Highlights of the month

Silver filigree ladies’ fan

Not much is known about this silver filigree ladies’ fan. It entered the MUŻA collection through the bequest of Magistrate Dr Edgar Parnis in 1913. The intricate filigree work shows the influence of Art Nouveau in the floral motifs and decoration. Although there is the possibility that this fan may be of foreign workmanship, Malta was well known for its filigree. Maltese filigree work was highly praised and often represented in international exhibitions, such as the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London of 1886. This is why this fan and other examples of filigree work are exhibited in the Empire gallery dedicated to the participation of Maltese artists and craftsmen in world Colonial Exhibitions.

St John the Baptist preaching

St John the Baptist is shown preaching in the wilderness as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. He wears his typical attributes of garments made from animal skin and a red robe and holding a cross, alluding to the Passion of Christ. The vivid colours of the drapery and the unconventional proportions and poses of the figures place this work firmly in the Italian Mannerist tradition of the cinquecento (1500s). The painting is by Giovanni Balducci, known as il Cosci. Trained by Giovanni Battista Naldini, Balducci also worked with some of the best artists of the Mannerist period, including Giorgio Vasari, Federico Zuccari and Alessandro Allori. He is remembered mostly for religious paintings and frescoes.

Design for a stamp showing the Nativity

Emvin Cremona was a very well-established artist in Malta when he started collaborating with the Department of Posts in 1957. He continued producing philatelic designs until 1980. This design showing the Nativity was created for a stamp issued in 1968 as part of a set of three. In this set, Cremona experimented with non-conventional shapes for stamps, choosing a five-sided design that alludes to the shape of a crib. This drawing is a preliminary design of which more finished drawings are preserved at the Malta Postal Museum. This work shows Cremona’s typical elongated and stylised figures and emphasis on linearity. The drawing is mostly monochromatic, ranging from white to different greys to black, but the alternating sharply delineated flat colours create a vibrant contrast. The red rays emanating from the Star of Betlehem above Christ are the more striking because of this subdued palette. Cremona also tried out this design with an orange-brown background which he rejected, presumably precisely because of this contrast he managed to create with the use of greys and black.

Portrait of Pietro Soderini

This 16th-century bust-length portrait of Pietro Soderini (1452-1522) is attributed to the Florentine school, a fundamental art movement which flourished between the 13th and 16th centuries, starting with the works of Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) to reach an epitome with artists such as Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) and Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520). The school’s artistic concepts are considered to be the foundation of early modern European art, for it is based on the humanistic perception of the world, an interest in realism, a passionate concern with perspective and the sciences, and a marked preoccupation with human form and line, traits of which can be attested in this portrait.

A Florentine statesman and ambassador to the French court since 1493, Pietro Soderini is here portrayed in three-quarter view looking directly at the onlooker. The backdrop is blank, devoid of any landscape settings indicative of territorial possessions, or huge columns, opulent carpets, velvet curtains and any props of grandeur intended to create awe. The dark background is therefore particularly effective in enhancing the immediacy with which the sitter presents himself to the viewer.

The fact that it lacks the crispness of the more acclaimed Florentine portraits may indicate that this is either the work of a more modest hand, or a copy after a celebrated rendition, a common practice in portraiture. Nonetheless, it is an appreciably good rendition not just of the politician’s likeness but also of his pondering nature and his cultivated manners and emotional self-control typical of a gonfaloniere di giustizia of the Florentine Republic.

Fireworks at Ryōgoku Bridge

In the Edo era, the summer season began on May 28 and ended on August 28, and on its first day fireworks were displayed at a festival marking the opening of the boating season. The Sumida River was the scene of a custom known as “taking in the cool of the evening” where along the river sides, tea shops, show tents and stands were set up and crowded by the people who enjoyed a summer night. The activity mainly centred at Ryōgoku Bridge. Ukiyo-e woodblock printing flourished from the 17th through the 19th centuries. The term translates as “picture[s] of the floating world”.

Isola di Malta – Map of the 1614 Turkish attack on Malta, known as the Gili map

Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1547-1622) coordinated the defence of Malta from the attack, known as ‘razzia’, of a Turkish fleet in 1614. The attack was concentrated on the village of Żejtun. The Ottomans were defeated by men from the fleet of the Order of St John and by Maltese militia. The map by Aloisio Gili illustrates the landing of the Ottoman fleet and their attacks on the Maltese villages. Gili was a silversmith and cartographer coming from a Sicilian family. This is the first printed map produced by a Maltese. All the towns on the island are numbered and their names are provided at the bottom, giving us an insight into old place names, especially of towns that no longer exist.
Photograph courtesy of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, MUŻA, and Heritage Malta

The Entry of St Peter Celestine into Aquila

St Peter Celestine (Pope, c.1221-1296 A. D.) is shown proceeding to the cathedral of Aquila, to be ordained bishop of Rome, being accompanied by two kings, and a number of princes and others. He could not be prevailed upon to travel any other way than riding on an ass; he even thought it a great deal that he did not go on foot, as he desired to do. He was consecrated and crowned at Aquila on the 29th of August 1294, taking the name of Celestine V. Charles, king of Naples, is shown in front of him walking after a cross. This is a drawing after Mattia Preti’s first painting from the entrance on the ceiling of the nave in San Pietro a Majella in Naples.
Photograph courtesy of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, MUŻA, and Heritage Malta

The Raising of Lazarus

‘The Raising of Lazarus’ by the Italian painter, Andrea Vicentino, characteristically reflects his Venetian Mannerist influences. He was particularly impacted by the dynamic and emotionally charged style of the great master, Tintoretto. Vicentino’s love for the powerful effects of the dramatic diagonal are seen in this composition which is based on a narrative of commotion accentuated by expressive gestures. The intimate connection between Christ and Lazarus is represented by their raised hands. Enlivening bursts of colour are moderated by areas of misty chiaroscuro that enhance the overall sense of restlessness. This painting comes from the Grand Masters’ Palace Collection.

St Anthony tormented by Demons

This etching of St Anthony tormented by demons is an interesting example of fakes and copies in printmaking. It shows St Anthony levitating in the sky above a landscape as fantastical demonic creatures attack him. It is an anonymous eighteenth-century copy after an engraving by Raphael de Mey, made in 1590, which in turn is a reversed copy after Martin Schongauer’s iconic engraving dated 1470-75. Schongauer’s engraving was so popular that Michelangelo painted a copy of it. This eighteenth-century copyist added the monogram of Albrecht Dürer as it was very well known and Dürer prints were very popular and easier to sell.
Photograph courtesy of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, MUŻA, and Heritage Malta

Bozzetto for Dun Mikiel Xerri Monument

The National Collection has recently been enriched with the acquisition of the bozzetto for the Dun Mikiel Xerri monument by Anton Agius, erected in Independence Square in Valletta in 1986. It commemorates the death of Dun Mikiel Xerri and his companions, showing the moment when they were shot dead by the French on 17 January 1799 after they spearheaded an unsuccessful Maltese revolt.
The bozzetto in patinated plaster, like the finished monument, shows Dun Mikiel Xerri still standing with his fallen companions at his feet. The crude, less defined figures in the bozzetto make it a powerful emotional work that conveys the horrors of the execution.