St Sebastian, ca.1660
Born on 24 February, 1613 in Taverna, a small town in Catanzaro of southern Italy, Mattia Preti was a Baroque painter who worked in both fresco and large-scale paintings. Preti is the only major artist of success to come out of the region south of Naples, the only city besides Rome that was a hotbed of Baroque talent at the time. Having been influenced by Caravaggio and taught by Battistello Caracciolo, Preti would become a major force in Italian Baroque art, although today his name is not entirely recognized except in Italy. Preti's style is characterized by chiaroscuro with dynamic anatomy and dramatic angles, and a gift for facial expressions.
I had the pleasure of observing St. Sebastian at the Capodimonte Museo in Naples back in 2010, and I have to say it is not only one of Preti's masterpieces, it is a triumph of Baroque art. Choosing a low view-point, Preti's brilliant composition is created by a sagging figure with each limb bending at a slightly different degree to add visual interest and increase the drama. Having Sebastian looking upward to heaven with face foreshortened also adds a stark realism to this painting. This theme of Sebastian's martyrdom is one of the most painted throughout the Renaissance and Baroque by various artists, ranging in mood from gruesome to blatantly homoerotic but here, Preti's version is my favourite for its powerful realism and originality.
Susanna and the Elders, 1600's
Another biblical theme painted by various artists, Preti's interpretation here uses strong chiaroscuro and a diagonal slant to the composition to reinforce the apprehension of Susanna from being accosted by perverted old men. The figure on the left puts a finger to his lips to shush her while he tugs at her drapery. Susanna herself is depicted with a beauty and child-like innocence, unaware of what will ensue. Preti chooses an interesting warm/cool palette for the robes of the men half-hidden in shadow, while Susanna's drapery color seems to blend in with her skin tone, and an interesting pattern in her headscarf. There is a grace and Classical beauty that flows in her, in comparison to other versions where she is the persecuted victim, and Preti seems to suggest by the dark background behind them that the world itself is less than perfect despite the predominance of religion and morality. Beauty itself is not something that should be hidden, that it is the world which remains hidden in ignorance and repression.
Adoration of the Shepherds, ca.1645
This interesting portrayal of a timeless biblical scene uses depth, foreshortening, space and light with a Venetian style of color and drapery in how Mary is depicted. The shepherd to the left, by contrast, is shirtless and poor, staring at the Christ child with deep humility. Note how the Christ child himself is painted as a tiny baby, life-like and unassuming with no glowing halo or light, as with Mary and Joseph. Preti has created a version of the nativity that veers toward harsh cynicism of the Church and the interpretation of Mary and Christ in catholicism. Again, the dark and vague background with indifferent onlookers alludes to a confusion within religion itself.
Saint Veronica with the Veil, ca.1660
This masterful Baroque portrait of Saint Veronica is Preti at the peak of his powers. The incredible range of tones in her face, from the yellow highlights through to the warm reflected light on her left cheek to the grey tones in her neck. Preti contrasts the graceful texture in her veil, in accurate brushwork, with the smoothness of her robe, accented with an intricate pattern. Christ's face is impressed upon the fabric with warm, reddish brushstrokes and a face that appears to be looking out at us in pain and confusion.
St. Paul the Hermit, ca.1660
Preti's St. Paul here bears a close resemblance to St. Jerome, and here we see how anatomy, body language and chiaroscuro together can make a portrait such as this become something otherworldly and profound. Note how Preti has indicated the flexor muscles of the forearm, with the fingers backlit in warm tones. He is adorned in a drapery of straw to indicate his asceticism, and his face looking upwards to heaven is sculptural and wise. The diagonal thrust of his body adds a dynamic element that heightens the drama unfolding and portrays his character effectively. Body language is not just something to help describe a character, it is the character.
St. John the Baptist Preaching, ca.1667
In this original and masterful painting Preti uses red to underline the main figure, St. John the Baptist, yet the use of body language is interesting here. St. John leans against a tree stump, hair blowing in the wind, while pointing above to the darkened heavens. The figures below gaze upward at him with various degrees of expression, along with the proverbial lamb. Preti used backgrounds as an element to tell the story far more than many of his contemporaries, and here the dramatic sky, which seems to split open with the indication of his pointed finger, has an Old Testament mood here than one of prophetic coming of a messiah. Even St. John's lower body appears indistinct and vaguely sartyr-like, which would be shocking if that was the intention to say the least. This is a stirring Baroque masterpiece that showcases Preti's genius for taking the familiar and making us rethink our biases and assumptions toward what we think we know. We need to experience notions and stories as if for the first time if we are to take them seriously, and this is the art of Mattia Preti, the poet from a poor region of Southern Italy whose craft was underrated and truly great.