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Annually, a day is now dedicated as an International Day for Women and rightly enough there is the usual talk of women featuring in outer space terrestrial flights, women becoming national Presidents and Prime Ministers, women managing commercial companies and women in leading positions in public and private life.
Many of these have made or left their mark as a testimony to equality and the rapid redefining of the female role.
We tend to regard this as a relatively new development because much of the history of the past shows that female prominence was mainly restricted to the privileged Royal blood of women like Isabella of Spain, Queen Elizabeth I of Britain and Catherine the Great of Russia. Later, periodically, women like Florence Nightingale began to enhance and promote the importance of the female role as an independent and capable person.
Interestingly enough, a forerunner of many of these was born almost 380 years ago in Malta, is little known, but made one of the greatest marks of an independent female in a world that at the time was totally dominated by men and women’s lib and gender equality would have been interpreted as total fantasy and lunacy as women were only seen as being suitable for bearing children, family and household chores and degrading work such as clothes laundering and tilling in fields.
Maria de Dominici was born in Vittoriosa in Malta on 6th December in 1645, the daughter of a goldsmith and into a Maltese-Italian family known for their artistic qualities. In fact, in continuing the family line, her two brothers Raimondo and Francesco were painters.
Her early years were depicted by Giovannantonio Ciantar in his 1772 book titled “Malta Illustrata” in which he described her as being a strong-minded and versatile young girl who rebelled against the traditional female stereotype of only being fit for household chores and child-bearing. Ciantar wrote:
“Maria showed a repugnance to apply her energies to female duties and was thus often rebuked by her parents … She would do nothing other than draw figures and other things according to her whim and natural talents.” He described her as a person who wanted to know what to do with her life at an early age and would let nothing stand in her way.
“At last her parents, seeing her so inclined and disposed to painting, provided an art master to teach her design”, he wrote.
The art master was the internationally renowned baroque painter Mattia Preti who resided in Malta and left an enormous legacy of his art works that comprise a large and valuable volume of the cultural and historical heritage of both Malta and Gozo.
One of her decisions was to become a Carmelite tertiary nun and this enabled her to live outside convent walls as well as the ability to lead an independent life free from family constraints but also the strict restrictions of a convent. Thus, she became Sister Maria de Dominici.
Preti noted she was a superior student who flourished under his direction. In fact he engaged her that while he was painting the ceiling of St John’s Co-Cathedral he allowed her to paint some of the female figures and remarked she was better than him at this!
Giuseppe de Piro’s account in his “Squarci di Storia” (1839), wrote “She superseded any other of his pupils, so much so that the celebrated master chose her to collaborate with him in painting the great vault of the Church of St John, in which the female figures were, to a great extent, executed by her.”
While still in Malta, Maria sculpted a number of portable cult figures that were carried in street processions. She also executed other painting works in the Zebbug (Malta) Parish Church, the Carmelite Church in Valletta and the Cathedral Museum, also in Valletta.
On the encouragement of her master tutor Preti, Maria left Malta in 1682 and opened her own studio in Rome and had many sculpture and painting commissions backed by recommendation letters by Preti and the Malta Grandmaster.
She died in Rome on 18th March, 1703, aged only 57. After her death, tributes began to accumulate.
Delia Gaze included her profile in her Dictionary of Women Artists and this led to a crater being named after her on the planet Mercury after a second fly-by by Nasa’s Messenger.
In the book “Malta: Women, History, Books and Places” it states:
“Exciting or not as an explanation, the thought of a crater on Mercury named after a neglected Maltese woman artist is delightful, inspiring even, particularly when you come across Maria’s crater on the internet, a lovely sight!”
Further and more comprehensive information may be found on the electronic site lovinmalta.com.
“Whether rain or shine – only God decides”
The futility of making plans based on weather forecasts. Normally, in Maltese these phrases rhyme but of course will not rhyme in translation!