Melchiore Gafa 1636 - 1667
Melchiorre or Melchiore was the son of Marco and Veronica, his brother Lorenzo Gafa` was the famous Baroque architect who built the present Parish church of St Lawrence including many other building. The 17th century witnessed a sudden jump in quality of sculpture with the art of the very talented Melchiorre Gafa`. After an apprenticeship with Ercole Ferrata he established his studio in Rome. In the course of his very brief career he became one of the top Baroque sculptors not only in Malta but of the Roman school. His masterpiece in Malta is the wooden statue of St Paul for the Collegiate church of St Paul in Valletta, this statue is signed by him. His statue of St Joseph with the child Jesus made in a Spanish touch with real clothes to blend with the Good Friday statues in this parish, is held in Birgu at the Church Museum.
Sculptor Giuseppe Mazzuoli (1644-1725) who made the “marble group” the Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist in the ex Conventual church of the Knights, St John’s co-Cathedral in Valletta, was Melchiorre’s student in Rome. His father Marco was also a sculptor so it was too obvious that from his early age Melchiorre showed his early talents for the art of sculpture. When Fabio Chigi, a former Inquisitor in Malta was elected Pope as Alexander VII, he sent for Melchiorre to go to Rome to help him develop his studies. This gave him the incentive to meet Ferrata and joined his bottega, then he started to create his early masterpieces. His first piece of art in Rome was the statue of St Mary of Campitelli. Later he sculptured the statue of St Paul for St Paul’s Collegiate in Valletta. This statue was commissioned by the noble Testaferrata and cost the sum of 300 scudi (LM 24.90). This beautiful statue shows the influence of the Roman Baroque and it is signed by Melchiorre.
In Melchiorre’s work one could notice the prominent element by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, known as the father of the Baroque era, but we do not mean that Melchiorre used to copy Bernini’s artwork and we know that certain elements in the subject anticipated the sculpture of the 18th century. During this century there were sculptors that were inspired by Melchiorre’s artwork. Other important works by this artist were the Glory of St Catherine of Siena in Rome in Maganapoli church that is a splendid manifestation of Roman Baroque. A statue of Santa Rosa of Lima was commissioned by the Dominican community for their church in Peru, South America.
There are other works in Malta by this great artist, such as Our Lady of the Rosary at the Dominican church in Rabat, but one of the good commissions received that unfortunately caused his life had to be the one made by the Knights from Malta. This was made after a decision taken about the altarpiece painting of St John’s in Valletta by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, such a painting is preserved today in the Museum of St John, as stated above this represents St John the Baptist baptizing Christ, it had to be made of bronze in the same subject. The Knights’ decided to commission Bernini for this piece of art and instructed their Ambassador in Rome at the Holy See Fra Francesco Caumons to contact signor Bernini. This contact was found impossible because Bernini was on another task in France. Fra Caumons wrote to the Council of the Order in Malta and informed them that he commissioned Melchiorre because Bernini was not available.
Melchiorre accepted the order and made more than one design of this subject to be sent to Malta. After many examinations of the designs Melchiorre arrived in Malta and Mattia Preti discussed the subject with other commissioners about all the details and Melchiorre’s design was accepted. Melchiorre was given a gold necklace by Grandmaster Cotoner with other rewards by the Council of the Order, and during a special ceremony due to their appreciation, in April 1666 the selected design was presented.
Melchiorre had to end his short life accidentally in the papal foundry when he was working on a particular statue model made of bronze that accidentally collapsed and fell on him. According to Pascoli he died when he was hit by a large piece of clay that fell on him, two different statements that both are documented. Melchiorre’s tragic death posed a series of intriguing thoughts and questions, such as; was his accidental death truly in Rome? Was it true an accidental one? Was it true that he died of a tragic accident at the foundry? Is it true that he was not poisoned as a result of a plot? If he was truly murdered, who would have stood for the benefit of his death? Lorenzo Bernini himself acknowledged his talents. Considering at the time of Melchiorre’s position in Rome, Bernini would have been as old as Melchiorre’s father, more than 60 years of age I believe, and it would be obvious that he would have viewed the young Melchiorre as the new and fresh talented figure who could be strong enough to threaten Bernini’s virtual dominance that he enjoyed for years as the father of the Roman Baroque. Therefore I still believe that his short life was ended by such circumstances and was shrouded in mystery. Melchiorre was only 31 years when he died and if he was not a victim of such circumstances of such a tragedy, he would have been established as one of the greatest Baroque masters worldwide.