Mattia Preti: Life and Works
by Keith Sciberras, published by Midsea Books, 2020
It has to be said from the start that Keith Sciberras’ Mattia Preti: Life and Works is a magnificent, lush publication that will long remain the definitive study of the Calabrese artist who spent almost 40 years of his life and died in Malta.
Its splendid and exhaustive learned text by an author who is recognised as an international authority on the artist is supplemented by spectacular photographs of local paintings by Joe P. Borg who also deserves his fair share of credit as he made it possible for us to pore over the sharp details.
This is especially the case with the pictures in private collections, locally or abroad, and that we can never get the opportunity of actually seeing. A striking aspect is the number of Pretis in local private collections, some of which not previously published.
A couple of quotations from the preface captures the essential importance of this book which “provides the fullest catalogue to date of paintings attributed to [Preti] – a number of which hitherto unpublished – and, based on archival research, technical considerations and stylistic study, [it] gives a suggested chronology for his entire oeuvre”. The study also “discusses the mechanics of patronage” and “engages with… the work of the major Preti scholars, combining issues that have already been well discussed with new insights and attributions”.
Preti was a most prolific artist, even thanks to his long life of 86 years. Over 600 works are attributed to him, including large fresco cycles (excluding bottega paintings under his supervision) executed over some 70 years.
This averages over eight works a year, a truly outstanding production, especially when keeping in mind the large size of a good number of his works and their many figures. His bottega in Malta was very active and produced numerous replicas, variants, and copies, some with little or much autograph intervention. In this later aspect Sciberras’ expertise proves most useful in sorting out Preti’s autograph works.
Born in the Calabrian hillside village of Taverna in 1613 in a family with some claim to patrician status, which Preti would later exploit to obtain his knighthoods, first of obedience and then of magistral grace in the Order of St John.
In Rome he worked with his older brother Gregorio and was influenced by the Caravaggesque idiom then in slow decline. Gradually he started drifting away from Gregorio’s style to develop his personal manner and approach, also to reflect the changing style of patronage.
Guercino had a long-lasting influence on Preti, who may or may not have been his direct student at Cento. Gradually he moved away from his early naturalism with the dark backgrounds, giving way to colour and deeper representations of space that would remain part of his art to the end.
In Malta, Preti became the acknowledged master, the artist laureate, with enough work for him and his bottega in an island experiencing an economic boom
In 1642, the 29-year-old Preti was invested as a knight of obedience of the Order of St John which would earn him the moniker of ‘Il cavaliere Calabrese’. Thanks to the patronage of important Roman personalities, he became one of the most notable artists of his time, attracting some very significant commissions, including the great frescoes at the church of San Andrea della Valle, in a medium that was then quite new to him.
At the age of 37, his artistic prowess led to his election among the Congregazione dei Virtuosi of the Pantheon, then the foremost artistic confraternity of the Eternal City.
Preti’s Naples period lasted from 1653 to 1660. Here he found an altogether different context but where he became the leading artist, not least because of his remarkably prolific production for the leading patrons. It was in Naples that Preti, having already been a member of the Order for almost 30 years, received a commission from the grand master in Malta for a St Francis Xavier for the chapel of Aragon, which was welcomed with great excitement. This was followed by the magnificent St George on Horseback for the same chapel in which he showed all his bravura.
How could the Order resist the possibility of attracting this most able brother to the island? Gerolamo Cassar’s St John’s was still austere and quite bare of ornament; Preti would be most welcome to transform it into the magnificent awe-inspiring temple it is today. Moreover, there would be commissions galore from other knights, the local nobility and genteel classes, and also the many churches in Valletta and the villages. An added bonus could be his elevation to the knighthood of grace.
And so, in the summer of 1659, Preti came over for the first time. Before he left, a couple of months later, the langue of Italy had accepted to support his quest to be elevated as a knight of grace, which was eventually granted the following year. Was the magnificent Martyrdom of St Catherine for the church of the Italian langue part of the agreement?
Preti was back in Malta 21 months later, this time for good. Here, an artistic backwater, he found innumerable possibilities for commissions. The influence of the Baroque he brought with him would find wide and general acceptance, persisting in a way to present days.
In Malta, Preti became the acknowledged master, the artist laureate, with enough work for him and his bottega in an island experiencing an economic boom. Sciberras mentions 270 works, mostly with religious themes, dateable to his Malta period, with 140 of them still present on the island, with perhaps a few others in private collections, still to be found or properly ascribed. Ten per cent of the Malta works are indeed in private hands. The bottega itself was responsible for ‘hundreds of works’, a profitable industry indeed. Commissions from abroad also kept flowing in regularly.
And yet, his first years on the island would find him complaining about the lack of suitable monetary rewards and also the sense of being imprisoned, even lamenting the tight-fisted authorities’ tirannia. Still his art would win appreciation in the many country parish churches where no self-respecting village could afford not to have a Preti. The Żurrieq parish church in particular is a veritable Preti gallery!
Sciberras argues that Preti’s long stay on the island “allowed him to mature on his own work without any stylistic intrusions from new currents” while “the tonality of his work became darker”. A greater reliance on bottega assistants invariably meant inconsistencies.
Indeed, a very interesting chapter deals with the bottega with Sciberras explaining how the process could have worked and identifying some of the assistants which included a Carmelite nun, a slave, and even a few knights. Even more enlightening and novel is the discussion on the patterns of patronage and how Preti priced his works.
Preti’s unsurpassable masterpiece remains, of course, the conventual church which he transformed into “one of the most important nodes of Baroque art south of Rome”. Not only did he fresco the superb vault, but he produced designs for the carved decorations, the inlaid-marble slabs, and other ecclesiastical furnishings.
In this church, he would be eventually buried in a grave near the main door where the epitaph describes him as “the great splendour of painting”. But like Christopher Wren, Preti can say that if one looks for his monument, all one has to do is to look around in sheer amazement.
It will certainly take generations for Sciberras’ milestone study to be supplanted.
Mattia Preti: Life and Works can be purchased from all leading bookstores and online from the Midsea Books website at https://midseabooks.com/shop/maltas-architecture/baroque/mattia-preti-life-and-works/