Another art controversy blows up
Every so many years, our community gets a sudden, big, explosion of an art controversy and, while not being experts in the field, we enjoy seeing so many eminent persons squabbling like mud wrestlers, basically calling each other all sorts of names. Good fun, except for the protagonists. In May 2016 Heritage Malta acquired for €75,000 a painting by Mattia Preti representing Apelles. This painting was bought through sale by auction at Artcurial Auction House (Paris). It was subsequently brought to Malta, studied, researched, conserved and restored before presenting it in an exhibition.
The painting depicts Apelles, the famous Greek painter from Classical Antiquity, painting Campaspe, Alexander the Great’s lover. It is also a self portrait, given that Apelles has Preti’s facial features.
This detail was noted by Preti’s biographer, Bernardo de Dominici, who makes direct reference to the painting by the artist.
A special exhibition at the National Museum of Archaeology was inaugurated by the Minister of Justice, Culture and Local Government Owen Bonnici, in the presence
of Chairman of Heritage Malta Joseph M. Buttigieg, CEO of Heritage Malta Kenneth Gambin, and Alexander Debono, Senior Curator Arts & Palaces. Minister Dr Owen Bonnici said the acquisition of this painting is in line with the Government’s policy to enhance the National Collection.
He also said that last year Heritage Malta spent almost €300,000 in acquisition of artefacts and paintings to enhance the National Collection.
Dr Bonnici emphasised the importance of such research projects, since they give further value to the collections. But then up popped up Professor Keith Sciberras who claimed this is not an original painting by Preti but a copy made by his ‘bottega’.The original painting, he said, is preserved by the Cottoner family in Spain.
There are two known copies of this painting, one of which was cut up in three parts, one of which is the one purchased by Heritage Malta, another part in a museum in Ariccia, outside Rome and another one in a private collection outside Malta.
These copies were made by the Preti ‘bottega’, hence not by the artist himself. Another full size workshop replica (also cut down) is preserved in a private collection in Malta.
Battle was thus engaged and it remains without a clear victor.
TVM quoted the foremost expert on Preti, Professor John Spike and well-known Italian art expert Vittorio Sgarbi to vouch that Preti is the author. Another expert who pitched in was Judge Giovanni Bonello, who counselled the purchase.
Professor Sciberras remains unpersuaded, and Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci pointed out that TVM did not get a direct quote from Sgarbi or Spike.
This is not the first time (and probably will not be the last time) that we get these huge art controversies in Malta. A few years back we had the Caravaggio centenary and we suddenly had two competing exhibitions with snide accusations between them of which were real Caravaggio paintings and which were almost fake, or at least marginally Caravaggisti.