Throughout the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, Malta was to see the presence of a large number of Italian artists. Uprooted and somewhat feeling ostracised in a new forward-looking Italy – then well into the process of political unification – these artists found a second home in Malta; a place amenable to their sensibili­ties and generally, as staunchly resistant to modern ideas as they were. 

Some of these artists were to relocate permanently to Malta, more often than not, calling upon them the anger of the Maltese. Matters were further compounded when some Italians ended up drawn into the frayed political landscape of the period. Hailed as either saviours or traitors, their presence went anything but unnoticed. 

St Joseph, Franciscan Sisters, VictoriaSt Joseph, Franciscan Sisters, Victoria

Domenico Bruschi (1840-1910) was one such example. Yet, in a number of ways, he was of a different breed.

Bruschi was born in Perugia, and despite his long collaboration with Malta he never relocated here. His political leanings and rela­tive openness to artistic sensibilities were quite distinctive. Bruschi’s education was strictly academic, but subsequent travelling must have brought him close to the designs and products of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement. This love of design would earn him a post as a professor of disegno ornamentale at the Roman Accademia.

Bruschi’s relative open-mindedness would turn him into an interesting and eclectic artist who collaborated both with artists of a staunchly academic bent as much as with those who were more forward-looking. Politi­cally he openly sided with the Risorgimento and participated in the Perugian bloodied uprising against the Papal Swiss army in 1859. His adaptable eclecticism survived the changing political climate and artistic moods that were taking hold of the Italian peninsula.

For over 20 years Bruschi never really fell off the Maltese radar. Maltese churches sought his work and, more often than not, Canon Paolo Pullicino, a stubbornly pro-Italian prelate, acted as a go-between. If one were to identify three distinct strains in Bruschi’s artistic personality, namely realism/verismo; puris­ta/Nazarene; symbolist/art nouveau, then an example of each phase could be well found in Malta.

In 1875, Bruschi was commissioned by the Valletta Augustinian Friars to paint two large paintings respectively representing The Saint’s Dispute with the Donatists and The Baptism of St Augustine. The works have an indebtedness to the Nazarene/purista aesthetic but this is beautifully melded with influences coming via the Pre-Raphaelites and the Realists. It was this commission that introduced the 35-year old Bruschi to the Maltese public.

In 1880, Bruschi painted a large canvas painting to span the soffit of the canons’ vestry in the Gozitan Cathedral. Here Bruschi went for a watered-down art nouveau style. Yet, people were less than impressed. Contemporary newspapers, always ready to pronounce new artistic acquisitions, kept silent.

The composition is dominated by a mitred female figure representing Ecclesia, enthroned and holding a sceptre with which she crushes a snake. Two medallions on either end of the main figure contain little angels holding Latin inscriptions quoting Psalm 91:13 and James 1.27.

During that same year, Bruschi finished an altar painting for the chapel of the newly opened Conservatorio Vincenzo Bugeja in Santa Venera. The painting was commissioned by the eponymous marquis, a nobleman, a lucky gambler and magnani­mous philanthropist. 

It shows St Vincent Ferrer sermonising to a motley crowd of people present on a sun-bleached stone staircase. The image has some strong realistic touches, especially present in the crowd and the intense play of light and shadows. It is a work that clearly links Bruschi with the Impressionists and the Italian Macchiaioli. This is Bruschi in a sort of verismo mood. St Vincent, full of oratorical authority, could well be the speaker inciting the crowd in Emilio Longoni’s L’Oratore dello Sciopero; the crowd has the sort of hard-bitten realism present in Francesco Paolo Michetti’s I Morticelli.

With his art, Bruschi touched upon the hopes and dreams, the doubts and apprehensions of a century that was coming to an end

In 1884, Mgr Savatore Grech Delicata Cassia donated an image of St Anthony of Padova to St Cajetan parish church, Ħamrun. The image is primarily a devotional piece which, as demanded by the patron, has the sweetness of a Murillo painting. The barefoot saint holds baby Jesus amid clouds teeming with cherubs. It is a competent work with an overstated syrupy character that occasionally tended to surface in Bruschi’s art.

Bruschi’s 1884 Death of St Joseph for Gudja’s parish church is a memorable work. Once again Mgr Pullicino was the middleman. This image is remarkable in the way it moves away from traditional iconography. Here the deceased Joseph is eclipsed by the imposing figure of the blessing Christ whose face is thrown in silhouette by the radiance of his halo. The image captures an atmosphere replete with mysticism and mortality; an atmosphere which is very much akin to the morbid moods of the Symbolists.

Bruschi’s form of symbolism or decadentismo was, however, never truly perverse or melancholic. His art has an inherent Victorian retentiveness which stopped him from exploring the wilder, untethered morality of a Wilde or a Beardsley. Away from Malta, his representation of nubile girls, and all women at that, is only just about sexualised. Girls might be presented completely in the nude or lying listlessly in bed, their Victorian ruffles innocently riding up their thighs revealing complex petticoats and hosiery. It somehow looks all so innocent.

Left: Death of St Joseph, Gudja parish church. Right: Annunciation, Mdina CathedralLeft: Death of St Joseph, Gudja parish church. Right: Annunciation, Mdina Cathedral

Can. Pullicino again acted as an interme­diary for Bruschi’s Annunciation altarpiece for Mdina Cathedral. In a letter dated May 8, 1882, the ever-demanding Pullicino insisted that the painting be ready for the subsequent feast of the Annunciation, thus giving the artist a paltry 10-month window. Bruschi missed Pullicino’s deadline by an extravagant three years. It was a worthwhile delay. The otherworldly atmosphere conveyed by the image, its bold colours and its allusions to art nouveau and pre-Raphaelitism make it a very striking rendition of the subject. The typical iconographical motifs of an Annunciation scene are there, and yet, the mysterious mood it conveys, heightened by the presence of the ethereal and ghostly prophets, is new.

Much less audacious is the small Our Lady of Doctrine commissioned by Mgr Francesco Spiteri-Agius for the Istituto della Dottrina at Tal-Pilar church, Valletta. The image is sweetly pious, its otherwise cloying character just about relieved by its rich palette. Years later, for the Gozitan church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Victoria, Bruschi painted two pictures respectively depicting saints Francis and Joseph. Here the artist played it even safer, stripping his image from any sort of daring features.

With his art, Bruschi touched upon the hopes and dreams, the doubts and apprehensions of a century that was coming to an end. A century that had started out emboldened by a newly-found positivistic faith in human omniscience but which had gradually opened itself up to the other world of spirits and spiritualism. A century that saw many conquered countries dreaming of freedom but which also saw them waging a high price for that same freedom. Decadence and decency, excess and respect, marked the decades of the turn-of-the-century. 

Fin de siècle and belle epoque, the two names this period is typically known by, somewhat capture this underlying contradiction. The decadence and moral exhaustion of the former as opposed to the innocent and charming image evoked by the latter. Malta was not immune to this age of paradox but, as expected, the uneducated classes making up the greater portion of the population were hardly perturbed by this sort of intellectual tinkering. Bruschi’s pictures in Malta could have made up for that. His images, even if religious in subject, evoke the realists, the veristi and the Macchiaioli as much as they touch upon the mysterious symbolists and pre-Raphaelites. His was an eclectic spirit that gave Malta, even if possibly unwittingly, a taste of the two opposing facets of the spirit prevalent at the end of the century. 

Christian Attard is an art history lecturer.

Left: St Anthony, Ħamrun parish church. Right: Soffit of canon's vestry, Gozo CathedralLeft: St Anthony, Ħamrun parish church. Right: Soffit of canon's vestry, Gozo Cathedral

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