Month: September 2021

Death of Dragut

Fresh from his two-year studies in Naples, the 21-year-old Calì painted this oil-on-canvas representing the fatally wounded Naval Commander of the Barbary Corsairs, Turgut Reis or Dragut, whose days were numbered during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. It displays the emotional reactions of the shocked Ottoman Turkish comrades as they witness in disbelief the slow expiry of their military hero.
Through this painting, the enthusiastic and ambitious Calì was all set to flaunt his refined painterly qualities, technical bravura, and breath-taking ‘verismo’ tinged with a strong dose of Romanticism. This he did with flying colours as his painting quickly attracted the attention of the British Government that purchased it and had it hung for a long time in the Palace Armoury.
Considering the volatile political scenario of the 1860s, fired by the constant cultural clash between the British and the Maltese, the subject matter of this painting held a special significance for the latter. It smacked of undercurrents of nationhood whereby Dragut symbolically represented the undesired foreigner (thus allegorizing the British) who has been defeated (the dream of the Anglophobes).

Academic study of a seated male nude

Part of the visual narrative of the museum is dedicated to the first art school in Malta which was founded within the Malta University of Literature established in 1800. This School of Art was the ‘Pictoria Artis Schola’ or ‘Scuola del Disegno’ and its artistic curriculum was structured on the classical artistic sensibility dominating academies in Europe at the time. Instead of apprenticing and receiving training with local master artists, students were finally given the opportunity to be formally trained in drawing, painting and other artistic techniques.
This signed and dated drawing by Raffaele Caruana, son of the Maltese artist, Pietro Paolo Caruana, who was one of the first teachers at the new Malta School of Art, is evidence of the high level of rigorous training that students underwent in order to learn how to capture the human body. This academic study was executed in Rome where Raffaele studied at the Academy of St Luke.


Staring melancholically back at us is a young Giuseppe Hyzler in his 20s. This Maltese artist painted his own half-length portrait while he was still studying in Rome. The prominently rising Dome of St Peter’s in the far distance not only establishes the location of the Eternal City, but it metaphorically also stands for the birthplace of Hyzler’s Nazarene doctrine in art, after having been spellbound by its founder, the German artist Johann Friedrich Overbeck.
Sporting long hair, an askew black beret and a white-collared black robe, Hyzler represents himself in true austere Nazarene fashion just like his mentor and comrade, Overbeck. His is a self-righteous mien reflecting his zeal to adopt the Nazarene idea of retrospectively seeking inspiration from early 15th-century Italian and German religious art in order to restore purity back into art after having been marred by what he believed to be the vulgar and decadent extravagance of the late Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo styles.

Madonna and Child, Two Angels, Detail of St Simon Stock

These detailed full-scale cartoons or preparatory drawings for one of the side altarpieces at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Mdina, shed light on the academic discipline applied by this Maltese ‘Purista’ artist to complete his large painting. These pencil-over-red-chalk drawings, executed to scale, were used to transfer the figures onto the canvas so that they were inserted in exact proportion to the composition he would have prepared.
Although Bellanti formed part of the local Nazarene tradition in art, his style is less rigid. By means of these drawings, we witness how Bellanti revives the Renaissance tradition of using cartoons to prepare for a large-scale painting or fresco commission. We are indeed very fortunate that these cartoons survive, as many were usually destroyed after serving their purpose.

View of St Julian’s Bay

Edward Lear, the famous British artist, poet, musician, illustrator and author who also excelled in limericks, travelled to Malta in 1848 and stayed for four months between 1865 and 1866. In restless search of landscapes to capture, Lear produced an impressive number of over 300 en plein air and studio watercolours during his stay on the island where he often complained about feelings of loneliness.
This rapidly sketched and almost monochrome-washed view of St Julian’s Bay was definitely carried out on site as revealed by its minimal qualities, just enough for Lear to elaborate upon when in his studio. While acting as a precious momentary return to a part of Malta that in the mid-19th century was inconceivably quiet and rural, this view is also priceless for the artist’s own handwritten notes indicating the ‘5:16pm’ time and the ‘29th Dec. 1865’ date when this view, for a brief while, caught Lear’s attention and brush.

