Written by C. Rolé
Born in 1613 in a small town of Taverna in Clabria, Mattia Preti was sometimes also called Il Cavalier Calabrese. Mattia Preti is considered an original and in a way unconventional master. His style is difficult to fit into a rigid framework of a particular school, even though he can be generally associated with the broad radius of Neapolitan painting, or with the Caravaggesque tradition (Zuffi, 1999). Mattia Preti's early apprenticeship is said to have been with Giovanni Batista Caracciolo, which may account for this interest in Caravaggio's style (Napoli, 1999). Between 1653 and 1660, Mattia Preti worked in Naples, where he was influenced by Luca Giordano. In Naples, he painted a number of frescoes, ex-votos of the plague where he depicted the Virgin or saints delivering people from the plague. Tow sketches of these frescos are today found in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples (Clifton, 1994). While in Naples, Preti also won a commission to supervise the construction, carving and gilding for the nave and transept of San Pietro a Maiella (Napoli, 1999).
While in Rome, Preti became Knight of Obedience within the Sovereign Military Order of Saint John (1642). In 1559, Preti visited the Maltese Islands and during his visit, he visited St. John's Church, which at that time was in its initial stage of embellishment. After donating the painting of St. Catherine to the church of Santa Caterina d'Italia in Valletta, Preti was elevated to Knight of Grace. In 1661, Grand Master Raphael Cotoner informed the Council of the Order of Saint John that Fra Mattia Preti offered to paint and gild the vault of Saint John's Conventual Church in Valletta (Debono, 2005). Preti offered to do this work of art at his own expense (Buttigieg 2000). Before he was awarded the painting of this vault, Preti submitted designs both for the vault, depicting the life cycle of St John the Baptist, as well as for other architectural and structural modifications in the chapels and windows of the church for approval. After discussion, his designs were approved and the Council even suggested that the treasury should supply the artist with all the necessary materials such as paints and gold leaves (Debono, 2005). The work on the vault was finished by 1666 (Buttigieg, 2000). Mattia Preti left also a number of paintings in the Parish Church at Żurrieq.
Mattia Preti's paintings in Żurrieq
The Parish Church at Żurrieq is one of the oldest churches found in the Maltese Islands. In fact, when in 1436 Bishop Senatore de Mello was commissioned to do an inventory of the parish churches found in Malta, he referred to a cappella di lu Zurrico (Zarb and Buhagiar, 1978). Next to the church, there was a cemetery with a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter. Even though the church already existed before 1436, the first description of this church is found in the report of Mgr Pietro Dusina in 1575 (Terribile, 2004).
Due to the continuous increase in population in the early 17th century, it was concluded that a new parish church was needed in order to accommodate all the locals who went there to receive their sacraments and to fulfill their religious obligations. In fact, in around 1630, Dun Antonio Demos, who at that time was the parish priest of Żurrieq, started to plan for the building of new parish church. The project took 25 years to be completed (Zarb and Buhagiar, 1978).
A few years after the completion of the church (precisely in 1676) there was an outbreak of plague in Malta. A cherished tradition holds that Fra Mattia Preti, who owned a summer residence at Żurrieq, took shelter precisely in this village when Malta, especially Valletta (being in the Harbour area), was infested by plague. However, this story was never confirmed by historical evidence and what is known for sure about Mattia Preti's affinity with Żurrieq, are the masterpieces which are still present and taken care of, at the parish church at Żurrieq (Mangion & Spike, 1998).
The Parish Church's collection of Mattia Preti's paintings consist of eight masterprieces, which also include the altarpiece depicting Our Lady of the Rosary. Unfortunately, this painting was lost during the air raids of the Second World War (Mangion & Spike, 1998).
The first painting by Mattia Preti in Saint Catherine's Parish church at Żurrieq was that of the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen in 1662-1663. This was one of the earliest independent commissions that the artist got after his arrival in Malta. Today, this painting is situated on a side altar of this Parish Church. This side altar was commissioned and paid by Bartholomeo Magro. Later on, Preti was commissioned another painting, that of Saint Andrew. This painting dates back to 1665-1667 and was first mentioned by Bishop Buenos in 1667 in the report related to his visit. This altarpiece is also found on a side altar which was commissioned and paid by the Żurrieq fishermen when the Chapel of Saint Andrew in Bubaqra was closed down (Mangion & Spike, 1998).
