Mattia's Preti barrel vaulted ceiling of nave of Grand Master De Valette’s Conventual Church of St John the Baptist

Baroque in Valletta up to the 17th century

The Baroque age is generally considered to have begun in the last third of the16th century and to have ended in the mid-18th, covering the period of time between the Italian Renaissance (and its Mannerist sequel) and Neo-classicism.

In Europe, the Baroque architectural expression was an integral component of a distinctive culture incorporating art and architecture, religious and philosophical attitudes, political, military and social structures, geographical and scientific discoveries, literary achievements and ceremonial and theatrical displays. Towards the end of the 16th century, these different aspects of human endeavour started interacting together to form the basis of the new Baroque lifestyle. This happened at a time when Catholic Europe was vigorously reacting to the Protestant reformation of Martin Luther and to the threat of Muslim infiltration posed by the warmongering Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, which reached its maximum expansion in 1606.

In these troubled times, the islands of Malta, precariously positioned between Catholic Europe and Muslim North Africa, were not spared the turbulences that were shaking Europe. The small band of Hospitaller Knights who arrived here in 1530 were soon faced by two terrible Turkish attacks in 1551 and 1565. Pestilence, desolation of the countryside, water supply problems and the unexpected appearance of Protestant ‘heresy’ from southern Italy added to the woes of  Malta in that unhappy century, the latter taking the form of a married priest called Gesualdo who, it is recorded, was publicly burnt at the stake in the main square of Birgu. The response of the Maltese Catholic Church was swift and decisive. Eager to apply to the book the triumphal spirit of the Counter Reformation, it was by no accident that the Latin cross plans of the first large parish churches built at Żebbuġ, Birkirkara, Attard, Balzan, Mosta, Naxxar, Għargħur, Żabbar and Żurrieq in Malta in the beginning of the 17th century were inspired by S. Carlo Borromeo’s Instructiones fabricae et Supellectillis Ecclesiasticae formulated at the Council of Trent and published in 1577.
 
It was also by no accident that the building of the magnificent city of Valletta, the new fortress of God of the Knights “facing Jerusalem”, was undertaken just after the Great Siege by Grand Master Jean Parisot De Valette (1557-1568) to create a heavily fortified focal point overlooking the legendary Grande Porto di Malta, which contained the precious war galleys and arsenal of the Order. According to the astrolabe of a mathematician from Siracusa called Giovanni Antonio Inferrera, the foundation stone of the new city-fortress of Valletta had been ceremoniously laid by the Grand Master at forty-two minutes to noon on 28 March 1566.  This historic event had been held at the end of a long ceremony that had seen the hero of the Great Siege and his retinue of Hospitaller dignitaries leaving Birgu and advancing in a truly Baroque procession to the site of the present church of Our Lady of Victories where, it is recorded, a High Mass had been celebrated by Fra Giovanni Pietro Mosquet, when all the cannons from the fortifications of the Grand Harbour had fired a royal salute during the elevation of the Holy Host. An emotionally-charged sermon delivered by the famous orator Padre Spirito Pelo Angusciola and the blessing of the site of the new city-fortress of the Knights, had concluded the festive occasion. These proceedings had taken place within sight of a massive Turkish basilisk that had been abandoned by the panic-stricken retreating jannissaries and subsequently dragged into the main gate area to remain there for a long time afterwards as a victory trophy. Valletta was then perceived by many as the response of the victorious nobles of Europe who had come to live in Malta, to the dark labyrinthine streets of  Mdina, then associated with an unacceptable local government known as the Universita. After 1600, the arrival of Baroque in Valletta coincided with the aspirations of Grand Masters Antoine de Paule (1623-1636) and Jean Paul Lascaris Castellar (1636-1657) to introduce the new architecture that was becoming so fashionable in Europe. Baroque was seen as a passionate expression of hope for the future, of great artistic achievements, of powerful rhetoric and of celestial inspiration ablaze with a blind faith in a triumphant Catholic Europe and a triumphant Catholic God. 
 
