Auberge de Castille

Baroque in Valletta during the 18th century

Two key players entered the scene at the dawn of the 18th century. Romano Carapecchia, the architect, arrived from Rome in 1707 while Charles Francois de Mondion, the military engineer, arrived from Paris in 1715. Both reached the zenith of their Baroque achievement in Malta when Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736), a Prince of  Portugal, was elected Grand Master on 19 June 1722. The first phase (1722-1725) of architectural development was mainly concerned with upgrading the defences of Malta in response to a fresh Turkish war scare, this implying the ‘perfezzionamento’ by Mondion of the vast arrays of fortifications created in the previous century. The second phase (1726-1733) was marked by a lavish flowering of Baroque ornamentation intended to shift priorities from military matters to considerations of adornment, amusement and social services. The third phase (1734-1736), just after Mondion’s death on Christmas day of the year 1733, was marked by several projects by Carapecchia for the Conventual Church in Valletta. These projects included the beautiful altarpiece of the chapel of the Langue of Italy and the two elegant annexes which were now added to the church to mask the unsightly appearance of its bland side walls. Carapecchia also designed the three marble tombstones of the Knights Gaspare de Figuera, Melchiorre Alvaro Pinto Coutinho and Roberto Solaro and a magnificent Chapelle Ardente.

An English traveller to Malta described the overpowering interior of the Conventual Church of the Knights as ‘
more overcharged with parade and ceremony than what I have ever observed in any Catholic country’. And ‘Fra Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Gerosolmitan Order who died in his Magisterial palace on 12 December 1736, was on the fifteenth day of that same month transported in a splendid cortege, according to custom, from the Magisterial palace to the Conventual church of S. Giovanni in the city of Valletta. As soon as the funeral procession arrived at S. Giovanni, the lifeless corpse of the Grand Master was placed in the Chapelle Ardente, raised from the floor of the church to a height of five steps, surrounded by innumerable candles. This Chapelle Ardente was placed opposite to the High Altar, in the centre of the nave. On the side facing the altar and on that facing the main entrance of the churc, were placed the two coat-of-arms of the Grand Master, affixed on the upper side of the Chapelle Ardente. On the sides, were placed the two inscriptions. Surrounding the Chapelle Ardente were forty eight torches, each with four wicks’
 
The considerable output of the Italian architect Romano Carapecchia after 1707 poses a fresh approach to the design challenges of late Baroque Malta. Born in 1666 to poor parents – Giovanni Antonio Carapecchia and Francesca Roveti - residing in the S. Eustachio parish of the Spiritual Capital of Catholic Europe, Romano was a self-made man. Having received his architectural education in the studio of the influential Carlo Fontana, he soon started practising his profession in Rome where he is credited with the design of the church and nearby hospital of S. Giovanni Calibita, the Palazzino Vaini and the Tordinona theatre. In a Rome dominated by the presence of Queen Christina of Sweden, Romano also recorded the highlights of his education experience in a unique document entitled Compendio Architettonico inventato da Romano Carapecchia and drew up several projects for large urban schemes and fountains. He even designed a catafalque for Pope Alexander VIII Ottoboni. All these works collectively reflected the academic discipline and classicizing influences of the famous Accademia di San Luca, once described by King Louis XIV of FranceLe Roi Soleil himself, as ‘the fount and teacher of the many famous artists who have appeared during this century’. Disappointed with the limited opportunities available in Rome at the turn of the century, Romano Carapecchia left the city in 1707 to eventually settle in Valletta where he soon managed, as a result of Pope Clement XI Albani’s intervention and recommendation, to find favour with Grand Master Ramon Perellos Y Roccafull (1697-1720). Within the context of the island fortress situated on what was still considered to be the very edge of European Catholicism, the newly arrived architect soon drew up several brilliant projects which all reflected a total commitment to his profession to the extent that rarely has the spirit of the Baroque been more powerfully evoked here than it is in the work of this brilliant Roman architect.
 
