Cabal of Naples: The True Story of Naples’ Gang of Baroque Artists

In Italy, a group of Baroque artists resorted to dubious means to secure their fame and fortune. What was the cabal of Naples, and who was involved?

Feb 19, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

cabal naples gang baroque artists


The art world today is a cruel and ruthless place but it was much worse. In the streets of seventeenth-century Naples, a group of local Baroque artists fought for commissions in a truly unconventional way. Instead of perfecting their skills, they chose to inflict violence, poisoning and stabbing those who stood in their way of securing commissions. This is the story of the Cabal of Naples and the three artists who terrorized their city for decades.


Baroque Artists in Naples 

Tituys by Jusepe de Ribera, 1632. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Cabal of Naples, the notorious gang of artists turned criminals, operated in the city of Naples in the first half of the seventeenth century. At the time of the Cabal’s activity, the territory of today’s Italy was divided into independent cities and small states controlled by foreign powers and influential dynasties. Since the beginning of the sixteenth century, Naples belonged to the Spanish crown.


Naples was an overpopulated city infested with crime and poverty, notorious for its unsafety. Some accounts stated that almost half a million people lived there at the time, making it the second-largest city in Europe after Paris. Under Spanish jurisdiction, it became a safe space for criminals and debtors to hide from prosecution by the authorities of other Italian states.


At the same time, the city was an important commercial hub and cultural center run by omnipotent viceroys appointed by the Spanish crown. The Neapolitan officials spent enormous sums on art commissions, filling the city with dozens of the highest-quality landmarks. Still, the number of hungry artists greatly exceeded the demand of art patrons, which led to fierce competition and rivalry. In this hostile environment, a particular group of artists decided to handle the matter in a radical way, physically eliminating all their rivals. The group that received the name of the Cabal of Naples consisted of three artists: a Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera, a Greek Belisario Corenzio, and a Napoletan-born Battistello Caracciolo.

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The Seven Works of Mercy by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c.1607. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The beginning of the seventeenth century saw the rise of a new art movement called Baroque. The dramatic and intense style consisting of pure undiluted emotion spread through Europe rapidly in various forms, from architecture to music. Of all Italian Baroque masters, Caravaggio was undoubtedly the greatest. During his short time in Naples in 1606, he gave rise to a whole generation of Neapolitan artists who relied on Caravaggio’s innovative style and ideas. The members of the Cabal of Naples were among them, implementing Caravaggio’s realism, contrasting color, and treatment of light and shadow in their works.


As stated by artists’ contemporaries, no major art commission could happen without the approval of the Cabal. Non-Napoletan artists were threatened and assaulted not only by the triumvirate of artists but also by their local associates. A dedicated Caravaggistsi, they specifically targeted those artists who found their leader in Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio’s closest rival in the Italian Baroque scene. While most of the Cabal’s activities have little to no documentation and mostly rely on rumors, the notorious Baroque painters were certainly connected to at least two murders.


Jusepe de Ribera, the Leader of the Baroque Gang (1591-1652)

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera, 1644. Source: National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona


The indisputable leader of the Cabal, Jusepe de Ribera, also known as Lo Spagnoletto (The Little Spaniard), was born in Valencia, Spain. He settled in Italy in his teenage years. Originally he moved to Rome but he had to flee the city due to his growing debts and impatient creditors. Naples, controlled by the Spanish crown, was the perfect opportunity for Ribera to find protection as a Spanish citizen.


The origins of his artistic training remain unknown, yet we definitely know that his artistic style formed under the great influence of Caravaggio. Of all members of the Cabal of Naples, Jose de Ribera certainly achieved the most critical acclaim. However, his style was not universally appraised, due to its excessive and often repulsive scenes of violence.


The art of Baroque aimed at establishing communication with its audiences and triggering their emotional responses. For that reason, Baroque paintings often featured intense emotion, graphic violence, and scenes of suffering. The viewer had to empathize with the character, wincing at their pain like it was their own. Still, Ribera’s particular brand of Baroque violence was explicitly sadistic, with the artist missing no gruesome detail to spare the audience. Ribera was known to visit prisons to make sketches during the interrogation and torture of suspects. He painstakingly recorded every muscle contraction and every grimace of a face distorted by pain. Ribera left behind hundreds of drawings, most of which remained in Ribera’s personal collection and never evolved into paintings.


Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635)

Two Youths with Grapes by Battistello Caracciolo, 1605-10. Source: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


A native Neapolitan, Caracciolo was only five years younger than Caravaggio and one of his first devoted followers who managed to study directly from the master. Caracciolo implemented Caravaggio’s manner of working without preparatory drawings. Caracciolo lacked the inventiveness and originality of his master but made up for it with his versatility, quality education, and genuine interest in his contemporaries’ work. Like Ribera, he mastered Caravaggio’s tenebrism and expressive theatricality. Of particular interest for Caracciolo was the arrangement of figures on the dark background of the canvas. He frequently traveled to study the works of other Italian artists, later experimenting with lines and shapes inspired by them.


Belisario Corenzio (1558-1646)

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Belisario Corenzio, 1611. Source: Beni Ecclesiastici


Despite being born and raised in Greece, Belisario Corenzio brought little to nothing Greek into his art. He was a proponent of the Venetian school of painting and a student of Tintoretto, who mainly worked with fresco painting. Corenzio was the oldest in the triumvirate and first met Battistello Caracciolo when the latter was apprenticing in his studio. Unlike his criminal associates, Corenzio approached his occupation with more pragmatism and less sentimentality. For him, painting was not a calling but a successful business. Although his contemporaries praised him as a talented and fast-paced painter, they also noted that the quality of his work depended mostly on the amount of money he was offered.


Cabal of Naples: Artists & Crimes

The Immaculate Conception by Guido Reni, 1627. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The notion of artists committing crimes was hardly a novelty during Cabal’s time. After all, their greatest idol Caravaggio moved to Naples in 1606 after murdering a young man from an influential Roman family. That was not the first time Caravaggio had committed a serious crime, but his patrons were usually able to save the artist from the consequences of his actions. This time, however, he was sentenced to death by beheading, so he had to flee.


Ribera, Caracciolo, and Corenzio, devoted followers of Caravaggio, went further and incorporated crime into their artistic practice. The first documented event attributed to the Cabal of Naples refers to 1621, although the rumors of Ribera and company threatening non-Neapolitan artists and destroying their works started circulating in the late 1610s. In 1621, a famed Bolognese painter Guido Reni, a student of the legendary Annibale Carracci, arrived in Naples to work on the decoration of the Naples Cathedral. Corenzio, Caracciolo, and Ribera were furious for being excluded from such an important commission.


Jesus Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Battistello Caracciolo, c.1622. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Guido Reni quickly noted the unfriendliness of Naples and the hostility of the locals, yet started his work despite the uneasy feelings. Although the evidence is scarce, we know that in the following months, Guido Reni frequently mentioned his fear of being poisoned and his general anticipation of danger. Everything changed after his assistant was suddenly injured in an unspecified accident and died. Two of Reni’s students mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the day while walking through the city. Afraid for his own life, Reni abruptly left, refusing the commission. Belisario Corenzio was immediately arrested under suspicion of the attack, but no hard proof was found to link him to the case. The Cabal felt victorious as Battistello Caracciolo received an offer to finish Reni’s work. However, the triumph did not last long, the unimpressed commissioner soon fired Caracciolo and destroyed his work.


The Death of Domenichino: The Tormented Baroque Artist

The Assumption of Saint Mary Magdalene by Domenichino, c.1620. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The most notorious episode of the Cabal’s activity concerned the mysterious death of a Bolognese artist Domenichino. Although there was no definitive proof of the group’s involvement, the triumvirate certainly had a motive for tormenting the artist. After Caracciolo failed to finish the Naples Cathedral commission, the authorities invited Domenichino to paint the new frescoes.


Upon his arrival in Naples, Domenichini received a letter with death threats that urged him to refuse the commission and leave Naples immediately. Domenichini was not naive to dismiss such threats, so he reached out to the Napoletan viceroy for protection. Despite the security measures, Domenichini was still afraid for his life and refused to leave his apartment for reasons other than painting his commissioned work. He spent a year in recluse, working on his commission, sometimes having to repaint the frescoes because someone ruined them overnight or poured sand into Domenichino’s paint.


The dome of the Naples Cathedral, 1631-1643. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Upon finishing the first part of the commission in 1634, panicked Domenichino fled to Rome. The Naples viceroy was outraged and even held the artist’s family hostage to ensure his return to the city. Domenichino obeyed, understanding well that he could no longer count on the viceroy’s protection. He continued to work for almost seven years in terror and anxiety until a mysterious illness killed him in 1641. Domenichino’s family members believed that he was poisoned, but just like with the previous deaths, the evidence was insufficient. Eliminating all their rivals, the members of the Cabal were finally allowed to proceed with decorating the Naples Cathedral.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.