There might be a good argument in conceiving of Mattia Preti as a Maltese artist. He most definitely was not, but considering he spent over half his active life in Malta, during which he seems to have blended well with all strata of Maltese society, it might not be far-fetched to start acknowledging in Preti some form of acquired Malteseness.
The main reason behind Preti’s decision to make Malta his second home must have been the presence of the Order of St John, and yet, even before settling down in Malta for good, he was already receptive to commissions that might have originated from outside the Order.
His Souls in Purgatory altarpiece (Church of All Souls, Valletta) is a case in point. Although it was commissioned by the Valletta Confraternity of Souls in Purgatory rather than the Order, Preti still gave it his all. This set a pattern that Preti was to repeat for the next 40 years. Though always close to the Order, he managed, along with his bottega, to permeate right into the core of villages and towns; a sort of capillary action that suited both the producer and the many consumers of his memorable altarpieces.
Preti’s presence in Malta during the second half of the 17th century became so ubiquitous that it hardly left any space for competition. He had astutely made his mark in all possible markets: he attained an almost exclusive hegemony over all commissions originating from the Order, he also received the lion’s share of private patrician commissions and, ultimately, managed to endear himself enough with the local populace to work for most of Malta’s rural churches.
This last market outlet, with its obvious humbler means and expectations, should have been the only lifeline for a local crop of artists who could never really compete with the Italian master on the same level ground. Yet, during the late 1600s, Preti’s bottega was churning out pictures on such an industrial scale and mercilessly targeting all possible markets that it left very little space for any other painters to flourish. One possible means of survival, even for those artists who were not really attached to Preti, was to try to mimic his visual language which was so popular at the time.
The altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin at Siġġiewi parish church must have been made by an artist who was close to, though not necessarily forming part of, Preti’s bottega, for the Calabrese master’s influence is strongly present in the painting. This is obviously not to say that Preti himself had any involvement with this picture’s actual production.
If one were to compare Siġġiewi’s altarpiece with Preti’s Assumption at Luqa parish church, the conspicuous differences are possibly stronger than the (mostly inadvertent) similarities. The triangular composition that both altarpieces follow, with the Madonna at the triangle’s apex, and the astonished apostles at its base, ultimately derives from the two iconic images that tackle this iconography: Titian’s memorable picture at the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, and Carracci’s more sedate altarpiece at the Cerasi chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
An intriguing detail in the Siġġiewi painting, which is missing in all other examples mentioned, is the right foot of the Madonna, which is presented in a foreshortened way in an attempt – possibly not entirely successfully carried out – to present the Madonna as if she were floating high above her opened sepulchre.
Preti’s presence is felt most distinctly in the realistically rendered heads of the incredulous apostles. The Siġġiewi painter, like Preti, opts to give the apostles unidealised faces and balding heads. Preti’s Luqa altarpiece, just like the Siġġiewi painting, presents an apostle standing at the back of the crowd who shields his eyes as if he wanted to protect them from the dazzling light emitted by the airborne Madonna.
The biggest conundrum posed by the Siġġiewi painting is identifying its artist. Despite careful research, nothing was found regarding the painter’s identity. Unfortunately, both the Siġġiewi parish archives and the Curia archives yielded nothing about the artist or the painting itself.
The second problem concerns the painting’s provenance. In Bishop David Coccopalmieri’s pastoral visit, followed by that of Bishop Paul Alpheran, it is clearly stated that the painting “was brought to the parish church: ab antiqua ecclesia... profanata”. This information, however, does not reveal the old, profaned church from where the painting was brought, although circumstantial evidence points at the old church dedicated to the Assumption known as Santa Marija ta’ Ħaramija in the vicinity of the still existent church of St Mark. Since we know Coccopalmieri’s visit took place in 1708-10, the Assumption painting must, at least, date to the last decade of the 17th century. This would coincide with Preti’s final decade, when his influence over Maltese art was very strong.
The artist of the Siġġiewi altarpiece must have been either some sort of collaborator of Preti or, equally plausible, some other artist who, though not officially employed in Preti’s busy bottega, was still working in its shadow. Whoever the artist was, the painting reveals a talented hand which, at times, even reaches the master’s greatness, especially in the rotund faces of the little angels accompanying the Madonna, and in the apostles’ down-to-earth faces.
Whoever the artist was, the painting reveals a talented hand which, at times, even reaches the master’s greatness
What follows is an in-depth analysis of the conservation processes applied during the painting’s restoration.
