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The fluctuating fortunes of three summer palaces

The iconic victory over the might of the Ottoman Empire in 1565, bolstered with the systematic building of coastal defences around Malta, encouraged the top three dignitaries in Malta, namely the Grand Master, the Inquisitor and later the Bishop, as well as the nobility to venture out of the cities of Vittoriosa, Mdina and (later) Valletta for their “honest recreation and spiritual regeneration”.

This was perfectly in line with the great Italian poet Petrarch’s pious recommendation that the natural landscape stretches man’s perpetual reach for spiritual peace and mental relaxation.

A similar trend was occurring in other major European walled cities as the threat of Turkish invasion waned and the progressive effects of gunpowder made fortified cities somehow vulnerable. At that time, outside the walls of Vienna, the Prater was completely taken over for the people’s recreation, as were the Tiergarten outside Berlin and the renowned gardens of the Tuileries in Paris.

Verdala Palace: This palace was conceived at a time when the delights of the countryside contrasted with the corruption of urban life. Understandably, the highly refined French Grand Master Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle (1582 to1595), influenced by this classical revival, fully adopted and developed this pastoral ideal.

In 1586, Verdalle instructed the aging Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar to prepare plans for a fortified summer palace at Boschetto, embellished by magnificent gardens on the lines of the Vatican Belvedere which Verdalle must have frequented during his long sojourn there as the Order’s ambassador to the Holy See.

The palatial splendour of Verdala Palace, now the President’s summer residence, has been exquisitely restored recently to render it once again “if not the foremost, at least the second, in the Kingdom of Sicily”, as Nicholas De Piro points out in his book The Sovereign Palaces of Malta. This magnificent palace and its garden represent a brilliant exposition of the great Florentine Leon Battista Alberti’s (c. 1404 to 1472) belief that “house and garden had to be an artistic unit based on the same ideal”.

Inquisitor’s Summer Palace: Immediately after his accession as Inquisitor in 1624, Onorato Visconti (1624 to1627), from the rich, noble and influential Visconti family of Milan, also felt the urgent need of a country house to avoid the summer heat and his claustrophobic and depressing life in walled-up Vittoriosa.

During his brief three-year term he erected his own summer villa within view of Verdala Palace on the fertile land which had been confiscated from the Maltese academics Matteo and Lorenzo Falzon, who in 1574 were found guilty of heresy.

The Inquisitor’s summer residence at Għajn il-Kbira (the Main Spring) in Girgenti, limits of Siġġiewi, is characterised by its plain distinct façade complemented by an elegant loggia leading to the chapel. This small chapel, aptly dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, erstwhile Archbishop of Milan, was erected much later by Inquisitor Mgr Angelo Dorini (1760-1766) during his six-year sojourn in Malta.

During the early British period the Inquisitor’s Summer Palace was the country residence of the Lieutenant-Governors of Malta, one of whom, Sir Harry Luke, who did much for Malta’s artistic and cultural heritage, called this retreat “a little gem of a house – plain, harmonious, restrained – suggesting the Cotswolds rather than the Mediterranean”. In World War II it served as a depository for the safe-keeping of some of Malta’s foremost artistic treasures.

After years of utter neglect and dereliction, the Inquisitor’s Summer Palace has also been tastefully redecorated, exposing its luxurious gardens and fresh water spring. It is now the Prime Minister’s summer residence. Whoever has been privileged enough to attend the open days and concerts held on the lush belvedere lawn can testify to the idyllic setting of this Arcadian landscape.

Bishop’s summer country house: Far from the madding crowd, in a typical country lane and nestled among carob trees and Aleppo pines, overlooking the breathtaking views of Wied l-Isqof (Bishop’s Valley), lies a derelict crumbling 17th century country house which was once the summer residence of the bishops of Malta. Built at the expense of Bishop Baldassere Cagliares (1615 to 1633), an enlightened and generous prelate, the only Maltese bishop during the Knights’ stay in Malta, this modest country house is complete with servants’ quarters and stables nearby (also in ruins), as well as a natural cave underneath with a perennial freshwater spring and a large ornate stone table.

This modest retreat, unknown to many except local farmers and hardened ramblers, stands firmly on the thyme-scented promontory, extremely rich in archaeological remains.

The plateau extends to the ancient chapel dedicated to the Purification of Our Lady, also known as Santa Maria ta’ Xewxa, now almost totally demolished and appropriately known as L-Imġarrfa, the exact site where the ailing Bishop Cagliares met his tragic death in 1633.

The façade, still bearing the impeccable and well-preserved coat-of-arms of Bishop Davide Cocco-Palmieri (1684 to 1711), a frequent visitor to the site, was built of Upper Coralline limestone, rendering it still intact, demonstrating a defining element of Maltese domestic architecture of the period as evidenced in the Inquisitor’s villa at Girgenti.

The massive façade of the bishop’s palace may be buttressing as well as masking an old medieval interior hastily constructed of rubble-walls which now shows gaping cracks, with some roofs caving in or in danger of collapsing. As was the fashion in the 17th century, a notarial deed carved in stone dated August 23, 1792, is affixed on the left of the building, which cries out for immediate restoration.

This veritable shambles resulting from a lamentable laissez faire attitude after centuries of neglect, is an indelible blot on our national conscience, an insult to the memory of a staunch defender of our rights against the arrogance of power, the only native bishop throughout the Knights’ domination from 1530 to 1798.

The magnitude of this disdain grows in significance especially when we consider that while the other two palaces built by foreigners have been artistically restored, perpetrating their memory and munificence, the bishop’s summer palace, built by a generous and erudite Maltese of Gozitan stock, is still in ruins.

But who owns this precious national heritage? Surely, the considerable funds spent on the restoration of national monuments by the government, massively assisted by European Union grants, is not compatible with the subtle, but grossly unfair, reprimand that Malta, so embarrassingly rich in heritage, is one of the few countries in Europe in which the word ‘heritage’ seems to have a derogatory meaning.

This country retreat and other minor palaces dotting our countryside have contributed substantially to the evolution of the domestic architectural heritage in Malta which evolved over the years, reaching its pinnacle with exceptional ostentatious summer palaces like Spinola Palace in St Julian’s, designed by the renowned baroque architect Romano Carapecchia around 1688, a sure sign that even in this genre of architecture Malta was within the European mainstream.

The typical country lane meandering through ‘fields of dreams’ with open views of the surrounding countryside leading to the Bishops’ summer residence, may be in immediate danger of being barred and rendered impassable with the sickening unauthorised signs of ‘Private’, ‘Riservato’ and other intimidating tactics.

What we are witnessing in the open countryside is a mind-boggling mixture of ‘sweet and sour’ as we marvel at the beauty of the tastefully restored wayside chapels and other edifices , contrasting sharply with a sordid aesthetic disintegration of the ever shrinking countryside by pseudo-farmers, squatters or irresponsible people resulting in a complete negation of civil responsibility.

Undoubtedly, united in their anxiety about the future of our heritage, environmental NGOs will take immediate steps to ensure that the old humble country house, once the residence of Malta’s bishops, an essential part of our ecclesiastical and architectural heritage, is immediately restored to its former glory before the vagaries of the weather and the insensitivity of vandals take their toll.

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