The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

Unsolved mysteries at Mattia Preti study day

Malta Independent Sunday, 16 June 2013, 08:30 Last update: about 6 years ago

A full account of the talks made at a special Mattia Preti study day held last Wednesday will be published in book form later on.

The study day was organised under the patronage of the President of the Italian Republic beginning with a morning formal session at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura and continuing in the afternoon with a session at the church of Santa Caterina d’Italia.

In the latter, the afternoon sun shining through the cupola lantern, showed in its best light the Mattia Preti masterpiece of the saint from Alexandria with the light coming from the same source as in the painting. That must have been how the Italian knights who commissioned the painting saw it during Vespers in the church.

Apart from weighty and important talks by authorities like John Spike, Dennis de Lucca and Theresa Vella, the speeches in the afternoon session also disclosed a number of mysterious events that have not yet been solved.

The study day focused on two illustrious knights from Calabria, the artist himself and Gregorio Carafa who later became Grand Master in the twilight of Preti’s years.

It was the Grand Master who commissioned the painting of St Gregory and the Virgin for the church of St Francis in Valletta as well as the painting of St Francis himself. The saint in the former painting resembles very much the Santo Vescovo (San Firmin) done by Preti before he came to Malta for the Chapel of Aragon in St John’s Co-Cathedral, said Maria Teresa Sorrenti.

Mgr John Azzopardi listed the Preti paintings for various churches in Malta, apart from those he did for St John’s. These included paintings for four religious orders, four parishes in Malta and two complete cycles at Mdina and Rabat.

It was for Vittoriosa that Preti painted his largest painting – the Martyrdom of St Lawrence, paid for by Canon Testaferrata who later commissioned the St Paul cycle for the Mdina Cathedral, at that time, before the 1693 earthquake, still in its medieval form. Preti then had the unique distinction of restoring his own painting, the shipwreck, on top of the vault, directly on Maltese stone.

With his Rabat connection, Mgr Azzopardi had incredible stories to tell about the Preti connection with St Paul’s Grotto.

There was politics involved. Mdina was a no-go area for the Knights due to the resistance by the Maltese aristocracy and the Rabat parish church, dedicated to St Paul was built by a Maltese aristocrat, Cosmana Navarra, on behalf of the diocese.

The knights were given custody of the grotto and they tried very hard to foster devotion to St Paul even through the creation of a college of chaplains living across the road.

But strangely, Cosmana Navarra made a strategic mistake when she was building the church: she neglected to buy the whole area and the part she did not own belonged to the Grand Master. The building of the church continued but the church had a strange shape due to lack of access to the garden.

Also, the church commissioned paintings from Maltese artists, notably Stefano Erardi, and not one from Mattia Preti, the Order’s foremost artist.

After long negotiations, the Grand Master surrendered his garden and the church’s other transept could be built. It was agreed that Preti was to paint a Saints in Purgatory for the altar in this area, but instead, for a reason still unknown today, he painted the Stoning of St Stephen.

It is unlikely this politically incorrect decision was just a mistake. The stoning of St Stephen does not portray St Paul, who kept the clothes of those who were stoning Stephen, in a good light.

Preti may not have been averse to such jokes. According to Sandro Debono, when Preti finally got to decorate the church of San Domenico in his native Taverna, the church of the nobles who had ostracized his family for so long, he painted an angel with a cartouche which says ‘Poenite’. Ostensibly, this was short for Poenitaentia but actually it meant “Repent”.

Mgr Azzopardi told a story as recounted by Francesco Panzavecchia that when Preti was painting a pope for a painting in St Francis church, he chose his own slave to be the pope. But something happened and the ‘pope-slave’ ran out of the house and wandered around Valletta’s streets dressed as a pope until the artist calmed down.

Sante Guido told a little-known story to do with Preti’s Christological cycle in the Oratory of St John’s, maybe on commission by Grand Master Carafa.

It may seem incredible to us today in view of the pride of place given to Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John but it would seem that all efforts were made to detract attention from the Caravaggio. First there was the Ciro Ferri Berninesque Reliquary for St John’s hand put on the altar and later on an entire Crucifixion group.

Giuseppe Mantella ended the proceedings by expressing a wish that in conclusion of the Preti centenary year he and Sante Guido may succeed in restoring the Preti absidal painting of the shipwreck at the Mdina Cathedral.

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