When the painting was first investigated, hardly any of the details we enjoy today were visible. The artist’s hues, brushstrokes and occasional touches of greatness were completely hidden, not only under thick layers of aged varnishes and overpaint, but also by a vast network of cracks that covered the entire surface, and which was further diminishing the painting’s readability.
A vast network of cracks covered the entire surface, further diminishing the painting’s readability
The artist had prepared the painting by first joining together two pieces of canvas and sewing them vertically from the centre to obtain the surface area he required. He then applied a coloured gesso mixture having a reddish-brown hue in preparation for executing this fine painting.
An interesting observation made during this analytical phase was that the painted surface and composition continue over the tacking margins folded around the circular base of its wooden auxiliary support, which wooden support naturally corresponded to the form of the painting’s niche at Siġġiewi parish church. Nonetheless, it seems the artist had originally executed the painting with a rectangular base.
Over time, the rigid paint and gesso preparation layers became detached from the more flexible textile/canvas support, resulting in a network of cracks, cupping and liftings of the paint layer. Hence the painting was in an unstable state whereby some paint had flaked off due to detachments between the various layers comprising the painting.
Other forms of deterioration encountered during this preliminary analytical phase of the conservation project included tears and lacunae even in the canvas support. The numerous amounts of losses were clearly visualised and identified during transmitted light investigations, where a light source was placed at the back of the painting and the front examined.
Further non-invasive investigative methods used to study the painting included the use of raking light, ultraviolet fluorescence and infra-red photography. These threw further insight on the execution of the painting, namely the manufacturing technique, types of damage/deterioration as well as past interventions.
These analytical methods and the information gained through these techniques enabled author Amy Sciberras to form a conservation strategy. The application of a conservation-grade consolidant by means of a syringe stabilised the flaking areas of the paint layer. This stabilisation enabled the surface to be cleaned from the very thick and dark varnish coatings that were completely concealing the painting’s hues.
Overpaint was also removed during this phase, revealing more details. In some areas, such as on the Virgin’s drapery, past restorers had completely reinvented the undulation of the folds. It is possible that such heavy past interventions were carried out with the intention of concealing the paint layer’s degradation (such as fading). Nonetheless, by doing so, they had altered significant areas of the original composition, which areas were brought back to light during the present cleaning treatments. Other treatments carried out included the removal of the numerous wax drippings by means of surgical blades and organic solvents.
The paint layer was then protected using Japanese paper in a process known as ‘facing’, and the painting was put horizontally on a working surface, enabling treatments of the verso to start. Cut threads in the canvas support were aligned, repaired and reinforced. The vertical seam joining the two canvas pieces also needed treatment and reinforcement, as by time the sewing had started to loosen and open up.
Deformations in the canvas support were addressed and, ultimately, the oxidised canvas support was adhered to a secondary canvas support. The lined and fully stabilised painting could then be restretched onto a newly manufactured stretcher frame as the previous auxiliary support was found to be too weak to support the painting. The painted margins at the base were treated and stabilised like the rest of the painting, and also protected during this procedure.
The very final phases following lining and re-stretching of the painting involved integrating areas of the paint and gesso preparation layers that have been lost by time. A compatible gesso mixture was prepared and applied to lacunae in the paint and underlying preparation layers. Such levelled and textured gesso infills applied to losses were fully and chromatically integrated using reversible, conservation colours, hence reinstating full legibility of the painting. A final protective coating was also applied.
The conserved painting can now be relished by the parish community and all visitors. Furthermore, such treatments have opened a door for scholars and historians to study this fine painting. Ultimately, these conservation treatments by Amy Sciberras and her team have reinstated dignity to this devotional painting of the Assumption and to its altar at Siġġiewi parish church.
This conservation and restoration project was entrusted to Amy Sciberras Conservators by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Siġġiewi led by Michael Vassallo. It was made possible with the support of the ‘Gal Majjistral Foundation’ under the ‘Leader’ scheme. Sciberras thanks all those involved, especially Archpriest Josef Mifsud, her team, professional photographers Manuel Ciantar and Suzanne Ciantar Ferrito, sacristan Carlos Borg and his team of volunteers for their great support, producer/videographer Robert Vassallo, Fr Nicholas Aquilina for his research, Dr Christian Attard and Bernadine Scicluna with whom this painting was discussed and Michael Formosa for manufacturing the new stretcher frame.
Rev. Dr Nicholas Aquilina is an ex-education officer at the Department of Education.
Amy Sciberras directs a team of conservators and has been entrusted with restoration projects of national and international importance. She may be contacted via www.amysciberras.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.