The first edition of the Decorative Arts Conference: Perspectives on the Decorative Arts in 19th Century Malta was held at the Italian Cultural Centre in Valletta on the 500th anniversary since the death of Leonardo da Vinci.

The conference, convened by Mark Sagona and Roberta Cruciata for the Department of Art and Art History in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta, aims to be organised biannually.

Marble inlaid tabletop by the Darmanin familyMarble inlaid tabletop by the Darmanin family

The very well-attended event focused on recent and ongoing research on the multi-faceted nature of the decorative arts in Malta and focused on six themes, all related to the 19th century: ornamental drawings, secular and religious silver, jewellery, marble and glass.

The overriding aim of the conference is to generate greater interest in a fascinating artistic field which has, until recently, been given little academic attention in Malta. The Maltese Islands possess ample examples of decoration and ornament which are present in myriad media, from stone to wood and from silver to marble. 

The study of the field of the decorative arts in the Department of Art and Art history is spearheaded by Sagona who has, in recent years, pioneered research on the subject. It has now become an independent area of study within the department and several research projects have been or are being undertaken.

Sagona has dedicated much of his academic research to this fertile field, and his undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral theses all focus on this area of study. The co-convener of the conference, Roberta Cruciata from the Università degli Studi di Palermo, is not a new face for Malta. She worked on her doctoral thesis on Sicilian decorative arts for Malta. She has also collaborated with Sagona in the past. 

The aim is to generate greater interest in an artistic field which has been given little academic attention in Malta

The conference kicked off with a brief welcome by the Italian Cultural Institute’s director, Massimo Sarti, and was introduced by Keith Sciberras, head of the Department of Art and Art History, who highlighted the important research embarked on by the department in recent years in the area of the decorative arts. The first session, chaired by Cruciata, started after a brief address by Sagona, in which he talked about the nature of the conference and the concept behind its proceedings. The first contribution was by Sagona himself, who discussed the artistic and stylistic nature of a seldom discussed area of the decorative arts in Malta: the drawings on paper which survive for several important ecclesiastical works in silver, wood, embroidery and marble produced by some of the more distinguished names in this field, such as Giuseppe Hyzler, Cesare Galdes and Nicola Zammit. Ornamental drawings are essential for the full understanding and critical judgement of decorative works.

The second paper was read by Alaine Apap Bologna, a veteran researcher on Maltese silver who discussed domestic neo-classical silver for Malta at the turn of the 19th century. Apap Bologna’s important research has been essential for the unearthing of names of new silversmiths and the mapping out of their silver production during the De Rohan, Ball and Oakes periods and during the French occupation.

Francesca Balzan, from Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, ex-curator of Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum in Mdina, focused on national characteristics in jewellery during the 19th century and how they mirrored and intertwined with the broader international context. The story of jewellery in Malta has always been markedly international and never more so than during the 19th century, when foreign jewellery was flowing into Malta and worn by the Maltese.

The second session saw the delivery of another three papers. The first was delivered by Cruciata, who discussed silver objets d’art extant in Malta, the result of the skill of specialised Sicilian masters of the early 19th century. These works are mostly neo-classical in style and bear the consular mark of the city of Catania in use at the time. Cruciata focused especially on the works produced by Santo Calogero.

Jessica Muscat, who is currently concluding her Master’s dissertation in the Department under Sagona’s supervision, focused on marble production in Malta, with special reference to the firm Giuseppe Darmanin e figli. The Darmanin family was highly sought after for their table-top production, which served as the ideal souvenir of the Maltese islands.

Some of these works even found their way to the Royal Collection of Britain. Touching upon the Darmanins’ participation in great international exhibitions, Muscat concentrated on their iconography and patrons. A new area of research in which the department envisions future development is that on artefacts made of glass, particularly those works which arrived from Venice, specifically from the island of Murano.

By way of introduction, Roberto Zanon, the chair of design at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Venice, discussed the history of the technique of Murano glass from ancient to modern times and gave valuable insights into the different techniques, such as the revolutionary glass-blowing technique. 

The conference was organised with the collaboration of HoASA, the History of Art and Fine Arts students association, and the Italian Cultural Institute.

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