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A study of our domestic space

Palazzo Falson, Mdina.

Palazzo Falson, Mdina.

George A. Said-Zammit: The Development of Domestic Space in the Maltese Islands from the Late Middle Ages to the Second Half of the Twentieth Century
Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2016.

This attractively edited volume brings to publication George A. Said-Zammit’s extensive study on the development of domestic space in the Maltese archipelago, covering a 600-year time-frame spanning from the Late Medieval till the post-Independence period.

The presented research is interdisciplinary in nature and draws upon a healthy mixture of primary and secondary sources of evidence, comprising data obtained from archival research, notarial deeds, travelogues, cartography, ethnographic data recording, field research, literary sources and oeuvres d’art as well as a close scrutiny of Malta’s political and societal development.

The Moroccan idiom – ‘If the walls could speak, they would tell you my story’ – aptly captures the spirit of this book. In the main, the volume deals with the evolution of Maltese domestic space, taking into account houses of varying typology ranging from the humbler rural masonry-built and rock-excavated dwellings to the urban dwellings. Domestic space architecture, as well as the evolution of architectural cross-currents and styles influencing Malta in the 600-year time-frame covered by this study, feature prominently. Particularly commendable is the author’s ability to assess the societal, cultural, economic and anthropological dimension of the domestic units included in this study.

The book is copiously illustrated with original photographs, tables, graphs and other visuals. These successfully complement the presented data and enable the reader to obtain an in-depth understanding of the domestic landscape under investigation.

The volume is divided into 12 chapters. Chapter 1 provides the general research framework, including the employed methodology, the chronological framework and the geographical and geological parameters determining the Maltese context.

Chapter 2 provides comprehensive data on society, class, economy and settlement in the Maltese archipelago. Said-Zammit ascribes to the hypothesis that Malta was not completely depopulated in the aftermath of the Muslim conquest of AD 871 and that pockets of habitation survived. It is acknowledged that the apparent repopulation of Mdina in the late 10th or the early 11th century tallies with the available archaeological data. However, the author fails to acknowledge that an official medieval pottery typology for the archipelago is still a desideratum and is currently, still a work in progress.

On the other hand, Said-Zammit’s analysis of society and class distinction from the Knights period onwards not only caters for highly interesting reading, but also lays the foundation for domestic space development, which is taken up in Chapter 3 and beyond. In the mid-17th century, about 35 per cent of Valletta’s inhabitants were living in cellars or in houses having less than four rooms. The situation in Vittoriosa was even more dramatic. Fifty per cent of the town’s inhabitants were living in single-celled dwellings.

The research is inter-disciplinary in nature and draws upon a healthy mixture of primary and secondary sources

Chapter 3 provides an analysis of local domestic architecture ranging from the rock-excavated to the masonry-built units. This chapter showcases the vast corpus of data the author sieved through whilst researching for this publication. Furthermore, in the subsection discussing corbelled hut (giren) structures, Said-Zammit refers to the 1578 Acts of Ferdinando Ciappara (R185/4 f. 577v), which mention a tenement in Għarb (Gozo) identified as Corna hiren, with the latter possibly referring to a girna (sing.) or giren (pl.). This observation further stengthens the probability that giren-type structures existed in the Maltese rural landscape prior to the Knights period commencing in 1530.

The ensuing two chapers explore the local built environment as portrayed in literature and art. Chapter 4 investigates settlements and domestic units contained within through observations recorded by visitors, writers and poets. Chapter 5 examines local settlements through an analysis of the artistic works and obje d’arts present within. Chapters 6 to 9 deal with different aspects of local life and utilisation of domestic space, including the link between domestic space, religious belief and traditions; aspects of diet, dining fashions, health and education; furniture and costumes and the household, gender, class and property.

Chapter 10 involves the application of Space Syntax analysis in order to tentatively decode a select number of Maltese houses and settlements. Space Syntax involves the utilisation of a selection of analytical, quantitative and descriptive tools which the author employed in order to tentatively decode a select number of Maltese houses and settlements.

A typical rural house in the outskirts of Sannat, Gozo.A typical rural house in the outskirts of Sannat, Gozo.

Indisputably, this chapter contains Said-Zammit’s most original and valid contribution to this study. However, it came as a slight disappointment to discover that Space Syntax analysis did not embrace any of the cave-dwelling sites mentioned in the text. An ideal candidate for this purpose would have undoubtedly been the Għar il-Kbir settlement, but this analysis will quite probably feature in one of the author’s forthcoming publications. The visibility graphs for the domestic dwellings and settlements included in the Space Syntax analysis are fantastically produced to an extremely high standard.

The development of domestic space in the Maltese Islands is dealt with in Chapter 11, while the concluding chapter (Chapter 12), demonstrates how political, economic and social changes were a common, dominant driving force which brought about change to the Maltese domestic space setup.

An extensive bibliographic list precedes two appendices sections. Appendix 1 provides descriptions of each of the 30 houses, both masonry-built and rock-excavated, included in the Malta Historic House Survey, while Appendix 2 includes a glossary of key terms employed in this book. 

This publication is of an impressively high standard but no book is entirely free from defects. Some minor omissions include the failure to clearly specify the exact timeframe covered by the employment of Late Medieval terminology, a number of uninformative image captions, the cave-settlement portrayed in Figure 9 is not Binġemma but Ġnien Ingraw in the Mellieħa locality and the assertion in Chapter 3 that subterranean dwellings are mostly located in Globigerina Limestone deposits is incorrect – these are in the main located in Upper Coralline Limestone deposits of the Mtarfa Member sub-stratum.

In Chapter 10, basing himself on data provided by D. De Lucca (Mdina: A History of its Urban Space and Architecture. Malta, 1995: Said International, 33-35, 39-41), Said-Zammit identifies Mdina’s Villegaigon Street as the late medieval Triq Harit il Mueli. On the other hand, M. Buhagiar and S. Fiorini (Mdina: The Cathedral City of Malta, Vol. 1. Malta: 1996, The Central Bank of Malta, 105-106), assert that Triq Harit il Mueli, formerly also known as Via Lunga, is the present-day Inguanez Street.

In conclusion, this book is scholarly, yet accessible to a wide readership base. It should rank high in the priority list of Melitensia collectors and anyone interested in the development of Maltese domestic space, architecture and societal development. More importantly, this publication appears during a time period where the unprecedented level of development taking place throughout Malta and Gozo is compromising the architectural and cultural integrity of historic dwellings and settlements.

It is hoped that this text will be utilised as a tool by town planners and government entities in order to enable the undertaking of better informed decisions, especially when it comes to the preservation of what is left of Malta’s medieval and Early Modern period domestic heritage.

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