More often than not, the early Baroque period is related to the embellishment of imposing church facades, palatial buildings and decorated interiors. In Europe the shift to the Baroque occurred in the late 16th century, at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was striving to regain its feet against the insidious threats unleashed by the Evangelical secessionists, mainly in countries north of the Alps, following Luther’s protestations. While in the North, the Churches were destroying paintings and focusing on biblical studies, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy took a more extrovert stance to stimulate its faithful. The profusion of holy images was also accompanied by a set of architectural enhancements that became the norm to the religious places of worship. Architectural embellishment bubbled with highly decorative motifs. The Classical designs of Greek and Roman times, re-introduced in the Renaissance were now highly endowed with a remarkable and exaggerated amount motifs such as scrolls, scallop shells, putti, ivy and palm leaves. In Malta, such embellishment often included symbols that represented and interpreted the triumph of the Order of St John and that of the Roman Catholic Church.
Architecturally, the Baroque period is generally considered to have seen the light of day in Malta as from the fourth decade of the seventeenth century onwards. Francesco Buonamici, was the first of a series of architects who was well versed in the Baroque genre to land in Malta. In 1637, Buonamici was asked by the Jesuits to supervise the building of their church and the adjoining Jesuit college in Merchants street, then known as Strada San Giacomo. This may be no coincidence as the Baroque architecture in Europe and in South America, had been highly popularised by the Jesuits. While the Jesuit church interior was structurally enhanced in various ways, its facade was adorned by an impressive large pair of scrolls and putti that rested on the compositional qualities of the facade.
Baroque art and architecture in Malta was heavily patronised by the Order of St John as well as by the prelates of the Maltese Church. By 1650, most of the palatial constructions in Valletta had been built in their rather austere style. Amongst these there were the Magisterial Palace, St John’s conventual church, seven hostels belonging to the different Langues of the Order, and a hospital, amongst others. These buildings, all built in a modest and unassuming style now were being eyed to get a make over in the Baroque style.
During the early decades of the 17th century, the Grand Masters and their Knights wanted to emulate the European monarchs by introducing Baroque architecture into their new projects. Artistic savvy in such projects was meant to impress all by the affluence and refined tastes of their patrons. Thus, the Order of St John started to embellish its fortifications with beautifully designed gateways cut inside the fortifications. Such refinement occurred for instance with Valletta’s newly constructed gate designed by Tomaso Dingli in 1647. But this was just the beginning.
In 1661, the Order entrusted Mattia Preti with a grand project, namely that of upgrading the interior of the conventual church into a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Preti, apart from being a painter and artist, was also an accomplished architect in his own right. While the church facade remained as designed in 1574 in the Mannerist style by Girolamo Cassar, no space was spared inside from the opulent enhancement.The guilding of scrolls all over the nave walls and the chapels was an ambitious project that gave a homogenous effect to the whole interior.
In the early 18th century two renowned architects were called to design other projects. These were Romano Carapecchia, who arrived from Rome in 1707 and Charles Francois de Mondion, the military engineer, who arrived from Paris in 1715.
Amongst other works, Carapecchia designed the beautiful portico, a first in Malta, that adorns the facade of the church dedicated to Santa Catarina d’Alexandria, adjacent to the Auberge of Italy. Other works which Carapecchia was engaged in were the Castillian church of St. James, in Merchants Street, and the Madonna Tal-Pilar, a church belonging to the Aragonese Knights. He also designed the church of St. Barbara in Strada San Giorgio, (today’s Republic Street), that was built posthumously and patronised by the Provencal Knights. On the other hand, Mondion’s greatest challenge was the grand project to rehabilitate the old city of Mdina, and turn its entrance and main streets into a Baroque ambience.
In Valletta, one building that shows excellence in its Baroque design is the Auberge de Castille built by Andrea Belli in 1741. Looking at the beautiful staircase of this auberge one may deduce that Belli also designed the beautiful small palace originally built for the Baillie de Sousa, which today is better known as Admirality House or else the ex Fine Arts Museum), in South.
Baroque art continued in its popularity well into 19th and 20th century. When the Mosta Church was built (1833-1860), in the Neo-Classic style, an uproar was raised by most Maltese ecclesiastical authorities. How could one contemplate to replace the Catholic Baroque with the Neo-Classic architecture so popular by their Anglican colonisers?
Even up to this day most Maltese look at churches built in the modern idiom with disdain. All of the conservative and pious Maltese look back with nostalgia to the time when ecclesiastical and other buildings were designed in the sumptuous Baroque style.
4th June 2019
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