Skip to main content

Mattia Preti, Poet of Calabria

St Sebastian c1660 Mattia Preti
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.

Mattia Preti , Susanna e i vecchioni
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.

Preti Adoration of the Shepherds
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.

Mattia Preti - Santa Veronica con il velo
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.

Preti, Mattia - St. Paul the Hermit - c. 1656-1660
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.

Mattia Preti - San Giovanni Battista Predicazione
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.


Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …


Nymphs and Satyr, 1873

If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau, supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his very b…

Pompeo Batoni

Apollo and two Muses, 1719

Giant of the Rococo and early Neoclassicism, Pompeo Batoni was born on January 25, 1708 in Lucca, Italy. Immensely popular in his time, his name sadly is not commonly recognized today because like many Old Masters, his work is not defined by one or two singular masterpieces but by an oeuvre that is overall, incredible. Batoni is something of an anomaly in that he had the midas touch in every genre he worked in, whether portraiture, mythological, and biblical. He trained under a few painters, notably Sebastiano Conca yet he quickly fused his own style together by reinterpreting Classicism with his own vigor for dynamic posing, color and anatomy that he felt was lacking in many artists of the Rococo. His reputation as a portraitist in Rome was highly successful, particularly for many British patrons of the Grand Tour who had heard of Batoni by word of mouth and sought his genius.

In Apollo and two Muses above Batoni seems to conjure mythology and Classicism w…