The Mattia Preti controversy
It is not normal in Malta that an academic debate around a Maltese work becomes something of national interest. This is what has happened with Heritage Malta’s purchase of a painting who some are saying is a Mattia Preti and others are stating that it is
Dr Simon Mercieca is senior lecturer, Department of History
The debate was about whether this painting was completely Mattia Preti’s work or whether it is a Mattia Preti and bottega. Up to this point, there is nothing wrong. This led to the rising of a political question, whether Heritage Malta paid the correct market price for this painting or not.
After what has appeared in the media, there are at least four possibilities as to the identity of the painter or painters behind this work. The first is that it is the complete work of Mattia Preti. The second is that it is the work of Matta Preti and bottega. By bottega it is understood that the work was executed by Mattia Preti with the help of assistants.
Vittorio Scarbi suggests that this could be a joint workmanship of Mattia Preti and his brother Gregorio. Since the name of Gregorio has been mentioned as a possible contributor to this painting, one needs to explore whether this was the work of Gregorio and bottega. It is a known fact that Gregorio held a bottega and Mattia, who was ten years younger, studied and worked at his brother’s workshop. At least from what I read in the media, no one has yet suggested that this is the work of some other artist. What is being debated here is the level of authorship by Mattia Preti in the creation of this painting.
This controversy and acquisition can be a Godsend, as it could shed light on the work of these two great artists. I met art experts who considered Gregorio as an extremely talented artist but his figure was overshadowed by that of his younger brother, Mattia. There are instances of collaboration between these two artists. The painting Madonna della Purità is a combined work by these two siblings. Now, if Art Historians can prove that there is the hand of Gregorio in this painting acquired by Heritage Malta, then this should be considered as a bonus.
To complicate the situation further, there is another similar painting, which is being considered a genuine canvas by Mattia Preti. To complicate matters, there is the possibility that there were two other versions of this same painting. At this point it is only natural that people think that the known version which is in Spain, is the original and therefore, Heritage Malta bought a fragment from a copy of the original. But this perception needs to be grounded in history. As the date of the execution of these two paintings is still uncertain and even the place where they were painted is unsure, the question of which of the two came first, remains tricky and still needs to be established with certainty.
I am saying this as there is a consensus that in these two paintings, there is the hand of Mattia Preti. What art historians are debating is the level and extent of Mattia’s intervention in both paintings. Normally, Mattia’s collaboration with Gregorio is associated with the artist’s early career. Therefore, if there is the contribution of Gregorio, then this painting came first. The correct historical argument would be that Mattia Preti was asked to make a copy due to the success that this painting must have had among the elite of the seventeenth century.
Undoubtedly laboratory tests can prove whether the work bought by Heritage Malta is of one hand or of more hands. Moreover, these tests can establish whether this painting was done in Malta or in Naples or Rome. This can be established by analysing the type of material that was used in the execution of this work.
A leading expert in this field is Professor Carlo Lalli. I am sure that if contacted, he would be in a position to give invaluable advice on this painting, which definitely can help in establishing the truth behind such an interesting controversy.
Therefore, if this fragment is from the original painting, a copy has ended up being considered superior by experts in the field. But this is another story. Unfortunately, we associate originals with always being of superior quality to copies but there are exceptions to the rules.
The fact that in both works there is the hand of Mattia Preti explains why Mattia would have accepted to do a copy of a painting even if, there is the possibility that was done in collaboration with his brother. He must have considered this painting to be his, even if, he was not its sole artist.
The subject of this painting is also confusing. Today, art historians seem to agree that it represents a story from ancient Greece. It is that of Alexander the Great with Pampapse, who was one of his mistresses. Pampapse is portrayed at the moment when she was being painted by Apelle. Alexander the Great is portrayed at the other end of the painting. Apelle is in the middle and Pampapse at the other end.
It was first thought that the lady was a courtesan because she was presented with her breast visibly showing. In this case, the sitter would have been a slave or a courtesan. Eventually, it was established that this painting represented a tale from Greek history. This led to the idea that the woman could have been a well-known Italian signora.
For sure, Mattia did not consider it demeaning to paint himself on a canvas showing a bare-breasted woman. In case, this painting is the work of a bottega, it was still not demeaning for his brother or any one of Mattia’s assistants to paint their master as Apelle.
Art historians are perhaps more interested in the figure of Mattia Preti and the techniques used in the execution of this painting. I am far more interested in the composition and theme of this painting. For sure, there would be a debate whether Pampepse was a noble “donna” or one of Mattia’s female slaves. If this was done in Malta, the chances are that she was his slave. If this painting was done in Rome or Naples, the chances are that this woman was a noble lady.
But these thoughts require an indepth discussion and analysis, within the parameters of the history of sexuality. This goes beyond the scope of this discussion.
In the world of art, experts are expected to evaluate the provenance of a work of art and estimate its market value. At the end of the day, it is the buyer who finally pays whatever price he or she can afford to possess it. This particular fragment was bought for €75,000. The least one can say is that it was bought at a price that paintings of Preti and bottega have been purchased in Malta in these last years.
Some decades ago, when the Museum of Fine Arts was still part of a government department, it acquired a painting by Mattia Preti, representing St Augustine. This painting is not the complete work of Mattia Preti. It is Preti and bottega. This was acquired back then at the price of Lm30,000. As a painting, this is rather small in size. It is the size of a portrait painting. Today this sum is equivalent to €70,000. More recently, a local entity also paid a similar price when it acquired a painting of Mattia Preti and bottega.
Therefore, Heritage Malta paid the right price for this painting, irrespective whether it is by his bottega or not. The truth is that the price of a Preti and bottega painting in Malta has not varied much over these past decades and this throws doubts around the discourse that is done around certain works of art to inflate their prices.
Therefore, the controversy should not be around the price but around the fact that a Preti and bottega in Malta appears to have remained stable over these past three decades. Moreover, a Preti and bottega painting in Malta is now fetching the same price that a Preti original is expected to get abroad. At least, the Parisian auction firm sold this fragment as a Preti painting. This throws some light on the racket that exists in Malta around the art market.
While it is normal in the academic work that such acquisitions are accompanied by a discussion, I still believe that it was a wise decision by Heritage Malta and government to have acquired this painting.
The Malta Independent Monday 24 October 2016