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Early Renaissance painting from Żejtun rediscovered

The Enthroned Virgin and Child is found on the altar of the Virgin of the Rosary in Żejtun parish church.

The Enthroned Virgin and Child is found on the altar of the Virgin of the Rosary in Żejtun parish church.

One of the finest Early Renaissance paintings in Maltese collections will soon begin its transformation as it is restored to its former glory.

The oils-on-board painting of the Enthroned Virgin and Child on the altar of the Virgin of the Rosary in Żejtun parish church has a fascinating and chequered history.

It carries the signature of Pedro Nuñez de Villavicencio (1640-c. 1695) and the date 1672, and was for long thought to be a copy by the distinguished Baroque artist from Seville and Knight of St John, of a much venerated, prestigious, but unfortunately lost, Renaissance painting.

The importance of the painting is testified by the existence of at least three copies, one of which, an oils on canvas, is in the collection of Verdala Palace, Buskett.

The ongoing research carried out by Mario Buhagiar and myself, respectively director and research officer of the Research Programme for the study of Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Art (Department of History of Art, University of Malta), has proved the painting to be the lost original, restored, retouched, and in parts, repainted by Villavicencio who added his signature to the painting.

Nuñez de Villavicencio was an artist of note, who while in Malta was greatly influenced by Mattia Preti. He later moved in the circle of the great Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

In the inscription on the Żejtun painting, on the right of the virgin’s throne, Villavicencio describes himself as ‘Capitano Fra’, a reference to his knighthood. The inscription has misled generations of art historians into thinking he was the painter. But, research has now securely documented that it commemorates its restoration not its execution.

Villavicencio’s restoration was noted in 1693 in the PastoralVisitation Report of Bishop Davide Cocco-Palmieri.

It was uncharacteristic of Villavicencio to make copies of Early Renaissance paintings, and to work in oils on panel. As far as is known, he always worked on canvas.

The research programme has ReCoop Conservation Lab, Malta, to carry out diagnostic tests on pigment samples. It also commissioned infrared and ultraviolet photographs which were undertaken at the same lab.

These confirm Villavicencio intervened heavily on the painting and repainted extensive sections. His intervention concealed many features that will be revealed by the restoration.

The original artist of the Żejtun painting shows an intimate knowledge of Antonello da Messina (c.1430-1479). Anto-nello was one of the greatest geniuses of the Italian Early Renaissance, whose combination of the Flemish oil technique with Italian breath of form, had a decisive influence on the development of painting in Italy in general, and Venice in particular.

Foremost among the artists who produced works for Maltese patrons were da Messina’s three gifted nephews, the brothers Pietro de Saliba (doc.1477-1530) and Antonio de Saliba (1466/7-c.1535), and their cousinGiovanni Salvo d’Antonio (doc.1461-c.1488), the son of Antonello’s brother Giordano.

The possibility is that the Żejtun Enthroned Virgin and Child is by Antonio de Saliba who was prolific and ran a busybottega.

De Saliba was the son of Antonello’s sister and ofGiovanni de Saliba, who was Maltese. Among his patrons were the Franciscan Friars Minor for whose church of Santa Maria di Gesù in the suburb (Rabat) of the Civitas (Mdina) he produced a polyptych that he completed in 1515.

A copy of the final payment to the artist calls him “Nobilis Antonello Resaliba c[ivis] m[essanensis]”, and records that he was receiving the money “pro factura et constructione euiusdam cone”.

The retable was an ambitious painting consisting of at least 15 panels, two of which, a Virgin and Child with Angels and a Lamentation for Christ, both signed ‘F.F.A. Messina’, survive.

The Żejtun painting can be traced back to the 15th century and was originally the central panel of a triptych in the old parish church of Żejtun (SanGirgor). The side panels or volets represented St Paul and St Catherine of Alexandria. They are now lost.

The painting remained in the old parish church until 1709 when it was transferred to the new parish church and placed on the rosary altar, where it still has cultic relevance.

The side panels are last mentioned in the Pastoral Visitation Report of 1644-1646. It is possible they were not considered worth restoring in 1672 because they were so severely damaged, perhaps in the razzia of 1614 during which the church was plundered and had to be closed down for a number of months.

This painting is another instance that proves that Malta before the knights was not an artistic desert. In addition, it is further proof of the links that Malta had with the Messina School of Antonello. The conservation and restoration exercise will give back to the painting its original qualities and make it possible to attribute it in a meaningful art historical context.

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