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Tommaso Maria Conca

Italian, 1734 - 1822

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The seventeenth century in Italian art witnessed a gradual transformation of earlier regional schools into a more widely amalgamated national style. The increasing ease and safety of travel, as well as the burgeoning of larger cities, drew artists in increasing numbers to the great urban centers, with a consequent decline of allegiance to their distinctive regional styles. Tommaso Maria Conca was born in Gaeta in central Italy in 1734 but early on moved to Rome, where he studied after about 1748 with his older cousin Sebastiano Conca. Tommaso, following in the footsteps of Sebastiano, represents a fusion of certain Neapolitan and Roman trends and is an exemplar of the Roman late Baroque style.

After experimenting with the many conflicting artistic currents swirling around Rome at the time of his arrival, Tommaso settled firmly into the camp of the classicists, chief among whom was Anton Raphael Mengs. Although Conca did not study with Mengs, he was strongly influenced by the older artist and may have collaborated with him, soon after his arrival in Rome, on the decoration of the coffeehouse of the Villa Albani. Cultivated and personable, Conca's wide interests included poetry, archaeology, and the sciences. He was elected to the Accademia Clementina in Bologna in 1765 and to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1770, serving as principe of the latter organization from 1792 to 1795.

It is chiefly as a decorative painter that he is known. His first major project was for the casino of the Villa Borghese in 1775-78, which he embellished with decorative frescoes, both mythological and biblical, as well as carrying out the grisaille decoration. Fortunately, he was noticed by Pope Pius VI, who was looking for artists to decorate his ambitious new Vatican sculpture museum, the Museo Pio-Clementino (Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue edited by Andrew Wilton and Ilaria Bignamini. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1996, nos. 193-203). In 1795 Conca won the major commission for the project, which was to decorate the vault of its Sala delle Muse; a finished preparatory drawing for this work exists in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York (The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome. Exhibition catalogue titled Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Edgar Peters Bowron and Joseph J. Rishel. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Merrell, 2000, no. 339, fig. 339).

Conca then moved to Città di Castello, where between 1795 and 1797 he frescoed the dome and transept of its cathedral with complex Christian allegories. In 1812 he helped to decorate an apartment for Napoleon Bonaparte in the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome. Traditional in method and conservative in outlook, he was awarded a knighthood around 1790. He was active in the Accademia di San Luca and the Accademia Napoletana in Rome and devoted considerable energy to educating young artists and supervising the pensionati (students studying there). He flourished in Rome for some fifty years, dying there in 1822.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 67.

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