400 years of Preti… and counting

We visit Mattia Preti: Faith and Humanity, an exhibition organised as part of Preti’s 400th-birthday celebrations at the President’s Palace in Republic Street, Valletta.

Centrepiece: X-ray research reveals an aborted previous painting under Mattia Preti’s Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria. Photo by Daniel Cilia.
Centrepiece: X-ray research reveals an aborted previous painting under Mattia Preti’s Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria. Photo by Daniel Cilia.

A couple of weeks ago (13 June, to be precise), the upper floor of the President's Palace in Republic Street, Valletta, was hardly the most comfortable place to be in. As part of the 'Mattia Preti: Faith and Humanity' exhibition, a tour was organised, and the turnout was better than expected.

"We had around ten people when we first did one back in May," curator Sandro Debono tells me after the whole thing is over. "So we really weren't expecting this much..."

The collection of works by Mattia Preti, accompanied by thematically arranged pieces from some of his contemporaries and artists who may have influenced him, makes for a cramped display when seen by a sizable enough crowd, and with it come the usual problems of stuffiness, sweat and all the rest of it.

But the tour, headed by a clearly passionate Debono, Heritage Malta's Senior Curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts since 2007, provides a unique insight into one of Malta's most celebrated expat artists - second only, perhaps, to Caravaggio - and the accompanying commentary by Debono proves to be the necessary glue that ties the exhibition together.

"We're trying, really, to encourage critical dialogue," is another thing he tells me when the group - to everyone's relief, I'm sure, finally disperses for some air and complimentary drinks. "You don't have to take everything I've said just now at face value."

Although "critical dialogue" may be reaching slightly - though historically rigorous, and sometimes inspired in its juxtaposition of different works, the exhibition is hardly incendiary in what it proposes - what is felt is a definite sensitivity to the subject at hand.

The centrepiece of the show would undoubtedly have to be an X-ray investigation into Preti's Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria (dated 1661-1666). The investigation, undertaken in 2012, revealed that the painting was in fact originally conceived to be a Martyrdom of St Paul... which, for reasons unknown, the artist never completed, opting instead to transform it to the 'St Catherine' painting we know today.

Exposed under the glare of stark X-ray imagery and placed side-by-side - a reproduction made possible thanks to the Opifico delle Pietre Dure, Florence - the arrangement inspires a childlike, giddy thrill of discovery ('Who knows what else may lurk behind other paintings we know and love?').

The exhibition also makes an effort to place Preti in a wider artistic context, as in the juxtaposition of Preti's The Crucified Christ with the anatomically similar engraving Ecce Homo by Albrecht Durer (another artist with Maltese connections).

"There is a general awareness about Mattia Preti's importance to Malta, which the exhibition certainly strengthens," Debono says. "His works hang in many local churches and his art has been associated very many times with cultural excellence. Visitors to the exhibition can relate Mattia Preti to the great masters of his times, such as Guercino, and relate his art to the great European collections."

Though Preti's biography may have lacked the tabloidish drama of a Caravaggio, his life story, detailing something of a 'riches to rags and back to riches' sort of narrative, is compelling enough. And the constellation of artistic coincidences that makes up Preti's career - particularly the stretch of biography that covers his stay in Malta - is certainly ripe for exploration.

Indeed, the exhibition is framed as if it were an intimate biography: starting out with paintings attributed to both Mattia Preti and his brother Gregorio, it ends with a cluster of self-portraits, the triumphant 1672 Saint John the Baptist with Self Portrait of Mattia Preti crowning the painter's return to the noble fold (financial woes had forced the Preti family to give up their noble title).

All in all, it's an admirably holistic portrayal of an artist's work, given some local urgency due to Preti's unquestionable contribution to art history in Malta. He's a direct part of our history now (let's not forget that he passed away in Valletta in 1699, to be buried in St John's Co-Cathedral).

With the relocation of the Fine Arts Museum currently underway, one can only hope that exhibitions of this kind will turn out to be the rule, rather than the exception.

"I think we can look at the exhibition as a foretaste of what the new national museum of fine arts at Auberge d'Italie will look like, what it will strive to achieve and how it will interact with audiences," Debono in fact says.

Mattia Preti: Faith and Humanity will remain on display at the President's Palace until 7 July. The next - and final - specialised tour with curator Sandro Debono will take place on 4 July. Log on to Heritage Malta's website for more information on other events and activities surrounding the exhibition.