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

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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

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