The Malta Airport Foundation supports Conservation and Restoration work on a Renaissance Triptych

In a bid to help shed light on Malta’s artistic heritage, and preserve it for future generations, the Malta Airport Foundation recently supported research, conservation and restoration work carried out on the Renaissance Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso. In the past, this unsigned triptych was attributed to artists Giovannello d’Itala and Salvo d’Antonio, both of whom were connected to the celebrated Quattrocento Sicilian Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina. However, a series of more recent studies have led researcher Dr Charlene Vella Ph.D. to attribute this triptych, with increasingly more confidence, to Antonio de Saliba.

The triptych is dedicated to the Virgin of Succours, and in its central panel it portrays the Madonna del Soccorso with St Peter and St James the Elder on either side, as well as Annunciation and Golgotha scenes in the panels’ top cusps. The triptych forms part of the Mdina Cathedral Museum collection and was the second painting in this collection to be studied following the restoration of Salvo d’Antonio’s masterful 1510 predella with the Salvator Mundi. The Malta Airport Foundation chose to invest in this project as it believes that the restored work of art will not only add value to the Mdina Cathedral Museum’s collection, but also to the country’s wider cultural tourism offering.

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To better understand the importance of this triptych, and the work carried out on it, we spoke to Dr Charlene Vella who has, over the past 10 years, overseen the conservation and restoration of no less than seven 500-year-old Renaissance panel paintings in Maltese public collections. Dr Vella lectures within the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta, and is also the Director of the Late Medieval and Renaissance Art Studies research programme, under which the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso project falls.

Q. Can you explain why the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso was chosen for the aforementioned research programme?

 Antonello da Messina (c.1430-79), whose painting St Jerome in his Study can be seen below, was the most important Renaissance painter born south of Rome in the 15th century: he was a master of the oil technique and of chiaroscuro.

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Malta had a special connection with this master through his brother-in-law, Giovanni de Saliba, who was probably of Maltese descent. Antonello de Messina was surrounded by a great network of painters and artisans, with Giovanni being a woodcarver within this circle, and other relatives of his being goldsmiths and painters. Among the painters were two of Antonello’s nephews, one of whom was Giovanni’s son; Antonio de Saliba.

Malta’s earliest Renaissance paintings come from Antonio de Saliba and another of Antonello’s nephews; Salvo d’Antonio. There exist eight paintings by Antonio de Saliba and Salvo d’Antonio in Maltese public collections that reached the Maltese islands before the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St John in 1530. This reinforces the argument that the Maltese islands enjoyed their own artistic renaissance even before the arrival of the Knights.

Within itself, the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso constitutes three of the eight paintings mentioned above. These paintings are also the three that make up the closest-to-a-complete altarpiece by the above-mentioned artists. Moreover, this is also one of three almost-complete altarpieces by these Renaissance masters that survive anywhere in the world.

Q. What makes the work conducted on the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso unique locally?

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Invasive and non-invasive diagnostic tests were carried out on the paintings, providing information on the make-up of the paintings, the type of wood employed, as well as the pigments and binders used, before the actual conservation and restoration process took place.

Furthermore, the three paintings that make up the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso were also scanned in 3D. 3D-scanning, which proves that we should not view paintings simply as two-dimensional objects, has been carried out locally on archaeological sites and on sculptural objets d’art, but this was the first painting to be assessed in such a manner in Malta. The data collected through this process will eventually be made available to the public in the same way that several international museums have made their scanned objects available for free online.

The triptych – which originally must have had an ornate gilded Late Gothic type of surround – has been returned to the Mdina Cathedral Museum mounted onto a grey support. Since most paintings by these artists survive without their original framework, we looked at several framework reconstructions that major museums have used to present altarpieces that have lost their original frameworks, as our starting point. What the team working on this project ultimately achieved at the Mdina Cathedral Museum with regard to framework for the triptych, is also another first for Malta.

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In the near future, we hope to present a hypothetical reconstruction of the framework in the form of a frosted sticker placed onto the museum-quality glass that is protecting the painted panels. Since the original framework does not survive, the shape of the panels has been studied in depth by architectural designer, Carmel Spiteri, and myself, in order to come up with as close to a hypothetical reconstruction of the framework as possible without being too daring in its recreation.

Q. What kind of expertise was needed to bring this research, conservation and  restoration project to fruition?

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The necessary equipment for the 3D scan was brought over from Italy, with Leo Chiechi from Digitarca being assigned with the task. He worked hand in hand with Mr Pierre Bugeja, whose team at Prevarti Ltd was responsible for the entire scientific investigations and the conservation-restoration process. Digitarca have produced several high-profile projects in 3D and other projects, including the scanning of the Castel del Monte – the 13th-century castle in southern Italy commissioned by Emperor Frederick II – and the Virtual Tour of the Florentine Opera del Duomo Museum. Conservation scientist Davide Melica from the Consulenza e Diagnostica per il Restauro e la Conservazione was, on the other hand, responsible for diagnostic research on the manufacturing technique of the paintings alongside Pierre Bugeja.

Interested in staying updated on the Triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso project? Follow the project’s FB page here.

Published on: 16.04.2020