logoAA Conference logo

prof Denis de Lucca

Some unexplored Baroque Vernacular Interactions in Maltese Village Environments

Throughout history, the islands of Malta have proved themselves to be particularly susceptible to outside influences because of their geographical and strategic location right in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Their indigenous built environment consequently reflects the input of a wide variety of cultural traditions of both European and North African origins. This phenomenon, particularly pronounced in the aftermath of the numerous armed invasions to which the Maltese islands have been subjected in the past, and often reinforced by lucrative trading contacts, has resulted in a rich architectural heritage as a strong evolutionary process of limestone building resulting from insular isolation was repeatedly diversified and strengthened by alien forces of change at different points in time. 1 This is precisely what happened after the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the rich Baroque legacy of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation was in the late seventeenth century introduced into Malta by the aristocratic band of European warrior monks known as the Hospitaller Knights of St. John the Baptist, who used it to virtually re-build their new fortress city of Valletta and, later, to improve the appearance of the other fortified towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea, Cospicua and Mdina. As was to be expected, the first Baroque building in Valletta was Valeriano and Buonamici's Jesuit church (1647) 2 and adjoining collegium Melitense in Strada Santo Giacomo, now Merchant's street, but the building that perhaps came closest to expressing the new spirit of the Baroque in Malta was Mattia Preti's magnificent interior of the Conventual church of San Giovanni Battista (1660), described by an English traveller to Malta in the eighteenth century called Patrick Brydone as 'a centre of Baroque Catholic ritual more overcharged with parade and ceremony than what I have ever observed in any Catholic country'. 3

The situation in the many rural villages that were scattered in the Maltese countryside at this time was indeed one of great contrast. One can here identify a number of interesting constants, which had since the fifteenth century governed the development of a vernacular expression resulting in a simple architecture, which was largely created without architects. These buildings glaringly contrasting in scale, design, build and decorum to the 'high' baroque architecture introduced into Valletta, had first appeared in the century proceeding the arrival of the Knights in 1530, at a time when several small hamlets of Mediaeval origins had started converging towards pre-established foci to collectively form larger villages of labyrinthine streets following the routes of ancient cart tracks.4 Among the characteristics of this very different Malta, one can identify a marked pre-occupation with security, the presence of small communities of subsistence farmers who were mostly poor and God fearing, who spoke a Semitic language, who were scared of the pirate infested seas, who were content to go out to their fields early in the morning to return at sunset and who were skilled in the use of weapons to face the occasional Turkish razzia and in the use of a soft building limestone to build defensive walls and dry shelters for them and their families. There was finally the influence of a largely benevolent Mediterranean climate, which greatly encouraged outdoor as opposed to indoor living and activity, particularly so in the open spaces that informally grew around the first large village churches that were built by Tommaso Dingli in about 1600.

An overview of the architectural history of the Maltese islands as interpreted by Hughes (1967),5 Tonna (1989), 6 Mahoney (1996),7 and De Lucca (1993,1999)8 and others would suggest that this countryside architecture that was produced by Maltese village folk in the historical period was of two types. There was firstly a type based on simple punctured cubic forms, surely the end result of an age-old tradition whose origins can be traced back to the period of time spanning from approximately 800 BC to AD 1200, when the Maltese Islands appear to have been firmly aligned with the North African rather than European sphere of influence, this undoubtly being due to the presence here of a deeply rooted Punic culture which survived the Roman occupation of 218 BC to be rekindled in the ninth century with the arrival of the Aghlabid Muslims of Tunisia and Sicily.9 The latter remained in Malta will into the thirteenth century despite two raids by Sicilian Normans in 1090 and 1127 when Christianity was however re-introduced into the islands as attested by the building of a primitive Romanesque Cathedral in the old fortress of Mdina situated in the heart of the Maltese countryside10. Yet documents dating to 1175 still referred to Malta as a Sarracenis in abitata 11 and one finds several contemporary dwellings inside Medieval Mdina indicating a strong presence of the Muslim building tradition. After the arrival of the Knights in 1530, many buildings of this type appeared in both the countryside, where extended families lived inside them in virtual isolation and in the new villages where the so called countryside razzett, containing a number of rooms informally planned around two or three sides of a central courtyard, was subjected to an infinite number of permutations and combinations to enable it to align itself with the village street patterns which were eminently suited to contemporary needs of defense and shelter from the cold winter winds and fierce summer sun. Despite such inevitable changes, however, these new cubic dwellings were in 1650 still very simple in form, still being built without trained architects and still firmly camouflaged in the Maltese rural landscape, the natural bedrock of the numerous shallow quarries just outside the villages providing their building material and this same soft limestone providing the opportunity for ambitions village artisans to produce an infinite variety of wall sculptures portraying old Mediterranean pagan and Muslim traditions overlaid with primitive views of the new Roman Catholic world, all this being very reminiscent of similar occurrences in Spanish Andalus and Sicily in pre-Baroque times.

