After years of waiting patiently in the silent vaults of a Geneva storage facility, 13 old master paintings are again fulfilling the roles for which they were created: to be hung, admired and inspire.
The paintings, which range from the late 15th to the mid-18th centuries and include autograph works by world-renowned artists Giovanni Baglione, François Boucher and Claude-Joseph Vernet, are on a generous long-term loan from an international private collection.
They are making their national debut in a prestigious exhibition entitled Masterpieces at MUŻA, which forms part of Heritage Malta’s mission to make art accessible to the masses. Apart from two paintings that have been displayed briefly in exhibitions during the past 10 years, the majority of these works of art have been out of public sight for decades.
Ensuring a future to these paintings’ past, the masterpieces will be integrated within MUŻA’s permanent collection for five years and, possibly, for a further five years once the exhibition is over.
With artworks capturing the harmonious idiom of the High Renaissance typified by the far-reaching influence exercised by Raffaello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the exhibition is making the output of a remarkable assemblage of trailblazing art luminaries available to the Maltese public for the very first time.
The exhibition also features paintings commissioned to Peter Paul Rubens and workshop, among others revelling in the theatrical baroque and flamboyant rococo.
Masterpieces at MUŻA unfolds in five sections allowing for a thematic experience and providing context for the choice of diverse subjects represented in the 13 paintings. In keeping with the way MUŻA’s four narratives within the museum’s permanent collection are presented, two portraits, those of Pietro Soderini, and a young Renaissance woman, greet the visitor to the museum in the first section entitled Facing Portraits.
Soderini was a Florentine statesman and ambassador to the French court since 1493. He is depicted as a sombre politician of cultivated manners and emotional self-control. Conversely, the portrait attributed to Giovanni Bellini and circle is awash in colour and light, revealing the charming flesh tones that are typical of the poetic Venetian school of art.
The four paintings in the following section, Madonna and Child, were intended for private devotion inside family chapels or private settings. In the oil and tempera painting of the Madonna and Child with the young St John the Baptist − attributed to da Vinci and circle − the artist’s love and insatiable fascination for all things natural is plain to see. Using the triangle as the basis for the position of figures, a convention employed to create a balanced and symmetrical composition, the eye is drawn to the cherubic baby Jesus and the infant Baptist who lie on either side, at the feet of the Virgin.
In the next section, Passion and Devotion, the Crucifixion by Rubens and his Antwerp-based workshop was very probably originally part of a triptych entitled Miraculous Draught of Fishes painted in 1618-1619 for a documented commission from the fishermen’s guild. Ruben’s Jansenist interpretation of the Crucifixion presents Christ with his arms stretched upwards, rather than horizontally. The Flanders-based Jansenist reform held that salvation was reserved for those souls in the grace of God and not for all sinners.
Two paintings feature in the section dedicated to Greek Myth in Art, which became a source of inspiration for Renaissance artists leading to the ‘rebirth’ of the classical Greek style.
Leda and the Swan, a later imitation of the original work by Michelangelo Buonarotti himself, is one of many versions of the pairing of Queen Leda with Zeus, Olympian god of the sky and thunder, who is disguised as a swan. The painting depicts Mannerist tendencies of elongating and twisting the figure, also known as figura serpentinata, a technique which features heavily in Michelangelo’s oeuvre.
Harmonious landscape paintings took a leap in the 17th century when artists attached metaphorical meanings to natural elements.
The Tempest by Claude-Joseph Vernet is the sole painting in the final section within the exhibition titled Destructive Nature. Painted in 1751, when Vernet returned to France after 20 years in Italy furthering his reputation as an artist of seascapes, The Tempest illustrates the artist’s ability to go from calm, lulling atmospheres to destruction, devastation and disruption.
Masterpieces at MUŻA, which runs until October 31, is being supported by Visit Malta, the Ministry for the National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government, the Ministry for Finance and the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta.
For more information, log onto www.muza.mt.
Warren Bugeja is executive communications at Heritage Malta.