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Pietro Fabris - The Bay of Naples from Posillipo

Pietro Fabris

The Bay of Naples from Posillipo

Oil on canvas: 36(h) x 60(w) in / 91.4(h) x 152.4(w) cm

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 c.1740 - Naples - 1792

Ref: BJ 62


The Bay of Naples from Posillipo


Oil on canvas: 36 x 60 in / 91.4 x 152.4 cm

Frame Size: 44 x 68½ in / 111.8 x 174



Probably acquired by Sir Henry Mainwaring, 4th Bt. (1726-1797) of Peover Hall, Over Peover, Cheshire, who was in Naples on the Grand Tour in 1760;

by descent in a British private collection


This view is taken from the Scoglio di Frisio in Posillipo, on the northern side of the Bay of Naples, commanding a magnificent view of the city. The Court retired to Posillipo in the summer to escape the searing heat and the shore was lined with gracious villas, among them the ‘casino’ belonging to Fabris’s patron Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803), British envoy to Naples. The Scoglio di Frisio had a famous inn built out over the grotto which is visible at the left.


Fabris is celebrated for his figure groups which are larger and more fully realized than those in the works of many contemporary Neapolitan view painters. He had a folkloric feel for the lives of the peasants, fishermen and lazzaroni (idlers) who comprised the vivid populace of the city. Naples’s heady mix of ‘miseria e nobiltà’ fascinated Grand Tourists and even held royalty in thrall: Ferdinand IV, King of Naples from 1759 to 1816, could speak the dialect of the lazzaroni and would go fishing and hawk his catch on the quayside, to his subjects’ delight.


In the foreground left of the painting, housewives buy fish; in the centre, a hunter and his family picnic. The brightly-lit group of revellers at the right reflects the grace of Neapolitan women of all classes and their love of showy clothes. One hands a coin to a mendicant friar; a man tackles a plate of spaghetti and another plays a lute. In the middle ground, a couple dances the tarantella, while on the terrace above them fine folk, silhouetted against the primrose sky, listen to a concert. Dolce far niente was raised to a high art in Naples. As Goethe wrote: ‘Northerners think any man an idler if he does not spend his days anxiously working himself to death….I find in this people the liveliest and most inventive industry: not to get rich, but to live carelessly’[1]. Foreigners like Sir William Hamilton and many Grand Tourists were beguiled by the sensual, pagan atmosphere of the South, where not only the physical relics, but the spirit of the Classical world survived. The little boy bathing in Fabris’s picture is an echo of a Roman amorino. The painter Tischbein describes the bathers below Hamilton’s house in Posillipo: ‘There were often little gatherings of boys under the windows who begged us to throw coins into the sea so they could show off their skills in swimming and diving. We did, and they did. Or they would wrestle on the top of a high wall, to push one another off into the sea. Often whole clusters of them hung together, falling. You saw wonderful postures and movements and the loveliest bodies[2].


Behind the frieze of figures is the bay, dotted with lateen-rigged fishing boats and pleasure craft. On the Posillipo shoreline, in full sunlight, is the ruined Palazzo Donn’Anna, built in the seventeenth century for Donna Ann Carafa, wife of the Duke of Medina, Viceroy of Naples. Beyond is the Riviera di Chiaia, a favourite promenade for the city’s populace, and the sweep of the city as far as Castel dell’Ovo, the fifteenth century fortress in the bay. The slopes above are crowned by Castel Sant’Elmo and the dazzling white Certosa di San Martino. Behind Naples broods Vesuvius, belching smoke into the pristine day. Part of the frisson of visiting Naples was the very real danger of a serious eruption of the volcano, as happened in 1767 and 1794.


The painting was probably acquired by Sir Henry Mainwaring, 4th Bt. (1726-1797) of Peover Hall, Cheshire, in whose family it descended. Sir Henry went on the Grand Tour with his friend and neighbour Lord George Grey, later 5th Earl of Stamford (1737-1819), arriving in Rome from Naples in February 1760. Both men were connoisseurs, patronising Anton Raphael Mengs, who painted a portrait of Grey, and Thomas Patch, whose Punch party and Antiquaries at Pola include the two men (all Dunham Massey, National Trust). Grey commissioned from Nathaniel Dance a double portrait of himself and Sir Henry in Rome in 1760, discussing an antique cameo ring (with Richard Green in 2005; Dunham Massey), while both men commissioned Dance to paint subjects from Virgil[3]. George Dance designed for Mainwaring two chimneypieces, executed in Florence, which were used in the neoclassical wing that he added to Peover Hall on his return. Fabris’s view of Naples is very much in keeping with these purchases, a superb souvenir of the seductive, sensuous South.


A second version of this view, signed and dated 1778, of similar dimensions but with minor differences and of lesser quality, was formerly in the collection of Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery, at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire. It formed part of a series which included a View of Capri from the sea in a storm and a View of Santa Lucia (private collection)[4].





 Nathaniel Dance, Portrait of Lord George Grey, later 5th Earl of Stamford, and Sir Henry Mainwaring, 1760. Dunham Massey, National Trust.

Fl. Naples 1756 – 1784



Pietro Fabris is said to have been English and sometimes added the phrase ‘English painter’ to his signature. He specialised in Neapolitan genre scenes and landscapes with pure, bright colours that capture the intense Mediterranean light. Fabris’s earliest dated paintings are the four Scenes of popular life, 1756-7, in a Neapolitan private collection. He depicted Court events, such as The departure of Charles III of Bourbon for Spain, 1759 (c.1759; Palacio Real, Aranjuez) and panoramas of the Bay of Naples with folkloric scenes in the foreground, for example peasants feasting and dancing the tarantella. The contrast between the grandeur of the city’s architecture and the impoverished but vibrant life of its lazzaroni accorded with the myth of ‘miseria e nobiltà’ that fascinated visitors to Naples.


Fabris enjoyed royal commissions, including Ferdinand IV after a boar hunt, 1773 (Palazzo Reale, Caserta), but was also popular with Grand Tourists and expatriots domiciled in the city. Among his most important patrons were the British envoy Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803) and his friend Kenneth Mackenzie, Lord Fortrose and later 1st Earl of Seaforth (1744-1781). The concert party, 1770 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) shows the interior of Fortrose’s apartment in Naples with Sir William Hamilton playing the violin and the fourteen-year-old Mozart and his father Leopold seated at the keyboard.


In 1768 Fabris exhibited two oil paintings of Posillipo at the Free Society and accompanied Sir William Hamilton to Sicily. In 1769 Hamilton sent two of his works to George III. Fabris exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1772. He was one of the first artists in Naples to use gouache, providing fifty-eight gouaches which were engraved and hand-coloured to illustrate Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei (1776; supplement 1779). They range from landscape views to scientific illustrations of volcanic materials. Fabris’s date of death is unknown, but he is last mentioned by a Grand Tourist in 1784.


The work of Pietro Fabris is represented in the Palazzo Real, Aranjuez; the Palazzo Reale, Caserta; the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh; the British Royal Collection; Compton Verney, Warwick and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.



[1] Quoted in David Constantine, Fields of Fire: a Life of Sir William Hamilton, London 2002, p.167.

[2] Quoted Constantine op. cit., p.168.

[3] Dance painted Aeneus and Venus for Mainwaring, completed in June 1762.

[4] See Nicola Spinosa and Leonardo Di Mauro, Vedute napoletane del Settecento, 1989, p.201, cat. 165; illus. p.292, pl.143.


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