A painting which for many years was attributed to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts, MUŻA, after being loaned to Heritage Malta by the successors of Vincenzo Bonello, founder and first curator of the Fine Arts Section within the Museums Department. This is the first time that the painting is accessible to the public since Vincenzo Bonello acquired it in the early 20th century.
The painting, entitled ‘St John the Baptist at the Spring’, is an oil on canvas dating back to the early 17th century. Typical of Caravaggio’s late period, this painting is executed on a reddish-brown priming layer, and the background is shrouded in darkness except for the landscape at the top. A young St John the Baptist is depicted drinking water from a spring.
There are other known versions of this painting, also attributed to Caravaggio, but this one is among the few which show a landscape. Its attribution to Caravaggio was confirmed by Roberto Longhi (1951), Maurizio Marini (1974, 1987 and later), Stefano Bottari (1966), Renato Guttuso (1967), Angela Ottino Della Chiesa (1967), Cesare Brandi (1952), Michael Kitson (1969), Alessandra Marini, and John Gash (2003). Other scholars have disputed the attribution, while others still have reserved their opinion until they have seen the original. Many retain this to be among the most important Caravaggist paintings in Malta.
At a press conference where ‘St John the Baptist at the Spring’ was unveiled for public viewing, Minister for National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government, José Herrera, expressed his gratitude to Vincenzo Bonello’s successors for their noble gesture of loaning the painting to Heritage Malta for a decade, and possibly longer. He said that this painting will further enhance the visitor’s experience at MUŻA while encouraging a scholarly debate among art connoisseurs.
Judge Emeritus Giovanni Bonello, who is Vincenzo Bonello’s son, expressed his family’s delight that after so many years this painting could be restored by Heritage Malta and exhibited at MUŻA to be enjoyed by the general public and to be accessible to art scholars who wish to study it closely while participating in the debate regarding its attribution. This is another tangible gesture that further enriches the artistic legacy left by Vincenzo Bonello to Malta.
Kenneth Cassar, Heritage Malta’s Senior Curator for Ethnography and Art, remarked that this is another step in the consolidation of Heritage Malta’s aims and MUŻA’s efforts to make Malta’s heritage accessible from every aspect. For many years, scholars have only been able to read about this painting but they can now appreciate it in a public museum. In their mission to reach all members of the public, Heritage Malta and MUŻA will continue to facilitate the knowledge of Malta’s artistic patrimony.
Anthony Spagnol, Senior Conservator at Heritage Malta, spoke of the restoration and conservation works carried out on the painting at Heritage Malta’s laboratories. He said that they included the cleaning of the canvas and the removal of old varnish and past touch-ups. This proved to be rather challenging, since past interventions were made with oil paint directly on the original paint. Conservators had to work gradually and in stages so as to ensure the safeguarding of the original layer. The dark paint covering the painting’s decorative frame was also meticulously removed, exposing the original gilding.