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17th-century bishop’s summer house in ruins

The Cagliares house in the limits of Ta’ Xewxa lies in ruins. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

The Cagliares house in the limits of Ta’ Xewxa lies in ruins. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

In the early Knights’ period as the Order further strengthened its defensive walls of Vittoriosa and Mdina, buildings inside these cities had necessarily to be compact, dense and restrictive with no place for public gardens. In fact, life in Vittoriosa must have been very claustrophobic and frustrating to the noble knights who were used to wide expanses of woodland countryside not only for their royal sport of hunting but, more importantly, because they viewed the open landscape as an Arcadian idyll contrasting sharply with the hustle and bustle of the city.

With their characteristic zeal they immediately converted the nearby promontory of Senglea, named after Grand Master Claude de Le Sengle (1553-1557), into a hunting preserve complete with hunting lodges and a small chapel dedicated to St Julian, patron saint of hunters.

The Inquisitor’s summer house in Girgenti.The Inquisitor’s summer house in Girgenti.

The lure of the open country, particularly in the Rabat area, attracted the pre-Siege Grand Masters who in spite of the great hazards from marauding pirates landing on the Maltese islands with apparent ease, ventured to their hunting lodge in the area known as Ta’ Xewxa in Hal Tartani ( limits of Dingli). For their spiritual and physical comfort (albeit frugal) they repaired to the medieval Carmelite convent of Il-Lunzjata in nearby Wied Liemu in contrada San Leonardo, or to the ancient Franciscan convent of Ta’ Giesu in Rabat where the first Grand Master succumbed to sunstroke while hunting in Buskett.

The victory over the Ottoman Empire 450 years ago as well as the systematic line of coastal fortifications around the Maltese islands in the aftermath of the Great Siege encouraged the knights and the nobility to venture out of the crammed walled-cities for recreation and spiritual regeneration. This aspect of Maltese history ushered in a new high point in the history of domestic architecture of our island.

The same trends were occurring in other European cities as the threat of a Turkish invasion waned and the effect of modern gunpowder made walled cities somewhat vulnerable. At that time the famous Prater outside the walls of Vienna was completed and given up for recreation and so was the Tiergarten zoo outside the fortifications of Berlin and the famed gardens of Tuiliers and Luxumbourg in Paris.

Influenced by this classical revival of the Arcadian landscape that was taking place in Europe in the latter half of the 16th century, the Knights of St John, particularly during the reign of the refined French Grand Master Cardinal Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle (1582-1595), adopted and fully developed this pastoral idea. It was a time when the modest delights of the countryside were perceived to contrast sharply with “the corruption of the city”. In this initiative we witness that our island had manifestly entered the artistic main stream of the European continent.

The palatial splendour of Verdala Palace designed by Girolamo Cassar and its flactuating fortunes are well-known. Furthermore, the significance of its magnificent surrounding gardens bear witness to Verdala’s erudition and sophistication who followed in the foot-steps of the great Leon Battista Alberti’s (c1404-1472) concept of open spaces and landscaping.

Verdala Palace, the summer residence of the President, after major restoration, is today a glittering jewel displaying Renaissance splendour and exquiste paintings by Filippo Paladini.

Verdala Castle, Buskett.Verdala Castle, Buskett.

Subsequently, the heads of the other two major powerful institutions in Malta, the Inquisitor and the Bishop, both felt the need of a country house which they built a few years later in the same breathtaking Rabat/Dingli countryside. Immediately after his nomination as Inquisitor in 1624, Onorato Visconti erected his own summer house on the fertile land confiscated from Mattew and Lorenzo Falzon, who in 1574 were found guilty of heresy.

After years of professional restoration, the Inquisitor’s summer palace at Għar il-Kbir, limits of Girgenti, is now the Arcadian summer residence of the Prime Minister.

A few years later, Bishop Baldassare Cagliares (1615-1653), the only Maltese bishop during the Knights’ period, built, at his own expense, a modest villa in the limits of Ta’ Xewxa. Unlike the other palaces that have been tastefully restored to their former splendour, the Cagliares house is in ruins. The summer villa, with the coat of arms of Bishop Cocco Palmieri (1684-1711) on its façade, has a fantastic cave with a typical stone table and a fresh water spring below it. Not far from a demolished wayside chapel frequented by the bishops, the house overlooks the fertile valley of Ta’ l-Isqof, a stone’s throw from Verdala Palace.

The house is part of our national patrimony and deserves to be fully restored not only because of its historical significance but also for its architectural and aesthetic import.

These country residences ushered in a new era in Maltese domestic architecture which evolved over the years, producing magnificent edifices particularly Spinola Palace in St Julian’s designed by the great Romano Carapecchia in 1733, Ta’ Ippolito almost in ruins in the vicinity of Borg in-Nadur in Birżebbuġa and Casa Leone in Santa Venera. This was a sure sign that even in domestic architecture Malta was firmly established in the European mainstream.

Lino Bugeja is honorary president of the Ramblers’ Association.

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