, where he was sent by order of Giovanna) became the only representative of the male line of Anjou-Sicilian house. As it happens in the medieval world, the story of Charles getting his crown is a mixture of tragic love, blood, poison, and some intervention of the church.

Giovanna was in love with young Charles III throughout her life. However, to her regret, her romantic interest in Charles has not found mutuality. In 1369, Charles married Margaret of Durazzo, the daughter of the Giovanna’s youngest sister Maria. No one knows what this woman felt when the love of her life chose her own niece. However, Giovanna had her temper. Long before that, in 1345, she was probably an accomplice or even the mastermind behind the assassination of her husband, Prince Andrew of Calabria, brother of Louis I, the king of Hungary. After that, the Hungarian king arranged two campaigns against Naples, until he, finally, forced Giovanna to capitulate. During negotiations of capitulation, Charles’ future was decided. In 1365, the Pope requested King Louis I to take Charles under his wing. So at the age of 11, Charles left Naples and moved to the Hungarian court. Charles soon won the sympathy of the Hungarian king and his subjects and took his place in control of Croatia and Dalmatia that were part of the Hungarian Kingdom at that time. Charles held the title of Duke of Croatia and Dalmatia from 1371 to 1376, gaining many supporters among the Croatian feudal lords. When a war between Hungary and Venice was declared in 1379, Carl acted as an ambassador (Goldstone).

Meanwhile, the conflict between Giovanna and Pope Urban VI led to the fact that in 1381, the Pope declared her deposed and transferred the crown of Naples to – how ironic – Charles. To gain his rightful crown, he waged war against the Kingdom of Naples. Together with Croatian army under his command, he defeated the husband of Giovanna Otto of Brunswick at San Germano, seized the city and besieged Giovanna in the Castel del Ovo. After Otto’s unsuccessful attempts to lift the siege, Charles imprisoned Giovanna in the jail in San Fell. Soon after the news that the heir of the Gulf of Naples, Louis I of Anjou sent a mission to conquer Naples came, Charles gave the order to strangle Queen Giovanna in prison. Tragically, the story behind the painting The Conquest of Naples is a story of a man who killed a woman who loved him in order to become a king (Goldstone). The final chord of the story is the fact that Charles named his second daughter Giovanna II. After her death in 1435, the royal house of Naples founded by Charles I of Anjou faded (Goldstone).

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As previously mentioned, The Conquest of Naples was painted soon after the battle of Charles III against Otto of Brunswick by unknown court artist who is now remembered as “Master of Charles of Durazzo.” Basically, a court artist was a creatively gifted person who held a position close to the royal (king’s or emperor’s) court with the authority to create officially approved portraits of the king (emperor) and his family. The highest aristocrats usually wanted to copy the lush life and ceremony of the royal courts. This tendency gave rise to the position of court artists in the courts of some noblemen as well (Levey).

The emergence of the position of court artist came in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. In the era of Greek antiquity, only heroes and gods stood out from the crowd. However, that changed in the Middle Ages: the Church and secular princes became very prominent at the time. Sanctification (deification) of the authorities was transferred to those who actually were the authorities: bishops, popes, kings, owners of large lands; thus, those people became central characters of many artworks.

So, the artist becomes a servant at the court of the king or a wealthy aristocrat. Along with his art, he (it was a usually male position, of course) performs some other functions. Servant-artist was responsible for decorative work in palaces, preparing costumes and decorations for such occasion as weddings, masquerades, births of heirs, and funerals. They are even known for designing cakes for feasts. The tradition of court artists was productive for both royals and masters: the former were getting their glory conveyed into art, the latter had status, shelter, wages, food, and supply of materials for creativity (Levey).

Now, after delving into the context of the era, the story behind the painting and approximate working conditions of Master of Charles of Durazzo, we are in a better position to proceed with a closer analysis of The Conquest of Naples.

According to MoMA website and the description card under the painting in gallery 604, the painting has overall dimensions of 19 3/8 x 50 3/4 inches (49.2 x 128.9 cm). It consists of three elements; each painted surface is 15 3/4 x 15 inches (40 x 38.1 cm). The medium is tempera on wood with embossed and gilt ornament, which is quite usual for the period. Though the event depicted happened in 1381, in Naples, the artwork itself was made circa 1400 in Florence (“The Conquest of Naples by Charles of Durazzo”).

The far right element of the painting depicts the clash of the armies of Charles of Durazzo and Hungarian king with the troops of Otto of Brunswick. One can see that flags of Charles and his allies are held strictly and strongly, while Otto’s Bannerman is preparing to retreat: the standard is tilted, he looks over his shoulder on the attackers, and his horse is heading away from the battle. These details eloquently show that Otto’s positions are not very strong.

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In the center of the painting, the scene of Otto’s army surrendering to Charles is represented. Charles’ warriors are on horsebacks and wearing head coverings, while Otto’s ones are unmounted, have their heads uncovered, and are easily recognizable by sad faces and distinctive haircuts. The central character of this scene is Charles himself. He is wearing golden clothes and a crown and riding a white horse as a noble victor. He smiles enjoying the successful battle. Some prisoners hold hands folded in supplication for mercy. Charles looks directly at them; his intention is unclear but he looks rather mercifully with his soft smile and golden hair.

The far left part shows the victors entering conquered Naples. The image of Charles is duplicated here; he is surrounded by his soldiers. They are passing the gates of the city walls. We also see ships and sailors in Naples’ port, houses of the citizens, and the castle on a hill that is a residence of the rulers. Again, the viewers can see the noticeable pennants and coats of arms of the Durazzo and the kings of Hungary.

The white and red horizontal stripes are symbols of Hungarian king and golden heraldic lilies on the dark-blue fried are symbols of Charles and the house of Anjou. The presence of golden crosses on the white field is quite interesting as well. This golden cross refers to the Principality of Achaea which Charles will begin to rule in two years after the battle for Naples (Berry and Glover). This is part of the evidence that the painting was made years after the event, though more precise dating is still impossible.

The manner of the depiction of architecture is another interesting feature of The Conquest of Naples by Master of Charles of Durazzo. All the buildings are three-dimensional though the artist was not aware of or did not bother with the correct implementation of the perspective and proportions. The buildings are drawn schematically, although some distinctive elements of décor are prominent. What is more, we see that the most of the shadows lie on visually left walls as if conquerors were entering the city facing the sun. The artist also captures the hilly terrain around Naples and some species of the local flora including coniferous trees in the mountains, tangerine tree, and several unidentified species of flowering shrubs (one of them, probably, is a relative of hydrangea), though it is highly hypothetic whether these were simple copying of nature or had some symbolic meaning.

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Overall, the painting looks medley at first glance. However, it occurs to be very interesting after some research on its intriguing background history and context. Multiple details like heraldic elements, clothes, and a weird combination of mounting, sea, and golden sky gain meaning when one is already familiar with the history of how Charles III of Durazzo became a king of Naples. The Conquest of Naples by Master of Charles of Durazzo is a great example of late 14th century battle and triumph scene painted by a court artist for a powerful aristocrat.