There are few artists that have had such a singular significance on the artistic heritage of an entire nation as Mattia Preti had on the Maltese Islands. His extensive collection of work is displayed and exhibited across the islands and has a place in nearly every significant artistic collection of note.
Born in the small town of Taverna in Calabria in 1613, his early apprenticeship was with the “Caravaggist” artist ‘Giovanni Battista Caracciolo’, which possibly accounts for his lifelong interest in the styles and methods used by Caravaggio. Prior to 1630, Preti joined his brother Gregorio (also a painter) in Rome, here he painted fresco cycles in the churches San Andre della Valle and San Carlo ai Catinari. In 1656 he moved to Naples, where he was influenced by some of the major contemporary Neapolitan artists like Luca Giordano. As his fame continued to grow, he produced some of his largest frescoes, which depicted the Virgin and Saints delivering the people of Naples from the plague; they once adorned the seven city gates, sadly however all have been destroyed (some photographs remain).
It was with his move to Malta in 1659, that his most prolific and grandiose period began. Attracted to the islands in the hope of gaining patronage under the Knights of St. John, he was hired on the spot by Grand Master de Redin in order to paint a new altarpiece for the chapel of the Aragonese Langue at St. John’s Co-Cathedral. So impressed were the Knights with the result that the following Grand Master, Raphael Cotoner, requested him to decorate the entire vault of the cathedral with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. The artist was then appointed to the rank of a Knight of Grace, leading him to be given the moniker of “Il Cavalier Calabrese” (the Knight from Calabria).
Preti lived out the remaining forty years of his life in Malta. He died in 1699 and was buried St John’s Co-Cathedral, in honour of his immense contribution to its beauty.
Today, most of the great museums in the world have works by Mattia Preti including sizeable collections in Naples and in his own home town Taverna. The Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta has probably the finest nucleus of Preti’s works anywhere. It is likely that without Caravaggio’s enormous global significance and influence (ironically the greatest artistic influence of Preti’s his life) that he would be remembered as the finest artist of the baroque today.
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