MALTA DIARY: ANTONIO SCIORTINO – Malta’s renowned sculptor with magnificent works
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It was 1986 and I was in Moscow at the time when the transition was at the very beginning, changing the old Soviet Union into the Republic of Russia. I did not particularly take to Moscow except for the Kremlin building and the large Moscow Square.
The night-time journey by train to St Petersburg (then still Leningrad) took a painstaking 17 hours but highly worthy because the city is simply beautiful and full of history and historical treasures.
The Hermitage Museum was one of fantasy, enormous and beautiful. Our guide told us that if we spent just 10 seconds looking at every exhibit, it would take us SEVEN years to see everything!
We had the whole day at our disposal and we toured several halls of paintings and exhibits and at one point our guide asked whether we had any questions.
Now, let me tell you about guides. I love to be awkward and to ask awkward questions and to see them wince with discomfort – so I thought I would be clever.
“All very beautiful”, I said “but is there anything related to our country, Malta?”
The guide did not writhe – she smirked, smirked loudly.
“You think not so – follow me”. We marched off and into an enormous hall plastered with paintings and portraits of Grandmasters and Knights from the Order of St John of Jerusalem, all of whom had Malta connections and bore the Malta Cross on their cloaks – ok, even though they were not Maltese.
“Now, follow me again”. We marched into another enormous hall and lo and behold – it was packed with the sculptures of famed Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino. I was dumbstruck, totally reduced to silence.
Sciortino was born in Zebbug, Malta (because there is also a Zebbug in Gozo) on 25th January 1879 and died aged 68 in 1947. His sculptures became known as realistic and futuristic as he was highly influenced by the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin.
From early childhood he clearly showed his tendency for sculpture and was encouraged by the established Maltese painter Lazzaro Pisani who guided him to enrol in the School of Art in Valletta. Aged 22 he gained a Government grant to continue his sculpture studies in Rome at the Instituto Reale di Belle Arti and later opened a sculpture studio in the heart of Roman artistic tradition and developed his own style.
His early creations ‘The Philosopher’ and ‘Study of a Woman’ earned him immediate acclaim. His works soon earned him international admirers followed by commissions for works in Brazil, the United States and the Soviet Union among many other countries.
Up to that period most sculptures of women were inspired by the Greek tradition of the female figure but Sciortino adopted his own revolutionary style.
Between 1911 and 1936 he was appointed as the Director of the British Academy of Arts in Rome and on returning to Malta in 1937 he was the Curator of the Malta Museum of Fine Arts until his death in 1947.
A sculpture for which he has remained renowned is that of ‘Les Gavroches’ inspired by the Victor Hugo novel ‘Les Miserables’, a bronze statue showing three poor Parisian children wandering the streets during the French Revolution. The statue was brought back to Malta in 1907 and can still be seen today amongst the splendour of Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the magnificent Grand Harbour.
The mould of this statue is today found in Buckingham Palace, a gift given by the Malta Government to the then Princess Elizabeth when she visited Malta in 1951.
Several other works are on public display in Malta including his famed ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ Monument in Valletta which stands opposite the Law Courts and is a tribute to Malta for its stand during the Ottoman Siege in 1565. Another prized work is the ‘Christ the King’ statue which stands in Floriana at the entrance to Valletta.
When once asked by a puzzled Brit as to the exact pronunciation of his surname Sciortino, without hesitation he replied “shore-tea-no” because in the Maltese language “sc” and “x” are pronounced as “sh..”
Incidentally, 32 years have passed since I visited The Hermitage in St Petersburg but I still vividly remember the nonchalant put-down I received from our Russian guide as if to say “who the hell do you think we are – of course we have everything”. I still wince with embarrassment at the thought!
One other thing that impressed me on my visit to Russia was the quite extensive general knowledge that most Russians I met had about Malta – rather strange to find in such a massive country compared to the miniscule rock at the centre of the Mediterranean – Malta.
“Rely on the words of the old man”
The elderly are assumed to have wisdom as the result of a lengthy lifetime’s experiences and situations. Youngsters are urged to rely on their word and advice as being trustworthy, accurate, reliable, and founded on real life experiences. That held good years back – nowadays not so popular being largely treated as “old-fashioned” and “not real”.