Review: “In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura”

Francesco de Mura (1696-1782) was a prominent figure in 18th-century Italian painting. Over the course of his extensive career, de Mura enjoyed prestigious commissions in locales ranging from the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino near Rome (1731-1738) to King Charles of Bourbon’s Royal Palace in Naples (early 1760s). De Mura has since fallen into obscurity, though, outpaced in scholarship by contemporaries such as fellow Neapolitan Francesco Solimena(1657-1747), one de Mura’s teachers, and Venetian Giambattista Tiepolo(1697-1770).

This neglect is owed in part to history’s abuse of de Mura’s artistic legacy. Allied bombings of the city of Naples as well as the Abbey at Monte Cassino, replete with more than 30 de Mura compositions, during World War II resulted in the overall destruction of more than a third of de Mura’s documented oeuvre. Scholars have worked to rectify de Mura’s important role in the art historical discussion of 18th-century Italian painting, however, with a recent traveling exhibition that centers on the work of the artist. Entitled, “In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura,” the exhibition represents the first dedicated to the work of the Neapolitan master and showcases his brilliance amidst a field of remarkably talented 18th-century contemporaries.

Accompanying the exhibition is an equally enjoyable catalogue that features essays with insights by some of the leading scholars of de Mura’s work. David Nolta, art history professor with the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, opens the essay collection by offering a succinct yet substantial overview of de Mura’s decorated career. He returns later in the text to offer an intriguing analysis of de Mura’s paintings in relation to Tiepolo and their shared geometries of both sky and space within their compositions. In doing so, Nolta stresses the modernity of de Mura’s paintings as well as his ability to meld past and present traditions seamlessly in his work.

Building on this artful blend, former Museo di Capodimonte director Nicola Spinosa contributes a chapter that delves into de Mura’s meanderings between classical and Rococo ideals during an era of artistic flux. Beginning his examination of de Mura from his days as a student under the tutelage of late Baroque master Solimena, Spinosa notes the enduring legacy of Roman classical styles among Neapolitan painters at the dawn of the 18th century. At the same time, Spinosa works to establish the context for the rise of “anti-classical” style through the roots of the Rococo, exemplified by artists such as Giacomo del Po (1654-1726) or Domenico Antonio Vaccaro (1678-1745). As a result, Spinosa describes an art world in which ideals and premises were undergoing rapid transformation. As Spinosa illustrates, de Mura embraced this evolution by developing his own unique style that managed to be distinct from his contemporaries without being controversial.

The essays conclude with two entries that grapple with de Mura’s legacy following his death. The first, an entry by Loredana Gazzara, curator of the Quadreria at Naples’ Pio Monte della Misericordia, recounts the dissemination of de Mura’s works following his death. Gazzara seems a fitting choice to outline this distribution, as the Pio Monte della Misericordia was the recipient of close to 200 works by the artist that were gifted in hopes of benefiting the poor in the community. Pio Monte della Misericordia still possesses 39 works by the artist, and thus it is left to the closing chapter of the catalogue, written by Maria Grazia Leonetti Rodinò, the first female Governatore of Pio Monte della Misericordia, to elaborate upon the masterworks still within the foundation’s collections.

Taken in sum, the exhibition catalogue lives up to the aim outlined in editor Arthur R. Blumenthal’s closing introductory remarks: 

“now, 233 years after his death, we have the great pleasure of finally giving Francesco de Mura his due.” 

The exhibition has just ended its run at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College (closed 18 December). It will travel to the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will be on view from 20 January to 2 April 2017. Following this showing, the exhibition will move on to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College for viewing from 21 april to 2 July 2017. For more on the exhibition, please click here. For more on the exhibition catalogue, please click here.

Further reading: Arthur R. Blumenthal, ed.,  In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura (October 2016). Foreward by Gloria Marina Belleni (Winter Park, FL: D Giles Ltd., in association with The Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College). 

Charity, circa 1718-1720. Oil on canvas. 73.7 by 60.9 cm. Collection of Federico Castelluccio. 

The Visitation, circa 1752. Oil on canvas. 93.98 by 118.1 cm. Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

Self-Portrait, circa 1745-1747. Oil on canvas. 129.5 by 101.6 cm. Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The Glory of the Princes or Allegory of the Virtues of King Carlo di Borbone, circa 1763. Oil on canvas. 73 by 97.8 cm. Pio Monte della Misericordia. 

Portrait of Count James Joseph O’Mahoney, Lieutenant-General in the Neapolitan Service, Knight of Saint Januarius, before June 1747. Oil on canvas. 120 by 104 cm. The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. 

Posted by Alexis Culotta 

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