How I write – Keith Sceberras
by Marie Benoit
I write almost exclusively about art-history, specifically about the art and architecture of the Baroque period and art in Malta in general. My work is largely based on my independent research conducted in archives, libraries, universities, museums and institutions. Thus, my writing necessarily comes at the end of research projects undertaken following the rigorous rules of research methodologies imposed by scholarship. Some of these projects are long-term, others may be short. I impose on myself clear aims and objectives, knowing exactly what the ideal final product will look like.
The onset of research is in bibliographic capture and in reading widely and exhaustively in the subject of interest. The secret is in preparing a strong foundation and in keeping at the forefront of scholarship. My work is never an end in itself, but a piece of writing that opens to the reader numerous other sources. Thus, for example, a short research paper on Caravaggio, should embark the reader on a reading journey through the sources that are suggested in the main text, footnotes and bibliography. A four-page essay in a journal is, in reality, a rollercoaster that throws the reader directly into a library looking for the books and publications referred to and, in turn, opening up to directed research. This is what my writing is about.
Luckily, Caravaggio also provides all the ingredients of research excitement that one can aspire to. The greatness of his art was paralleled by an unpredictable and fascinatingly turbulent life. My contribution on the artist focuses on his art, but also on the context in which he worked. This entails the analysis and wider study of the political and social climate of the period and the mechanics of artistic patronage. Over the past years, I have dealt with the documentary evidence of his Maltese sojourn, raised questions about his motives for coming to the island, studied the identity of his protectors and patrons, the complications of his knighthood, and the nature of the crime that ultimately led to his imprisonment and daring escape to Sicily. Nothing can really beat the excitement of discovering new sources and documents, of confirming working hypotheses, or of attributing a work of art.
Caravaggio scholarship is a fascinating field, sometimes governed by conflicting views. A vast plethora of opinions, attributions, and judgments has split Caravaggio scholarship and many new issues have recently surfaced. Problems evident over the past 50 years have remained in the limelight while others, especially those concerning the identification and major rediscovery of “lost” works which haunted the great scholars of the period, have been solved. Many aspects of Caravaggio’s chronology have been settled and issues which governed the attention of mid-20th century scholarship have been solved through archival research. Undeniably, there are still a couple of pictures which cannot exactly be properly placed in a precise date, but the large majority of the major pictures have a documented story or a consensus over their dating. Scholars have focused and refined research on his patrons and on their tastes, interests and collections.
Many of my writing projects necessitate the collaboration of others, of scholars who give advice and assistance on matters which are not specifically my expertise or who read drafts of my papers and play them against their own work. They also necessitate the collaboration of archivists and, especially, photographers.
My published work varies from the “large format” survey books (such as Baroque Painting in Malta, Midsea Books, 2009, brilliantly photographed by Joe. P. Borg), which provide the essential backbone to the study of the period under review, to short and specific subjects on one particular work of art or aspect of art history (usually published in academic journals). Over the past 18 years, I have published extensively on the subject of Caravaggio, Roman Baroque sculpture and Baroque painting. I am the recipient of an Andrew W. Mellon Senior Fellowship in the Department of European Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and have been awarded the National [Malta] Book Prize for Research (2006). My publications include Roman Baroque Sculpture for the Knights of Malta (2004); Caravaggio, Art, Knighthood, and Malta (2006; with David M. Stone); Melchiorre Cafà: Maltese Genius of the Roman Baroque (2006; as editor); Caravaggio and Paintings of Realism in Malta (2007; as co-editor); Baroque Painting in Malta (2009), Mattia Preti che si Ripete (2010; as contributor and scientific coordinator) and several articles in leading international journals, including The Burlington Magazine, ARS and Paragone Arte. I have also contributed to numerous international research projects and exhibitions, including the milestone Caravaggio: The Final Years (Naples-London, 2004-2005). My forthcoming book (Midseabooks Ltd, with the contribution of Jessica Borg and photography by Joe P. Borg) is a large volume on Francesco Zahra 1710-1773. It celebrates the 300th year anniversary of his birth and should be in print by the end of this year.