The scene takes place in a country landscape on an autumn day, as suggested by the golden color of the grass and pale and cloudy sky in the background.
In the foreground there is a group of blind people, arranged in a row, each one holding their hand on the shoulder of the companion in front of them. Some of them have eyes turned upwards, unaware what lies ahead because they don’t know they are heading towards a ditch where they will fall. The first blind man in the row, on the right side of the painting, has already fallen and his body is lying down, while the next one in line is about to reach him. He has already lost his balance and he is falling on his dying friend with a terrified look, as suggested by his wide-open mouth and empty eyes.
Instead, the blind who find themselves behind or at the end of the row are still unaware of their destiny and proceed slowly with stick in their hand, walking with uncertain step and expressionless face.
The subject refers to the parable of the New Testament in the Gospels of Mark (XV, 24) and Luke (VI, 39) with two blind characters, according to which when one blind lead the other both will fall into the ditch.
Like the Misanthrope, the other painting by Brueghel preserved in the museum of Capodimonte, the Blind Leading the Blind refers to the Twelve Flemish Proverbs published between 1569 and 1570.
In particular, the painting recalls the engraving on a medallion by Peter van den Heyden, with writing in Flemish: “Always walk with caution, stand firm/Do not trust anyone/completely if not God. Because when one blind man leads another, you see them both fall into the ditch”.
The painting can also be compared to the drawing by Cornelis Metsys in the Kupferistichkabinett in Berling, featuring four blind men. In Metsys’ drawing you can see that when compared to Brueghel, he paid less attention to the expressive rendering of the figures and their uncertain movement, in particular in the legs and feet that seem to stumble anticipating the fateful fall.
The theme was also used by Hieronymus Bosch, who painted a much more complex and crowded composition than Brueghel in his work in the Capodimonte Museum.
The moral story of the painting is evident, which sees the parable as a metaphor for a grotesque humanity, reduced to a caricature and destined for damnation. This raw description takes more realistic tones with the realistic landscape. In fact, the church you can see behind had been identified as the church of Pede-de-Sainte-Anne, near Brussels, still existing today.
The painting is signed and dated "BRVEGEL M.D.LX.VIII" at the bottom left and it is one of the later works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who died the following year. Together with the Misanthrope, the Blind Leading the Blind was part of the gallery of Palazzo Masi in Parma. The two paintings were purchased by Florentine Cosimo Masi, who was the secretary of Alessandro Farnese in Flanders from 1571 to 1594.
In 1612 Ranuccio I Farnese confiscated his collection together with other collections of the lords in Parma who had conspired against him unsuccessfully. The painting is painted on a very thin linen canvas with lean tempera that gives a very opaque effect, similar to frescoes, and in the inventory of the confiscated assets it was described as “beautiful work with six blind men” with a “black frame with gilded profiles and gilded flowers on the edges” and “a red cloth” that protected the work.
It was placed in Camera del Palazzo of the Farnese Garden in Parma, from where it was taken to the Ducal Palace of Pilotta together with its pendant work, the Misanthrope, and in the 18th century they were taken to Naples where King Charles of Bourbon had brought the collection he inherited from his mother Elisabetta Farnese, the last descendant of the family
The painting was already highly appreciated at the time of the Farnese family by collectors and artists such as Francesco Maria Repetti, who made a replica of it, which is now preserved at the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Parma, in the Ducal Palace of Pilotta. Before this, Jan Brueghel, Pieter’s son, had painted an oil copy of this father’s work, currently on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris
There is not a lot of documentation left from the life and activity of Pieter Brueghel, called the Elder despite his short life, to distinguish him from his son Pieter the Younger who, like his father and his younger brother Jan, was a painter.
Pieter the Elder was probably born between 1527 and 1530 because in 1551 he was a master in the Guild of Painters of Saint Luke in Antwerp, in which the members around the age of twenty or twenty-five could have been accepted.
Therefore, Pieter trained in Antwerp, which is a fact that was confirmed by biographer Karel von Mandern, according to whom he studied under Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter, Mayeken, he later married. However, it seems more probable that the Flemish painter had his main training in Antwerp but in the workshop of Hieronymus Cock, whose studio had become a meeting place for artists, intellectuals, humanists and cultured men interested in science and alchemy. Young Pieter was surely fascinated by these themes, so much that he used them in his works. In Cock’s studio the artist became familiar with the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, whose swarming figures were taken up by Pieter in his engravings, in which the concept of space already represented the Renaissance style, meaning more rational and modern compared to Bosch’s examples.
In fact, the study of the Italian Renaissance was very important for Pieter, who traveled to Italy to complete his training in 1551.
The artist traveled certainly to Rome and Naples, where he copied works of art and architecture, especially ancient items, which he recalled in his paintings. He returned to Antwerp in 1555 where he established himself as a painter and engraver in cultural circles and among art collectors of the Flemish town, painting works of various subjects, including the Tower of Babel from 1563, where the biblical tower with numerous arches recalls the Colosseum. The artist often represented peasants in his works, engaged in their daily activities, which gave him an opportunity to deeply think the questions of humanity.
Indeed, the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder are often open and raw representations of those realities, devoid of any idealization. Sometimes he even insisted on depicting moral defects of his subjects, which he turned into grotesque physical features in his characters. In his latest works the compositions are stretched, the figures are bigger and proportionate in size, as seen in his Wedding Feast, where Pieter himself is represented on the right while confessing. Pieter became very popular among his contemporaries and he died prematurely in 1569 leaving his two sons Pieter the Younger and Jan to continue his workshop.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.