Let’s start spoilering something: contemplating in person the “St. Dominic’s vision”, that overlooks the altar of the San Domenico church (Taverna), is already a good reason to visit Calabria. But let’s take it slowly.
Less than three thousands inhabitants, a village at the foot of the “Sila Piccola” that settles just over 500 metres above sea level and reaches the 1400 metres of altitude at “Villaggio Mancuso“, Taverna is the synthesis of Calabria. Just a few minutes from the sea and, obviously, a few minutes from the wonderful and lush forests of the Calabrian mountains, like many other Calabrian villages, Taverna claims ancient origins. According to popular tradition, Taverna would have been founded by the inhabitants of Trischene, a Greek colony situated in the current Uria (fraction of the municipality of Sellia Marina), which the sisters of the trojan king Priamo would have given birth to. But despite the actual existence of Trischene have being debated, it seems plausible the existence of a Greek-Latin colony from which Sellia and Taverna would derive, following the Arab pirates incursions that forced inhabitants to find safer shelters in the interior during the Middle Ages.
The history of Taverna is the history of Calabria, a place where cities were founded by the ancient Greeks – as Kroton (Pitagora’s city), Skylletion, Locri, Rhegion, Kaulon, Hipponion, Terina, Sybaris and many more – giving the region the name of “Magna Graecia” and an incredible archaeological wealth.
And the geography of Taverna is the geography of Calabria: snug villages, clinging to the mountains, where you can breathe the burning wood in fireplaces in winter and the scent of the sea during summer. “Rocky” and “distrustful”, they appear to be staring far away. Welcoming and proud, they inspire a sense of religiousness and tenacity. Timeless, they fiercely show the roots of the great Greek civilization and bring you back into a wild past of conquests and assaults, of dangers coming from the sea and a mountain that is a refuge. And finally, they remind you the destiny of a land that dominates the Mediterranean sea and from which, too often, it felt sourrounded. A hot, harsh, rich, hard land that predicts Italy.
In this still-unaware-Italy, in this Calabria, exactly in Taverna, among nobles and peasants, with noble ancestors himself, in 1613, the painter Mattia Preti was born. And it is to this land that Preti – even when his fame goes beyond the borders of the peninsula, even after Rome, Naples and Malta (where he died in 1699 and is bueried in the La Valletta Co-Cathedral) – will always feel to belong. “The statement in Malta […] coexists with the recurrent thinking of the childhood places, of the land where he continues to send remarkable works”, writes Vittorio Sgarbi in the monograph he curated for Rubbettino publisher. “It is rare that artists”, continues the art critic, “leave more than a few youthful proofs in the homeland, unless it’s a capital or the center of a civilization. It is therefore ashtonishing that we find so many works sent to Taverna churches”. Distance and membership, refuge and adventure: this continuous connection with the native land is a testimony of love and a laceration that every one knows in a region that gave to the world millions of emigrants.
“Here is then – the beautiful book still told us – a whole life spent in Malta, forty years crowned by the high marks of Knight of Jerusalem, will be for him an honor earned to his homeland, so that, still alive, Preti was known as the “Calabrian Knight”. And here’s one of the main reasons to know more about this extraordinary artist, a very symbol of Calabria.
Vittorio Sgarbi defined Mattia Preti “potently dramatic, like no caravaggesque painter capable of shaping the shapes through light“, “skakespearean“, “superb failed portraitist”, devoted to “realizing that melting point between Giorgione and Caravaggio” – albeit through a “recited” caravaggism, declined as an “encycopaedia of caravaggism” – with a “never fit attention for the youth Guercino, endowed with a “virtuosity that allows him every stunt“, capable at some point of “a synthesis of realism, story-telling and theather”. Preti, nominated in 1641 by Urban VIII Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, is history, faith and myth all together. His works are everywhere: many in Rome, many in Naples and many others, especially, in Malta, but also in London, New York, Madrid, Brussels, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Petersburg, Zurich, Lucerne, Palermo, Melbourne, Venice, Milan, Seville, Manchester, Birmingham, etc.
But, as we said, many of his works are unexpectedly in Taverna (and born to be there). Twice he pictures himself armed with a sword and a brush. One of those self-portaits is here in the San Domenico church and is part of an impressive 3×2-representation of St. Jhon the Baptist. The other one, originally purchased by prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, is in the Gallery of the Uffizi in Florence. It’s in this work that, according to Sgarbi, “Preti points to the essence and is indifferent to death“: “an entire and very long pictorial adventure burn out and dwindled in the glance of a man who has translated every emotion, every torment, every enthusiasm, every pain in images that express the meaning of life”. Preti authentically lived, he’s not afraid of death. Arrived in Rome penniless, his brother Gregory as a master and ‘agent’, he finally reached the peaks of art and faith. A good literary education, a preference for fencing, according to some people he even exceeded the boundaries of this symbolism that portays him as a “soldier”, actually participating in some mission of the Pope’s army in Europe.
Of course Mattia Preti and his intense palette, his religious and mythical subjects, his story and his attachment to his homeland, tell us about a latent and potential and exemplary “Calabrian-way-to-be”, profound, powerful and “mystical”, as well as Calabria itself.
The gift to the San Domenico church of the “St. Dominic’s vision“, also called “Fulminant Christ” – a huge canvas in which Christ is depicted as “an athlete of faith” – is a real act of love that avoids any banalization and sums up everything we’ve said so far. “It’s the Christ of the Sistine Chapel the possible confrontation with the Preti’s Christ, whose mighty anatomy, the scepter, the royal crown, the bundle of fiery lightning that are about to be thrown on the earth, are the obcious recovery of fundamental traces of the Greek mythology, well settled in the culture of the Ionian Calabria. “A Christ – explains Sgarbi – who appears as “Jupiter avenger upset by anger for the behavior of men“, in a “dialogue between earth and heaven” in which “the supreme mediator is the Virgin, who restrains the violence of Christ and points the ecstatic and unarmed St. Dominic”. Mattia Preti is a man of another era. Fatherland-carer and adventure man, man of knowledge and courage, man of glory and of faith. And even in this canvas, in this “mythological representation” of Christ, there’s all this and there’s Calabria, there’s the history of the West and spiritual roots still living in Pretian Christianity.