Tityus, José de Ribera. Oil on canvas, 227 x 301 cm, 1632, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In the second half of the sixteenth century the idea developed that a work of art could depict an unpleasant subject in an attractive way and that the skilled and effective representation of such scenes counterbalanced their disturbing effect. Caravaggio (1570-1610) was crucial for the “normalisation” of this aesthetic and Rubens became acquainted with it in Italy (1600-08). This fascination with horror reached its peak in Naples between 1630 and 1660 and it is possible to refer to the construction of an “aesthetic of horror” for which the poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) was central, championing horror not as a strategy for transmitting a message but as the message itself.

The “Furias” were ideal for this purpose and around 1620 they reappeared in Italy, largely due to Dutch and Flemish painters living in Rome such as David de Haen and Theodore Rombouts. It was, however, Ribera who made the Furies the epitome of horror in painting and Naples the city in which they were most widely promoted. While Ribera only painted Furies until 1635, they were central to the creation of his image as a painter who delighted in violence and horror, thus transferring the subjects of the canvases onto his own personality.


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