A firm command of a wide architectural vocabulary, an exceedingly pronounced integrative approach, flexibility of thought and a rare control of the design process presupposing the architect’s ability to think out every detail on the drawing board, represent the hallmarks of Carapecchia’s great work in Valletta. All this can be seen in the church of St. James, the church of St. Catherine of the Langue of Italy, the church and convent of St. Catherine in lower Republic Street, the beautiful Pilar church adjacent to the Auberge d’Aragon and the church of St. Barbara in Republic Street which was built posthumously. Carapecchia’s successes in Valletta can be best measured by his very detailed Disegno della facciata o sia il Prospetto della Chiesa di S. Caterina, which he prepared in connection with his project for the church of St Catherine of the Italian langue to which he was proud to belong. The very Baroque portico which he introduced here, reflected the good optical judgement and the primary-secondary elements relationship qualities that he had listed in the ‘Avertimenti’ section of his Compendio Architettonico. It was the first projecting structure of its kind to be introduced into the urban fabric of de Valette’s city, in blatant contradiction to one of the main town planning regulations that had been drawn up by the Officium Commissariorum Domorum of the Knights in the 16th century, which had prohibited any sort of projections onto the streets since these had then been considered to be detrimental to the rapid movements of troops and artillery in times of war. It was indeed a sign of the changed times when the embellishment requirements of Venus now superceded the military dominance of  Mars, that Carapecchia was allowed by his masters to introduce from the heart of Rome all those architectural elements of mature sophistication and studied finesse that went a long way to transform the military city of the Knights into a truly Baroque city.
 
In Valletta, Romano Carapecchia also designed the Municipal palace, the facade of the Palazzo Spinola, the annexes of the Conventual church, the armoury door of the magisterial palace and the Perellos fountain which graces its courtyard. Very important from Grand Master Vilhena’s point of view was Carapecchia’s involvement in the design of the charming playhouse that is the Manoel theatre, this inspired by a treatise that he had written about theatre design entitled Pratica delle machine de’ Teatri. For Valletta’s waterfront, Romano Carpecchia designed and built the so called Barriera stores which, although now destroyed, can still be admired in a 1707 drawing to be found in an album of drawings now kept in the Conway library in London. The architect’s project was perhaps one of the earliest attempts of the Knights to transform the shabby waterfront of Valletta facing the Grand Harbour into an impressive baroque scenario which towards the middle of the 18th century culminated in the building of the impressive Pinto warehouses and in the two churches of Notre Dame de Liesse and the Flight from Egypt. The building of Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house in 1774 completed the grand waterfront project of the Grand Masters of the eighteenth century.  Carapecchia had also been involved in at least four major projects in Sicily. In 1709 or thereabouts he accepted an invitation from the bishop of an earthquake devastated Catania to participate in a competition for the restoration on the Duomo of that city, for which purpose he seems to have prepared two sectional drawings which could have been later used by the selected architects of the building, judging by the close design similarities that exist between the present dome of the church and Carapecchia’s work in Malta. At some point in 1715, Romano Carapecchia again visited Sicily, this time to survey and draw up detailed restoration plans, elevations and sections for an old complex belonging to the Knights in the town of Marsala. Carapecchia was here also responsible for the remodelling of the two small churches of S. Giovanni and S. Antonio Abate which formed part of this property.
 
