Mattia Preti: The Feast of Absalom
| Français | Introduction
by John T. Spike
Pages 1 | 2
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
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.
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
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
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(near Rome), spring 1661
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