Built amidst great fears of a renewed Turkish attack, the orderly grid-iron plan of Valletta was conceived in the same spirit of Giulio Savorgnan’s outpost of Palmanova in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, of Baldassare Lanci’s Florentine city of Terra del Sole, of Pietro Prado’s Carlentini in nearby Sicily and of several Spanish towns in the New World. The Italian military engineers Gerolamo Genga and Baldassare Lanci had originally intended Valletta to have an Italian-type radio-concentric plan hinged on a large central plaza containing a magisterial palace and a conventual church. But Francesco Laparelli, sent out by Pope Pius IV de’ Medici in November 1565 and subsequent pressures from Gabrio Serbelloni and from the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily Don Garcia de Toledo, had changed all this. As a result of the heated debates that followed Laparelli’s arrival, Valletta emerged as a city-fortress of  grid-iron streets evoking a planning system which was formalised in the Real Ordenanzas para Nuevos Poblaciones issued by King Philip II of Spain on 3rd July 1573. Unlike Mdina and  Birgu - the medieval fishing village which, as the first abode of the Knights in Malta had been fortified with a modified Castrum Maris and a new bastioned landfront - Valletta  was  a settlement of new foundation designed to provide an urban experience that had no precedent in Malta. In political terms, it reflected the decision of the Knights to remain permanently in Malta, at the same time providing a safeguard against any possible future uprising of the Maltese. In religious terms, it evoked the creation of a worthy successor to the previous ‘cities of God’ of the Knights in Rhodes and Jerusalem, a new operational base which would enable the former crusaders to renew their vows to fight the infidel and defend the pope in Rome. In military terms, the new city-fortress was intended to form the strategic hub of a vast defensive network calculated to create a focused place of refuge. Well before the Great Siege of 1565, a delegation had  been sent out to Duke Guidobaldo II of Urbino to request the services of the famous military engineer Bartolomeo Genga to bring him to the Maltese islands ‘where the Knights wanted to build some very powerful fortifications as a protection against the Turks, and also two cities, (one in Malta and another in Gozo), to replace the many scattered villages of the countryside with two strongly fortified nodes’.
 
The artillery fortifications of Valletta, which included Pedro di Prado’s restored fort of St Elmo, were  elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries by several military engineers that were brought to Malta for the purpose. These very Baroque ‘opere di perfezzionamento’ included the building of an elevated cannon platform flanking the ditch of St Elmo by the Grand Prior of France Alexandre de Vendome in 1614; substantial height modifications to the S. Andrea, S. Barbara and S. Cristoforo bastions by the Knight Giovanni Battista Vertova in 1635-1636; the addition of counterguards by the Italian military engineer Don Giovanni de Medici, better known as the Marquis of St Angelo in 1640; the addition of orillon batteries to the landfront fortifications by the Comte de Pagan in 1645; the deepening of the ditch in 1659; the building of a great girdle wall around St Elmo by the Flemish military engineer in charge of Sicily, Don Carlos de Grunenbergh in 1687 and, finally, the building of the ravelin of S. Maddalena in front of the main gate, designed and built by the French military engineer Charles Francois de Mondion in 1732. The accidental discovery of a fresh water spring in the area of Strada della Fontana in Valletta in 1567 had represented an early landmark in the efforts of the Knights to provide their new city-fortress with an adequate water supply which would enable it to resist a Turkish siege for up to two years. This was followed up by the regulated provision of an elaborate system of public cisterns and private wells which became fully operative towards the end of the 16th century. The supply of precious water in Valletta  received a much needed boost in the early 17th century when water from the high ground of Rabat had been channelled to Valletta by means of an aqueduct which was built by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622) on the advice of the Jesuits so that, as a contemporary chronicler said, ‘Grand Master de Valette gave to the new city its body while Grand Master de Wignacourt breathed life into it by providing it with fresh water, so necessary for a fortified town’.
 
