NEO-CLASSICAL architecture in 19th century MALTA

Interest in Neo-classicism started in ernest as from the second half of the 18th century, especially after the discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum. All over Europe, but especially in Britain and France, there was a surge of enthusiasm in the purer form of Greek and Roman architecture. This simpler style which was much more austere than the Baroque and Rococo, predominant at the time, was made use of especially when designing important edifices.

In Malta, Neo-classical architecture started to manifest itself early in the first half of the 19th century, partly due to the interest of British savants of architecture, like George Whitmore, but also due to the Italian influence imbibed by Maltese architects like Giorgio Pullicino, Master of Drawing at the University of Malta, who had studied in Rome. This architectural style had up to then been quite alien to the popular Baroque idiom, that had been so prevalent in Malta throughout the previous couple of centuries.

Having said that, one must bear in mind that even during the last decades of the 18th century, some of the latter projects of the Order of St John were imbued by Neo-classical designs. This is evident for instance in Giuseppe Bonici’s Customs House (1774) and Stefano Ittar’s Bibliotheca (1796). The latter had its large reading hall embellished with Doric columns supporting the British coat-of-arms (1812).


Mausoleums and Commemorative Columns

NEO KLASSIKUBall Mta - Paulo Andrade (55)The first examples of Neo-classic architecture that became evident in Malta as desired by the local British administration came about in the shape of monumental mausoleums perched on the Valletta bastions. These were erected individually to recall deceased governors and other less illustrious persons who served the British Monarchy, both in Malta as well as elsewhere across the British Empire. The very earliest mausoleum to be erected came in the form of a small Greek temple raised on a platform, at the older (Lower) Barrakka Garden. This was erected in 1810, in honour of the British Civil Commissioner in Malta, Alexander Ball, who died in 1809. This edifice was designed by Giorgio Pullicino (1779 – 1851) who was inspired by the temple of Theseus in Athens. The allegorical sculptures alongside the temple are the works of Vincenzo Dimech. The monument cost 8,279 scudi – monies that were collected by subscription mostly from Maltese citizens who had idolised Ball in his handling of Maltese affairs.

Clementine Edwards MG_7450 - CopyAround Valletta’s bastions one will note a profusion of other memorials, especially in Upper Barrakka Garden, but not only there. It seems that the British were intent to make a sepulchral display of such memorials all along the high grounds of Valletta’s fortifications, overlooking the sea. Judge Nicola Giuzeppe ZammitUpper Barrakka Garden was turned into a veritable ‘cemetery’ by the erection of such monuments as that of Clement Martin Edwards (1816), military secretary to Governor Maitland; a pedestalled Roman type mausoleum, erected in honour of Judge Giuseppe Nicola Zammit (1824), and the austere tomb in which the first Governor, Thomas Maitland himself lies buried. Both Edwards’ as well as Zammit’s memorials were designed by Giorgio Pullicino. Apart from these there are other commemorative works in the same garden.

In 1831, just below the Garden, in what is known as the Saluting Battery, there was buried Colonel Henry Anderson Morshead, of the Royal Engineers while the acting Governor. He was honoured with a public funeral.

Col Anderson Morshead Saluting Battery

HAstings monument 372In Hastings Gardens, an ornate canopied tomb was erected in honour of Malta’s second Governor, Francis Edward Rawdon 1st Marquis of Hastings (1824 – 1826). The effigy of the Governor lies reclining underneath a canopy, holding a scroll in hand. Then, on the North Western side of the same garden, facing Marsaxmett Harbour on the Sliema side, a 23 metre fluted Doric column, topped by an urn was set up to recall the third Governor of Malta, Major-General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1838). Only the base of this column survives as the column was damaged in 1864 by a lightening-bolt during a storm. Very close by, there is also the tomb of Robert Cavendish Spencer, captain of the Madagascar. This was not the only sepulchral memorial in honour of Spencer as in 1830 an obelisk was erected inhis honour on Corradino Heights. This column was eventually removed to Blata l-Bajda.

The profusion of so many memorials perched on top of the Valletta bastions demonstrate the connection that most of these men had with the sea during their life-long career, whereby they strove to conquer, control and connect distant lands wherever ‘Britannia ruled the waves’. Thus the Valletta fortifications were seen as befitting burial grounds. This philosophy was again amply demonstrated in the 20th by century when Governor Sir Walter Norris Congreve died in 1927. He was buried at sea, close to Filfla island following a very pompous funeral cortege. A tombstone close to the Mnajdra temples marks his ‘grave’ at the bottom of the ocean.

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Minor Decorative works

Main Guard _7489Apart from such monuments, in the first decades or so, there were executed minor but utilitarian Neo-classical projects. In 1812, a portico was grafted onto the facade of the old Chancellery of the Order, in Piazza San Giorgio, then housing, a guards unit, the Riserva, in front of the Governor’s Palace. The work is also attributed to Giorgio Pullicino. It was this Neo-classical element that labelled this style as ‘British Neo-classicism’, especially due to the monarchical coat-of-arms displayed atop the portico.

