Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 16

MATTIA PRETI / The Return of the Prodigal Son
MATTIA PRETI / The Return of the Prodigal Son
Fig. 6 / Mattia Preti, The
Return of the Prodigal Son,
oil on canvas, 126 x 168
cm, Munich, Bayerische
of the subject which have just been mentioned. The
naturalistic movement to which Mattia became at
first attracted was essentially based on the interest in
painting characters from the world around him (often
al naturale), presenting them with realistic gestures
and poses, and modelling in strong contrasts of light
and shade, as seen in this picture. The format of
the painting and the compositional narrative of the
embrace between father and son was clearly a successful
one because Mattia repeated it on other occasions. It
was represented in reverse in a slightly later version at
the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich
(fig. 6) (126 x 168 cm);11 this painting dates to the late
1630s or early 1640s, and here we see Preti gradually
freeing himself from the Caravaggist mould.
By the early 1640s, Preti’s figure types were well-defined,
as were his draperies, the compositional construction,
and the gestural devices that he habitually used. The
dark backgrounds of his early work opened up to
colour and to vaster representations of the background
space, allowing him to incorporate elaborate palatial
settings and clouded skies essentially inspired by
Venetian art. It is within this context that Preti’s first
known larger interpretation of The Return of the Prodigal
Son (202 x 258 cm), namely the version at the Musée de
Tesse, Le Mans, which includes eight full-size figures set
within an architectural setting, must be seen.
This was the period when his works took on a new
theatricality and embraced a “grand manner” method
of depicting recitativi, as can be seen in the luminous
rendition of The Return of the Prodigal Son (fig. 7) (150 x
156.5 cm, Private Collection), which is probably slightly
later. Preti retained, however, the strong tonal modelling
of figures and the typologies that had engrained
themselves in his art during his early years in Rome.
A simple comparison between his early and mature
pictures shows, despite changes in stylistic manner, the
same facial features and gestures.
First documented in Naples in March 1653,12 Mattia
made the city his home for the next seven years. There,
he forcefully established himself as a leading artist and
attracted the attention of the most prominent Neapolitan
patrons, being remarkably prolific and painting numerous
pictures for both Church and private collections. His
grand naturalism, with its obvious Caravaggist origins,
Fig. 7 / Mattia Preti,
The Return of the
Prodigal Son, oil on
canvas, 150 x 156.5
cm, Private Collection
was perfectly suited to Neapolitan taste. He also looked at
Ribera’s Neapolitan work, as is manifest in his Martyrdom
of Saint Bartholomew (L’Aquila, Museo Nazionale
d’Abruzzo), which clearly derives from Ribera’s picture
of the same subject at Palazzo Pitti in Florence.
Preti’s quadri di galleria struck the perfect chord with
Neapolitan patrons, and his corpus of pictures became
impressive. He continued to paint works in the manner
of Guercino’s recitativi, but his narratives became more
energetic and triumphal. The Neapolitan context made
his chiaroscuro even more appropriate, and the two
paintings of The Return of the Prodigal Son studied here fit
remarkably well within this context.
In Naples, Preti also painted a number of large multifigured scenes in the triumphant manner, scenes
which essentially derive from his Venetian experience.
Dramatically spread out longitudinally on canvases
some three or four metres wide, these pictures reveal
the artist’s ability to distribute full-scale figures
horizontally and inject them with compositional


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