ed. by Arthur R. Blumenthal. Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College; D. Giles, October 2016. 208 p. ill. ISBN 9781907804854 (cl.), $49.95.
Reviewed January 2017
The Neapolitan artist, Francesco de Mura, has largely been forgotten by art history, overshadowed by his Venetian contemporary, Tiepolo. This catalog documents the first exhibition dedicated to the artist and is also the first book focused on de Mura. It fills a gap in the history of art in Naples, illuminating the transitional time at the end of the Baroque period. The book is beautifully illustrated, nicely laid out, and well put together. It is a tragedy that the complete breadth of the artist’s work will never be presented, as a third of his oeuvre was destroyed in World War II. The catalog theorizes that bombing of the abbey of Monte Cassino by American forces in 1944, which destroyed many de Mura ceiling frescoes and oil paintings, contributed to his neglect by history.
The catalog attempts to make up for this past wrong, and tries to restore the artist’s reputation and place in history. Unfortunately, in its attempt to correct the record, the catalog sometimes becomes fulsome in its praise. David Nolta’s essay attempts to explain De Mura’s lack of lasting fame as compared to Tiepolo. His argument is mostly unconvincing; instead, he does de Mura no favors by comparing him side by side with Tiepolo. However, the comparison is an important one, the limited depth of de Mura’s works is easy to see when compared with Tiepolo’s vertiginous de sotto in su frescoes.
Maria Grazia Leonetti Rodino’s essay is a fascinating look at the provenance of the de Mura works that were bequeathed by the artist to the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a Neapolitan charitable organization. The essay however takes a strange turn as it rails against the acquisition of many of the works by the Italian government for several paragraphs. The history of the Pio Monte, most well-known for the commission of Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy, is woven throughout the essays and the catalog entries. The intertwined fates of the organization and de Mura is one of the most interesting aspects of de Mura’s legacy that the catalog explores.
The catalog entries are thorough and well done, and will likely be of the most use to future researchers. The bibliography is unfortunately only selected. The inventories and other archival documents mentioned in the text would have made extremely useful appendices. The catalog is still vital for researching this artist, and will surely spur further scholarship on de Mura; however, it could have been an even better resource to facilitate further study. It will be an important book for collections looking to have a thorough representation of eighteenth-century Italian artists, it will be just as useful for understanding role of charities in Neapolitan art.