MATTIA PRETI | BOETHIUS AND PHILOSOPHY
Fra Andrea di Giovanni, Knight of the Order of Malta, for whom this work was probably painted;
The collection of the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, Grand Master’s Palace, by the early 19th century;
Ross County Historical Society, Chillicothe, Ohio;
By whom anonymously sold, New York, Sotheby's, 22 May 1992, lot 63;
J. Spike, Mattia Preti, Florence 1999, pp. 97, 228, 299, cat. no. 142, reproduced in color p. 97, fig. XCIII;
K. Scibberas, ed., Mattia Preti: The Triumphant Manner, with a catalogue of his works in Malta, Malta 2012, pp. 58, 370, under cat. no. 126, 455-456.
Requested for the 1999 exhibition in Malta celebrating the tercentenary of the death of Mattia Preti.
Unknown to scholars until its reappearance at auction a few decades ago, this monumental canvas of Boethius Consoled by Philosophy by Mattia Preti is, according to Dr. John Spike, "by any standard, one of the masterpieces of Preti's last years, and indeed of his entire career."1 Painted in Malta around 1680, it is imbued with the drama, theatricality and tenebrism that characterizes his output from his mature period. Its earliest known history is referenced in the 1713 inventory of the collection of Fra Andrea di Giovanni, a Knight of the Order of Malta, for whom it was likely painted.2
Born in Taverna in 1613, Preti spent his formative years in Rome, followed by seven years in Naples. In 1661, he settled in Malta, where he enjoyed the patronage of a large clientele and where he remained until his death in 1699. Upon his arrival to the city, he commenced work on one of the largest projects of his career, the redecoration of the interior of Saint John’s Conventional Church in Valletta, which he completed in 1669 to great acclaim. Even before he moved to Malta, he was receiving commissions from the Knights of Malta, an order he joined himself as a young man in 1641. His association with this order provided him with prestige as well as a constant flow of work for the remainder of his life, with a large corpus of works arising from his quick brush and rapid technique.
Like his Neapolitan clientele, Preti’s Maltese patrons found great appeal in works with a philosophical theme, like the present painting. This subject is taken from the book The Consolation of Philosophy (De Consolatione Philosophiae), written by and based in part on the life of the Roman Christian philosopher, Boethius (circa AD 480-524).3 After attaining the office of Roman consul, Boethius lost the good grace of Theodoric, the Ostrogothic King of Italy, and was sent to prison on accusations of treason. While awaiting his execution, he wrote his Consolation, which unfolds as a conversation with Lady Philosophy about fortune, free will, and fate. He focuses particular attention on accepting hardship in a spirit of philosophical detachment from misfortune, as well as reminding readers that happiness is achieved not through money or power, but through virtue. This short text proved highly influential in later Medieval thought, as it was among the first attempts in Western philosophy to wed pagan Greek and Christian ideologies of humility.
In the present composition, Preti captures the moment when the figure of Philosophy, whose images follows the iconographic program prescribed in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, appears to the jailed Boethius, who sits at left pondering his past. She is shown at center wearing a transparent dress decorated with Greek letters. The letters Theta (Theory) appear on her left shoulder and Pi (Practice) on the her left calf. Together these two letters together represent the two main elements of philosophy, but the letter Pi as reference to the mathematical constant also correlates with Boethius influence on the history of mathematics. His treatise De arithmetica (circa AD 500), which was a translation on the work of Nicomachus of Gerasa and centered around arithmetic, geometry, and Pythagorean theories, became a foundational text for the first universities of Medieval Europe. In the background, to the right, appear the Muses, who help to guide his pen in writing, though he must eschew them in favor of Philosophy, who is holding a scepter, an emblem of her authority over the liberal arts. The success of this composition in Malta is confirmed by the two full size studio copies and one reduced copy that exist today, all of which are today in private collections in Malta.4
This painting should be closely compared with a more recently discovered work by Preti of The Death of Seneca, dating to the 1680s and today in a private collection, Malta (fig. 1). In both paintings, the Stoic philosophers are seated in three-quarter poses at the left and right edges of the composition, almost as if they were meant to serve as pendants. A strong sense of tenebrism, or a strong contrast between light and dark, pervades both works. The starkly illuminated figures with their silvery flesh tones stand out against a darkened interior, in which Preti leaves part of the ground visible, one of the hallmarks of work from his late career.
As confirmed by a watercolor painted by Charles de Brocktorff (1775-1850), an artist active in Malta by 1810 who is known for his illustrations of the life and architecture of the city, the present painting was in the collection of the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John in Malta by the early 19th century (fig. 2). This watercolor, which is preserved today in the Museum of the Order of Saint John (inv. no. LDOSJ1011), shows the painting hanging in the North West corner of the antechamber in the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta (Malta).
1. Spike 1999, p. 229.
2. His testament (1714, settembre 7, Malta, AOM 931, 34, fasc. 25. f. 215v.) cites a large picture of Philosophy of Beothius Severinus in a frame executed by the hand of F. Mattia (Item un quadro grande la Filosofia di Boetio Severino con Cornice Lavorata mano di F. Mattia), as noted in Spike 1998, p. 228, under cat. no. 142.
3. Elizabeth McGrath was the first to rightly identify this subject as Boethius Consoled by Philosophy in the 1992 sale.
4. For example, see Scibberas 2012, p. 59, reproduced fig. 88.