It is often thought that the financial situation of the Calì family was not one of luxury. With the weight of such a numerous family, Giuseppe Calì was sent to a Government Elementary School which was at the time subjected to several changes. This would not have a significant impact on the artist, since from a very early age his aptitude did not lie in academic subjects, but in the arts.
Born in an artistically gifted family, Giuseppe Calì was exposed from a very early age to various art forms. His father Raffaele was a scenographer for theatre, restorer and a Maestro di Cappella for the court of Naples and his mother Giovanna was a mezzo-soprano. Although not much is known about Giuseppe Calì’s early artistic formation in Malta, and he is often thought of as being self taught, the possibility is that his parents nurtured his marked talent.
Tradition has it that Calì’s talent was discovered by William Stephen Eynaud (1812–1871), who saw a charcoal drawing of a cat which the young Calì drew on a neighbour’s house. It is more plausible to think that William Stephen Eynaud was a family friend who followed Calì’s progress from a very early age and eventually financed Giuseppe Calì’s studies abroad.
Later on in his artistic formation, under the influence of his parents, Cali chose Naples as the place to further his studies, unlike most of his contemporary artists who travelled to Rome. This choice was to leave a great impact on the private works Calì produced later on in life.
The link between the Calì family and Naples was formed even before Giuseppe Calì set foot in Italy. His parents were Neapolitan and only moved to Malta in 1840, possibly on the advice of a relative, Francesco Calì, who is said to have arrived in Malta in August of 1838. The exact reason for their emigration from Naples is not known, but it is probable that it was the turmoil in the south of Italy, resulting from the Italian Risorgimento Movement, which led the Calìs to flee from Naples.
Another suggested explanation is that Giovanna Padiglione’s father was unhappy with her marriage to Raffaele Calì, who was of a lower social status. Padiglione is said to have used his authority at the Royal Court to make Raffaele Calì fall out of favour, making him flee.
Regardless of the motive for which the Calì family had to get away from Naples, Calì was determined to further his studies there. Although it was almost a tradition for promising artists to continue their studies at the Academia di San Luca in Rome under the tutorship of Tommaso Minardi (1787-1871), Calì decided to go against this current. Calì arrived in Naples in 1865 at the age of nineteen and was accepted into the Accademia di Belle Arti.
Calì first studied under the direction of Giuseppe Mancinelli (1812-1875), who followed the neo-classical school. Under the direction of Mancinelli, the academy focused almost exclusively on imitating and reproducing busts and sculptures.
There was little or no room for the individuality of artists studying there, and sketching and painting from life was not a practice. It was very different from the formation which contemporary artists had in Rome, who under the influence of the Puristi movement looked back to antiquity and the early Renaissance for inspiration.
An influential artist who disliked the strict academia in Naples was Domenico Morelli (1826-1901), who left a direct and lasting impact on the young Calì, which can be seen especially in his private works.
Giuseppe Calì, "Bearded Male Head". Private Collection
Some of Calì’s early private works were nonetheless influenced by this austere academism. These include a sketch of a Bearded Male Head and a Self Portrait (as a boy of ten years). All these works clearly display a methodical and disciplined approach which reflects the teachings of the art academies of the time. Despite his success in the Accademia di Belli Arti, Calì was not drawn by the strict academism of Mancinelli and quickly turned to Domenico Morelli for guidance.
Morelli’s pictorial aesthetic was primarily based on the movement termed Verismo. His works can be classified as such, due to the preference for optically accurate renditions of figures and scenery. This meant that the use of lines was replaced by colour and contrasts.
Notwithstanding his Verismo, Morelli still believed it to be important to use a certain degree of inventiveness in his painting, especially when it came to historical representations. This type of Verismo left a considerable impact on the works of Calì, as did the Italian strain of Romanticism.
Even though Calì became immediately embedded in the artistic currents in Naples, his preference to study there could have simply been due to this practicality. In Naples, he could stay with relatives and was not far, both physically and culturally, from his native island. Nonetheless, Giuseppe Calì found himself in the midst of political upheaval and was also starting to show a preference towards the Risorgimento movement. For this reason his stay in Naples was cut short, and in 1867 he returned to the safety of his home in Malta.
Although Calì’s stay in Naples lasted for only approximately two years, the young artist had taken on board a variety of influences which he merged with his particular temperament to create a style of his own.
Once back in Malta, Calì’s art was immediately accepted, as his works showed great promise and he was sought after especially within the cultured circles. He initially dedicated most of his time to decorative paintings for private homes which included landscapes and portraits of leading personalities. It was only after 1870, once establishing himself within the private sector, that Calì started taking up church commissions and therefore making himself well known even amongst the general public.
It is not known whether Calì ever left Malta again, accept for the occasional vacation. One cannot exclude the possibility that Calì had the opportunity to further his studies in Rome, which would have given him greater exposure to achieve a more international acclaim. Calì does not seem to have taken these chances and remained in Malta where he was well established and highly regarded.
Although Giuseppe Calì never achieved popularity abroad, locally he did leave an indisputable mark. This resulted not only because of the large number of commissions he carried out for both private and public patrons, but also as a direct result of his teaching. After marrying Perinia Pace on 8th August 1871 and having eleven children, Calì could no longer support his family with commissions alone. Calì was therefore required to become an art teacher at the Lyceum.
