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Famous 17th century sculptor's works on display

Baroque historian Keith Sciberras pointing out a detail of an oil lamp designed by Melchiorre Cafà. The lamp is one of the exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts. Picture: Chris Sant Fournier courtesy of the owners and Heritage Malta.

Baroque historian Keith Sciberras pointing out a detail of an oil lamp designed by Melchiorre Cafà. The lamp is one of the exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts. Picture: Chris Sant Fournier courtesy of the owners and Heritage Malta.

An exhibition comprising only some pieces by Maltese sculptor Melchiorre Cafà, recognised internationally as one of the great masters of Roman baroque, was enough to show his genius, baroque historian Keith Sciberras said.

Such a specialised exhibition is being held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta until November 14. Extremely well-laid out and lit to take the visitor into the realm of the grandiose and operatic baroque, the display is called Melchiorre Cafà - Maltese Genius of the Roman Baroque.

Curated by Dr Sciberras and set up by Heritage Malta, the exhibition includes the terracotta model of the Charity of St Thomas of Villanova, an excellent example of Cafà's inventiveness, making him one of the most respected artists of his time in Rome.

Cafà was born in Vittoriosa in 1636 and died at the young age of 31. Aged 22, he left Malta for Rome where he spent the rest of his short working life.

Like most other artists, Cafà was fascinated by the attraction of Rome as a centre of glorious artistic activity. The family name, Gafà, is not used for the exhibition because the artist is referred to in international publications as Cafà, Dr Sciberras said.

"Cafà became so famous and his inventive capabilities were so great that he attracted commissions from the most important patrons. His legacy has been recaptured in the 20th century."

To die young was nothing out of the ordinary in those days but biographers say Cafà died when a piece of a life-size model of St John the Baptist fell on him. As far as is known, however, the cause of his death is not documented, Dr Sciberras added.

The marble statues of the models in the exhibition are in Rome. The wax relief of the Glory of St Catherine of Siena at the exhibition is a sketch model for the marble altar relief of St Catherine in the church of Santa Caterina in Magnanapoli.

The terracotta model of the Charity of St Thomas was made for the marble group of the church of San Agostino. It was commissioned by Prince Camillo Pamphilij in 1663.

Cafà managed to complete only the statue of St Thomas before his death. The rest of the group was eventually completed by Ercole Ferrata, Cafà's close collaborator and friend in Rome.

The exhibition includes also two wax figures of martyr saints. These models were pigmented, a process which resulted in the loss of a substantial amount of detail. The purpose of making these models is not known although they could have been made for the colonnade of St Peter's in Rome.

Cafà was one of the sculptors short-listed for part of the project months before he died.

Works in Malta that can be securely attributed to Cafà include the statue of St Paul at St Paul Shipwrecked church in Valletta and the Virgin of the Rosary at the Dominican Priory Church in Rabat.

The marble statue of St Paul in St Paul's Grotto in Rabat was completed by Ferrata after the Maltese artist's death.

The highlight of the exhibition is an oil lamp that Cafà designed and was made in Rome on a commission by Donna Cosmana Cassar Navarra of Rabat in 1666.

The exquisite silver and gilt bronze lamp hangs in the side chapel dedicated to St Anthony at St Paul parish church in Rabat.

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