Also attributed to the same architect is an exedra inside Lower Fort St Elmo, built inside the courtyard close by to the regimental barracks. This crescent shaped, roofed arcade has a bench running all along its interior wall and complements an ornate fountain that lies  close by. Both the exedra and the fountain were meant to provide some respite from the scorching sun to the soldiers billetted there.

Lower Fort St Elmo Exedra 5317259_o - Copy - Copy

IMG_7474In 1824, it was decided that the University of Malta, with its main entrance in Strada Mercanti close to the old Jesuit church, should have a separate entrance that was to be accessed from Strada San Paolo. Thus a Neo-classical doorway was designed by Vincenzo Dimech, a professor of arts at the same University. The Neo-classical gate, surmounted by the British monarchical coat-of-arms has Doric fluted columns and bears an inscription in Greek characters, with the motto:  ‘Learning is the Gateway to Honour’.

Bighi Hospital – An acropolis in style

Since the arrival of the British in Malta, the need was felt for a modern hospital to be built for the Royal Navy, to replace the old Sacra Infermeria and the hospital in the ‘Armoury’, in Birgu. The project had been stalled many times. The Battle of Navarino (1827) that had resulted in some 480 wounded British soldiers might well have been the impetus for the project to be given the go ahead from London. Colonel (later General) George Whitmore, the Commander of the Royal Artificers stationed in Malta, had already presented his plans (1825). Whitmore had in 1818, renovated the decor inside the large Council Hall in the Grand Master’s Palace, in the Neo-classical style.

bighi 28_112134

The choice for the site of the hospital fell on the promontory of Kalkara, where Fra Giovanni Bichi, a knight of the Order of St John (d. 1740) once owned a country villa. The villa was integrated in the plan and embellished with a Doric colonnade while other buildings were built in the same style, each block surrounded by a pavilion. Each of the buildings was simple and austere, yet, when seen from afar, the whole ensemble provides the effect of an Athenian Acropolis. The building work commenced in 1829, as Whitmore had just returned to England. The works were supervised first by master mason Salvatore Xerri and then his brother, architect Gaetano.

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Mosta Dome

mosta dl (2)Almost contemporary to the Bighi Hospital, the villagers of Mosta, then a mere 4,500 souls, embarked on a huge project in the Neo-classical style, this time of an ecclesiastical nature. The parish priest of Mosta, Dun Feliċ Calleja had, during his novitiate in Rome, been enthused with the Roman Pantheon. Later on, when he returned to his village he proposed to have the parish’s small church, that at the time was inadequate for the community, to be replaced by a gloriously larger temple. To help him realise this project, Giorgio Grognet de Vassè, a Maltese architect from Valletta was commissioned to provide the design and to supervise the construction works. Grognet too had studied in Rome and he too was enthusiastic to design the church in the style of the Pantheon.

20200229_130723The Bishop of Malta did not approve such design, this not being in the Church’s traditional Baroque style. Worse still, the design was in emulation of a pagan Roman temple. Indeed, when the foundation stone was ceremoniously laid in May 1833, the Bishop declined the invitation to preside the ceremony. Instead, he delegated his Vicar General to do the honours, as according to him, he had a busy schedule on that day. The construction works of this enormous church lingered on for 28 years, mostly due to insufficient funds. Finally, the dome was surmounted by the church lantern in 1860. The end result was anything but a carbon copy of the Pantheon. The domed church varied considerably in its measurements. For instance, while the Pantheon measures an equal 42 metres both in its internal height as well as in its internal diameter, Mosta church boasts of an internal height of  53 metres. The lantern of the Mosta church, lacking in the Pantheon, brings the total height to 57 metres from the outside. The diameter of the Mosta church, excluding the chapel recesses, spans 35 metres.

The Anglican Cathedral in Valletta

Valletta Anglikan xxxThirty and more years after the British had settled down, many serving in Malta, both military as well as civilian, were daunted by the fact that they were still without an adequate church to cater for their spiritual needs. So was the Dowager Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV, mystifued and appalled when in 1838, she came to Malta for health reasons to find such a situatiuon. In 1839, on her behest, and with her financial support of 10,000 pounds, Richard Lankesheer, Head Superintendent of Civil Artificers, was able to launch his design into action and commence on the building of a fully-fledged Anglican church. Queen Adelaide ceremoniously placed the foundation stone on March 20. The church was quite appropriately dedicated to St Paul. The building site chosen was in Piazza Gelsi, right in front of the Auberge D’Aragon which then served as the residence of the Bishop of Gibraltar. During the construction works of the church, grievous structural damage developed and Lankesheer was forced to relinquish his responsibilities of the project. Instead, the onus fell on William Scamp, assistant to the local Director of Engineering Works of the Admiralty. The very imposing Anglican church sports an Ionic portico on its facade and Corinthian capitals in the interior. Its spire broke the skyline of Valletta, in emulation of many London churches. Unlike the Mosta church, the Anglican church was completed in less than five years.

