Picasso in Naples, between the pee in the Galleria Umberto and the fool at the San Carlo

by Francesco Li Volti

Pablo Picasso it needs no introductions. His art, his ingenuity is famous all over the world. Picasso changed the way of conceiving the art, inventing a genre of his own and managing to convince anyone that his ideas could change the way you see the world.

Picasso in Italy in search of inspiration

Picasso in 1917 he was hired to create the new clothes and sets for the Russian Ballets. To find the right inspiration he left for Italy, together with choreographer Léonide Massine, the playwright and poet Jean Cocteau and the famous theatrical impresario Sergej Djagilev. It will be in Rome that he will fall in love with Olga Khochlova, the Russian dancer whom he will marry in 1918 and who will give him the son Paolo. In short, Picasso in Italy did not remain idle and immediately set about putting his wits in motion. It was also thanks to him that in May of that year he would make his debut at the Paris Parade, the show created in ten hands with the choreography by Massine, i Cocteau's texts, sets and costumes by Picasso, i ballets by Djagilev and the music by Erik Satie, the genius of Gymnopédies. A revolutionary staging, for that era of grief and torment.
Those were the years of Great War. But they were also years of avant-garde, of cultural experimentation and provocation, of artistic ferment and new friendships. A strong bond was consolidated with Cocteau that led him to travel far and wide throughout the peninsula.

The trip to Naples and the painting by Vomero

"I believe that no city in the world can like me more than Naples. Classical Antiquity swarms, brand new, in this Arab Montmartre, in this enormous disorder of an event that never stops. Food, God, and fornication are the motives of this romantic people. Vesuvius makes all the clouds in the world. The sea is dark blue. Throw hyacinths on the sidewalks ". He spoke these words Cocteau in a letter returning from Naples to my dear mother. Cocteau and Picasso were in love with Naples, but perhaps the Spanish painter a little less. Famous will become the answer that Cocteau gave Picasso in an exchange of letters: "I'm fine in Rome, and then there's the Pope". "Yes it is true, in Rome there is the Pope, but in Naples there is God".

Picasso arrived in Naples in March 1917 and visited museums, churches and galleries. They were struck by the living nativity scene of the city, but also come on floors of the Church of San Giovanni a Carbonara and of Pontano Chapel. He used to compare Naples to food or sex. In a postcard with the landscape of the Gulf Picasso he painted a pierced heart and wrote his name and that of Olga. The scenes of popular life intoxicated him, he was amazed by the Neapolitan lifestyle. He stayed at the Parker's Hotel by Corso Vittorio Emanuele and on April 27, returning from a walk on the Vomero, he drew the route he followed behind a ticket from the hotel.

Pee in Galleria Umberto and the disaster at San Carlo

Picasso and his people stayed in Naples for more than a month and had time to visit too Pompeii. Here it is said that Picasso found the right instinct to evolve his artistic vein. Abandon experimentation to move to a more traditional, neoclassical painting, where the figures become solid and almost monumental. 

He also had time to witness some charity shows for the Croce Crossa to the San Carlo Theater. Right before the start of one of these shows, "Les Femmes de bon humeur", Picasso found himself wandering slightly tipsy in the company of Stravinsky, when at a certain point he felt a great need to urinate. The two did not think twice and took advantage of the few people around Pee in a corner of the Umberto I Gallery. A gendarme noticed the scene and instantly called them back, threatening to take them to the police station. Then Stravinsky convinced the guard to lead them to the San Carlo where the two artists were immediately recognized. Needless to say, the gendarme apologized for his behavior by walking away with his tail between his legs.

Instead, from 16 to 22 April the show was staged at the San Carlo Parade, written and directed by Cocteau, Picasso, Djagilev, Massine and Satie. For the uninitiated, Parade was an innovative show, very modern and totally unconventional. Unfortunately at the first performance the public reacted with much perplexity and few, very few applause. At the second, when the curtain fell, the Neapolitans, after a minute of deafening silence, clapped their hands, but left the theater angry and dark-faced. At the third show the San Carlo was semi-deserted. Djagilev decided to cancel the other representations. After this failure, Picasso tried to console himself by taking refuge in a brothel, before leaving for Positano. "The girls of Naples have four hands"- will write in his notebooks in memory of that experience.


Secret stories of the history of Naples, Marco Perillo, Newton Compton Editori, Rome, 2018

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