The present series is the most complete set of views of the island of Malta and its harbours and defences to have survived since the eighteenth century and is the only series that remained in the same family collection from the eighteenth century until the present day.
Three further sets are known but none of them as complete as this series: a set of four (originally eight, but subsequently divided), was in the collection of the Marquis de Norois-Turgot at the chateau de Menneville in Lantheuil, near Caen, and then with Rafael Valls Gallery in London in 1986 (approx. 60x130 cm); a set of five views was sold at Sotheby’s, 10 December 1986, lot 40, 57 x 127 cm, and was later with Chaucer Fine Arts in London (cfr. Old Master Paintings, London 1987, nn. 28-32); and a third, smaller series of four views is recorded as formerly from the Sant Fournier collection in Malta and is now in a private collection. Boswell has identified a further painting that must have originally come from the Turgot series, a view of Valletta from Villa Bichi; the remaining three have not yet been identified. We should add to these a fifth series, of six views, sold by Sotheby’s in Monaco (7 December 1990, lot 25), even though these paintings are probably workshop replicas and of inferior quality to the other sets. In addition there are several examples of individual views of Malta by Pullicino which may have formed part of either the known and probably incomplete sets or may have themselves formed part of other unrecorded groups. The fullest analysis and juxtaposition of these groups was published by David Boswell in 1990.1
In contrast to the relatively large numbers of vedute of Naples, Rome or Venice, views of Malta in the eighteenth century were, and remain, of some rarity. The island was then under the sovereignty of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (commonly known as the knights of Malta), and would remain so until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 and his subsequent displacement by the British commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson. The Order’s patronage of great artists had earlier included Titian, Spada, Leoni, Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and the less well-known but highly talented eighteenth century painter Antoine de Favray (1706-1798), a close friend of Turgot who helped support the artist during his early years on the island. Favray portrayed the daily lives of the knights and great events in its contemporary history, but earlier artists had either painted devotional works or portraits of individual knights. The only veduti were primarily the backdrops to important events in the Order’s military and naval history such as the series of frescoes illustrating the events of the Great Siege of 1565, commissioned by the Council of the Order from Matteo Perez d’Aleccio for the Grand Master’s palace.
The generally anonymous and often naïve views of Malta painted or engraved in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century (and the gouache views by the Swiss artist Joseph Goupy ca. 1711-1763)) were usually taken from a high viewpoint, presenting Malta and the smaller island of Gozo as theatrical panoramas. In contrast, Pullicino’s views of the islands are painted from the level of the spectator in a manner closer to that of Vanvitelli and mark a radical departure in the way the islands are portrayed. Alberto (or perhaps Philiberto, the diminutive of both being Bertu) Pullicino was a relatively obscure native of Valletta born in 1719,2 whose principal patron was the government of the Order of Malta, for whom he worked between 1753 and 1758 recording the
reliquaries and monuments in, and decorating the vestry of, the Conventual Church, now the Co-Cathedral of St. John, in Valletta. Pullicino’s painted views of the island of Malta, its harbours and defences were almost always done for individual knights who wished to recall their time on the island once their training and service was complete; they date from the late 1740s and remained his principal source of income throughout his career. Their stylistic similarity to Favray’s view of Constantinople suggests that perhaps Pullicino took some instruction from the older artist, who had arrived in Malta in 1744 after training at the French Academy in Rome.
Pullicino’s views are characterised by a high palette, inspired by the strong light of the southern Mediterranean and often included descriptive details that recall the work of Venetian contemporaries. In the View of Valletta from the interior near Floriana in the Sant Fournier set, for example, Pullicino included a self-portrait in the lower left part of the view, together with one of his assistants and a gentleman who is looking at the landscape with his binoculars, as if to verify the faithfulness of the painting. Our version of the same view also includes an artist sketching, with some variations in the other figures.
In 1753 the French engraver De Palmeus3 published eight sheets as a prospectus for engravings, taken from Pullicino’s paintings (A. F. G. De Palmeus, Vues de la ville capitale de Malte: Proposées par souscription, Paris 1753) along with a series of maps, all dedicated to Louis-Francois de Bourbon, Prince de Conti and Grand Prior of France of the Order. These engravings were intended to be based on the Turgot paintings (as Boswell has demonstrated) but their proximity to our paintings and the Moro engravings which were successfully marketed, suggests, perhaps, that our series may have been originally intended for Conti and was instead sold to Robert Clements.
The Turgot series are probably the first of the series and are replicated closely by three comparable views from our series. The Turgot view of Valletta with the two harbours which is from a different vantage point to the similar view in ours, is of considerable importance in expanding our knowledge of Pullicino as it enables us to both date the series and learn more about his patrons. The painting is signed and dated on the reverse of the canvas: Veue (sic) de lentree du grand port / de malte peinte d'apres nature / en aout 1749 par alberto pulicino / pour le chevalier turgot: The 'Chevalier Turgot' may be identified as Etienne François Turgot de Brucourt (1721-1789), the son of a royal counsellor,4 who was in Malta between 1746 and 1760 when serving there to complete his required training and service in the galleys of the Order. Turgot later earned renown as a naturalist and for his interest in surgery and medicine (which he enlarged as an enlightened administrator of the Order’s hospital) while he also founded the French society of agriculture.