View of the Grand Harbour

On permanent loan from HSBC, this view of the Grand Harbour captured from Fort Ricasoli is by J. M. W. Turner, the most important British Romantic artist of the 19th century. As Turner never stepped foot on Malta, his only source for this particular scene could have only been drawings by artists who had visited the island. Yet speculation on whose work he ultimately relied on prevails.
This view steers away from strict topographical conventions to one imbued with Turner’s characteristic poetic eloquence. In true Romantic spirit, the emphasis on capturing constantly changing light and weather conditions is revealed by the restless brushwork and the preference for an overall sketchiness rather than a meticulous approach to detail. The tall masts and inflated sails of the ships, and the stronger colours of the passage and fishing boats in the bustling Grand Harbour become the main protagonists against the Valletta promontory backdrop. Insignificant in size but not in importance, the two fishermen in the immediate foreground act as the visual stepping stone for the spectator’s interaction with this view.

Great Siege Map

Produced in Venice by Giovanni Francesco Camocio, this is one of four maps that represents the final phases of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
This map, the third state, represents the arrival in September 1565 of the Gran Soccorso which consisted of the Catholic Armada. This was the turning point leading to the surrender of the Ottoman Turks to the Order of St John. These maps quickly spread the news of the goings-on of the Siege. They were derived from illustrated war reports sent from Malta.
The first, third and fourth states of the Great Siege map series form part of MUŻA’s Cartographic Collection, while the second state belongs to the Map Collection of the Faculty of Science at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.
These two institutions collaborated to successfully include these four maps in UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register, an honour achieved in 2017.

Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria

Filippo Paladini was an Italian late Mannerist artist from Tuscany who spent some years in Malta in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He was engaged to carry out many artistic commissions including altarpieces for various churches as well as cycles of wall paintings for Verdala Palace.
The ‘Mystic Marriage of St Catherine’ is a quietly touching painting by Paladini. It depicts the young St Catherine receiving a wedding ring from the Christ Child, thus symbolizing her spiritual engagement with God. The elongated figures convey the artist’s Mannerist training, while the striking yet soft light suggests Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, as the protagonists emerge from a dark void. The painting was donated to the National Collection in 2009 by Judge Giovanni Bonello and Dr Joseph and Mrs Anna Xuereb on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the death of Vincenzo Bonello (1891-1969), first curator of the Fine Arts Section within the then Valletta Museum.

Portrait of an unknown lady

This half-length portrait shows a woman in three-quarter profile view. Her dark eyes are intensely fixed on the viewer. She is dressed in black attire, with a white collar and cuffs. Her hair is tucked neatly underneath her black coif, which frames her pale face. The figure seems to occupy a space, a corner between two walls, where she casts a shadow. An exquisite tortoiseshell frame complements the painting. This work is one of the gems in a small section of the room ‘Mobility, Connections, Directions’ which is dedicated to paintings from Northern Europe.
Jan van Scorel was a Dutch painter, who spent a number of years in Italy, absorbing the style of Italian Renaissance painting, aspects of which he helped to introduce into the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance style. This immensely popular new style was adopted by many artists. This painting is, in fact, by a faithful follower of van Scorel.

Judith and Holofernes

Valentin de Boulogne was a French artist who, after his arrival at Rome in the early 17th century, fell heavily under the influence of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Not only did he adopt Caravaggio’s tenebrist chiaroscuro but also took up the idea of representing the social underdogs that the famous Italian master loved to feature in his own paintings. At MUŻA, Le Valentin is represented by one of his finest works, the oil-on-canvas ‘Judith and Holofernes’ which blatantly reveals the deep mark Caravaggio had left on the French artist. It screams all features Caravaggesque: the bold chiaroscuro, the virtually tangible realism, the choreographed drama, and the characterisation in the three protagonists: Holofernes’ surprise, shock, fear and helplessness at the hands of Judith, determined to complete her act, and the attendant old maid who looks on with bold callousness.