- Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Rarely does one find a combination of the history of collecting and the practice of connoisseurship presented as seamlessly and cogently as in this book. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Italian Master Drawings, 1540 to the Present, and in Italian as I grandi disegni italiani del Philadelphia Museum of Art by Silvana Editoriale, the present volume forms part of Amilcare Pizzi's distinguished series I grandi disegni italiani, which celebrates significant holdings of Italian drawings in collections world-wide. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection of approximately 2700 Italian drawings is a relatively recent phenomenon, stemming from the bequest of roughly 350 Italian old master drawings in 1978 from the estate of Anthony Morris Clark, and from the formal acquisition in 1984 and 1985 of the nearly 2500 old master drawings, mostly Italian, from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (which had been on loan to the museum since 1956). The conjoining under one roof of these collections, whose shared strength resides in works from the eighteenth century, particularly Roman, offers a superb forum for the care, study, and exhibition of all facets of Italian drawings.
Ann Percy's thoughtful and meticulously written essay on the history of the collection is vital for understanding not only how the majority of the Italian drawings arrived at the museum, but more importantly, how the drawings themselves shaped the cultural identity of a variety of Philadelphia institutions past and present. Her essay focuses on the collecting strategies and habits of two amateurs from Philadelphia, John S. Phillips (1800-76), and Matthew Carey Lea (1823-97), who donated two of the earliest and largest collections of graphic arts assembled in America to the Pennsylvania Academy; and of Anthony Morris Clark, the eminent art historian and museum professional born in Philadelphia who specialized in the study of eighteenth-century Roman art. Percy discusses in detail the personal and professional dealings of Phillips and Lea: family fortunes, travels abroad, associations with other American collectors, early cataloguing techniques, all coloured with lively anecdotal details. The sixty-five illustrations of Italian drawings in her essay - all from the museum - have brief documentary entries at the end of the volume.
The catalogue itself, authored by Mimi Cazort, contains eighty entries of works ranging from one of the earliest examples in the collection, Francesco Salviati's Christ Disputing with the Doctors in the Temple, about 1539, to one of its latest, Giuseppe Penone's Untitled (Spoglia d'oro su spine d'acacia [labbra]), 2001. The handsome, full-page colour illustrations of selected works are complemented by a biography of the artist and a brief discussion of the featured drawing, together with the appropriate [End Page 241] information on media and provenance. The works are well selected and give an impression of the scope of the museum's holdings, the ongoing challenges of attribution (recognizing and dismissing some of the more wishful names assigned by Phillips and Lea), and the range of genre and technique. Highlights include Guercino's Samson and Delilah, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione's Melancholia, Giovanni David's Allegory of the Artist on the Verge of Death, and Luigi Sabatelli's The Madness of Orlando. Perhaps the gem of the collection is Giuseppe Cades's coloured drawing Armida Gazes on the Sleeping Rinaldo (about 1785), a hauntingly enigmatic piece, whose true subject is still open to debate, and one that explores the emotional boundaries between love and death. Cades was a favourite of Clark's, whose stature as a historian and collector surely motivated the acquisition of this piece in 1990. Somewhat expectedly, the catalogue reveals a reduction in the quantity and slight dip in the quality of drawings outside the eighteenth century when compared to other collections showcased in the series I grandi disegni italiani. At times the biographies outweigh the actual discussion of the object, and in the cases of well-known artists, the reader may be left wanting more...