What might the iconic bay of Naples have smelled like in the eighteenth century? Certainly the heady, metallic smell of fish would have drifted on the air. In this lively scene a peasant family are seen fishing in the foreground. A small child in tattered clothes holds up a fish, recalling the renowned German poet Goethe’s description of how Neapolitan children would opportunistically transport fish from the harbour into town:
‘the tiniest brats themselves are not without their many bits of business. A large fraction carry fish from Santa Lucia to sell in the town…’
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Neapolitan Journey, May 28 1787
The higher ranks of society can be glimpsed through the lower arch of the historic residence of Palazzo Donn'Anna, which sits prominently on the seashore of the Posillipo coastline. Beyond this building, looking from left to right, we see: the crowded Riviera di Chiaia, known at the time as Real Passeggio di Chiaia (or Royal Promenade of Chiaia), one of the favourite walking spots for Grand Tourists; the Certosa (Carthusian monastery) of San Martino and Castel Sant’Elmo, both dominating the hill above the city; the Castel dell’Ovo, extending into the sea in the centre and Vesuvius puffing away in the distance.
In the calm sea of the bay an array of boats have been used by the artist to balance colour, light and interest throughout the composition. They include the small boat which is being rowed towards shore in the foreground and is flying the Bourbon flag, and an English ship, which sits at anchor further out in the bay.
Pietro Fabris The Bay of Naples from Posillipo About 1770 © Compton Verney