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The Borsa

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe new premises of the Camera del Commercio was meant to be the the headquarters and club (casino) for its members as well as to house two banks, the Banco Anglo Maltese and the Banco di Malta. This building was designed by Giuseppe Bonavia (1821 – 1885). Simple in its embellishment it is a highlight of pure Neo-classical architecture, completed in 1857. Bonavia broke from the traditional way of designing a Valletta building that aligned itself completely with the adjacent ones. While allowing such alignment for the ground floor, he recessed the first and second floors, thus creating a terrace of sorts. The facade is beautifully embellished with an Ionic portico running flush with the rest of the buildings, and adorned with low-relief sculpture, garlands, and a wide frieze, amongst other elements.

The Attard Mental Asylum

In the late 1850s a new asylum was planned to be built outside the village of Attard, as it was then felt that the Villa Francone in Floriana that catered for the mentally ill was totally inadequate. The new asylum was modelled on an existing one in Wakefield, Yorkshire, but with some modifications. The hospital was fronted at some distance by an arched ornate entrance. The arch is complemented on each side by a series of Doric columns. Inside the hospital building proper, the long traversing wings of the hospital are adjoined by two colonnaded atria, meant to serve as day rooms, each surmounted by a skylight. Works on the hospital were completed in 1861.

The Royal Opera House

Valletta royal opera hse bellanteThe last of what may arguably be termed the most extravagant Neo-classical edifice in Malta was the Royal Opera House (1861 – 1866) in Valletta. Governor Gaspard Le Marchant decided that a superior and more grandiose theatre should replace the Teatro del Popolo (the Manoel Theatre). In so doing, the more flamboyant operas that were coming of age could be adequately performed. Le Marchant also anticipated that by such a prestigious theatre the image of Malta as an island fortress could be also compared in status to a cosmopolitan cultural hotspot. This would also serve to enhance both Britain’s image and his own with any foreign visitor stopping at Malta.

The Royal Opera House was designed by Edward Middleton Barry, architect of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The design was meant to go beyond another Neo-Classical building. Architect and historian Leonard Mahoney maintains that the style is not Neo-classical as many seem to infer but a Neo-Baroque, a rarely used term, which refers to a late 19th century revival of the Baroque style. What with its Corinthian columns surrounding the building from each side and the deep sculptural qualities of the four facades? Even from the inside, great attention was given to the decor ‘of the most recherché quality’, as Michael Ellul quotes in his History in Marble. It is said that the expenditure of the Royal Opera House was partially funded by monies ‘left over’ from the budget to build the Lunatics Asylum in Attard.

After this project, the interest by the British in the Neo-classical style waned, as they opted to relegate this to be employed when constructing their military barracks. Instead, their interest turned to another style of architecture, the Neo-Gothic. Maltese architects were to embrace this shift in architectural decor as well. However, the bulk of the Maltese population remained predominantly faithful to their 17th and 18th century Roman Baroque sensibilities, and so they continued to adhere to this centuries long style when building the ever increasing number of churches, a persistence that was carried forward well into the 20th century.

Martin Morana


To read other articles about the history and culture of Malta in English or Maltese, please click here:

Other publications by same author:


Mahoney Leonard, 5000 Years of Architecture in Malta. Valletta Publishing. 
Borg Malcolm, British Colonial Architecture - Malta 1800-1900. Publishers 
Enterprises Ltd. 2001.
Boswell David M., ‘A Grecian Architecture Revival: General Whitmore’s 
Achievements’, Treasures of Malta, Christmas 1996. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju 
Buhagiar Mario, ‘Neo-Classisist Architecture of the Early British Period’. 
Heritage, Vol. 2. Midsea Books Ltd.
De Lucca Dennis, ‘ British Influence on Maltese Architecture’, The British 
Colonial Experience 1800 - 1964. Edit. V. Mallia Milanes. Mireva Publications. 1988.
Ellul Michael, History in Marble. Publishers Enterprises Group. 1998.
Galea Michael, Sir Alexander Ball and Malta - The Beginning of an Era.
Publishers Enterprises Group. 1990.
Morana Martin, 'The Building of the Mosta Church' - The Sunday Times of 
Malta, 20th October 2019
Vassallo Carmel, The Malta Chamber of Commerce 1848 - 1979. The Malta 
Chamber of Commerce. 1998.
Vella E.B., Storja tal-Mosta Bil-Knisja Tagħha. Empire Press. 1930.

This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver of humour.

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