Mattia Preti, known as “Il Cavaliere
Calabrese”, left his home town of Taverna in 1630, at the age
of 17, destined for Rome. Poussin had recently settled there; the young
Velazquez was then paying his first visit. The influence of Caravaggio,
though he had died 20 years earlier, was still strongly felt. Preti
would leave many works behind in the capital. Among them are the
stunning frescoes of “The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew”
in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle — the setting for
the first act of Puccini's “Tosca”.
This year's main commemorative exhibition, “Mattia
Preti: Between Rome, Naples and Malta”, was held in Naples in the
spring. It included no fewer than 70 paintings and 30 drawings, many
of them on loan from public and private collections around the world.
Nor has Calabria missed the opportunity to celebrate the legacy of
“Il Cavaliere”. Calabria and Malta, where the artist spent
the last 38 years of his life, have always had close connections. The
Calabrian town of Rende secured an exclusive loan of paintings from
Malta for an exhibition at its Museo Civico. The homage to Preti
continued with exhibitions at Cosenza and Catanzaro.
Surveying under one roof a large number of Preti's
hitherto widely scattered paintings enables one to trace his development
as an artist. It is instructive to compare, for example, the various
Saint Sebastians he painted over the years. The Saint Sebastian Preti
undertook for the high altar of a Naples chapel was roundly rejected
by the nuns who had commissioned it: they were scandalised by its
frankly carnal aspect. To make matters worse, Preti's model for
the saint was a humble Neapolitan docker. Such images invite
biographical interpretation. But little is known for sure about
Preti's private life. One has only the paintings to go on. During
his lifetime Preti was highly esteemed. The various tercentenary
exhibitions this year provide the ideal opportunity for a long-overdue
reassessment of this by no means insignificant artist.