The second building type that flourished in the Maltese countryside in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that commonly known as the girna. In contrast with the cubic forms of the villages, these giren of the Maltese countryside were largely unaffected by the Baroque developments in Valletta. Although they will therefore not be discussed in the paper, one should however mention that these buildings, considered by some 12 to be the direct descendants of the megalithic architecture of the fourth millennium BC for which Malta is renowned, had circular, squarish or irregular plans with thick double skin walls of undressed and unmortared stones utilizing all the advantages of the corbelling and flat arch actions which governed the building of many time honoured Mediterranean similar forms such as the Mycenaean and Etruscan tholos tombs, the Sardinian nuraghi, this Apulian trulli, the Balkan bunje and the North African stone shelters of Jabal and Ujlah.13

When one considers the simple outlook and products of these farmers builders living in rural Malta, it is understandable that the building of the citta nuova of Valletta in the second half of the sixteenth century and the Baroque transformations that started happening here after 1650 would have had a profound influence on the above-described vernacular architecture of their farmhouses and village streets that had been evolving in virtual isolation outside the majestic artillery fortifications, perhaps the finest in Catholic Europe, of the new city. The main instrument of change seems to have derived from the early decision of the main resident architects of the Knights in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries namely Francesco Buonamici da Lucca, Mederico Blondel de Croisettes, Romano Carapecchia and Charles Francois de Mondion, to start offering lucrative pay packages to promising able bodied young men from the villages who would be willing to help an always dwindling number of North African and Turkish slaves engaged in the construction of new artillery fortifications and large scale Baroque buildings within Valletta and the other fortified towns around the Grand Harbour of Malta. Interposed as they were between the 'high' Baroque architectural concepts imported by the Knights from their European courts of origin, and the 'low' vernacular traditions of pre-Baroque Malta, there young Maltese recruits not only managed to avail themselves of the many opportunities offered to them for promotion to the rank of mastermasons or capomastri but were sometimes also given the opportunity to spend time in Rome studying the basics of architecture in such renowned schools as, say, the Accademia di San Luca described by Louis XIV of France, Le Roy Soleil himself, as an institution that 'will be remembered throughout the whole world as the fount and teacher of the many famous artists who have appeared during the century'. 14 A situation therefore arose towards the end of the seventeenth century where a number of successful capomastri of the knights started practicing their profession of building experts or periti in their villages of origin and even beyond, as when for example a certain Giuseppe Azzopardo nicknamed iz-zghir, the small one, from Vittoriosa had, after serving the knights and studying architecture in Rome under 'eccellenti professori' 15 had transferred himself to the neighboring island of Gozo to design and build there several villages houses and churches including those of Xewkija (1679)16 and Gharb (1699), 17 the latter built with a curved Baroque façade emulating Borromini's famous masterpiece of S. Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona, Rome. Needless to say the case of Azzopardo was not an isolated one. Other Maltese village periti such as Lorenzo Gafà, Francesco Sammut, Giuseppe Grech, Antonio Cachia, Giovanni Barbara, Francesco Zerafa, Petruzzo Debono, Ferdinand Valletta, Justus Piscopo, Pasquale Mamo, Andrea Farrugia, Clemens Zahra, Michelangelo Chircop, Alberto Galdes, Tommaso Pulis, Paolo Falzon, Giuseppe Carotana, Jacobus Bianco, Paolo Portelli, Natalis Grech, Pietro Burlo', Prattio Vella, Candeloro Magro, Antonio Azzopardo, Michele Micallef, Sebastiano Saliba, Giovanni Zammit, Salvatore Borg and Simone Mifsud were among the more prominent of the several mastermasons practising between 1650 and 1750, 18 whose family inherited experience and expertise in the strengths and weaknesses of the Maltese limestone made it possible for the foreign architects of the knights like Carapecchia, a student of the Roman Baroque architect Carlo Fontana, and Mondion, a student of the great military engineer Vauban, to translate their grand drawing board projects for fortifications, churches, palaces and fountains into beautiful Baroque buildings adhering to the design norms of contemporary aristocratic Europe. In return, these same mastermasons channeled the knowledge that they gained about this very special architecture, particularly about its compositional elements and ornamental motifs, back to the vernacular village environments with the result that those old bland cubes soon became decorated façade contraptions, that new buildings inserted into vacant street plots or replacing older structures, became miniature Valletta palaces mirroring after 1700, the very Baroque affluence and life style of the aristocratic town dwellers of Valletta. A typical example of this fascinating process was the new emphasis on façade compositions based on the classical orders, surely a hang up of the contemporary classicizing influences of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome introduced into Malta by the two prize-winning