Reassessment of Favray’s portrait of an elderly lady with an infant.



At least one of the subjects of Favray’s portrait of an elderly lady with an infant is not who books and even a postage stamp say it is. These publications state the lady is the Baroness Veneranda Testaferrata nee Abela, but this view is now refuted.  


Antoine de Favray was a French painter. He is first documented in 1738, when he was mentioned as a private pupil of Jean-Francois de Troy, who was then director of the ‘Acadamie de France’ in Rome. In 1739 he became an official student at the Acadamie. Among his student works is a copy (untraced) of Raphael's Fire which was mentioned by Charles de Brosses and exhibited in Paris in 1741. Five years on, he left Rome for Malta. He embarked on an extended sojourn in Constantinople from 1762 to 1771 when he returned and remained in Malta for the rest of his career. He is known to have enjoyed the patronage of Grand Masters Pinto, Ximenes and Rohan. His portraits and island scenes showing the inhabitants in local costume had mixed receptions in France. Some of his works found in Malta were not executed on the island but brought later:- Among the Saverio Marchesi (Count of Meimum) bequest at the Cathedral Museum in Mdina is a copy of The Satyr at the Peasant’s Table by Johann Liss, which is inscribed as having been painted in 1741. 


On the 26th February 1998, the Office of the Postmaster General of Malta issued a set of four stamps in the series "Treasures of Malta". A 16 cent (€0.37) stamp is described as a work by Favray showing: “a portrait (signed and dated) of Veneranda nee dei Baroni Abela with her grandson Pietro Paolo Testaferrata Abela, 5th Baron of Gomerino. The child was born the same year that his father died.” During the same year a similar claim was made in Depiro/Cremona’s “Costume in Malta”. This fallacy is repeated in Degiorgio/ Fiorentino’s “Antoine Favray (1706-1798)” (Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2004) on plate 2.83 where the painting is described as “Veneranda Abela with grandson (private collection)”.


Argument in favour of Veneranda Abela


Veneranda Abela was the wife of Ercole Martino Testaferrata. The context of Veneranda’s marriage is unusual. Her betrothed’s elder brother’s male line had extinguished by 1730 and the family was on the brink of extinction. This prompted his mother Beatrice Testaferrata Cassia to persuade Ercole seek relief of his religious vows, thereby giving up the Lunzjata benefice. In preparation of his impeding marriage the mother passed to Ercole the title of Baron of Gomerino by means of a notarized deed annexing it to the ‘primogenitura’ founded by her and her predeceased husband Paolo (Ercole Martino was formally invested as the second Baron of Gomerino in 1737). Veneranda was therefore regarded as the vessel who would provide the Testaferratas with that all-important male heir, which she did. This grand plan for her was almost thwarted when, many years later, her only son met an untimely death, beaten by some knights of the Order of Saint John. The good Lord had provided that her daughter in law was pregnant and a couple of months after the tragedy delivered the one true, male heir to this family. Taken in this sense, the portrait sends a message of profanity: The chosen vessel showing the achievement of her life purpose against all odds. Her descendants could not be faulted for appending the surname ‘Abela’ to the patrilineal ‘Testaferrata’ according to Maltese custom of appending surnames


The lady in the painting


The publications appear to be in agreement that the infant is a grandson of the Baroness Veneranda Testaferrata Abela. To verify this claim, one should look at her descendants. Veneranda had two children of her own, Paolo Testaferrata and Maria married to Vincenzo Depiro (Marquis Depiro and Baron of Budack). Paolo had one son Pietro Paolo born 1760 and Maria had two Antonio born 1758 and the younger Giuseppe Depiro Testaferrata. 


These birth-dates refute any possibility that the infant is a grandson of Veneranda. In Cassar Desain’s “Genealogia della Famiglia Testaferrata di Malta” (1880) we find the following note at page 116:- “La Baronessa Veneranda mori’ al Tarxien il 23 agosto 1749”. In Gauci’s “Genealogy and Heraldry of the Noble Families of Malta, Volume 2” (1992) we find the same year of death (1749) for Veneranda at Table 45.


This means that the lady in the portrait cannot be Veneranda Testaferrata Abela, because she had died before any of her grandsons were born. 


Documentation on the granddaughters is scarce but data shows that Paolo married in 1752 and Maria in 1757. This excludes any grandchild born before those dates.


The infant in the painting


Some of the publications state that the infant is Veneranda’s grandson Pietro Paolo Testaferrata, 5th baron of Gomerino. This enumeration is wrong because with Ercole invested in 1737, this would make Pietro Paolo the fourth, not the fifth holder of that title. 


Data shows that Pietro Paolo was born posthumously in 1760. His parents were Paolo Testaferrata and Vincenza Matilde Perdicomati. They were first cousins. Vincenza’s mother Giovanna Fortunata wife of Pier Gaetano Perdicomati Bologna (Count of Catena) was Paolo’s paternal aunt. An examination of this side of the family shows that of all Giovanna Fortunata’s grandchildren, Pietro Paolo was the only male. At an age when sex was important for purposes of succession it is likely that a wealthy lady would have wanted a memento with her only grandson, especially when her own son Niccolo had produced only five daughters. The preference for a male heir in the Perdicomati family embroiled Pietro Paolo in court cases before the Sacra Rota Romanawhich caused the Grand Master to issue a ‘Divietum’ in 1783. Although rich, titled and further ennobled in 1792 with that of Messina, Pietro Paolo’s life was marked by remarkable misfortune in his three marriages, one to a Manduca in 1781, another to a Moroni in 1786 and his last to a Buzi in 1803. The first marriage was without child. The second wife produced four children but she was killed during the Maltese Insurrection against the French. The third marriage to a much younger bride produced another four children but he couldn’t have enjoyed them much, the last being born two months shy of his 63rd birthday. Pietro Paolo died in 1827. By then he had witnessed the fall of the Order in 1798, the French Occupation, and the dawn of the new British Era. His last official appointment was Lieutenant Governor of Gozo in 1815.


Reassessment in favour of Giovanna Fortunata Testaferrata


If the infant is Pietro Paolo Testaferrata, who is the grandmother cradling him? With Veneranda Abela eliminated, the other candidate would be his other grandmother, Giovanna Fortunata Testaferrata. One pointer in her favour is that she was alive at the time. In fact the ‘Genealogia’ makes reference to her testament made before Notary P.V. Giammalva on the 17 April 1777. 


The portrait is not of Veneranda Abela. 


If the infant is of little Pietro Paolo, 4th baron, with his grandmother, then the elderly lady must be Giovanna Fortunata Testaferrata.



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