By 1650, most of Grand Master Jean de la Valette’s new city had been built up. A rare view of Valletta at this time was that provided in a plan annotated by the military mathematician Giovanni Battista Vertova. This plan gives us a clear idea of contemporary street names and the disposition of the principal administrative and religious buildings of the new city: a  Magisterial palace, a Conventual church, eight Auberges belonging to the different Langues of Knights, a  slave prison, a munitions factory, a  hospital and finally, a ring of artillery fortifications stiffened by two cavaliers of an impressive scale.  In 1624, Johann Freidrich Breithaupt recorded that: The Grand Master’s palace is a big and very distinguished building, the highest in the whole city, detached on all sides from other buildings. In front of it and behind it there are two beautiful squares, on each of which there stands a round fountain. In its interior, on the left hand side of the entrance, there are thirty beautiful horses of different breeds in the Grand Master’s stables, which horses, however, are not often ridden because, in view of the rocky and somewhat slippery ways, it is quite uncomfortable to travel around the island on horseback. Occasionally, the Grand Master uses them for his personal enjoyment, more often than not in the city. Upstairs, among the many princely rooms and chambers, one finds a large hall where the Consilium Ordinarium (of the Knights) is regularly held. There is here the Grand Master’s tribune including a throne with a crimson-brown canopy having a golden fringe. Here, the Great Siege of the island of Malta by the Turks is painted on twelve different slabs. We entered yet other rooms situated behind this hall. These were covered with red flowery silken damasks on which there lay capes with golden braids…. At the back of the Grand Master’s palace and in a particular square, on every day one can see captured Turks and serfs being publicly sold, some for thirty, forty, fifty, some for one, two, three or more hundred crowns according to whether the captive is young, hard-working, healthy, good-looking and strong. These infidel captives are driven together like animals. For in Valletta there are Turkish slaves in almost every household where their job is to carry out all heavy duties for the owner of the house and his family, in particular to tend to the horses.
 
The gradual mushrooming in Valletta of new residential quarters in peripheral areas that had not been previously available for development, led to the appearance in the post-1650 period of the so-called Manderaggio, Ghetto, Arsenal, St Lazarus and St Anthony slums creating in the process a hitherto inexistent classification of the formerly unified urban landscape enclosed within the fortifications into ‘high’ and ‘low’ areas, respectively sporting architectural treatments which reflected the degree of affluence and density of their respective residents. The demographic situation in Valletta and the other harbour cities became so bad at the dawn of the 18th century that the Knights had to adopt a policy of building new residential suburbs between the principal fortified lines, such as that of Floriana. It was perhaps to balance the detrimental effects caused by the emerging social problems that three renowned architects, well versed in the fashionable Baroque idiom, were asked by the Grand Masters to respond to the new winds of change with their embellishment projects. These architects were Francesco Buonamici, Mattia Preti and Mederico Blondel des Croisettes. They can be considered to have been the pioneers of the first Baroque architectural transformations that happened in Valletta after 1650.
 
A citizen of the beautiful town of Lucca where he was born in 1596 to Antonio Buonamici and Anna Pistelli, Francesco Buonamici arrived in Malta in September 1635 after studying at the famous Accademia di San Luca in Rome. He came to Malta as a ‘maestro di pennello’ in the entourage of the pope’s military engineer, Pietro Paolo Floriani. Well connected to Cardinal Francesco Barberini in Rome who had pushed his case to visit Malta, Buonamici had originally planned to stay here for only a few months but he ended up by staying on the island for nearly twenty five years as the resident engineer of the Knights. As such, he was largely responsible for introducing Rome’s Baroque architecture into Valletta and disseminating its magic all over the island through a number of Maltese apprentices employed in his Valletta office. Buonamici also seems to have been heavily involved in the early Baroque building of neighbouring Sicily, having visited that island on at least two, possibly more, occasions in the 1650’s.  Here he carried out extensive alterations in Bishop Giovanni Antonio Capobianco’s medieval palace in Siracusa and also found time to design the exquisite Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento in the adjoining Duomo and the church of S. Maria della Immacolata Concezione better known as S. Maria delle Monache. Buonamici was also involved in design activity in other  Sicilian towns – the courtyard of the Jesuit Collegio Massimo in Palermo, the façade of the Jesuit church in Trapani and the interior of the church ofS. Giovanni di Malta,attached to the priory of the Knights of Malta in Messina.
 
