It is Pasquetta (Easter Monday) in the Neapolitan countryside and crowds gather to celebrate at the sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Arco, near Sant’Anastasia, on the slopes of Vesuvius. The festival is an intriguing mixture of sacred and profane - an occasion for singing, dancing, and sharing hearty ‘sack lunches’ as well as for deep reflection and devotion. The celebration commemorates a miracle that occurred at the sanctuary on Easter Monday in 1450, when a ball used in the traditional game of ‘palla-maglio’ accidentally struck the fresco of the Madonna and the Child, which began to bleed. The miraculous cult of the Madonna intensified after the sanctuary survived the 1631 eruption of Vesuvius, and the annual celebration still takes place today. This incredible painting was commissioned by Sir William Hamilton and was paired with another work by Fabris showing a nocturnal banquet at Posillipo, for display in the anteroom to the gallery of Palazzo Sessa, one of Hamilton’s four residences in Naples.
Fabris captures many different elements of the festival, from the peasants enjoying a picnic in the shade of the magnificent tree, to the hawkers selling their wares and a circle of little girls dancing the tarantella in the foreground, accompanied by mandolins, tambourines and a percussion instrument known as a triccheballache. Some peasants drink from raffia-covered bottles of local wine while others are just arriving in an ox-drawn cart. The upper classes almost blend into the crowd, but can be identified by their clothing, poses, and the parade of carriages parked by the sanctuary depicted at the right.
That Fabris should have spent so much time and effort in painting each figure in different and detailed clothing is no surprise. In 1773, only a few years before painting this canvas, he edited a book of prints depicting the various costumes of Naples, the Raccolta di varii vestimenti de arti nel Regno di Napoli. Dedicated to his patron Sir William Hamilton, the book provided a complete repertory of local life and costumes and obviously informed paintings such as this.
Signed and dated, Fabris 1777.
Pietro Fabris The Festival of the Madonna dell’Arco 1777 © Compton VerneyOil on canvas