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Exploring Valletta’s treasures

The book takes a look at the monument dedicated to the Marquess of Hastings.

The book takes a look at the monument dedicated to the Marquess of Hastings.

Michael Galea: Valletta: Statues, Niches, Small Churches, Public Fountains, Public Clocks, Monuments and Marble Tablets, Allied Publications, 2011, 166 pp. €12.50

Michael Galea’s Valletta: Statues, Niches, Small Churches, Public Fountains, Public Clocks,Monuments and Marble Tablets sets out to give a near comprehensive overview of the city’s many monuments.

Armed with this book and a map, anybody could walk around Valletta and explore masterpieces often overlooked in the busy street bustle.

With embellishments on every corner, statues hidden behind alleys and monuments obscured by time and neglect, it’s no surprise that a book like this might be necessary to really get to grips with Valletta’s treasures.

Galea’s book opens with a useful table, listing the original street names as given by the Knights of Malta and their corresponding names under the French, the British and today – from saints to revolutionary ideology, British pragmatism and Maltese independence. One can trace this transformation, for example, in the way Sda Pia became Rue de la Felicite Publique, to Britannia Street and finally Triq Melita.

The book is well illustrated and each chapter incorporates a different feature, supplying some background story alongside photographs and more practical information.

Galea begins with a section on statues, the first of which were erected by the German Grand Prior of the Order, Count Fra Philipp Wilhelm Nesselrode-Reichenstein in the 15th century.

These five original statues were illuminated by small oil lamps, the only night lights in the city, and represented five Jesuit saints.

It was not long before other statues appeared in niches along the streets of Valletta and Galea quotes a delightful 18th century manuscript which reports: “With the statues the city turns into an enchanting theatre through the lighting of lamps during the night and during the day the various statues render the city beautiful as if they vie with each other as to which of them is the most beautiful!”

The next chapter deals with the small churches frequented by the knights for their daily Mass. Interestingly, there are no churches for the langues of England orGermany – the English branch of the order was suppressed by Henry VIII, and the German knights seemed happy to use the churchof our Lady of Mount Carmelexclusively.

The smaller churches and chapels give valuable insight into the lives of the knights and Maltese people at the time, and the way religion played so integral a part in daily goings on.

Galea takes a closer look at a handful of these small churches starting with Our Lady of Victories, more properly called the Church of the Nativity of Mary, the first chapel built in Valletta.

Also of interest is the church of St Lucia in East Street, with its titular painting by Giuseppe Pace and curious papier-mâché statue of the hermit St Francis of Paolo.

The small but imposing church of St Barbara, built in 1585, gets a special mention. Each church contains its own history and identity on its decorated walls, marble floors, specific iconography, statuary and the memories of people who have been loyal parishioners.

The book takes a look at some of Valletta’s later features. These include the Ponsonby Cenotaph, once a massive Doric column destroyed by lightning, the nose-less monument to the Marquess of Hastings, and Queen Victoria’s monument in Republic Square (favoured haunt of pigeons).

The Renaissance statues seem to have, by and large, fared better than later British work. Marble tablets, as a time-honoured means of commemoration, also appear in Galea’s collection of notable features.

These include a tablet in memory of Sir Walter Scott’s visitto Valletta, “the town quitelike a dream”, plaques to identifythe houses of important residents including Dun Karm andFortunato Mizzi, papal visits, royal missions and a hundred other things besides.

It’s interesting to realise that rather than a simple collectionof treasures or beautiful features, this book is a journey throughthe ‘lives’ of buildings andmonuments.

Each one has such an evocative story that it’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed and won-der just how much more information Galea has had to sacri-fice in order to compile a varied work.

Ultimately, it is clear thatValletta will always remain an inexhaustible source of fascination for generations of historians and their avid readers.

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