Buonamici was in 1637 asked by the Jesuits to continue supervising the large building operation involving their church and the adjoining Collegium Melitensein Valletta. These buildings had been damaged by an explosion of the Order’s polverista in 1634. The intention was to transform the dark and austere spaces of the Jesuit church into an illuminated contraption of vaults and domes betraying the opulence of the new Baroque style. The altar chancel was now deeply recessed to accommodate a beautifully designed altarpiece and a splendid facade was created to define the interface with Merchant’s street, then known as Strada S. Giacomo. Compared to the earlier Spanish flavour of buildings in Valletta before 1600, Buonamici’s façade presented a rich Roman Baroque flavour, displaying a superb form of carved decoration introduced  at pre-determined points to highlight the compositional qualities of the façade and produce a rich chiaroscuro effect. Not surprisingly, Buonamici’s Jesuit church, when completed in the late 1650’s served as a model and a goad for the many subsequent Baroque transformations that happened in Valletta. Before leaving the island in 1659 to take up an appointment as architetto primario of his native town of Lucca to there re-model the interior of the Mediaeval Dominican church of San Romano and the theatre of San Gerolamo, Buonamici was commissioned by Grand Master Lascaris to design the layout, the entrance triumphal arch and the two very Baroque fountains of his private garden overlooking the Grand Harbour. This garden was described by Albert Jouvin de Rochefort in 1664 as ‘one of the most pleasant gardens in Malta since it contains a large quantity of beautiful lemon trees, orange trees and other fruit trees which are evergreen’. Other descriptions of this place mention the two fountains in this charming garden, the larger one of which had sculptures of mythological nymphs and satyrs blowing water from their musical horns on unsuspecting visitors while frolicking around a large statue of Europa being abducted by the God Zeus who here assumed the semblance of a bull – a favourite theme of representation at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome with which Buonamici had been so closely associated before coming out to Malta.
 
At this time the famous Cavaliere Calabrese Mattia Preti was engaged by the Knights to paint the truly wonderful fresco which transformed the barrel vaulted ceiling of nave of Grand Master de Valette’s Conventual Church of St John the Baptist into a fantasia of Baroque form and colour which must surely be regarded as one of the landmark contributions of Malta to European Baroque culture. Like Caravaggio before him, Preti was seduced to come to Malta from with the hope of bettering his position. It was for this reason that he gladly accepted the commission to transform the bland stone interior of St. John’s into a masterpiece of Baroque design. Preti lost no time to start working on the job which, to his credit, he managed to finish off within five years, between 1661 and 1666. The work seem to have moved forward at a rapid pace since in 1664,  Rochefort was in a position to describe the interior splendour of the church of the Knights in glowing terms: ‘The floor of the  church is of marble, the walls are gilded and the ceiling vault is decorated with the most beautiful paintings representing the life and beheading of St John the Baptist at the request of Herodias’ adding that the church was ‘beautifully adorned with paintings, gilding and ornamental chapels, not very large but having an architecture which is truly admirable’. Preti also found time to supervise many Maltese and Italian artists and artisans who had been engaged to apply marble claddings, gilding and relief decoration, soon transforming the bland stone walls of the church into a fantasia of polychromatic design, completed when that renowned ‘Principe’ of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome Giovanni Battista Contini was in the 1680’s asked to design the magnificent main altar. Marble intarsia tombstones marking the resting place of the flower of Europe’s nobility, magnificent altarpieces placed in the chapels of the Langues,  majestic mausolea celebrating in grand style the feste funebre of illustrious Grand Masters, world-famous paintings by Caravaggio and fine Flemish tapestries were among the Baroque trappings that within a short time transformed the interior of the Conventual church of the Knights into a splendid Baroque theatre, an indeed worthy stage setting to publicize that rare combination of temporal power and religious fervour symbolised by the famous ‘Religion of Malta.
 