During his pastoral visit to the Parish Church at Żurrieq in 1678, Bishop Molina recognized two of Mattia Preti's paintings as masterpieces. These were the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and that of the Eternal Father situated above it. These paintings were placed in the church choir and are still kept there today. In fact, the titular painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine ranks among one of the artists' greatest works. The painting of the Eternal Father is so detailed and lifelike that it raises the question whether Preti had a model posing for this portrait (Mangion & Spike, 1998).
Between 1667 and 1669, Mattia Preti was commissioned another three paintings. One of these paintings depicts The visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth. In this painting, there are also figured Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Paul the Hermit (Terribile, 2004). Today, this painting is situated in the church's sacristy. The second paining is that of Saint Rocco, Blaise, Dominic and Nicholas of Tolentino. This painting was paid by Domenico Camilleri of Casal Bubacra and was commissioned in the period when the plague epidemic reached the village of Żurrieq. In fact, it was commissioned as a prayer for these Saints to intercede for the cessation of the disease (Mangion & Spike, 1998).. The third is that of Our Lady of Graces which originally was situated on the Altar of Saint Rocco (Terribile, 2004).
Today, one can say that with the exception of Saint John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, the Cathedral of Mdina and the votice chapel of Sarria, Saint Catherine's parish church at Żurrieq has the highest concentration of Mattia Preti's paintings amongst the Maltese Churches. The parish church at Żurrirq owes this extraordinary collection mainly to the energetic pastorship of Don Matteolo Saliba, the parish priest at that time (Terribile, 2004).
Mattia Preti left an immense number of works of art to the Maltese Island. Infact, many churches of that era have a number of paintings by the artist. Throughout his life, Mattia Preti was very much influenced by Caravaggio and hence the oil on canvas technique employed by Preti could be very similar to that of Caravaggio.
For Mattia Preti, paining was the essence of his life, a way to get closer to God, and a way to please the less fortunate of the society. In fact, one of his famous quotations was:
"per voi dipingo, non avendo per me bisogno di nulla". (Taverna il bel paese, nd)
List of references
Buttigieg, P. (2000.). Taghrif dwar il-Konkatidral ta' San Gwann. Zabbar (Malta): Veritas Press
Clifton, J. (1994). Mattia Preti's Frescoes for the city gates of Naples. Art Bulletin, 479 - 501
Debono, J. (2005.). Art and Artisans in St. John's and other churches in the Maltese islands c.a. 1650 - 1800. Gudja (Malta): Guttenberg Press.
Mangion, A. & Spike, J. (1998.). Preti's Paintings for the Parish Church in Zurrieq In Manduca, J. (Ed) Treasures of Malta Vol. No. 1. Malta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
Mangion, A. & Zerafa, K. (1989.). Santa Katarina: il-festa u s-socjeta muzikalil taghha fiz-Zurrieq. Valletta: Peresso Printing Press.
Napoli, E. (1999). Mattia Preti: tra Roma, Napoli e Malta. Italy: Elemond Editori Associati.
Taverna..il bel paese.. (nd.). Mattia Preti. Avaialble at: http://tavernailbelpaese.wordpress.com-mattia-preti, Accessed on 19th July, 2010.
Terribile, T. (2004.). Tezori fil-knejjes Maltin: Hal Kirkop, l-Imqabba, il-Qrendi, Hal Safi u z-Zurrieq. Pieta: Publikazzjonijiet Indiendenza.
Zarb, S.M. & Buhagiar, M. (1978.). Saint Catherine of Alexandria: her churches, paintings and statues in the Maltese Islands. Valletta: Progress Press Ltd.
Zuffi, S. (1999). (Ed.) Baroque Painting: two centuries of masterpieces from the era preceding the dawn of modern art. Italy: Elemond Editori Associati