Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 21, 1999
Mary Newcome Gregorio de Ferrari Turin: Artema, 1998. 257 pp.; 34 color ills.; 320 b/w ills. Cloth (8880520083)

Most art historians seem to consider Genoa a quiet, provincial backwater that has little to offer to an inquisitive mind. One reason for this misconception may be that the Genoese purportedly guard their privacy and are said to keep their artistic treasures to themselves rather than sharing them with a wider public. However, as any visitor to this city can attest, there is more than just a glimpse to catch of the rich trove of artworks, many of which are readily accessible in churches, museums, and palaces—with many more still in private, often welcoming hands. But things may be changing. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an instructive exhibition with works from its own holdings (Genoa, Drawings and Prints, 1580-1800, exh. cat. New York, 1996), while in 1998 the Suida-Manning collection (formerly New York), with its focus on Genoese works, was presented en bloc to the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin.

Since her groundbreaking exhibition Genoese Baroque Drawings, exh. cat. Binghamton: State University of New York, 1972, Mary Newcome, certainly the most prominent nonnative scholar on Genoese art, has dedicated all her energies to the art of this city. For more than twenty-five years, she has helped identify and attribute countless works from the 16th to the 18th centuries, thus clearing the way for a better understanding of Genoa’s artistic production. Her recent monograph on Gregorio de Ferrari (1647-1726), one of the city’s most genuine and inventive painters, provides a welcome, thoroughly illustrated catalogue raisonné of his work. The Italian publisher’s decision to print this volume in English will allow a wider audience to appreciate this largely unknown artist, whose elegant High Baroque style deserves more attention than it has received so far.

Carlo Giuseppe Ratti’s biography on Gregorio, published in his Vite (1768-69), is still the basis for any research, but modern scholarship has enabled us to understand better not only the complexity of Gregorio’s involvement in fresco cycles, which frequently included innovative stucco and quadratura decorations, but also his interest in designs for tomb monuments and decorative art objects. Since the publication of this reviewer’s dissertation, (Gregorio de Ferrari [1647-1726] mit einem kritischen Werkverzeichnis, Berlin: Freie Universität, 1987), various paintings and drawings have come to light which round out our picture of this artist. Most recently, the Museo Civico at the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa reportedly purchased a hitherto unknown drawing by Gregorio in France, and Federica Lamera discussed two of Gregorio’s paintings from a private collection at a show in Bologna (Ospiti 11, Gregorio de Ferrari, Gesù e la Samaritana, Noli me tangere, exh. cat., Musei Civici d’Arte Antica del Comune di Bologna, 1999).

Newcome’s monograph starts out with an introductory essay by Ezia Gavazza, the Genoese doyenne of art history, providing some insight into the city’s tightly knit artistic koiné, within which Gregorio’s art flourished. Gavazza weighs the question, previously proposed by other scholars, of whether Gregorio should be considered a precursor to the Rococo (p. XI). Besides pointing to Correggio’s well-known influence as a painter of ethereal space and fluid lines, Gavazza reminds us of the presence of the sculptors Pierre Puget (in Genoa between 1660 and 1667), whose Bernini-esque language of billowing, emotionally charged forms was a critical stimulus for Genoese artists, and that of his talented native pupil, Filippo Parodi. In fact, Gregorio appears to have collaborated with Parodi on a tomb monument for Venice (cat. D11-D12), and perhaps on other projects. In the end, Gavazza concludes that Gregorio’s style was rooted in the long-lasting tradition of an expressive High Baroque pathos and that his works appear only in hindsight as anticipations of the Rococo (p. XIV). Consequently, the resemblance of his works to creations of Tiepolo, Boucher, and Fragonard half a century later must be viewed in light of their common historical sources.

In her own survey, Newcome highlights Gregorio’s artistic development, which spans about six decades, from the poorly documented early days in the studio of his teacher Domenico Fiasella, to the triumph of his last fresco cycle in SS. Croce e Camillo, completed by his eldest son, Lorenzo. Unlike Domenico Piola, Gregorio’s fellow painter and father-in-law, whose large workshop dominated virtually all the major projects in Genoa during the last third of the 17th century, Gregorio created a relatively small body of distinguished works. Newcome’s catalogue lists just 108 paintings and frescoes (including some groups, but also a few studio works), 96 drawings, and 21 lost works. In addition, late in his life Gregorio was engaged as an architect at a monastery in his hometown Porto Maurizio.

Since only a few works are documented, a comparative stylistic analysis of Gregorio’s output must guide any reconstruction of a meaningful chronology. With a connoisseur’s eye, Newcome reveals stylistic characteristics in detail, frequently comparing a floating drapery or the modeling of a figure in one painting with that in another painting, fresco, or drawing. Occasionally, her analysis may appear a little too conjectural. This becomes evident in her discussion of some apparently late paintings. Their uneven qualities of style and execution make it difficult to determine their exact chronological position, especially since the intervention or collaboration of other artists, like that of Gregorio’s son Lorenzo, must be considered (cat. 96-97, 100, 104-5). Here, a brief discussion about the studio practice and of Gregorio’s relationship to Piola would have been helpful.

The intricate network of influence and collaboration becomes obvious in problematic works like the Ecstasy of St. Theresa (cat. 23). Although the painting is not typical of Gregorio, and has previously also been attributed to Valerio Castello and to Piola, Newcome recognizes similarities in specific details to other works by Gregorio. Two drawings in Stuttgart, formerly attributed to Piola (D.2-3), are now attributed with some good reason to Gregorio. Again, two other, previously anonymous studies at the Palazzo Rosso (D.5-6) have been introduced here for the first time as early studies by Gregorio, despite the fact that there is not much evidence to corroborate these new attributions. One cannot but notice a startling difference between their style and that of another early study, certainly executed by the artist (D.4). In a late drawing Newcome recognizes inconsistencies and seems to consider a collaboration between father and son (D.94). Finally, she rectifies this reviewer’s previous attribution of a Noli me tangere in the Palazzo Bianco with its rather cool touch reminiscent of Lorenzo’s classicism, by returning it to the older Gregorio (cat. 103).

A slight oversight should be mentioned here. When the author discusses Gregorio’s “contact and activity with patrons in Imperia [sic!]” (p. 15), she overlooks the fact that Imperia was actually founded only in 1923, during Mussolini’s reign, by uniting the neighboring cities of Oneglia and Porto Maurizio. Gregorio’s hometown, Porto Maurizio, is situated about 75 miles west of Genoa on an impressive promontory, where, since the beginning of this century, a plaque has designated his birthplace. But the overall solid, detailed documentation of the catalogue makes this book a resourceful tool, not only for specialists; it may stimulate research in other areas of Genoese art.