Marsamxett with Fort Manoel and Dragut Point, across St Andrew’s Bastion, from the Auberge d’Allemagne records an historical event: in 1748 the Christian slaves of the Pasha of Rhodes’ galley (The Rhodes Wolf) had mutinied and, under the leadership of the Moorish slave, Qara Mehmet, imprisoned the Pasha and his officers. Pullicino’s painting shows the Pasha’s galley arriving in Valletta harbour, to be received by celebrating crowd of knights and citizens, followed closely by the Captain-General of the Order’s galley. The Turkish flag has been furled and the Order of Saint John’s flag hoisted in its place, while on the main deck we can clearly see the figure of the Pasha with his white turban – he was released into the custody of the French and ultimately ransomed. The two views taken from the mainland –Valletta from the interior near Floriana and Valletta seen across Senglea and Birgu, with the Santa Margherita lines from the Cottonera Gate towards the San Salvatore present numerous anecdotal details such as a man falling from a brick wall, peasants working in the fields and a hunter bird-shooting. It has been suggested that the present set was commissioned by a British patron as two British ships of war are included the view of the left side of the Grand Harbour taken from Valletta, which does not recur in any other recorded version of this view. British ships, however, were frequent visitors to the island, they appear in other Pullicino views and in any case may have been added to views that had already been painted.
The journey to Malta was somewhat arduous and, with the risk of raids by Moorish pirates, often dangerous; a handful of British visitors travelled there in the eighteenth century, however, including John, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792) and his friend William Ponsonby, later 2nd Earl of Bessborough, accompanied by the Swiss painter Jean-Etienne Liotard, who made the trip in 1738, and William Young (1749-1815) whose own journey took place in 1772. The present set of views was acquired by Robert Clements, (1732 – 1804), the son of Nathaniel Clements (1705-1777), a leading figure of the Ascendancy, member of parliament, and effectively Irish finance minister from 1740 until his death. Robert was Nathaniel’s eldest son and, aged just twenty-one, left for the Grand Tour in 1753, remaining in Italy for much of the succeeding twelve months. He was painted by Pompeo Batoni5 in Rome in the spring of 1754 and must have arrived in Naples by April, as he made a visit to Mount Vesuvius on 26 April of the same year. While in Naples he acquired several views of the city but although there is no record in what survives of his travel diaries to indicate that he actually made the trip to Malta, the notation in an 1836 inventory that three sarcophagi6 had been acquired on the island suggests he must have travelled there and acquired this series of views, along with the sarcophagi, to commemorate his visit. His visit must have been a relatively short one, however, and so despite the speculation that the two British ships in one view suggest they were commissioned by a British patron, these could have been added by the artist as an afterthought – Pullicino could not have had time to have produced this entire series in time for Clement’s departure. The series is followed closely by the Palmeus engravings, which date from a year earlier and are mostly based on the Turgot series; it is possible, however, that the engraved views themselves were never acquired by the Prince de Conti as no such series had been identified as part of his collection and that they were instead purchased by Clements. Construction of the family mansion at Killadoon, County Kildare, had been commenced by 1767 for Nathaniel Clements and was completed a decade later when the English writer Arthur Young visited shortly before Nathaniel’s death. The paintings acquired by Robert on his tour were all installed there and noted in the first inventory of Killadoon made in 1806 after his death, albeit givrn only generic descriptions. Only in the 1836 inventory are the paintings clearly identified (“Inside Hall. Seven Views of Malta in Gilt Frames”) as being hung on the main staircase over the three sarcophagi. On his return to Ireland Robert first joined his father in the treasury while being appointed High Sheriff of Leitrim in 1759. In 1765 he was elected to parliament for Donegall County, exchanged for Carrick in 1768 until being appointed commissioner for the revenue 1772-1773, and was then re-elected MP for Donegall in 1776. The following year he was appointed governor of Counties
Donegal and Leitrim and was raised to the peerage as Baron Leitrim in 1773, then created Viscount Leitrim in 1794 and in 1795 Earl of Leitrim.
1. See Boswell, op. cit. 1990, pp. 392-99.
2. He was baptised in the Dominican parish church of Porto Salvo, Valletta, on 6 February 1719; his date of death is unknown but is thought to pre-date 1765; Giorgio Pullicino (1779-1851), also a view painter, but who gained a greater reputation as an architect, has sometimes been identified as his son, but as he was born in 1779 while Alberto is generally considered to have died in 1765, and if was still living would have been sixty years old. Boswell has shown that he was Alberto’s nephew, the son of his younger brother, by the latter’s second marriage.
3. Palmeus was engineer, designer and geographer to the Prince de Conti, who had been appointed Grand Prior of France in 1749 with dispensation from making profession or undertaking the obligatory caravan.
4. Michel-Etienne Turgot, Marquis de Sousmont (1690-1751 was the architect of major reforms to the French royal finances. Etienne-Francois was his second son and never finally made religious profession as a knight of Justice of the Order, since his older brother was childless so the responsibility of producing an heir to the considerable Turgot estates fell to Etienne. In 1763 Etienne was appointed governor of Guyana (Cayenne) with the responsibility of colonising what was to ultimately become a French penal colony but the expedition was a disaster, for which Turgot was blamed, and he never again held public office. Etienne’s younger brother, served a s controversial Controller-General of the French finances in 1774-76, the first two years of the reign of Louis XVI.
5. A. M. Clark, Pompeo Batoni, Oxford 1985, p. 287, reproduced plate 162.
6. Three Stone Sarcophagi with Rich Arabesque Ornament acquired on Malta are listed in the 1836 inventory.