The last flowering of Baroque architecture in Valletta occurred in the second half of the 18th century. One now finds Grand Masters Emanuel Pinto de Fonseca (1741-1773), Francisco Ximenes de Texada (1773-1775) and Emmanuel de Rohan de Polduc (1775-1797) patronising with great zest a full-blooded mature Baroque architecture that added the final touches to Carapecchia’s transformation of Valletta into a Baroque city. Among the principal large scale buildings that were erected on the eve of the Maltese Enlightenment one can mention the Auberge de Castille in 1741, the Castellania in 1748 , the Palazzo Parisio in 1750 and the beautiful small palace with its superb staircase which now houses the Museum of Fine Arts in South street, built in 1761. Stefano Ittar’s fine Biblioteca building, evoking the post-earthquake architecture of nearby Catania and linked to the Magisterial palace which was now fitted with two magnificent portals, closes the history of the Baroque architectural experience in the Valletta. In this respect, the achievement which perhaps came closest to fulfilling the Baroque ideal was the Auberge de Castille, attributed by some to Andrea Belli, by others to Domenico Cachia. More than any other building, this auberge is the ultimate expression of  the spatial dominance, the ornamental magnificence and the communicative force of the Baroque age. It symbolised Grand Master Pinto’s great temporal power and prestige, enhanced after his brutal suppression of a Muslim slave uprising.  It was created by an architect who was well skilled in the use of compositional principles, shadow play, perspective artifices and a wide ornamental vocabulary all calculated to create the dramatic vista effects so much loved by all those contemporary architects that mattered. At this time an important interior design element also appears in the Baroque scenario of Valletta – a monumental staircase of the Palazzo Barberini tradition which one encounters not only in the Auberge de Castille but, also in the Fine Arts Museum and other Valletta palatial residences. The aim of the elusive architects, who designed these magnificent late Baroque interiors, was to create a impressive interior effects based on subtle curvature, dramatic directional changes and spectacular light situations.
 
The Knights were rudely removed from Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. The coming of the British in 1800  saw  vigorous attempts to replace the Baroque architectural and artistic attitudes of the Knights by the fashionable romanticist approaches inspired by British nationalism and by the re-discovered ruins of antiquity, best demonstrated in the several  refurbishment projects that were made  for the Magisterial Palace and other palatial residences in Valletta. Despite the powerful influence of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton radiating from Palermo, the citizens of Valletta throughout the 19th century offered a persistent opposition to the sporadic neo-Gothic and neo-Classical infiltrations that sometimes appeared in their beloved city and, instead, continued cherishing Baroque as a loud expression of a lost paradise and as a potent symbol of the Catholic  world, also as a vivid reminder of the beautiful churches and palaces of Rome. Considered from this viewpoint it is understandable that many were those post-1800 Maltese knights in shining armour who left no stone unturned to ensure the survival of the Baroque expression.

The Baroque of Valletta still lives on in some 20th century buildings.  Baroque in Valletta is still acclaimed by many as an architectural form of expression associated with beauty and with a defunct Baroque aristocracy’s fascination for fine things. Not surprisingly, the Sicilian poet Corrado Rizza once wrote that ‘Il Barocco e’ un inno all’occhio e alla teoria della visione’ which when freely translated means that ‘the Baroque expression feasts the human eye and does justice to the theory of human vision.’ To my mind, there are no better words to succinctly describe the architecture of Valletta in the Baroque age.
 
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).


Conventual Church of St. John
Conventual Church of St. John
The chapel of the Langue of Italy inside the St. John's Co-Cathedral
The chapel of the Langue of Italy inside the St. John's Co-Cathedral
The marble tombstones inside the Conventual Church
The marble tombstones inside the Conventual Church
The interior of the Conventual Church of St. John
The interior of the Conventual Church of St. John
St. James Church
St. James Church
The Church of St. Catherine
The Church of St. Catherine
Our Lady of Pilar Church
Our Lady of Pilar Church
This used to be the church for the Langue of Aragon and was built around 1670. In an earthquake in 1693, the dome collapsed and the whole church was remodeled in 1718.
The Church of St. Barbara
The Church of St. Barbara
The Municipal Palace
The Municipal Palace
The Armoury Palace door inside the Magisterial Palace
The Armoury Palace door inside the Magisterial Palace
The Perellos Fountain inside the Magisterial Palace courtyard
The Perellos Fountain inside the Magisterial Palace courtyard
The Barriera Stores
The Barriera Stores
Manoel Theatre
Manoel Theatre
The interior of Manoel Theatre
The interior of Manoel Theatre
Pinto Wharfs
Pinto Wharfs
Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house main entrance
Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house main entrance
Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house 1
Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house 1
Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house 2
Giuseppe Bonici’s customs house 2
The Auberge de Castille
The Auberge de Castille
The Castellania
The Castellania
Palazzo Parisio
Palazzo Parisio
The Fine Arts Museum
The Fine Arts Museum
The National Bibliotheca
The National Bibliotheca
The Magisterial Palace
The Magisterial Palace

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