Mattia Preti
Biography of Italian Baroque Painter, Neapolitan School.

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Crucifixion of St Peter (1665-67)
Barber Institute of Fine Arts,
University of Birmingham.

Mattia Preti (1613-99)


Early Life and Artistic Influences
Mature Career as a Painter
Preti in Naples
Settles in Malta

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One of the most influential Old Masters of the mid-17th century Neapolitan Baroque painting, Mattia Preti worked throughout Italy and Malta. Initially a keen follower of Caravaggio (1571-1610), he later specialized in large scale fresco painting on religious themes, for which his main inspiration was Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), whose works had a major impact on Baroque art in Rome and on the Neapolitan School of painting in the south of Italy. He was also influenced by Guercino (1591-1666) of the Bolognese School. In Rome, Preti's best Baroque paintings included the frescoes in S. Andrea della Valle, and S. Carlo ai Catinari (1650-51). Active in Naples during the late 1650s, following the catastrophic plague of 1656, his works included a set of seven huge frescoes commemorating the epidemic, modelli for which can be seen in the city's Capodimonte museum. In 1661, Preti settled in Malta, where he executed numerous murals for Valletta cathedral and other churches across the island. Now seen as one of the most influential Italian Baroque artists in the south of the country, Preti ranks alongside Lanfranco, Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652), Luca Giordano (1634-1705) and Francesco Solimena (1657-1747) as a key influence on painting in Naples, during the seventeenth century.



Early Life and Artistic Influences

Born in Calabria in Italy's extreme south - hence his nickname "Il Cavaliere Calabrese" (Knight of Calabria) - Preti's early life and artistic education (if any) remains a mystery. De Dominici, his devoted biographer, says Preti left Calabria aged 17 to set up in Rome with his brother Gregorio who was also a painter. In Rome, Preti immediately came into contact with Caravaggism, both directly from Caravaggio's paintings and through the work of his followers, who included (it is said) Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635) - the first important Caravaggist of the Neapolitan School of painting - as well as the French artists Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) and Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639), and the circle of painters faithful to the style of Bartolommeo Manfredi (1582-1622). (See also: Caravaggio in Naples, 1607, 1609-10) Preti's early easel paintings - mostly a form of genre painting featuring groups of musicians and card-players - were painted under these influences (see his works in the Accademia Albertina, Turin; Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome; Longhi Collection, Florence; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Hermitage, St Petersburg). Religious subjects are rarer at this time (but see works in Palazzo Rosso, Genoa; Brera, Milan).

The neo-Venetian painters in Rome - Pier Francesco Mola (1612-66), Pietro Testa (1612-50) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) - were another source of inspiration. Preti adapted their style to different subject matter (Bacchanal, Raggi Collection, Rome; Triumph of Silenus, Fine Arts Museum of Tours). The fresco of The Charity of S. Carlo in the church of S. Carlo ai Catinari dates from 1642 and is influenced by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). In that year Preti became a Knight of the Order of Jerusalem, and in 1650 he was received into the virtuosi of the Pantheon.

Mature Career as a Painter

It is difficult to reconstruct Preti's movements in the 1640s. De Dominici says he went to Spain to study the Spanish Baroque, and to Flanders where he absorbed the Flemish Baroque at first hand and met Rubens (1577-1640), but there is no documentary evidence of this. He must have travelled in Italy, however, to study the work of the Emilian fresco painters Lanfranco (1582-1647), and Domenichino (1581-1641), and particularly Guercino, whose influence was fundamental to his style. So, too, was Venetian painting which was later imported to Naples by Luca Giordano. Between the end of 1650 and the middle of 1651 he worked on the frescoes of Stories of S. Andrea in the apse of S. Andrea della Valle in Rome, which demonstrate his assimilation of Emilian painting. From 1653 to early 1656 he was in Modena, frescoing the dome and apse of S. Biagio. He also painted frescoes in the Reliquary Chapel in the Duomo, now destroyed.

Preti in Naples

In 1656 Preti arrived in Naples, a city stricken by plague, where many of the most important painters of the generation had just perished. He soon emerged as the only artist capable of giving new life to local painting. Reworking the Neapolitan Caravaggism of Battistello and Ribera, Preti created a style using light as the basis of the composition, and allowing forms to emerge from shadow, using a mixture of chiaroscuro (for modelling) and tenebrism (for dramatic focus). This is combined with an extraordinary versatility in his use of colour, influenced by Titian and Venetian colour painting.

During his 4-year stay in Naples Preti received many commissions: the frescoes (commemorating the plague) on the city gates (1656—59, now destroyed), those in the S. Domenico Soriano and numerous paintings for churches and collectors - the Madonna of Constantinople (1656) for Sant'Agostino degli Scalzi, the St. Sebastian (1657) for S. Maria dei Sette Dolori, the Banquets at Capodimonte, the two versions of the Prodigal Son (1657-58) at Capodimonte and Palazzo Reale, the Crucifixion of St Peter (1665-67) now in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the two canvases for the church of S. Lorenzo (documented 1660) and, above all, the important cycle of Stories of the Life of S. Pietro Celestino and S. Caterina di Alessandria for the vault of the nave at S. Pietro a Maiella, documented 1657-59. According to De Dominici, Preti's fame in Naples became so great that Giordano and his followers began to actively discredit him.

Settles in Malta

After a short stay at Valmontone near Rome between 1660 and 1661 where he frescoed the Palazzo Pamphili with allegorical scenes (a commission previously awarded to Mola), Preti settled in Malta for almost 40 years. He began with the grandiose cycle of Stories on the life and martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, and the Illustrious Knights of Malta, painted with a special preparation in oil directly on to the vault and apse of the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta (1661-66).

Preti's continued working into old age. There are many paintings still in Malta and others were sent to Italy - amongst the few documented works is the S. Bernardino Preaching (1674) now in the church of S. Domenico, Siena. It becomes increasingly difficult to date his work during this long period in Malta. Replicas incorporating variations, the repetition of details, the mastery of a calculated and adaptable style and increasing studio intervention all make it difficult to establish a chronology. But presumably his output suited the needs of his patrons. The paintings made for his birthplace in Taverna, Calabria, which Preti visited in 1672 after the death of his brother, have received greater attention and form a more coherent group.

Paintings by Mattia Preti can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world, including the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

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