Malta’s architectural landmarks form a journey through the islands’ exciting past as each building – from the prehistoric temples to the grand Baroque churches – is a “witness in stone” keeping history alive.
The Maltese temple structures are amongst the earliest such constructions in the world, long before the Pyramids of Egypt. Built between c.3500 and 2500 BC, the temples reflect, and were part of, a period of great artistic and architectural development in Malta and Gozo.Whether over-ground or underground, as is the case with the Hypogeum,it is very hard to imagine how primitive man could have set such huge boulders in place with only the crudest tools, and in fact the temple in Gozo came to be known as ‘Ġgantija’ – as it was thought to have been built by giants.
The Phoenician and Punic period in Malta is another important point in the islands’ architectural development. The most important monument that survives from this period is the famous Temple of Astarte, located in an area known as Tas-Silġ, outside Marsaxlokk.
The Roman period introduced highly decorative mosaicfloors, marble colonnadesand classical statues, remnants of which are beautifully preserved in the Domus Romana, a town houseoriginally located almost at the centre of the Roman town of Melite. An important example of a typical rustic Roman house was unearthed at San Pawl Milqi, Burmarrad. Another large villa complex still being excavated outside Zejtun is a fine example of the architectural sophistication introduced to Malta by the Romans.
The Early-Christian and Byzantineperiod is important for the large complex of underground cemeteries, known ascatacombs or hypogea. The majority of these burial grounds were discovered in the Rabat area, outside the limits of the Roman Melite. The catacombs were used by Christians, Jews and pagans. The most important complexes that have survived here are those dedicated to St. Paul and St. Agatha.
Not much of Malta’s Medievalarchitecture has survived time, modernising redevelopment and the Messina earthquake of 1693 which destroyed many of Mdina’s medieval structures. Still, features of ‘Norman architecture’ may be seen in surviving grand houses built in the ‘Chiaromonte’ style imported from Sicily, while traces of this style may be seen in the pointed door-frames and windows of humbler Mdina homes. Several wayside chapels found in Malta’s countryside date back to this period.
However, the Baroquestyle was destined to have the most enduring impact on Maltese art and architecture.
Malta faced a turning-point in its architectural history when the Knights of St. John occupied the islands in 1530. For the first time ever, European building styles were introduced on a grand scale in Malta. With the help of Italian engineers and architects, the Order of St. John founded today’s capital Valletta in 1566 and built the impressive fortifications around the Grand Harbour.
Architect Francesco Laparelli was sent to Maltaby Pope Pius V todesign the new city while Girolamo Cassar was sent to study architectural designs in Italy before designing St. John’s Co-Cathedral,the Order’s conventual church, the Grand Master’s Palaceas well as the Auberges for the different languages of the Order in Valletta. At the end of the 17th century, Malta enjoyed a second building boom with architects like Charles Francois de Mondion and Romano Carapecchia being brought over to update the plain Manneriststyle of Valletta’s early buildings to the more ornate Baroque style. The half of Mdina that was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake was also rebuilt in the style of French autocratic Baroque at this time.
Architecture in Malta’s British period succeeded in adapting English classicism to Malta’s limestone architecture, constructing beautiful public buildings like schools and hospitals, entire new towns like Mtarfa, churches such as St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, three cemeteries – each in a different style – by leading architect E.L. Galizia, and the majestic Royal Opera House by E. M. Barry. Houses, especially in new towns like Sliema, were influenced by Victorian features, adding bay windows as well as Art Nouveau and Art Deco ornamentation. Another important style adopted from British 19thcentury architecture, is the Neo-Gothic, which in Malta features in several buildings, for example the former Methodist church in Floriana and the Addolorata Cemetery.
Besides formal architecture, the Maltese islands are also characterised by vernacularbuildings such as farmhouses, village and town houses, chapels and windmills. The typical Maltese farmhouse, known locally as razzett, is usually built around a central courtyard surrounded by different rooms; the ground floor was mainly used for keeping farm animals, while the family lived on the upper floor, known as għorfa.
Today’s architecture in Malta has had mixed success due to inconsistent standards and streetscapes. The preference for low buildings made of Maltese limestone which gives buildings their typical honey colour is giving way to new materials, colours and heights. The conversion of old buildings to be used for different purposes is a positive development, even extended to the Knights’ fortifications, as seen at the Fortifications Interpretation Centre, an interactive museum on fortress-building within Valletta’s bastions.
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