One of Malta's best loved sculptors

By Dominic Cutajar

It may seem strange that in the recorded history of Malta one comes across names of numerous painters and architects, but of only a handful of sculptors. It is still more odd that of the three Maltese artists who in their lifetimes achieved an authentic international reputation - namely Melchior Gafa (d. 1667), Amedeo Preziosi (d. 1882), and Antonio Sciortino (d. 1947) - two of these were sculptors. The three of them spent most of their active lives not in Malta, their native land, but engaged in constant activity on the continent.

The Maltese born with artistic inclination feel a greater degree of congeniality towards sculpture - a kind of inherent attitude, given the plentiful supply of local limestone in Malta, known as tal-franka, that happens to be an eminently suitable matrix for carving.

Antonio Sciortino, who was born and bred in a village environment, was a modeller of exceptional ability.

As regards Sciortino's complex and eclectic development, it can be usefully summarised in three stages. In the first dynamic phase his work is full of youthful zest and lively animation, typified by the group Les Gavroches (1903), which Sciortino produced when he was only 24. The French antecedents of this most perfect of Sciortino's sculptures go beyond the title, suggested by Victor Hugo's romantic account of the street urchins of Paris in the memorable novel Les Miserables. Les Gavroches clearly owes much to Auguste Rodin's break with traditional sculpture, particularly in its coupling of an effervescent animation with a rough uneven surface, a formula that Sciortino's Les Gavroches repeats with astounding freedom, without a trace of inhibition or submissiveness to the great Rodin's reputation.

Although Sciortino preferred to continue residing in Rome, setting up his own studio at number 33 in Via Margutta - one of Rome's most popular artistic environments, close to Piazza del Popolo - he never lost touch with his home country.

He was to be appointed director of the British Academy in Rome - a prestigious position in the renowned Roman artistic environment, although that institution had by then entered a critical phase in its history. It was to close down in 1936 with the onset of the Abyssinian crisis, when the by-then-ageing Sciortino deemed it fit to abandon Rome and return to Malta, to be helped along by the award of a modest sinecure as curator of the Fine Arts Collection.

The Anglo-Maltese connections of Sciortino were also to secure for him a string of commissions for monuments in Malta, among the most notable being the monument to Christ the King, commissioned to commemorate the 24th World Eucharistic Congress, held in Malta in 1913 with a vast concourse of the islanders.

Christ's figure evinces a rather pronounced, stylised, even mannered, approach; its practical immobility is intended to heighten Christ's dignity, although a closer examination reveals a slightly forward movement of the foot that is both measured balanced - a purely balletic poise. Indeed Sciortino was engrossed by ballet, as so many of his sculptures bear out.

Christ's severe but dignified stylisation was destined to remain one of the basic lessons that Sciortino passed on to two generations of Maltese students, and which has since kept occasionally re-emerging in Maltese contemporary art.

Symbolist vagaries merged with the sweet inquietudes of the Viennese Secession, brought about by the turbulent violence roused by the Futurists, paving the way to rhetorical nationalist ideologies.

Antonio Sciortino lived through and experienced directly the changing moods. He could not remain uninfluenced by them. In fact the sculptures he produced from 1914 inwards echoed these shifting aesthetic expressions.

He experienced sensibly all these eclectic changes in his art, a point one can better appreciate while admiring the large collection of his original gessi now on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta.

In particular, the nationalistic rhetorical manner that hit Sciortino after 1920 emerges in another monument - the Great Siege Monument - sited on the side of St. John's Co-Cathedral, in Republic Street, Valletta.

The monument was erected to commemorate the great epic saga of Maltese history, the victory achieved in 1565 by the Knights Hospitallers and the Maltese against an invading numerically superior Ottoman force. Virtute et Constantia (through Daring and Persistence) - words used by Grand Master La Valette in his despatch to Philip II of Spain gave rise to the allegorical representations of Fortitude, Hope and Faith. The notion itself is an inspired piece of rhetoric for which Sciortino created a compact monumental, steely image that aptly lent expression to the determination of the Great Siege defendants - and more importantly, to those qualities deemed necessary for tiny Malta to survive in a much larger world.

These three works neatly symbolise the three principal strands of his art: a moving indication that although he resided far from the island of his birth, he still reserved his best efforts precisely for this land to which he was emotionally committed.


Dominic Cutajar - art critic. He graduated B.A. in Mediterranean Studies from the University of Malta. He was curator of St. John's Co-Cathedral Museum (1982-88) and since then Curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts. He published several articles about Maltese artists and art including the "History and Works of Art in St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta (1988) and Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta - A Contemporary on its History and Selected Works (1991), and studies on various Maltese artists.

(Source: Voice of the Mediterranean, Vol. 2 - Issue No. 22 - April 1998)

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