Veiled Oriental Lady with Parasol

Amadeo Preziosi is one of the top Orientalist artists in the 19th century. Born in 1816 to a noble family, Preziosi’s passion for art led him to study at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Between 1840 and 1842, he permanently left Malta for Constantinople and many regions in the Near East.
This study of an Oriental woman testifies to Preziosi’s keen powers of observation and his consummate skills with the watercolour medium. Devoid of a contextual background, this work invites the viewer to focus solely on the lady’s fine dress and her subtly suave attitude deriving from her high social status. Such a watercolour would have been appealing to travellers to the Orient as it would have been a memento of their overseas experience.

Square Piano

The main highlight of the ‘Entertaining Culture’ section of the Empire Galleries is the one and only musical instrument in the MUŻA collection. Known as a square piano, it is considered to be a transitional piece during the experimentation phase before the classical upright piano reached its fully-fledged stage in its development. Neo-classical in style, this instrument would have primarily been constructed by a furniture or cabinet maker, with its musical component consisting of a keyboard and a simple yet complex system of stretched horizontal strings, a sound board and a series of tiny tightly-knit hammers for its playability. As the sound that emerges from this square piano is low and soft, it was typically used only in domestic settings. Such a square piano as this one would have provided light entertainment for the family and during private party functions.

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.