Mattia Preti

(Taverna 1613 - 1699 La Valletta))

Hagar, Ismael and the Angel

Oil on canvas, 134 x 98 cm (52.76 x 38.58 inches)

  • Reference: 689
  • Provenance: Reggio Emilia, Villani Chierici Collection
  • Note:

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A. Mazza, Agar, Ismaele e l’angelo: un nuovo dipinto di Mattia Preti, in Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Sylvie Béguin, Naples 2001, pp. 469 – 484.

Hagar, depicted on the foreground facing backwards, is approached in the desert by the angel, sent by God. He shows her a spring to which she will be able to bring her son Ishmael to quench; on the lower right part of the painting Ishmael already features the livid colour of death on his face. The story of the slave Hagar, concubine of Abraham, is told in the Book of the Genesis (Gen. 16, 1-16; 21, 8-21). Sarah, unable to conceive from Abraham, asked him to lie with her Egyptian slave in order to assure the line of descent. Pregnant with the patriarch's son, Hagar gave birth to a boy, named Ishmael. When Sarah as well, well on in years, expected a child, since she feared that Ishmael could exercise on her son Isaac the right of primogeniture, she asked Abraham to send Hagar away and to repudiate Ishmael. Mother and son, lost in the Paran desert about to die of thirst, were saved by God who sent an angel to guide Hagar to a spring. Once adult, Ishmael will marry an Arabic woman of a Qahtan tribe giving birth to the offspring that will found the city of Mecca. The episode of the turning away of Hagar and the following mercy of God is among the most frequently depicted ones of the Seventeenth century painting. There are several reasons behind such a fortune: first of all, Hagar was a slave, accorded to Abraham by his wife Sarah. In the imagination of Seventeenth century Europe – but this is also true for much closer eras – this gave the story a definitely erotic feature. Furthermore, the destiny of the Egyptian slave and of Ishmael quite directly alluded to the issue of illegitimate children, of course quite common in a society based on the holy bound of marriage and on inheritance rights. The happy ending, with Ishmael himself progenitor of a lineage and of a great nation – whose first forefather can be therefore recognised in Abraham himself, meaning that all people can be traced back to the same principle – was absolutely auspicious for the fathers, obliged by social conventions to neglect the children born out of wedlock, but who in reality cared about the fate of their line. And it is not by accident that until the Council of Trent representations of this subject in painting were quite isolated: it was the Council itself, in session XXIV of November 1563, that established the rules of the sacrament of marriage sanctioning its holiness both under the religious point of view, and as a cornerstone of the proper living in society . The existence of the issue of the illegitimate children's fate, deprived of the right to legal recognition, is confirmed from this moment on by the several images of Ishmael's salvation, sent away from the parental house yet protected by God's mercy. Our canvas has been brought to the scholars' attention by Angelo Mazza, responsible for the correct attribution to Mattia Preti . For almost a century, the painting – in an unspecified period yet certainly before 1920 in Reggio Emilia in the Villani Chierici collection – had been incorrectly attributed to Bolognese painter Lionello Spada (Bologna, 1576 – Parma, 1622) . The obviousness of the mistake was noticeable also by simply comparing this canvas with Spada's remaining frescoes in Parma, in the basilica of the Madonna della Ghiara, where Parmesan artist, first pupil of Lodovico Carracci in Italy, later follower of Caravaggio in Malta, was the first artist in charge of decorating the dome . Especially the three biblical stories (David and Abigail, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Ahasuerus) represented on the vault of the northern transept demonstrate how in these years 1617-18, when these Parmesan frescoes have been made, Spada's phase in the style of Caravaggio was over and the painter, back in Emilia after almost a decade, decided to get under the stylistic influence of the “Incamminati”, if anything looking for a comparison with the vivid interpretation of Correggio's legacy given in the same years between Parma and Rome by Giovanni Lanfranco. A totally different impression for our painting: this is a clear contamination between the memory of Caravaggio's works – and in the case in point of those of the last Roman years – and an evident updating on the attempts of the painters of the neoveneta trend in Rome. And this mix can be found since 1635 for almost a decade in a single great protagonist of Italian art in the Seventeenth century: precisely Mattia Preti. For a long time a certain stylistic immobility had been ascribed to Calabrese artist throughout his lasting career. He arrived in Rome when he was less that twenty to reach his brother Gregorio, a painter himself. In reality, as Roberto Longhi managed to acknowledge first, the works of the first Roman phase, previous to his stay in Venice and in Lombardy in 1644, represent a very homogenous group . According to Longhi, just as Joachim Sandrart and Matthias Stomer, Preti witnessed the “third wave” of the artistic movement in the style of Caravaggio in Rome, standing out from the above-mentioned masters for a passionate interest in the results of the neoveneta painting. In the improbable biography dedicated to our painter, Bernardo De Dominici entirely invented Preti's moves first in Bologna, later in Cento to enter Guercino's workshop . Baldinucci instead