Taverna (Calabria) 1613 – 1699 Valletta (Malta)
Mattia Preti, known as ‘Il Cavalier Calabrese’ was an important Italian Baroque painter, draughtsman and frescoist. His mature paintings display a highly personal combination of Caravaggesque realism with the luminosity and theatricality of Venetian painting. His style often oscillated between the two, perhaps depending on the needs of his patrons. Preti was a prolific artist who is estimated to have produced about seven hundred paintings throughout his career in Rome, Naples and Malta.
Mattia Preti left Calabria for Rome around 1630 where he discovered the work of the great Caravaggio followers, Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622), Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). Their influence is particularly apparent in his early Caravaggesque works characterised by the master’s naturalism and chiaroscuro. Preti painted genre scenes in the fashionable style of Manfredi, producing numerous paintings of merriment in taverns, such as The Concert (1630/35) in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid and The Game of Draughts (ca. 1635) at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Unlike Manfredi, however, Preti understood that Caravaggio’s bravi have an inner life which he introduced into his own protagonists. In the 1640s he most likely travelled to Venice, where he would have seen the works of Tintoretto (1518–1594) and Veronese (1528–1588). This led to experimentations with a lighter palette and more theatrical staging, in which the scene is often viewed from a dramatic angle, endowing his work with a cinematographic effect avant la lettre. This is particularly manifest in his mature work of the 1650s and 1660s such as his fresco of the Martyrdom of Saint Andrew (ca. 1651) in Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle. He moved to Naples from 1653 to 1660 where his work returns to the more tenebrist Caravaggism perpetuated by Ribera (1591–1652), whose dramatic realism Preti appropriated in his Martyrdom of Saint Paul (1656/59) now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Preti’s Neapolitan years were negatively affected by his competition with Luca Giordano (1634–1705), who was popular with the Spanish-oriented ruling class.
Preti moved to Malta in 1661 where he became the official painter for the Maltese Order of Saint John. He was granted one of the highest honors in the Order, Knight of Justice, hence his epithet ‘Il Cavalier’. This period was a particularly prolific one for Preti whose workshop was commissioned to produce paintings and frescoes for local churches as well as for export to Germany, Italy and Spain. His Maltese style witnessed a playful confluence of late Caravaggism with Venetian painting and an almost Rubensian Baroque. With age, he turned to an increasingly monochrome palette, visible in one of his last masterpieces, painted age seventy-six, the Martyrdom of St Lawrence (1689) in the Church of San Lorenzo in Birgu, Malta.
Top Auction Results for Mattia Preti
David playing the harp before Saul
Sold for $2,169,000
New York, Sotheby’s, 24 January 2008, Important Old Master Painting Including European Works of Art, lot 104
Boethius and Philosophy
Sold for $1,460,000
New York, Sotheby’s, 29 January 2020, Master Paintings Evening Sale, lot 50
The Liberation of Saint Peter
Sold for £825,000 ($1,298,803)
London, Christie’s, 8 December 1989, Important Old Master Pictures, lot 133