Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 11



Two newly-discovered paintings of The Return
of the Prodigal Son by Mattia Preti
KEITH SC I B ER RAS
The theme of the Return of the Prodigal Son, a
parable narrated by Christ and recorded in the
Gospel of Luke 15:29-30, is one which extolls mercy,
reconciliation, and redemption. The subject was
particularly popular in the Counter-Reformation,
and Baroque artists favoured the moment of the
embrace between the father and his son, an exemplar
of forgiveness. The subject was one of Mattia Preti’s
favourite themes, and few artists of the seventeenth
century painted this moral scene as often as he did.
The two paintings under review, both dating from the
1650s, are impressive new additions to his depiction of
this theme, extending the total number of Preti’s known
paintings of the Return of the Prodigal Son to ten.
Fig. 1 / Mattia Preti,
The Return of the
Prodigal Son, oil on
canvas, 124 x 104
cm, acquired from
Colnaghi in 2017 by
a Private Foundation.
Born in the Calabrian village of Taverna in 1613,
Mattia Preti emerged as a leading exponent of the
forceful Baroque of mid-seventeenth-century Italy,
working in a tradition that brilliantly captured the
characteristics of monumental dynamism combined
with an impressive sense of theatre. An extraordinary
draughtsman and virtuoso painter, he was quick
with his brush and produced hundreds of pictures
that spanned a career of some seventy years. His life
can be easily and neatly divided into distinct phases
starting with early training and his first maturity in
Rome, followed by his middle years in Naples, and
finally the nearly four decades that he spent in Malta
between 1661 and his death in 1699. An artist-knight,
whose sobriquet was il Cavalier Calabrese, his later life
and art were conditioned by his membership of the
chivalric Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes,
and Malta.1
The two paintings under review, measuring 124 x 104 cm,
and 150 x 122 cm, conform perfectly within the
narrative and close-up compositional methods of Preti’s
half- and three-quarter length quadri di galleria typologies
(figs. 1 and 2). There are, unfortunately, no known
contemporary documents that can be specifically
associated with the two paintings discussed here, and
their provenance can only be dated back to the last
decade and the mid-nineteenth century respectively.
However, a picture of this subject, recorded in the
1740s by Preti’s biographer Bernardo de Dominici in
the collection of the Marchese Gagliano in Naples,
could possibly be one of them.2
The parable of the Prodigal Son commences with the
younger of two sons asking his father to take possession
of his share of the estate, which he quickly wastes in
faraway lands on self-indulgence, carnal gratification,
and sensual pleasure. Reduced to famine and misery,
envying the pigs that he is employed to look after, the
young man rediscovers himself, realizes his guilt, and
recovers the use of reason. He resolves to return to his
father, acknowledge his failings, and beg forgiveness,
realizing that he is no longer worthy to be called his
father’s son. Upon seeing his child, the father in question
greets the young man with untold joy and compassion,
and celebrates his return.
In the two pictures studied here, Preti concentrates
on the intimacy of the embrace, the submission
of the young repentant sinner, the compassion of
the father, mercy, and human sympathy. Preti uses
light to bathe the haggard son and emphasize the

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