The powerful Baroque scenography that was in St John’s church suddenly presented to awe-inspired audiences was certainly intended to express the intense religious emotions that inevitably accompanied all Catholic liturgical functions of the Counter-Reformation – emotions that were unleashed by the celestial sounds of choir and organs; emotions that were intensified by the recital of the rosary, by incense, by impressive scenarios; emotions that were climaxed by the deep voices of trained choirs singing the Hosannah, the Te Deum and the De profundis. It was in this church and in the other Baroque churches designed in Malta after 1650 that the joys, the anxieties, the hopes, the laments, the confessions, the contritions and the benedictions that formed such a central part in the life cycle of the Catholic community of Malta in the Baroque age, flowed through the ponderous vaulted spaces of these same churches which, understandably, soon became a model and a goad for the development of Maltese Baroque architecture. At this time, Malta had two firmly established cappelle of sacred Baroque music, one in St. John’s in Valletta as the seat of the Grand Master and the other in the Cathedral at Mdina as the seat of the Bishop of Malta. Outstanding musicians enhancing the glory of Maltese Baroque included Aloysio Mataron, Giuseppe and Domenico Balzano, Pietro Grixti and Gerolamo Abos, who in the next century also served as maestro di cappella in the cathedral of Naples  Several important painters of Baroque Malta like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Stefano Erardi, Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio, Giuseppe d’Arena, Gian Nicola Buhagiar, Francesco Vincenzo Zahra and Antoine de Favray also benefited greatly from the generous patronage  of the Knights– one remarkable case involved the great Venetian painter Gian Battista Tiepolo who was commissioned to complete the so-called Consilium in Arena painting depicting the admission into the ranks of the Order of Count Monsignor Antonio di Montegnacco. The honoured Italian nobleman had obviously commissioned the famous Tiepolo to execute this exquisite painting which can now be admired in the castle museum of the city of Udine.
 

Prof. Denis De Lucca
21-02-2012
 
 
BIBLIOGRAPHY
 
Joseph Briffa, Pietro Paolo Troisi [1686-1750] – A Maltese Baroque Artist (Malta, 2009).
Roger de Giorgio, A City by an Order ((Malta, 1985).
Denis De Lucca, Baroque Architecture in Malta in ‘Collected Papers – Collegium Melitense Quatercentenary Celebrations 1592-1992 [Roger Ellul-Micallef and Stanley Fiorini ed.] (Malta, 1992).
Denis De Lucca, Carapecchia - Master of Baroque Architecture in early eighteenth century Malta (Malta, 1999).
Denis De Lucca, Giovanni Battista Vertova – Diplomacy, Warfare and Military Engineering Practice in early seventeenth century Malta (Malta, 2001).
Denis De Lucca, Mondion – The achievement of a French military engineer working in Malta in the early eighteenth century (Malta, 2003).
Denis De Lucca, A Description of Baroque Malta by Albert Jouvin de Rochefort (Malta, 2004).
Denis De Lucca, Francesco Buonamici – Painter, Architect and Military Engineer in seventeenth century Malta and Italy (Malta, 2006).
Thomas Freller and Alfred Scalpello, Malta – Island of Christian Heroes (Malta, 2001).
Alison Hoppen, The Fortification of Malta by the Order of St John 1530-1798 (Malta, 1999).
James Quentin Hughes, The Building of Malta, 1530-1798 (London, 1967).
Leonard Mahoney, 5000 Years of Architecture in Malta (Malta, 1996).
Corrado Rizza, Verso una teoria del barocco (Milano, 1985).
Stephen C. Spiteri, Fortresses of the Cross – Hospitaller Military Architecture (Malta, 1994).


Parish Church, Għargħur
Parish Church, Għargħur
Parish Church, Birkirkara
Parish Church, Birkirkara
Parish Church, Żabbar
Parish Church, Żabbar
Parish Church, Żurrieq
Parish Church, Żurrieq
Parish Church, Attard
Parish Church, Attard
Parish Church, Balzan
Parish Church, Balzan
Parish Church, Naxxar
Parish Church, Naxxar
Parish Church, Żebbuġ
Parish Church, Żebbuġ
Grande Porto di Malta - The Grand Harbour
Grande Porto di Malta - The Grand Harbour
The church of Our Lady of Victories
The church of Our Lady of Victories
The grid-iron plan of Valletta
The grid-iron plan of Valletta
Castrum Maris
Castrum Maris
Fort of St Elmo
Fort of St Elmo
Old photo of the ravelin of S. Maddalena
Old photo of the ravelin of S. Maddalena
Francesco Buonamici
Francesco Buonamici
Mattia Preti
Mattia Preti
Marble intarsia tombstones of the Conventual Church of St John
Marble intarsia tombstones of the Conventual Church of St John
 Caravaggio whose world-famous paintings are found in St John's Co-Cathedral
Caravaggio whose world-famous paintings are found in St John's Co-Cathedral
The fine Flemish tapestries, today found inside the Cathedral's Musuem
The fine Flemish tapestries, today found inside the Cathedral's Musuem

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