With the decision taken by the government to move the national art collection back to Auberge d’italie from what is still popularly known as Admiralty House in South Street comes the publication of Hilary Spiteri’s Academic Artistic Training in Early British Malta.
This is an erudite tome that required a humongous amount of research to complete and which casts a revelatory light on a period that was initially obscured in historical turmoil and later absorbed in the great British ideal as laid down by the visionary Prince Consort.
What comes out loud and clear is what a debt of gratitude we owe to Canon (later Bishop) Francesco Saverio Caruana who was, besides Malta’s premier patriot, hailed as Malta’s Maecenas and who founded and directed the School of Design within the ambit of Malta’s re- established university in 1803 after the disagreeable Napoleonic interlude, which flourished till Caruana’s installation as Bishop of Malta in 1822.
Born in 1759 into a wealthy Żebbuġ family with strong aristocratic connections, Francesco Saverio was a great patron of the arts and was the prime political mastermind during the turbulent period which saw the final days and expulsion of the Order of Malta, the Napoleonic aberration and the insurrection of the Maltese against it. He was also the chief negotiator who facilitated the transition of Malta from a semimonastic sovereign principality to becoming a jewel in the British King’s crown.
Much has been written about Mgr Caruana, who still remains a controversial figure in Maltese history depending which end of the political lens one observes him from.
To have received an accolade from the notoriously difficult and abrasive Governor Thomas Maitland, is enough to show that this statesman brought peace to Malta at a time when Europe was in conflagration.
His elevation to Bishop of Malta in 1822 marked the beginnings of the accords between Church and State which, believe it or not, are extant even today. His biography was written by his great nephew the Count of Beberrua, Vincenzo Caruana Gatto and is a primary source of reference in Spiteri’s treatise.
This tome proves two diametrically unrelated theories: one that art is interderivative and that nothing can exist in isolation. Trying to prove otherwise reminds me of those stories of babies raised by wolves (not Romulus and Remus, of course) who in their post- pubescence had to learn the rudiments of being and acting like a human being.
Therefore, the history and development of art is like case law; dependent on previous experience whatever anyone says.
The other theory is that art and politics are and will always be inextricably linked. In Malta this is amply proved by the establishment of that august institution which still exists today: the Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which though it may sound anachronistic today, represented at its foundation in 1852 the latest in modern academia in accordance with the theories devised by Albert of Saxe- Coburg and Gotha, husband of Queen Victoria and universally known as the Prince Consort.
It is indeed intriguing to note that the society was set up a year after the great exhibition in London which was by all accounts epochmaking at many levels and which established the British Empire as the primus inter pares of European states.
The remote outpost of Malta was indeed blessed to have been included in the prince’s intellectually sound plans. It is interesting to note that this was before the opening of the Suez Canal – an event that transformed the economic history of Malta forever, turning a hitherto fossilised and still ecclesiastical ruling class into a dynamic mix with the newly established plutocratic tycoons who established great fortunes in their dealings across the Mediterranean form Gibraltar to Alexandria.Visually the book’s impact is minimal and has no pretensions to being what can be termed a coffee table type feast of design and colour. What it does have is a wealth of drawings mistily by Raffaele Caruana that are found in the five portfolios consisting of 440 works found in the reserve collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts.
I was also intrigued that the plaster casts we have all gazed and studied at the School of Art, which was set up in 1926, has the same plaster casts that were purchased by Francesco Saverio Caruana for his School of Design; this is providential, as towards the middle of the 19th century it became increasingly difficult to use live models as Roman Catholic bigotry and Victorian prurience joined forces to eventually make this impossible.
Although the casts replicate great works of art like the Apollo of the Belvedere and a number of Parthenon friezes, to mention but a few, there is absolutely no comparison – and believe me I know first- hand – to the real thing.
No matter how artfully lights are placed a plaster cast remains what it is and can never ever remotely replace the real thing. Yet for decades upon decades Maltese artists had to make do.
As Sandro Debono, senior curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts, points out in his foreword, Spiteri is the latest in the growing number of researchers whose interest in the National Collection has enriched our knowledge of the history of art in Malta.
Again, with the reestablishment of the History of Art Department at the University as late as 1988 by Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, the former rector, and Mario Buhagiar who still today is the head of the department, the study of our creative history has been under scrutiny for the past 23 years.
I well remember two great books which only a couple of decades ago set the trend and changed local bibliography forever; one was the same Buhagiar’s The Iconography of the Maltese Islands and the other was Nicholas de Piro’s The International Dictionary of Artists who Painted Malta.
These books laid the foundation stone for the vibrant art scene that thrives in Malta today; one which I hope will continue to flourish and place Malta on the international artistic map as a unique island with a unique history, if and when the powers that be understand the need to have a museum of Modern and Contemporary Art besides the extant Fine Arts one.