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The Russian exiles of St Ignatius - Michela Spiteri

In the 1980s when Sliema’s houses were falling like rain and I was a schoolgirl passenger in the back of my mother’s Mazda estate, I was privy to some very intriguing transactions.

These would begin with her braking violently the moment she saw the latest townhouse undergoing the indignity of demolition. She’d get out at once and soon be in her element, negotiating with dusty builders sporting knotted handkerchiefs, with important-looking contractors and developers, even the owners themselves – all of whom were appreciative of the chance to be rid of items that would otherwise have been thrown away.

And so it was that old majolica tiles, fanlights, various wooden relics and interesting pieces of stone found their way into the boot of the station wagon. And all the while I was peering out, watching. My mother, assiduous as ever, insisted on paying for this loot. You could say it was the beginning of architectural salvage in Malta.

The destruction of Malta’s environment and heritage, in whatever shape or form, is something that hurts me profoundly. It’s like wilfully destroying old family photographs or trashing a world already too dependent on living memory.

Given my feelings, I don’t write about it as often as I should. Perhaps, for all the superb commentary in our media, I know deep down that the case is futile. There just isn’t enough responsive accountability from those solemnly charged with listening and taking action. And the parties (commercial, legal and political) with vested interests will generally press on regardless, betting that catch-up and enforcement won’t happen.

I recently viewed the controversial demolition of the historic Villa Ignatius on my laptop. As with a horror movie, I couldn’t watch and kept leaving the room under various pretexts. It was devastating seeing the perfectly square blue balcony I had admired all my life come crashing down – and the surrounding warm red bricks with it.

Instead of flagging the abuse and asking for an immediate inquiry, the Planning Authority has speciously defended the demolition, insisting it was necessary and authorised by a court order. In effect, that order, which required the work to be carried out within 60 days of the court judgment, and only under the direction of a court-appointed expert, was honoured more in the breach.

For one thing, no start was made until well after the expiration of the 60-day window and in the conspicuous absence of the court expert, giving rise to reasonable suspicion that the builders had exceeded the limits of the order (i.e. remedial work only and the removal of danger). The fact that the same PA has recently safeguarded 19th century houses in Sliema’s Cathedral Street does not let the authority off the hook.

The requirement to rebuild Villa Ignatius brick by brick (dream on!) would, of course, send shock waves through Malta’s construction industry

Much has already been written about Villa Ignatius, an important Jesuit building and one of the oldest in Balluta. Less well known, perhaps, is that this villa was once home to a number of gifted refugees – members of the Russian aristocracy – who had escaped the Bolshevik Revolution and came to Malta in 1919.

An account of this is given on page 183 of Nathalie Poutiatine’s book Princess Olga, My Mother, in which she describes the generous welcome extended to them by several Maltese families they met, among whom were Professor Vassallo and Count Alfred Caruana Gatto, justice minister in the 1921-24 Cabinet.

It was the latter – a former pupil of the Jesuit College – who made it possible for the Russians to move into this beautiful seaside Sliema villa with its large well-shaded garden. A number of these exiles would habitually walk down the hill and swim off the rocks, which is how ‘The Exiles’ got its name.

I have always felt a great affinity for this spot – both beach and house – although it was only recently that I discovered that my maternal great-grandfather, Alfredo Vassallo, the distinguished 19th-century ophthalmologist, was none other than the same Prof. Vassallo who befriended the Russians. Caruana Gatto was a great friend of his, besides being his brother-in-law.

The sad fate of the villa is uncannily similar to that of the Carlton Tavern in the inner London suburb of Kilburn, a 1920s public house that survived the Blitz only to be torn down illegally by developers just weeks before formal recommendation for Grade II listing.

There was, of course, violent local protest and the Westminster City Council took the unprecedented step of serving the Israeli developer with an order to rebuild brick by brick. The decision was appealed but to no avail.

So there we have it: an act of vandalism fully named and shamed.

Back here, I don’t believe that old and rare blue Maltese balcony had to go. It could have been restored professionally. And there should have been constant monitoring of the works being carried out. No developer should be able to steal a march on the PA or treat local residents with contempt.

It therefore makes sense that the PA should from now on welcome the input of expert and committed NGOs. The requirement to rebuild Villa Ignatius brick by brick (dream on!) would, of course, send shock waves through Malta’s construction industry. There would be less optimism about haymaking in the sunshine.

Soon, only photographs of Villa Ignatius will remain – and, more poignantly, a lovely picture. It’s one of my favourites and it hung for many years in my grandmother’s kitchen before moving to my aunt and uncle’s living room. Painted in 1920, it’s the work of one of those Russian exiles – the celebrated Nicholas Krasnoff – and was given to Caruana Gatto as a token of gratitude and appreciation. It is signed by all the exiles who once lived there… long ago, in a different Malta.

The final chapter of Villa Ignatius makes me sad – and angry. Very angry.

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

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