The materiality of enchantment: rethinking Neapolitan marble intarsia

Joris van Gastel


From Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen to Ernst Gombrich’s The Sense of Order and beyond, discussions of ornament have focused largely on developments and the perception of abstract patterns, devoid of texture, materiality or presence. With its overt materiality, display of technical virtuosity and sculptural elements, Neapolitan baroque marble intarsia not only challenge this scholarly tradition, but also have been a stumbling block for scholars of baroque art and architecture. Looking into contemporary sources, in particular related to the Church of San Martino, and confronting these with recent more theoretical debates, this essay aims to develop an alternative account. It will explore two theoretical approaches: firstly, Alfred Gell’s work on the ‘enchantment of technology’, in which the author argues that responses to art are conditioned not by art’s mimetic faculties, but rather by an awareness of the technological sophistication involved in the radical transformation of materials. And secondly, the definition of image (Bild) developed by Horst Bredekamp in his Theorie des Bildakts, which stresses the inherent materiality of images, as well as the inherent image-forming activity of inorganic matter. Together, these approaches help to explore aspects of marble intarsia that resonate clearly with contemporary descriptions: that of their material richness and the technical feat involved in producing them. Furthermore, they will help to explore the specificity of these kinds of decorations, that is, the manners in which they are rooted in the specific place that is Naples.

Keywords: Naples, baroque, ornament, Cosimo Fanzago, marble intarsia, materiality

Full text: OAJ_issue6_Gastel (pdf, 1.72 MB)


Biographical note

Joris van Gastel studied Psychology and Art History at the VU University Amsterdam and the Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice. Between 2006 and 2011 he was part of the interdisciplinary research project ‘Art, Agency and Living Presence in Early Modern Italy’ based at Leiden University, in the context of which he wrote his PhD thesis Il marmo spirante: Sculpture and Experience in Seventeenth-Century Rome. In addition to shorter fellowships in Florence, Rome, Ferrara and Berlin, he was research fellow at the Kolleg-Forschergruppe ‘Bildakt und Verkörperung’ (Humboldt University, Berlin; 2011–12), at the University of Warwick (2013) and was part of the research group ‘Images of Nature’, based at Hamburg University (2014–16). Currently, he is scientific assistant at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, where he works on a project on artistic materials and techniques in baroque Naples.