graduates of that institution, Romano Carapecchia working in Valletta and Pietro Paolo Troisi working Mdina - compositions which were now enriched by the latest fashion of Valletta where peculiar timber covered balconies of Turkish origins soon started altering the face of many a Valletta and village street, all this resulting from the engagement of some skillful Turkish artisan in the humble carpentry shops that at the time were flourishing all over Malta.19 It is therefore mostly to the credit of the Maltese capomastri in the employ of the knights that the aristocratic views and tastes of the flower of European chivalry concentrated in Valletta, were rapidly diffused after 1650 into rural Malta, with the obvious result, still very evident today, that the border line between the urban and rural building of Baroque Malta is here not as sharply defined as it was in contemporary Italy, France and Spain. By the time of the forced departure of the Knights from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, such directions towards architectural homogeneity in the Maltese built environment had reached an in irreversible stage of maturity ensuring continuity during the successive periods of French (1798-1800) and British (1800-1964) rule.20
A detailed study of the career of the famous Maltese mastermason Francesco Zerafa, Proto Magister Operum Sacra Religione Hierosolmitana would seem to confirm the above described trends of Baroque-vernacular interactions in eighteenth century Malta. Born of poor parents in a humble Maltese village, Francesco quickly rose within the technical corps of the building department of the Knights to become by the time of his demise in 1758, one of the most highly respected members of the building profession on the island. His career was concretized during the Grand Masterships of Ramon Perellos y Roccaful (1697-1720), Marcantonio Zondadari (1720-1722) and Antonio Manuel de Vilhena (1722 - 1736) when he had been asked by the bishop of Malta to produce several interior decoration works in the churches of S. Catherine in the village of Zejtun (1714) and St Mary in the village of Balzan (1720).21 In 1726, Francesco was consulted by the parish authorities of the village of B'Kara about to a problem that had arisen with regards to the best site for a magnificent new parish church dedicated to St. Helen which was then being projected on the model of Lorenzo Gafa's Cathedral of Malta at Mdina (1697).22 At this time, Zerafa was very busy drawing up designs and supervising the building of several houses in the new suburb of Valletta known as Floriana, 23 then rapidly growing outside the fortifications of Valletta once the military engineers Valperga and Mondion had respectively planned and laid out the gridiron street network of the new development, not to mention Francesco's very considerable activity of house building in several Maltese villages as attested by the numerous notarial contracts drawn up to this effect. Zerafa's models seem to have been some large houses that he had built within the walls of Valletta in the 1722-1736 period under the direction of Carapecchia and Mondion, some of which are illustrated by means of those beautiful watercolour rendered drawings contained in a document entitled Cabreo delle Fondazione Manuel. 24 These houses included the Casa Carogna, the Casa Marion, the Casa Terrentia and the Cabrera housing block. The first town house had two features of interest. There was firstly its first floor or piano nobile plan consisting in a large decorated room or sala and four other interconnecting rooms or camere all arranged together with a spacious staircase around three sides of a courtyard. In the second place, there was the façade of this house which was formally designed on the basis of the proportional mechanism used in the larger palaces of Baroque Valletta. Features employed by Zerafa - moulded windows and door apertures, an oval fanlight over the main door, a timber balcony supported on beautifully carved projecting consoles and affixed to the central door of the sala, - all simultaneously appear in the village houses which Zerafa and others were building at the time, betraying a clear case of the channeling of the city Baroque idiom into the vernacular environments of rural Malta. Another typical house built by Zerafa was the Casa Marion, this time having a landscaped backyard as opposed to a central courtyard and sporting a banded form of façade decorum which again was then becoming very popular in the villages as a cheap form of defining door and window elements without resorting to the costly sculptured decoration of the 'high' architecture. By contrast to all this, Zerafa's Casa Terrentia, Casa Grambalina and Casa Delfino represent grander versions of the previous two houses demonstrating monumental staircases facing the main entrance and small gardens or giardini, all these elements, particularly the scale, form and build of the staircases, soon becoming standard features of the larger village dwellings belonging to the professional or merchant strata of a fast growing population. The Valletta building which however perhaps most contributed to the Baroque vernacular interactions that became widespread in eighteenth century Malta was the so called Cabrera block, built by Francesco Zerafa in 1724 at 155-158 Strada Santa Lucia. Of great interest here are the detailed contractual conditions 25 governing the erection of this building, which are being listed as follows in view of their importance in understanding their transmission to buildings governed by similar contracts, which were then being made in such remote villages as Gharghur, Naxxar, Mqabba, Mellieha and Gharb.

