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Noletti, Picasso, and other treasures

Detail from postcard. Photo: Peter Bartolo Parnis

Detail from postcard. Photo: Peter Bartolo Parnis

Detail from Johann Friedrich Breithaupt’s Christliche Helden Insel Malta. Courtesy of the National Library of Malta. Photo: Peter Bartolo ParnisDetail from Johann Friedrich Breithaupt’s Christliche Helden Insel Malta. Courtesy of the National Library of Malta. Photo: Peter Bartolo Parnis

Various: Treasures of Malta, Christmas 2016,
Vol. XXIII, No. 1

The 67th number of Treasures of Malta, the flagship publication of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, carries on its cover a fascinating detail of a wonderful painting by Valletta-born artist Francesco Noletti (c.1611-54), an artist who is only now slowly emerging from artistic quasi-anonymity. The recent exhibition at the Old University gave many of us the opportunity of viewing several of his works, which are in private ownership, like this particular one.

The painting, Still Life with Armour, Vessels and Gloves on a Turkish Carpet, happens to be art historian Keith Sciberras’s “favourite object”; here, he shares his knowledge of the artist and his period. That Noletti has become so well known is due in great part to Sciberras’s pioneering work.

A few years ago we did not even know his real name. He was known as Francesco Fieravino, or Il Maltese. Today, no fewer than 58 paintings have been securely identified and the number is growing, while the artist and his oeuvre are the subject of ongoing research which should lead to a major revaluation of his art.

Sciberras is also the co-author, together with Eric Fenech-Sevasta, of a paper that proposes a new attribution to the works of the ‘enigmatic’ Cassarino. It is a Caravaggesque Beheading of St John the Baptist that is found in a private collection in Malta. Although some recent new information has transpired about the artist, Cassarino remains a problematic figure in the history of Maltese art. Bearing the coat of arms of Grand Master Aloph Wignacourt, the painting could very well have been a magistral commission. In spite of some very evident anato­mical weaknesses, the painting seems to have several simi­larities with other known works by the painter.

Msida, by Carmelo Mangion.Msida, by Carmelo Mangion.

The Picasso featured in this number is not the famous Spanish artist, but Michele Picasso, a corsair captain whose six-month expedition in the eastern Mediterranean in 1794 are expertly chronicled and analysed by Liam Gauci. Among his prizes, there were no fewer than 59 individuals, who were sold off as slaves in Valletta, earning him the great sum of 13,000 scudi. This is the third contribution by Gauci dealing with the activities of the corsairs of Malta in the 18th century.

Sarah Chircop discusses some of the etchings by Carmelo Mangion (1905-97) who introduced the art form to the island in the 1930s and was a teacher of etching at the School of Art for over 20 years.

A most interesting artist in his own right, Mangion was a pioneer of modern art who was quite influenced by Malta’s incipient industrialisation at the beginning of the last century, which made a revolutionary artist on the local scene.   The Siculo-Byzantine icon of Our Lady at Mellie─ža, traditionally ascribed to St Luke, is one of the most popular cultic images in the island. In recent years it has undergone a conservation process that has removed many layers of overpainting. Valen­tina Lupo and Maria Grazia Zenzani, who were both involved in this project, give an excellent overview of the difficulties faced and the solutions adop­ted, while describing some of the most inte­resting findings and features that have emerged in the process.

The Picasso featured in this number is not the famous Spanish artist, but Michele Picasso, a corsair captain

In one of his regular, very readable, contributions Giovanni Bonello touches on art for cruise liners in Malta before World War II. Malta was, then, already a popular call for cruise liners, although nothing like it is today. Its popularity gave rise to customised postcards with a view of the island issued by the competing shipping companies as a means of promotion.

Beheading of St John the Baptist, attributed to Cassarino.Beheading of St John the Baptist, attributed to Cassarino.

This is a specialist area which may have tended to be overlooked in the past. Bonello traces their development and gives interesting details about the various artists involved.

Austrian historian Robert L. Dauber writes about Fra Don Ferdinando Alvarez de Toledo, prior of Castile in Malta. His arrival in Malta with a troop of soldiers 10 months after the lifting of the siege of 1565 was welcomed by one and all, especially since there was an imminent fear that Suleiman would send fresh forces to avenge his honour.

Fairly unknown today, Alvarez was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Alva III, who was to end the villain in plays by Goethe and Schiller and Verdi’s Don Carlos. The young Fernando had a notable military career, becoming Grand Prior of Castile of the Order in 1559.

Battle of Muhlberg, by Cristoforo Passini.Battle of Muhlberg, by Cristoforo Passini.

The conventual church of St John’s owes much to the Calab­rian master Mattia Preti. Before his arrival in Malta, the church was described as “having nothing special to see… except for the Beheading of St John”. Preti was to plan and oversee drastic architectural and decorative modifications, not least being the glorious vault paintings. In the process, its austere appearance, which might have suited the charisma of the Order, became a flamboyant Baroque experience that truly is our national gem.

Thomas Freller quotes from the experiences of several pre-Preti visitors like Hieronymus Megiser, Michael von Heberer, Duke Ludwig von Anhalt-Kothen and others. The account by the Catalan priest Miguel Matas, who came to Malta twice in 1602, is quite extensive and has not been published locally before. Other long accounts make up this contribution by this German scholar who has published so extensively about Malta and the Order.

Pollacca San Nicolo, by Antoine Roux.Pollacca San Nicolo, by Antoine Roux.

In the series of articles dealing with Melitensia curios, William Zammit and Theresa Vella present a portrait of Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner in the first manuscript volume of the history of the Order, which was eventually published in 1703, but without any actual portrait.

This number, being the first of the 23rd volume, also includes a subject index to the illustrations and an index to the papers in the previous volume.

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