Naples and Pompeii are celebrating this year the centenary of Picasso’s visit to Italy, which the artist undertook together with Jean Cocteau to work on Parade, which the Ballets Russes premiered on stage in Paris in 1917. During his visit to Italy, the artist went to Naples twice, between March and April of 1917 and to Pompeii. For this occasion a group of institutions including the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Soprintendenza of Pompeii, the Museum of Capodimonte, along with the publishers Electa, organised Picasso and Naples: Parade, an exhibition which was held at Capodimonte and Pompeii. More than sixty organisations from 8 countries have developed various exhibition projects on the theme "Picasso-Mediterranean" which will take place until Spring 2019, and the one in Naples was the inaugural event.

Picasso and Massine in Pompeii, March 1917, as exhibited for Picasso e Napoli: Parade in Capodimonte © Alessio Cuccaro
Picasso and Massine in Pompeii, March 1917, as exhibited for Picasso e Napoli: Parade in Capodimonte
© Alessio Cuccaro

Curated by Sylvain Bellenger and Luigi Gallo, the Naples exhibition attracted 100.000 visitors in just 3 months, and it was designed to develop the interest of a wider audience thanks to numerous outreach initiatives: performances, musical events, small acts by street artists and a specifically designed app that enriched the visitor’s experience along the museum path with videos, music and extensive contextual information. The apotheosis of these happenings, all conceived on the same theme, were 3 performances, in which the dancers of the Rome Opera House with the support of students of the Lyceum, a Neapolitan school directed by Mara Fusco, presented two historical ballets with sets and costumes designed by Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massine: Parade with music by Erik Satie and Pulcinella set to music by Stravinsky (after Pergolesi among others). Léonide's son, Lorca Massine, who has a special relationship with this company as he directed it from 1981 until 1983, reconstructed his father's precious choreographies. 

Rome Opera Ballet in <i>Parade</i> © Luciano Romano
Rome Opera Ballet in Parade
© Luciano Romano
Parade started with the "unsuccessful" managers and their iconic costumes featuring skyscrapers and boulevards, a horse made by two dancers, a very musical and expressive Manuel Paruccini as the Chinese Conjuror and the American girl (Cristina Mirigliano), and all were a pleasure to watch while following Satie's innovative soundscape and the noises added by Cocteau.

Parade became a part of 20th century cultural history because it was one of the greatest succès de scandale, a work of genius that was ahead of its time and therefore derided by many. Described as "a kind of surrealism" by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, coining the word even before Surrealism emerged as an art movement in Paris, the ballet was remarkable for several reasons: it represented the first collaboration between Satie and Picasso and was their first commission by Diaghilev. Before Parade, references to popular entertainment were considered unsuitable for the elite world of the ballet, and here Parade wittily included the failed attempt of a troupe of street performers to attract audience members to view their show. When this revolutionary ballet premiered, it was scorned by audiences, and some of the more conservative members booed and hissed and became very unruly. However, Diaghilev said: "Parade, is my best bottle of wine. I do not like to open it very often". Today Picasso's set and costumes are considered symbols of "the progressive art of their time", and have only become more celebrated and better appreciated over the past century and I'm indeed glad that the special bottle was opened again!

Picasso's curtain for <i>Parade</i>, as exhibited for <i>Picasso e Napoli: Parade</i> in Capodimonte © Alessio Cuccaro
Picasso's curtain for Parade, as exhibited for Picasso e Napoli: Parade in Capodimonte
© Alessio Cuccaro

In addition to the costumes, Picasso designed a curtain which illustrated a group of performers at a fair consuming dinner before a performance. This iconic curtain, Picasso's largest painting, was the symbol of both the exhibition and the performances and portrays most of the influential people that contributed to the show: Sergei Diaghilev, Léonide Massine, Igor Stravinsky, Fortunato Depero, Olga Khokhlova - a Ballets Russes ballerina and Picasso's future wife -  among others.

The story of Pulcinella, a one act ballet taken from a Neapolitan folk tale, is told by Massine using academic steps with very expressive and Italian body language. This tribute to the commedia dell'arte portrays the amorous adventures of the Neapolitan character set in front of Picasso's elaborate design dominated by Vesuvius, with cold tones evoking moonlight on the sea and the volcano in the background. There couldn't have been a more appropriate setting than the Teatro Grande in Pompeii built in the II Century BC on the flanks of the volcano. Scored for 3 solo singers and instruments and defined by Stravinsky as "the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible", this brilliant comedy highlighted the talent of the prima ballerina Rebecca Bianchi, whose feet and great use of the bas de jambe were underlined by the black pointe shoes and tights on a white carpet. She gracefully danced with a very expressive and dynamic Pulcinella (Claudio Cocino) in the pas de deux "Se tu m'ami". 

Rome Opera Ballet in <i>Pulcinella</i> © Luciano Romano
Rome Opera Ballet in Pulcinella
© Luciano Romano

Eleonora Abbagnato's direction of Rome Opera Ballet is proof that good management can revive the fortunes of a company. The Rome Opera Ballet now boasts a host of young new talents and a very well balanced season. All these initiatives testify to the lively and fruitful cooperation between different cultural institutions as well. I am not sure though why these ballet performances were not organised while the wonderful exhibition in Naples was still on. It would surely have been a great opportunity for all those who visited the exhibition to have this unique chance to see those sketches on the walls magically reanimated during the live ballet evening.