Highlights of the month

Bottle with coat of arms of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt

This bottle-shaped maiolica pharmacy jar bears the coat of arms of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. He commissioned a set of pharmacy jars for the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary) of the Knights of the Order of St John in Valletta. These most probably came from the workshop of Maestro Bernardino in Venice, pupil of the more renowned Domenego de Beti. On a blue background are painted stylised flowers and foliage in vibrant yellow, brown, and green.

The Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria

There is the possibility that this painting of the ‘Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria’ may be identified as Mattia Preti’s presentation piece preceding his first visit to Malta in the summer of 1659. He wanted to impress by donating to the Langue of Italy a superb representation of its patron saint. A painting of the saint is recorded being presented by Preti in June 1659 to be displayed in the Auberge d’Italie, the building where MUŻA is housed. This painting was a testament to Preti’s bravura, and may have been one of the reasons why he was asked to stay in Malta to paint the ceiling of St John’s Co-Cathedral when he permanently settled in Malta in 1661. Apart from the subject and possible origin, this painting is also remarkable for the ‘pentimenti’ that are visible almost to the naked eye. The painting was originally conceived as a ‘Martyrdom of St Paul’ and was reworked by Preti so that the figure of St Catherine was painted over that of the male saint, while other signs of Preti’s evolving ideas are visible in the changes he made to the crowd.

Scene with man rowing and woman playing a musical instrument

During his long stay in Rome from 1817/18 till his death, Salvatore Busuttil is recorded as having excelled not only in creating series of prints of the characters and costumes of Rome, but especially in the production of miniatures. In small paintings such as this scene of a man and a woman on a boat, he applies the gouache medium with precision and economy. Four charming images of couples exchanging love letters, holding hands, and playing music are embedded within the tendrils of the decorative border in the corners. Intricate foliage, flowers, and a golden net are used by the artist to show off his exceptional brushwork and attention to detail. The idyllic tranquil scene in the centre, rendered in transparent delicate hues, is made mysterious by the barely perceptible figure in the water behind the boat. Is he drowning, or caught in the fishing net? Is he a reference to the despair one feels when seeing the object of his or her love with another? This detail shows how exceptional Busuttil is at creating narrative in miniature as he leaves little passages of humour for the perceptive viewer to discover.

The artist in his studio

In this lithograph, Pietro Paolo Caruana, the 19th-century Maltese artist, is seated in his studio, sporting a large beret, an artist’s garb and a long apron. Accompanied by his children and his wife, who holds up a lamp for him to light his cigar, Caruana depicts this interior scene as the front cover of the album, “Costumi di Malta”. Printed in 1829, this album compiles his early experiments in the then relatively new lithographic medium which he was instrumental in introducing into Malta. This work also includes the name of the street, ‘Strada Britannica’ (today’s Melita Street) to advertise the location of Caruana’s studio. Here, Caruana wears two hats: one worn in his role as an artist and the other in that as a father who is duty bound to support his family.

The martyrdom of St Agatha

The famous Italian artist and art historian, Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643), painted this ‘Martyrdom of St Agatha’ which is on display at MUŻA. Composed and dignified, the brightly lit female martyr quietly suffers the shearing of her breasts, one already in the grip of the instrument’s blades, the other soon to be, as one of the two executioners prepares to proceed to perform this act of torture. Hers is feminine purity surrounded by rough manliness. Like many other artists, Baglione gives us a ‘sanitised’ and unrealistic interpretation of what in reality would have been a horrible and traumatic event to watch. This idea is prompted by the desire to highlight St Agatha’s self-control and unshakeable principles that guided her profession of the Christian faith.

The stigmatisation of St Francis

In Antoine Favray’s painting, St Francis of Assisi is receiving the stigmata from a rather curious looking creature. Is it an angel? Is it Christ on the cross? The earliest 13th-century pictorial representations of this event show a seraph, an angel with three pairs of wings, with outstretched arms and feet together in the form of a cross. By the end of the century, the iconography had changed to Christ on the cross, partly enveloped by wings, with rays passing down to the figure of the saint. Favray shows us that this traditional imagery persisted up to the 18th century.

Fire on the Tiber

Claude Joseph Vernet was a leading exponent of French 18th-century landscape and marine painting. In 1734, he travelled to Rome to study the works of landscape and maritime painters.
This scene shows a raging fire on the river Tiber, probably painted while Vernet was in Italy. The brilliant colours of the fire and its reflection are effectively rendered. In the foreground are survivors from the moored ship being rescued. Buildings on the bank of the river are lit up by the light of the fire. The billowing flames and smoke and the agitated waters can be easily imagined, and the roaring of the fire and the shouting of the people almost ring in your ears.

Mary-Anne eating grapes

Edward Caruana Dingli depicted prominent figures, nobles and politicians whilst on the other hand characterizing Maltese folklore with his bright watercolour drawings. He is considered to be one of Malta’s prominent and leading artists of the 20th century. Caruana Dingli started his artistic career at the age of 37, after leaving his job at the civil service. This led Caruana Dingli to teach and later be the Director of the Government School of Art in Valletta where he taught several prominent artists of the 20th century.
‘Marie-Anne eating Grapes’ catches one’s attention with the fresh element of the paint brush and visible brush strokes. The colour palette further enhances the information the artist wants to evoke. The hues of the dark and bright colours show the natural sun rays hitting the woman’s skin, garment and the scene in general. This brush technique is usually considered Impressionist and was introduced in the 19th century in France. Apart from the excellent brush technique, Caruana Dingli manages to evoke a sense of happiness and peace in the painting through the facial expressions of the sitter, making the viewer feel a part of Marie-Anne’s delight.

Ave Maria Triptych

Anton Inglott started his studies at the Government School of Art whilst also attending nude classes at the Studio Artistico Industriale which then led Inglott to further his studies at the Regia Accademia in Rome.
One of Inglott’s most important and popular pieces within the National Collection is the oil-on-panel ‘Ave Maria Triptych’ (or The Nativity Triptych) which was produced during the Second World War. This architectural-like triptych shows a Nativity scene on the right-hand side, the Virgin Mary in the central panel and the Annunciation on the left-hand panel. This arched window-like frame is considered to be an artwork on its own. The ‘Ave Maria Triptych’ presents Inglott’s maturity in his field. Here, the artist encompasses all his research and studies in Rome by using the beam of light as a major source to stage the elongated elegant figures in this composition, as well as his mastery in colour and narration.
This work follows a much-stylised equilibrium where all the figures are simplified in a way to deliver what is necessary in a minimalist manner. The figures are rather elongated, especially the figures of the angels. Both foreground and background are kept decoratively minimal which makes the viewer look directly at the figures.

Portrait of the artist Giuseppe Calì

Edward Caruana Dingli practically dominated the 20th-century art scene thanks to his versatile artistic talents and his network of anglophile connections. There are many portraits, landscapes, folkloristic scenes and genre works to his name, which were highly appealing for their naturalistic flair heavily doused with Romantic nostalgia and idealism.
This engaging portrait of Giuseppe Calì (1846-1930), a most popular Maltese artist of the 19th- and early 20th-century, was executed by Caruana Dingli, who was his former student. Seated at his easel, palette and paintbrush in hand, pausing and posing for this sitting, Calì conveys that quiet grandeur and seasoned sagesse that only a dedicated student like Caruana Dingli would have been able to pick up about his teacher, whom he loved, highly admired and honoured through this portrait.