Malta Diary Who was Francesco “il Maltese’” – and why did he have three different names?
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Although a celebrated artist in the world of baroque painting and having throughout a short life lived under and been known to have three different names, the 17th Century Maltese-born painter Francesco Noletti, alias and also known as Francesco “il Maltese’“ alias and also known as Francesco Fieravino, lived a relatively obscure life and very little is known about him.
The little that is known is thanks to Maltese arts professor Keith Sciberras who despite extensive research discovered very few facts.
In his book ‘Baroque Painting in Malta’ (Midsea Books Ltd) Sciberras relates that due to Malta’s proximity to the Italian peninsula and the presence of the Knights of St John for three centuries, Malta has a rich association with baroque in general and baroque painting in particular, an association that belies the actual small size of the island.
He relates there were celebrated instances when Malta was significantly at the forefront of stylistic development while a handful of Malta-born painters worked beyond the island’s shores, particularly Francesco Noletti (il Fieravino) who made major breakthroughs in Rome which was then classed to be the ‘mother’ of all cities.
In the late 16th and throughout the 17th Century the presence in Malta of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta had great political clout and attracted a number of great artists to its shores including the notorious Caravaggio (who fled and sought refuge in Malta to escape a murder charge but was then charged with murder in Malta too and had to flee), Leonello Spada and Mattia Preti.
The Knights were from leading European noble families in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, the German states and Britain and had money and refined tastes and were able to commission or purchase works by Batistello Caracciolo, Guido Reni, Andrea Sacchi, Alessandro Turchi, Francesco Romanelli, Benedetto Luti and Augostino Masucci.
The third major influence was of course the Roman Catholic Church with a wealth of churches and chapels spread throughout Malta and Gozo, most enriched by ceiling and altar paintings, panels, portraits and devotional representations, most of which still exist today, many of the works commissioned by the Maltese nobility and rich merchants.
This provided extensive work for other artists such as Stefano Erardi, Gio Nicola Buhagiar, Francesco Zahra and Antoine Favray.
Over and above all, the very buildings and constructions in what was then Europe’s youngest capital city – Valletta – teemed with baroque-style architecture and this was the city of Francesco Noletti’s birth.
His parents are known to have arrived from Marseilles at the turn of the 17th Century and are registered to have married in the Valletta church of Porto Salvo. Whether they came as two different French families or whether they came as partners and then married is unknown.
What is however known is that their family name was Nolet and for some reason they Italianised it to Noletti.
Francesco was born in Valletta probably in 1611 where he spent his childhood. However, as an aspiring young artist and as has often happened with many sons of Malta, he felt that his ambitions could only be fulfilled by emigration and at some stage he upped sticks and went off to Rome.
In Rome, his still-life baroque paintings, some of them with historic connections, soon attracted the attention of the rich and entitled and his career began to flourish as he acquired fame and commissions and eventually was able to establish his own studio and became known as “il Maltese’ “.
Little else is known except that he died at a relatively young age probably in 1654 with his son inheriting the studio but not continuing the fame.
Fifteen years ago, professor Sciberras noted startling similarities between paintings attributed to Noletti and a French artist known as Francesco Fieravino and after extensive and elaborate research was able to establish he was one and the same painter but for some unknown reason the French preferred to relate to him as il Fieravino, hence Francesco Fieravino.
His baroque paintings are extremely colourful and rich, his major theme being that of the painting of luxurious Persian-style carpets and those who have been able to run a finger over some of these paintings report the paint to be so encrusted it almost has a carpet-style texture.
Today, Francesco il Maltese’ has achieved international fame and acclaim and his paintings can be found in the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the famous Uffizi in Florence, the South Australia Gallery in Adelaide, the Fleming Gallery in the USA and many other well-known arts centres. At Sotheby’s auctions his paintings are said to fetch commanding prices ranging in the millions of various currencies.
Indeed a famous son of Valletta and Malta and one that was highly featured when Valletta assumed the title of European City for Culture last year in 2018.
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