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The faith and humanity

Way back in 1988, a tiny but indo­mi­table lady called Erminia Corace phoned to make an appointment to see me about a potential sponsorship. In those days I was PRO for the erstwhile Mid Med Bank which had just carved out a reputation for itself as a premier patron of the arts by sponsoring Nicholas de Piro’s International Dictionary of Artists who painted Malta. Lest we forget; in those days publishing Meltiensia was still considered to be a lost cause financially and only undertaken out of a sense of duty.

This exhibition is a tour de force and the culmination of many years of preparation

The late lamented Godwin Said was convinced he could turn this around by making attractive and lavishly illustrated coffee table style books out of the usual over academic and pictorially sparse tomes that used to be bought by just a small circle of cognoscenti. He was right. Mario Buhagiar’s The Iconography of Malta and Nicholas de Piro’s dictionary changed all that forever. Still, when Dottoressa Corace called it was still early days but she was persuasive and convinced us all that making the publication of the first ever book dedicated to the life and works of Mattia Preti would be a great success. Therefore it was left to me to follow and monitor the compilation and printing of this book, today, like the Buhagiar and the de Piro, a collector’s item, till its publication in 1989.

I will never forget the launch t held in the Preti Rooms at the National Museum of Fine Arts in South Street. The awareness of our heritage, strange as it may sound, was still something relatively new in those days even though in this day and age this attitude has multiplied a thousandfold, and the excitement and the sense of pride was palpable as the guests queued to order the book and look at the paintings with new eyes. The monograph, as it was always referred to, contained essays by Santino Vitelli, John T Spike, Federica Picirillo, Maurizio Marini and Claudio Strinati.

Fast forwarding to 2013 and the exhibition that was inaugurated by President George Abela last Friday, I was overtaken by a poignant wave of nostalgia as I stood before the newly restored Young Saint John, who engages the viewer with an expression that can only be described as bitter-sweet. This has always been my favourite Preti work and I am not alone. Preti was born in the Calabrian town of Taverna on February 24, 1613 which is why, on the occasion of the fourth centenary since his birth, Malta and Taverna put together this lovely exhibition of works selected from both places and top museums entitled Faith and Humanity in the Presidential Palace, Valletta. This exhibition is a tour de force and the culmination of many years of preparation undertaken by Heritage Malta and the National Museum of Fine Arts under the able direction of its curator Sandro De Bono. To all the many people who made this glorious exhibition possible go my heartfelt thanks.

Many of the works we know and love are there but they have now been beautifully restored. The Young Saint John is a case in point but the glorious Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, one of the many, has a story to tell as it started out in life as a Martyrdom of St Paul! There are a number of paintings from other museums, some of which I have seen before in my peregrinations, like the marvellous Jesus and the Sons of Zebedee in the Brera, the story of which gives the exhibition its title, and the glorious altarpiece from Taverna depicting St John in the full glory of virile manhood, his body twisted in the classical line of beauty so lauded by Hogarth; a direct descendant of Praxiteles’s Hermes and Dionysius with a three quarter portrait of the Cavaliere Calabrese himself in the habit of the Order.

It cost Mattia Preti the entire ceiling of the conventual church of St John to be admitted in what was then the most aristocratic order of chivalry in the world. No wonder he was so inordinately proud and it is to me logical to conclude that by placing himself in this altarpiece, painted in Malta for Taverna, Preti wanted to show his compatriots how well he had done.

The Christ Risen in Glory with Saints from the Prado contains a delightful little pentimento but I simply cannot get over the beauty of the three central figures of St Francis of Assisi, St Mary Magdalene and St Jerome with a putto holding his eschewed cardinal’s hat. The rather gruesome most Counter Reformation that decapitated St John the Baptist in amazing foreshortening came from the archbishopric of Seville. Not my favourite iconographic subject but one can understand how in that relatively violent age a decapitated body was, mercifully, a far more familiar sight than it would ever be today. There is a similar decapitated corpse in the Capodimonte Judith which is even more gruesome. But that was the spirit of the age.

I love the strength and vigour in the painting from the Abatellis in Palermo of the four evangelists unusually depicted as a group along with their avatars, the ox, the lion, the eagle and the angel. All busy writing except for St Luke who is busy painting a Madonna and Child. I was also intrigued by The Concertino formerly in the Barolo collection and now in the Alba Municipio. A woman at what could possibly be a clavichord and two children in something that precedes, by three centuries, Matisse’s The Music Lesson with all its variations which I love. These paintings and many more have been assembled for our delectation in this lovely exhibition.

Mattia Preti was to Valletta and St John’s Co Cathedral what Gianlorenzo Bernini was to Rome and St Peter’s. He is immensely important to local art history and his influence has been all pervasive. His influences – Caravaggio, primarily and the giants of the Bolognese School such as Guercino and Lanfranco – put Maltese art in the mainstream; something that was unfortunately lost in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that is another story.

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