I am very pleased to be inaugurating this exhibition of works by the Maltese baroque sculptor Melchiorre Cafà at the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca where he studied and taught sculpture. I would like to thank all those involved in the organization of this exhibition for their good work. I would like to thank in particular the Honourable Tonio Borg, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, His Excellency Dr Efisio Marras, Ambassador of Italy to Malta, the Chapter of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Malta especially Mons. Carmelo Zammit. Dr Sante Guido and Dr Giuseppe Mantella and the Reverend Edgar Vella, curator of Casa Deprio.
I think that it was a wonderful idea that this exhibition is being inaugurated to coincide with my State Visit to Italy, a country with which Malta not only enjoys excellent relations but also has historical and cultural ties that go back to time immemorial. Indeed, Italy was an inspiration to most Maltese artists from the middle ages to this day and many of our painters, sculptors and architects studied or worked in Italy.
The influence of Italian artists is already very evident in medieval art in Malta, especially in iconography, and continues to become stronger during the Renaissance. The greatest flowering of art in Malta, however, took place during the time of the government of the Order of Saint John and particularly during the baroque period through the work of painters like Mattia Preti, sculptors like Giuseppe Mazzuoli, himself a distinguished pupil of Cafà, and architects like Romano Carapecchia. Numerous works of Baroque art by Italian and Maltese artists are preserved in our churches, in our museums and in private collections. Baroque architecture dominates many Maltese towns and villages boasting baroque churches some of which being the work of Melchiorre’s brother and architect Lorenzo Cafa`.
The Order of Malta had the financial resources as well as the good artistic taste to commission works from the best Roman baroque artists such as Alessandro Algardi. It was in 1661 that Italy gave Malta one of the most important and prolific painters that ever worked in our islands – Mattia Preti. Having been made a Knight of Magistral Obedience, il Cavalier Calabrese, already very famous, went to Malta, possibly attracted there by the possibility of gaining the Knights’ patronage. He spent the remainder of his life working in Malta and is buried in the Cathedral of St. John which he had so magnificently embellished and transformed into an artistic jewel.
Since I have just made a reference to the Cathedral of St. John, I think I should recall the intense cultural cooperation between Malta and Italy. Worthy of note is the restoration of art objects including the Chapel of Italy in the same Cathedral carried out by Sante Guido and Giuseppe Mantella and their team of Maltese and Italian experts. All the phases of study, research and execution were performed with the advice of the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro di Roma and the Valletta Rehabilitation Project.
It was, perhaps, fate which decreed that Preti should have gone to my country in 1661 as some kind of just compensation for Melchiorre Cafà having left his native land to come to Rome in the same year. Malta lost a sculptor and gained a painter. Indeed, while the Order’s requirements for painting during the latter part of the seventeenth century was satisfied locally, mostly by Preti, works of sculpture were commissioned abroad.
When Cafà came to the eternal city, he was already an accomplished sculptor but he joined the bottega of Ercole Ferrata probably to refine his technique. We know from the account given by Lione Pascoli, whose opinion of Cafà is extremely high, that the Maltese sculptor soon began to receive commissions independently but continued to collaborate with Ferrata.
The exhibition being inaugurated today and which will be open to the public for ten days, consists of five works by Cafa` which he had executed in Rome and from where they were transported to Malta after his death.
The wax reliefs used to hang in the refectory of the cathedral at Mdina and were covered with plaster coated in silver paint. Several interventions were carried out in the 17th century including the addition of missing parts. Monsignor Luigi Deguara of the Mdina Metropolitan Cathedral Chapter writes: “One fine morning, Giuseppe Mantella….murmured to me that the four reliefs were of a very important value, probably works by Melchiorre Cafa`, and suggested that they should be examined by a professional eye”.
Removing the plaster, Mantella started realising that the style and composition of the models were extremely similar to other works by Cafà. Their stylistic representation reminded him of the statue of St Catherine signed by Cafà, which he had restored in Rome. It was this that led Mantella to the definitive identification of the reliefs as the works of Cafà.
The five reliefs; Natività, Adorazione dei Pastori, Annunciazione, Gloria di Santa Rosa da Lima and Gloria di Santa Caterina da Siena – represent both Cafà’s great skill in modelling and his ability to execute works of art in line with the trends displayed by his contemporary artists such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Algardi, leaders of the two baroque currents of Roman baroque of the time. These five works are a clear manifestation of Cafa` having attained his artistic maturity during his six-year sojourn in Rome. They prove that he well merited the esteem he enjoyed from his fellow artists belonging to the second baroque generation.
Besides Cafa`’s works found in Malta, other sculptures of his, some completed after his death by Ferrata, can still be enjoyed in Roman churches.
Melchiorre Cafa` died prematurely in 1667 aged 31 years and was buried in the Church of San Biagio della Pagnotta, Rome. He could well have greatly influenced the history of sculpture of the later baroque had he lived longer. He is considered by some art critics as the greatest of Maltese artists and merits his place as a symbol of the Maltese cultural legacy to the world. It was not before many years had passed from the death of Cafa` that another Maltese sculptor of international acclaim came to study and work in Rome in the early 20th century where he opened his studio in Via Margutta – the Maltese sculptor was Antonio Sciortino.
The coincidental exchange of great artists, Cafà and Preti, may be considered a symbol of the continuous excellent relations between Malta and Italy. Today’s exhibition is inaugurated as a gesture of friendship from the People of Malta to the People of Italy.