With time, Calì founded his own school where he tried to encourage his students to adopt Verismo and to move away from the Neo-Classicism and academicism which was rampant at the time. Amongst Giuseppe Calì’s students was his son Ramiro Raffaele Calì, Raphael Bonnici Calì, Gianni Vella and Ignatio Cefai.
The most noteworthy of his students was Edward Caruana Dingli who later became the founder of the Government School of Arts, and therefore laid down the path for the artists of future generations. Giuseppe Calì produced works incessantly throughout his life and gave up painting only in 1925. He carried out his works at an impressive rate and was nicknamed the ‘devil of the brush’ by his rival Ignazio Cortis (1826-1895). He died on 1st March 1930, at the age of 84 and was put to rest at the Addolorata Cemetery.
Here in Malta, Giuseppe Calì’s Neapolitan link was an exception to the rule, as Minardi’s Purists movement was by far more influential on other Maltese contemporary artists. One of the prime examples being Pietro Paolo Caruana (1794-1852) who was one of the leading Maltese painters at the time, alongside Giuseppe Hyzler (1793-1858). Pietro Paolo Caruana had also started to show interest in the Nazarene Movement, but did not get involved in it. The same cannot be said about Giuseppe Hyzler, who became the foremost exponent of the movement in Malta.
Apart from the occasional talent, the artistic situation of the nineteenth century in Malta can be said to be one of near stagnation. Even the most promising of artists who studied abroad seemed to put aside what they learnt, once back on their native shore.
This situation started to take a different turn with the appearance of Calì. Influenced by the Romanticism and Realism of Domenico Morelli (1826-1901) and Filippo Palizzi (1818-1890), Calì injected a new and much needed idiom in Malta. A contemporary artist worth mentioning is Lazzaro Pisani (1854-1932) who was influenced by Michele Bellanti (1807-1883) and even more so by Carlo Ignazio Cortis (1826-1918) before proceeding his training at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.
From an early age Pisani showed an aptitude in art, especially when one considers the fine drawings which this artist produced in Rome. Even so, Pisani’s paintings rarely surpassed mediocrity and certainly did not reach Calì’s heights, both in technical and inventive terms. With such a restricted choice of artists, both the church and private patrons started commissioning works from foreigners, particularly from Italy. Several foreign artists held contacts with Malta and even paid long visits to the island.
Italian artists like Giovanni Gallucci (1815-c1882), Domenico Bruschi (1840- 1910), Pietro Gagliardi (1809-1890), Francesco Grandi (1831-1891) and Filippo Venuti (active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) started receiving important commissions and were deemed to be better than their Maltese counterparts. The only real threat to these Italian artists was Calì, whose Romantic and warm paintings enjoyed a tremendous popularity with both the clergy and the private patrons.
By studying Calì’s private works, one uncovers a more personal side of the artist and his preferences, whilst revealing the taste of society at the time. Some works were created on the artist’s private initiative and therefore are free from the restrictions of patrons. Most of the private works are commissions which the artist produced keeping in mind the expectations of the diverse patrons. These works therefore pose the same problem as those he produced in churches, which had to be adapted to please the general public.
For this reason it is hard to tell what genre Calì favoured, as his supposed restricted financial situation did not allow him to refuse any commission. Calì was ready to compromise both his style and choice of subject, so long as he secured commissions which were esteemed by the patrons of the time.
Calì’s output for small scale works intended for the private market included a wide range of subjects as varied as landscapes, portraits, genre scenes, allegorical subjects, religious and even decorative works.
Even with an in-depth study it is close to impossible to accurately quantify the work produced for private consumption. It is also important to keep in mind that such private works were passed on from one owner to another through auctions, dealing, or inheritance, often without preserving any detail of their provenance. Works also found their way overseas, were simply disposed of or were lost during war time. An example of a private work which went missing is that representing the Young Petrarch Having his Books Burnt by his Father, which Calì must have painted soon after his return to Malta from Naples.
Giuseppe Calì, "Othello and Desdemona". National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta
Giuseppe Calì’s paintings are often signed, but quite rarely dated. In the undated cases, it is still usually possible to place these works in one of the three stylistic phases which characterised his output. The first phase includes the works produced between c.1870 and c.1890. These are characterised by rich contrasts as well as a strong element of draughtsmanship. An example of such a work is Othello and Desdemona in which he used light to create contrasts and create an effective composition.
The period between c.1890 and the early years of the 1900s can be classified as the second stage of Calì’s artistic evolution. This phase includes works which have a more refined touch, as they start to feature compositions with more figures. The colour scheme also includes more grey tones giving the painting an integrated feel to it.
The third phase includes works produced in the last two decades of his life. Paintings become even smoother and refined as Calì made greater use of violets, oranges and greens. Patterns are also evident in the way Giuseppe Calì carried out his church and private commissions.
Calì is thought to have dedicated more time to work on his private commissions during the winter months. Hypothetically feeling uncomfortable on high scaffolding in bad weather, it is often claimed that he turned to smaller easel painting in the wintry days, which he could produce in the warmth of his home.
Even if this romantic tale were true, Calì never seemed to have slackened his work pace, especially when considering that this body of works was produced by one artist and included plentiful works for both the public and private scene.