Mattai Preti: The Neapolitan Painter of Exuberant Late Baroque
Uniting the Caravaggesque realism and expressive chiaroscuro with the grandeur and theatricality of Venetian artists like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto, the Italian Baroque Era painter, Mattia Preti, is celebrated as a prominent Italian artist of the late Baroque style, whose work extended the reputation of Neapolitan painting throughout Italy and internationally during the second half of the 17th century.
Best-known for adorning the baroque churches of Malta, Preti was born in Taverna, a small town in the south of Italy, in the Calabria region, on 24th February 1613. A talented painter and swordsman, he was widely appreciated by the Roman cultural elites. He started his career as a ‘Caravaggist’ painter.
Accepting his older brother’s invitation, Preti moved to Rome, where he had the opportunity to study Caravaggio’s work at first hand. It would have a notable influence on the artist’s juvenile output in terms of composition and the use of ‘chiaroscuro’. Whilst in Rome he was influenced by a wide range of artists moving from the classical style of Guido Reni to the highly dramatic style of Peter Paul Rubens. His important works in Rome include the fresco cycles in the church of Sant’ Andrea Della Valle.
Between 1644 and 1646, Preti traveled to Venice having the opportunity to observe the opulent Venetian palette of such artists as Veronese. He returned to Rome for sporadic periods up until 1661 and painted frescoes for various other churches. He then moved again and spent most of 1656-1660 in Naples. Here, he was influenced by some of the major contemporary Neapolitan artists and, the large fresco ‘ex-voto’ paintings of the plague that had struck the city. These frescoes were once painted on seven city gates, but have been lost over the years.
The painting in these frescoes depicted the Immaculate Conception or saints delivering the people from the plague. Two sketches are housed in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Whilst in Naples, Preti was commissioned to paint a picture of St Francis Xavier by Grand Master Martin de Redin for the chapel of the Aragonese Langue.
In 1659, Preti came to Malta probably attracted to the island by the artist patronage of the Knights of the Order. The following Grand Master, Raphael Cotoner, accepted Preti’s offer to decorate the entire vault of the church with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order. Consequently, Preti was promoted to the rank of a Knight of Grace. He was also a capable architect, responsible for the design of Sarria Church in Floriana.
Spending most of his life in Malta, Mattia Preti died on January 3, 1699, in Valletta, Malta, and was buried here in St John’s.