had previously conjectured an early stay in Lombardy and in Parma to study Correggio's domes (which translated in the Roman environment meant a proximity to Lanfranco) . In both circumstances these are misleading news: Preti's apprenticeship took place entirely in Rome and his first master was the elder brother Gregorio. Nonetheless, Baldinucci and De Dominici's indications are evocative since they point out, in the debate on the different trends of Roman painting at the beginning of the 1740s, the trend which captured the young artist's attention: the faction of those painters already pupils of the Bolognese artists who modified their way of painting once in contact with Titian and Veronese's masterpieces, in Rome due to the divestment of the dukedom of the Este after the conquest of Ferrara. So Preti studies Andrea Sacchi, Pierfrancesco Mola, Pietro Testa and even Poussin. Yet he became a great interpreter of Veronese's legacy, to which he naturally connects the study of Vouet, Regnier and in general the first Caravaggeschi painters, inspired by Veneto's tradition. Just like the first Concerts , the Susanna and the elders of Fondazione Longhi in Florence and the Denial of Peter of Palazzo Barberini , our Hagar and the angel can be rightly inserted among the masterpieces of his juvenile activity. The dating suggested by Mazza, at the end of the 1730s, appears to be the most plausible . The similarity to works such as the so-called Barberni canvas or the Christ freeing the possessed child in the Uffizi Gallery is a crucial test . Furthermore, the expedient of the figure of Hagar, depicted facing backwards with bare upper part of her back – and the beam of light enveloping her shows extraordinary painting features, such as the drop earring projecting a point of shade on the neck or the tear dropping from her eye, depicted with a white light brushstroke – echoes a device often used by Preti in his compositions: just think about the female figure on the foreground of the canvas featuring Clorinda rescuing Sofronia and Olindo from the stake in the Galleria di Palazzo Rosso in Genoa , and the already mentioned Denial of Peter or even the woman leaning towards the Tables of the Law of the canvas with Moses bringing the ten Commandments to the Jewish, made known a few years ago by Keith Sciberras . From literary and documentary sources we know of two canvases made by Prati featuring this subject: the first is from De Dominici: “For Giuseppe D’Anna, Reggio Doganiere painted an Abraham turning Hagar and his son Ishmael out of his house” . The second is from the will of Catanzaro jurist Domenico di Somma, read in Naples from notary Francesco Mignone on 12 August 1659: “And he even leaves four paintings with gilt frames which are in his room, which are Saint John the Baptist preaching to Herod, Saint John the Baptist imprisoned, Tobias with the Angel and Hagar in the desert with Ishmael” . Yet it is not possible to recognise our painting in one of these two mentions: in the first one the scene depicted by De Dominici is the one of Abraham's turning Hagar and Ishmael out, therefore the story's previous moment (the biographer's reference may most likely be to the canvas of Palacio Real of Madrid or to the one already in the Gualtieri collection in Naples); the subject of the painting of Di Somma in Catanzaro is instead precisely the one of our scene, but in this case what makes unlikely the reference is the coat of arms appearing on the lower left part of Hagar's cloak. Although today we aren't able to identify it, since unfortunately the drawing is unreadable, the coat of arms proves that the painting – significantly made in the “emperor canvas” size, assigned to the most prestigious orders – had been made for a noble family, and not for a magistrate, which certainly is a high social standing figure, yet always a bourgeois. On the other hand in Preti's rich catalogue Hagar's story has been represented in about ten different paintings and we can identify the records' reference only through hypothesis. Focusing our researching only on the canvases featuring Hagar in the desert, we can notice how among the other four known paintings (the others: Rome, Doria Pamphilj Gallery ; Schloss Schleißheim, Alte Pinakothek , and the last already in Venice, Rosati Collection, known from a photograph of the Longhi records ) our work is certainly the earliest of Preti's career and probably (maybe as the Schlessheim canvas, of a decade later) the one featuring the highest quality. What strikes is the peculiarity of the story, full of pathos, although summarized in a sequence where the figures seem to escape their own margins. The tightness of the space in which mother, son and holy emissary are crowded is enhanced by the wide gestures, Preti's tribute in memory of Caravaggio, his ideal master and model of the canvases of the Church of Saint Louis of the French. Therefore the Hagar and the angel, once in Villani's collection is an important tool to understand the variety of the suggestions developed during a long apprenticeship with one of the greatest Italian painters of the XVII century. Assuming Longhi's opinion according to which “an artist's personal prehistory is always a fact of critics” – and considering that for Longhi the word “critics” means “choice” of the models – our canvas clearly represents the moment when Preti, from critic, finally becomes an accomplished artist. The importance of being now able to study a work of this kind is therefore fundamental to understand his career and as a consequence to this to understand one of the most important passages of all Italian painting of the Seventeenth century.

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