A Fresh Look At The Past

Reading Time: 6 minutes

by Dr Charlene Vella

The Renaissance period centred on a cultural movement known as Humanism, a human-centred perspective, and, even in the portrayal of the divine, a natural appearance of holy figures was desired. While many Renaissance sculptures survive without any polychromy, they were originally painted and gilded in their entirety or in part, rendering them extremely realistic.

A Renaissance sculpture representing the Madonna and Child in the church of St Mary of Jesus or Santa Maria di Gesù (Ta’ Ġieżu) in Rabat, Malta, is a much-venerated object. It is an objets d’art that even Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam (1464–1534) worshipped in front of, and which also gave the church its name. This sculpture is by the Palermitan sculptor, Antonello Gagini (1478–1536), and it was commissioned from him in Messina on 23 February 1504. 

The artwork is a life-size Carrara marble sculpture that weighs c. 384kg. The notarial deed that documents the commission stated that (i) the sculpture was to be delivered in time for the feast of Corpus Christi, therefore by June 1504; (ii) the statue and its pedestal were to be of a total of 7 palme in height, that is, c. 161 cm; (iii) the Madonna was to hold a flower in her right hand and the Child in her left hand, and (iv) the mantle and the dress of the Virgin were specified to be polychromised in azurite and gold. 

This last point served as the starting point for a research project that investigated traces of colour found on the sides of the sculpture and an in-depth research into other sculptures by Antonello Gagini and his father, Domenico Gagini (c.1420–92), and that of Francesco Laurana (c.1430–1502). These last two sculptors were largely responsible for the spreading of a Renaissance visual language in sculpture throughout Sicily in the second half of the fifteenth century.

The Dalmatian sculptor Laurana was active in Sicily from 1466 until 1471, while Domenico Gagini settled in Sicily in 1463, and remained there until his death. Domenico belonged to a family of sculptors from the district of Bissone in today’s Switzerland. Antonello Gagini was trained by his father, but he was also open to the influence of native Sicilian sculptors and stone carvers who worked in an anachronistic style. Antonello was extremely prolific and mature enough to lead his father’s workshop in 1492 on his father’s death, at just fourteen years of age.

This recent research project determined that Antonello Gagini’s Rabat Franciscan sculpture contained some original Renaissance paint but also several other pigments that were added to the original layer in at least two interventions of overpainting in its history. Traces of colour are visible under drapery folds and creases, and a cleaning intervention revealed the presence of floral motifs on the Virgin’s mantle that were originally gilded and which were hidden beneath a layer of plaster. Furthermore, a decorated hemline was also observed on the mantle that must similarly have been gilded.

This sculpture has had a traumatic past with three of the Madonna’s fingers on the right hand having been broken off, as well as four fingers on the Child’s raised right hand. Some of the edges of the Madonna’s drapery folds have also been broken and the Madonna’s head has at an unknown period been reattached by means of two metal rods, since it had been completely detached.

Part of this research investigation led to a hypothetical digital reconstruction of the sculpture as it would have appeared to worshippers back in the sixteenth century. This digital restoration affirms that this sculpture, that was contracted to take just about three months to complete, was an elaborate one on which no expense was spared: it cost a considerable 20 uncie. The Observant Franciscans were among Malta’s foremost patrons of art in the early sixteenth century, helping in importing Italian Renaissance art to Malta before the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St John in 1530. 

Acknowledgements 

This research project, carried out under the direction of Dr Charlene Vella, consisted of scientific analysis, 3D scanning, and a conservation and restoration intervention. 

All documentation, scientific analysis, cleaning, conservation and restoration have been entrusted to Pierre Bugeja at Prevarti Ltd. 

Professor Timmy Gambin from the University of Malta Department of Classics & Archaeology and his team have carried out the initial and final 3D scan of the sculpture that can be viewed online on http://www.skecthfab. com. 

The project was made possible thanks to the collaboration of the University of Malta Department of Art and Art History and Prof Timmy Gambin from the Department of Archaeology, the Observant Franciscans at Rabat, and thanks to funds obtained from the GAL Majjistral Action Group Foundation under the LEADER Programme 2014–2020. 

The analysis of the diagnostic tests that have been carried out were interpreted together with Ms Jamie Farrugia for her 2021 undergraduate BA (Hons) thesis in History of Art carried out under the Dr Vella’s tutelage, titled ‘Antonello Gagini’s Franciscan Ta’ Ġieżu Madonna and Child: an art historical and scientific study’. 

The Voluntary Organisation Association of St Mary of Jesus has obtained funds from the Malta Arts Council Restoration Funding Scheme in December 2021 in order to restore and reconstruct the missing fingers on the Madonna and Child which has also been entrusted to Prevarti Ltd.  

Dr Charlene Vella is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta. She obtained her Undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Art History from the University of Malta and has obtained her PhD in Art History from the University of Warwick in 2016 where she was awarded a full scholarship under the Chancellor’s International Scholarship. Dr Vella leads several research projects in which she oversees the diagnostic testing, conservation and restoration interventions on Renaissance Art works in Malta. Her latest monograph is due to be published by Midsea Books in April 2022, titled ‘In the footsteps of Antonello da Messina: the antonelliani between Sicily and Venice’.

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