Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 14

MATTIA PRETI / The Return of the Prodigal Son
influenced Rembrandt’s iconic and powerful small
etching of The Return of the Prodigal Son dating to 1636,
and Preti was to play on this compositional arrangement
of the gestures of the protagonists in nine of his ten
pictures of the subject.4
of the drapery folds, namely the orange and blues of
the father and the red cloak of the son, places it very
close to other Neapolitan pictures, such as the Judith
with the Head of Holofernes in Naples at the Museo di
In the first of the two newly-discovered paintings the
figures are shown in half-length and occupy most of
the picture space, the father towering over his son. The
background is a dark void and provides the perfect
setting for the dramatic chiaroscuro that illuminates the
figures. The palette is restricted to earth colours, and
Preti makes exceptional use of his painterly dexterity.
The facial typology of the figures, the modelling of
the draperies, the stance of the ageing father, and the
muscle structure of the son, were repeated by Preti in
numerous paintings of the period.
Set in a vertical format, the painting’s compositional
and narrative structure and the depiction of the
moment just before the embrace differ from his other
interpretations of the theme. The boy is younger and
on the right side of the painting, and the father’s openarmed posture – which signals his mercy – dominates
the closely-knit composition. Behind him, on either
side, are two servants. Light, which in many ways plays
a fundamental part of this narrative, strongly models
the face and supplicating posture of the bare-armed
son; it is the pictorial device that guides the individual’s
quest for redemption.
The second painting under review is also unpublished
and is another extraordinary addition to Preti’s oeuvre
(see fig. 2) (150 x 122 cm, Private Collection). Its
narrative is broader than the first picture and includes
the additional figures of two maids. With its dynamic
timbre, grand manner, vibrant brushwork, tactile
virtuosity, tonal charge, and immediacy of narrative,
the work should be dated to the 1650s, and it was
most probably painted in Naples. The juxtaposition
between its intense chiaroscuro and the vibrant colours
Fig. 4 / Dirck Volckertz
Coornhert after Maerten
van Heemskerck, The Return
of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1548,
woodcut on laid paper, 24.7
x 18.5 cm, Washington D.C.,
National Gallery of Art.
MATTIA PRETI / The Return of the Prodigal Son
Both pictures show how Preti’s mature works had taken
up a new dynamic theatricality that embraced the spirit
of the triumphant Baroque macchina then prevalent
in Rome.5 At the same time, the paintings manifestly
betray how significant the imprint of Guercino’s
compositional methods were on Preti’s art, even though
the Calabrian artist repeatedly injected his narratives
with a forcefully-vibrant naturalism. Added to this, the
tonal contrast of his Caravaggist upbringing remained
strong, despite the fact that in the same years he very
often painted works with wider palettes and lighter
“Neo-Venetian” settings. Both the paintings presented
here are in a very good condition and have maintained
their original chromatic richness, tonal vibrancy, and
oil-saturated brushwork with the impastos intact.
Preti’s biographer de Dominici mentions four paintings
of the subject, all seemingly located in Naples, one
of which may be identifiable with one of the pictures
discussed above. One was purchased by the Duca di
Maddaloni6 and is most probably the large painting
(255 x 368 cm) at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples
(fig. 5); two were executed for the Marchese Gagliano
(possibly Pompilio Gagliano);7 and one belonged to
the Fra Francesco Parisi.8 The two Gagliano pictures
showed different episodes of the story: one represented
the Prodigal Son feasting and wasting his estate, and the
other depicted the return and embrace between father
and son. The first picture is not known to survive, whilst
the latter could indeed be one of the two paintings
under review in this essay, even though the provenance
trail is inconclusive. The painting belonging to Parisi
Fig. 5 / Mattia Preti,
The Return of the
Prodigal Son, oil on
canvas, 255 x 368 cm,
Naples, Museo di
was purchased in Malta and presumably painted there,
which makes it possibly one of two pictures painted on
the island – the one in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Reggio
Calabria, and another in a private collection – which are
discussed below. One of these two pictures may be the
painting of the Prodigal Son commissioned prior to his
death in 1686 by Fra Silvio Sortino, Procurator of the
Order of St. John in Palermo; Fra Silvio failed to pay
for this work, causing the artist to file a request to have it
returned.9 Furthermore, inventories record a painting of
the same subject in 1677 in the collection of Giovanni
Andrea Lumaga in Venice and another in 1707 in the
collection of Elisabetta Vandeneyden in Naples.10
Not much is known of Mattia’s early activity and the
date of his arrival in Rome has not yet been established
with certainty. The first precise record of him in the
city dates from 1632, when he was recorded there with
his brother Gregorio. However, his paintings clearly
show that he immediately developed an admiration
for the work of the generation of Caravaggist artists
who had been working in Rome in the second decade
of the seventeenth century in a style also adopted by
his brother Gregorio. Of these artists, Mattia evidently
had a special admiration for the early works of Jusepe
de Ribera, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Valentin de
Boulogne. The impact of these stylistic influences is
evident in the earliest of the versions of the subject of
the Prodigal Son, which has already been mentioned
above (see fig. 3). Here Preti depicts a close-up rendition
of the embrace in a broad horizontal format in which
the narrative is explained through six half-length
figures including the Prodigal Son’s elder brother and
servants looking on. Recently exhibited at Miradolo,
it dates to Preti’s early Caravaggist phase (ca.16331638) and clearly betrays the imprint of his brother
Gregorio, who painted a very similar version of it (now
in a private collection), but without the young boy at
bottom left. By the mid-1630s the two brothers were
probably collaborating on paintings, and an analysis
of their oeuvre shows them interested in depicting
similar themes, such as the two closely allied versions


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