National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 1, 1977-1978

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Mattia Preti: The Feast of Absalom

by John T. Spike

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His conception of these works became progressively directed towards maximizing the decorative value of the ensemble. The press of time may well have been another factor. With exceedingly fast strokes, Preti boldly brushed in figures with broadly generalized features and with less concern for conveying the illusion of spatial recession than for filling the canvases with colour. Nikolaus Pevsner observed in 1932 that Mattia Preti had painted the first Late Baroque ceiling fresco in 1661 at the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, Valmontone (near Rome). (4) A few months thereafter Preti reached Malta, where he would paint the picture which is today in Ottawa.

A necessary excursus before our determination of the likely date of this Feast of Absalom is a summary of Preti's complex artistic experiences before he went to Malta. He began his career in Rome in the early 1630s, and seems to have learned the rudiments of the profession from his brother Gregorio, a painter of no strong identity. The lack of a predetermined direction of style may have been a handicap to Preti's career. Certainly, his developmental period and his fluctuations among contemporary trends were remarkably prolonged for an artist who would emerge as one of the most creative of his day. However, by making his way without the domination of a great master, he was left free to accomplish a difficult synthesis of several major and diverse directions in Italian Baroque.

Preti's earliest works were derived from the precedents of Caravaggio and of his close followers, Manfredi and Valentin. At the turn of the century, Caravaggio had invented a highly personal style based on Lombard and Venetian treatments of light and inclinations to naturalism Caravaggio's innovation was to subject his figures to a directed beam of light that seems to strike according to the logic of physics and not the conventions of pictorial composition. This device contributes a persuasive air of physical truth, yet can be manipulated for dramatic, expressive effect.

In his first tentative paintings of nocturnal concerts and gaming parties Preti used extreme chiaroscuro, as the mature Caravaggio did, to summon forms from opaque darkness. Preti's conciliation of Caravaggio's technique with lighter tonalities and brilliant colours was an important precondition for his assimilation of subsequent ideas of style.

Preti learned his essential colourism from Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, the great masters of sixteenth-century painting in Venice. The rediscovery of the Venetian Renaissance by successive generations of seventeenth-century artists was the catalyst in many critical passages in Baroque art, including its genesis. During the 1630s another such trend, now termed "neo-Venetianism," was current in Rome, having originated at the turn of the decade in the work of several major talents just reaching maturity: Nicolas Poussin, Pietro da Cartona, Andrea Sacchi. These artists adopted the Venetians' saturated colours, free brushwork, and sense of a palpable, charged atmosphere. Poussin's modello for The Marryrdom of St Erasmus (1628) in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada is an excellent demonstration of these qualities.

Mattia Preti was soon attracted to neo-Venetianism, which he practised from a basis of Caravaggism, retaining the use of directed light for expressive purposes and for the differentiation of spatial planes. Other fundamental elements of Preti's education must be mentioned in passing: namely, the Baroque achievements of the Emilian artists, II Guercino (1591-1666) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). Preti was inspired by the energetic outlines of their expansive, vital figures and, at certain periods of his career, by their fluid surface textures.

Directly pertinent to the Ottawa Feast of Absalom was Preti's first-hand study in the 1640s of older Venetian prototypes. The fabulous trappings of Absalom's banquet, from the vistas of grand architecture to the African page, are undisguised quotations from Paolo Veronese, whose works established the paradigm for historical regalia. Far beyond borrowing props, Preti studied in depth the colour harmonies and chiaroscuro of Venice and even the sixteenth-century figural arrangements. Eventually, around 1653-1655, this interest led him to paint such works as The Adoration of the Magi at Holkham Hall, which were substantively distinct from his 1650s Roman figure paintings of marked Venetian influence. The emulation of Veronese was so faithful as to seem an example of seventeenth-century revivalism.

By the time he painted The Feast of Absalom, Veronesian vocabulary was second nature to Preti. His aim was quite removed from revivalism; indeed, it was boldly original. This phase had begun with Preti's arrival in Naples at the end of 1656.

Mattia Preti was called to Naples to paint on the city gates ex-voto frescoes of the Neapolitan patron saints, intercession to end the disastrous plague of 1656. The moment was opportune for a reformation of Neapolitan paintings, if for little else. The two most influential masters of the school had recently died - Giuseppe Ribera in 1652 and Massimo Stanzione in the plague - along with many other notable artists. Preti's arrival coincided with the return of the local prodigy, Luca Giordano (1634-1705), from studies in Rome and Venice.

The nature of the interaction between Preti and Giordano has been a central problem in Preti studies since De Dominici's account of their bitter rivalry. This issue has not been defused, thanks to the recent discoveries of documentation for Preti's works executed in this period for San Pietro a Maiella and San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples, and for the Knights of Malta. Giordano may well have competed fiercely with Preti, but it is now certain that the lion's share of important commissions were won by the older master. It has also been established that the key advances towards Late Baroque style occurred in Preti's paintings, with Giordano pursuing avidly. By 1660, both Preti and Giordano had loosened their compositions and scattered the forms to emphasize their colouristic values. This is the time of Giordano's maniera dorata, when he tinges every colour with a gilding derived from Titian 's late period. As Oreste Ferrari has observed, Preti's example doubtless encouraged Giordano's experiments in Venetian colour. (5) With his richer experience, the older master could display a more complex mix of colour effects, adding the distinctive silver and flesh-colour harmonies of Guercino and Lanfranco to his own Venetianizing. (6)

Next PageValmontone (near Rome), spring 1661

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