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Valletta – vibrant city of many styles

The National Library.

The National Library.

As a layman with a small dose of inspiration from Prof. Mario Buhagiar, who pioneered the academic appreciation of art in Malta, I have come to the conclusion that good design is the hallmark of architecture.

Our baroque capital city has emerged as a classical example, showing that a good design is easily assimilated in any context.

The fine arts, as much as the performing arts, have served two functions: they were destined to impress and dazzle citizens while communicating a specific ideology. Consider in this context the artistic perspective developed in the baroque churches and neo-classical edifices of Valletta, even as early as the last quarter of the Knights’ stay, expelled from Malta by Napoleon in 1798.

With the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment in mid-18th century Europe, Malta also experienced the architectural winds of change. While Europe basked in the neo-classical Doric style, pioneered in England by James Stuart, Giuseppe Bonnici was among the first Maltese architects to relinquish his favourite baroque style when he designed his masterpiece, the dignified Customs House on the Valletta waterfront, in 1774.

A few years later, Polish architect Stefano Ittar designed the last major building of the Knights when he built the Biblioteca in a subdued neo-classical idiom with the restrained use of the Doric style and an elegant arched gallery at street level.

A glorious period of artistic and architectural achievements with its consequent building boom came to an abrupt end with the departure of the Knights.

Malta’s governor took over the stately Magistral Palace, the military officials made their headquarters at Auberge de Castille and the protestant Bishop of Gibraltar and Malta took up residence in the elegant Auberge d’Aragon.

The British administration made its architectural intentions very clear. An outstanding event occurred in the first decade that exposed the beauty of the sculpture of ancient Greece.

In the early 19th century, Lord Elgin unknowingly gave a boost to the new Doric style as the famous sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens were transported to the Valletta marina in transit to London.

Like the mythological phoenix, Valletta has risen from acrid ashes

The impact on the Maltese architectural milieu was tremendous and the new idiom was gradually adopted not only in new Valletta buildings but also in the ostentatious construction by Maltese masons of the neo-classical Bighi Hospital at the entrance of the Grand Harbour, closely followed by Grognet’s ecclesiastical architecture of the Mosta rotunda.

Opposite Bighi Hospital, on barren land, now known as the Lower Barrakka, a monument was erected to the first British Commissioner on the island, Sir Alexander Ball, a few years after his death in 1810. This was not only a departure from the usual practice of building monuments in the centre of urban areas, but also an edifice in Doric style, presumably designed by Giorgio Pullicino, a professor of architecture at the University of Malta and personal friend of sculptor Antonio Canova.

The delicate sculpture of this famous neo-classical landmark was entrusted to sculptor Vincenzo Dimech. The British imprint on Malta was now secure: visitors to the island, on entering Grand Harbour, could marvel at the new architectural ideology: Bighi Hospital on the left and Ball’s monument on the right, both conspicuous for their neo-classical design.

Sited in Malta’s most elegant baroque square, opposite the Magistral Palace, where the Knights’ Guardia della Piazza once was, now stands the Main Guard portico, a classical-style building with Doric columns, headed by the huge British insignia proclaiming Melitensium Amor (the love of the Maltese).

A similar structure was erected at the entrance of the Old University, followed by the exquisite exedra, a semi-circular structure of ancient Greek origin built at the lower Fort St Elmo. In 1856, architect Giuseppe Bonavia introduced for the first time the neo-Gothic idiom expressed in the Presbyterian Church in Valletta.

An outstanding building in Valletta is the Chamber of Commerce known as La Borsa, built in the Rococco style, including a colonnaded portico with an elegant appearance, complete with bass-reliefs, medallions, garlands and other motifs. This building, reflected a break in tradition, was also designed by Bonavia in 1857. Another remarkable achievement by Bonavia is Palazzo Buttigieg Francia, also known as Palazzo Ferreria, the former foundry of the Order, where most of the Knights’ armour was manufactured, opposite the former Royal Opera House.

This Venetian palazzo, evocative of the splendid palaces on the Grand Canal, exudes a mixture of eclectic motifs prevalent in the late 19th century. The most striking features of its façade are the three-arched windows and the vague Gothic and oriental motifs with finials included in the open balcony.

The Garrison Chapel, presently the Malta Stock Exchange, built in 1857, was a multi-denominational church designed on the prevalent style bereft of any vestige of baroque. The Royal Opera House, designed by famous British architect Edward Barry, opened its doors for the first time in 1866. This major building of impressive design was easily assimilated and its destruction by German bombs in April 1942 was lamented by all.

Another major building in neo-classical style is St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, opposite Auberge d’Aragon, a site previously occupied by the German auberge. It was designed by British architect William Scamp, who had also built the Naval Bakery on the Birgu marina.

Scamp utilised Corinthian columns to counter-balance the austere exterior of the cathedral, while its steeple is a Valletta landmark contrasting sharply with the newly built baroque dome of the Carmelite church.

The imposing portico of St Paul’s Cathedral is embellished by six simple Ionic columns. In Valletta, there are other non-baroque structures like the old market, a unique Victorian metal structure, and the Law Courts, a post-war, neo-classical building.

Valletta has emerged as a vibrant city that has absorbed various architectural styles. Like the mythological phoenix, it has risen from acrid ashes to be able to celebrate the 450th anniversary of its foundation and be crowned as European Cultural Capital in 2018.

To get to know more about Valletta’s architecture in the British period, read Michael Ellul’s Art and Architecture in Malta in the Early 19th Century, published by the Malta Historical Society, and Denis De Lucca’ s essay ‘British influence on Maltese architecture and fortfications’ in The British Colonial Experience 1800-1964, edited by Victor Mallia-Milanes.

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