It is highly unlikely that a prestigious Mattia Preti painting purchased by the Maltese government last week had been stolen from the Governor’s Palace, according to the Head of the University’s Art and Art History Department.
The government acquired the 17th century monumental oil on canvas painting Boethius and Philosophy for €1.32 million from London auction house Sotheby’s.
Prof. Keith Sciberras told the Times of Malta that the painting is likely to have left Malta in the second half of the 19th century, probably taken by one of the governors or somebody within the colonial government. It would seem the person who took it was primarily interested in the subject of the painting rather than the artist, since at the time it left the palace it did not have great antiquarian value, explained Prof. Sciberras.
In the 19th century, paintings by Preti and Baroque artists were not worth the monetary equivalent we give them today, he said. International preference, especially British preference at the time, was certainly not for Baroque paintings of this type but for a more classical imprint.
This is probably the reason Malta’s collection of Preti paintings is still largely intact, Prof. Sciberras added. They were counter to British taste and began to appreciate greatly in value in the 1970s and 1980s. Boethius and Philosophy is one of Preti’s late works and was painted in Malta.
While the work was not painted for the Governor’s Palace, it was donated to the Palace probably through the legacy of Andrea di Giovanni, Knight of the Order of Malta.
In this composition, Preti captures the moment when an allegory of Philosophy, whose image follows the iconography of the subject, appears to the jailed Boethius, who sits pondering his past. There are at least three copies of the painting by Preti’s workshop which shows its presence in Malta, and also demonstrates it was an important picture, according to Prof. Sciberras.
He further explained that while Preti produced a large number of paintings, and many of them are extraordinary, there are those which have that added special characteristic.
“This has it all. It has the theme and the narrative, the quality, the size and the provenance,” he said. “What really interests me and what is fascinating about this work is the subject. As a scholar I am intrigued by the number of works Preti painted in Malta that represent either philosophy or subjects of a philosophical nature.”
Behind the scenes, a number of players, including Heritage Malta, various ministries and the art world, made a concerted effort to bring this masterpiece back to Malta, said Prof. Sciberras.
Judge Giovanni Bonello, one of those who pushed for the acquisition of this important work, said: “Mattia Preti is today acknowledged as a truly gigantic figure in the art world, among the top five of the seicento baroque.
“Though a Calabrian, he identifies with Malta in that he lived most of his mature life on the island and created his most important masterpieces in Malta and for Malta.”
Regarding some criticism of the high cost of the painting, he said, “even if one were to look at this purchase from a purely materialistic perspective, superior art is always a secure investment.”