It is Pasquetta (Easter Monday) in the Neapolitan countryside. Crowds of revellers gather, enjoying the spring air and each other's company. Figures recline beneath the trees, smoking and picnicking, while in the sunlit foreground a group of young girls dance the tarantella, accompanied by musicians. One of the musicians plays a triccheballacche, a traditional percussive instrument of southern Italy, with three hammers that produces a sound like a tambourine.
The crowds are headed towards the church of the Madonna dell'Arco, on the right, which had been a popular place of pilgrimage since 1450, when a fresco of the virgin and child was accidentally struck by a ball and, as legend has it, began to bleed. The veneration of the shrine intensified after it survived the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 – this smouldering icon of Naples which features on the far left of the painting.
This 1777 work is one of Pietro Fabris's largest and most elaborate canvases. It was originally one of a pair of festive scenes, its pendant showing a nocturnal festival in nearby Posillipo.
Fabris painted the works for Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), the British envoy in Naples. Both men shared an interest in Neapolitan costumes and customs. In 1773 Fabris had produced a book of prints depicting costumes of Naples dedicated to Hamilton, and in 1776 they collaborated on the Campi Phlegraei, a book detailing volcanic sites and artefacts.
Perhaps best known today as the husband of Nelson's lover, Emma Hamilton, Sir William Hamilton was a great collector of paintings and classical antiquities, some of which can be seen in this portrait of him and the first Lady Hamilton in their apartment surrounded by his collection. A 1798 list of the collection indicates that The Festival of the Madonna dell'Arco hung in an anteroom to the gallery of his Neapolitan home, the Palazzo Sessa.
Cashflow problems following Hamilton's return to England forced him to sell the work to a UK collector for £34.14. It has been on display at Compton Verney house in Warwickshire since 2004, where it forms part of one of the richest collections of Neapolitan art outside Naples and is one of five Fabris works on display.
Dr Amy Orrock, Senior Curator, and Annelise Hone, Collections Manager at Compton Verney
A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour
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