1. The building in question is to be constructed in stone of a good quality with all projections, rooms, balconies, basement excavations, cisterns and internal and external plumbing as specified in the drawings prepared for the purpose by Capomastro Zerafa.

2. Starting from the ground level, the first six courses of the ground floor of the building are to be built in the hard type of stone commonly called 'Zonqor'

3. All balustrades, steps, flagstones and ceiling slabs are to be formed of the type of stone called Santa Vennera.

4. All ground floor rooms, kitchens, shops and basements are to be roofed by means of ceiling slabs carefully placed between stone and arched ribs.

5. The two main entrances of the building are to be vaulted and the vaults have to rest on a projecting cornice moulding and other forms of décor as they appear in the design.

6. All rafts of the six ground floor shops and all internal doors of the building are to be constructed of white wood (legname bianco). But all external woodwork, including balconies, are to be constructed of red deal wood (legname rosso).

7. All corridors (passeggiatori) and staircases (scali) of the building are to be finished with arches, pilasters and balustrades.

8. All porticoes (loggie) and upper floor rooms (camere) are to be roofed by means of ceiling slabs spanning between wooden beams.

9. it is of paramount importance that all beams supporting the ceiling of the upper floor rooms are to be of the type of wood known as Arzano while the beams of the mezzanine level rooms, which are not so large, are to be of the type known as Castagno.

10. Both the 'diritto d'appoggio' of all party walls and the cost of the bitumen for the various cisterns, terraces and water canals are to be paid at the expense of Capomastro Zerafa.

11. Francesco Zerafa is also asked to take care of the transport expenses involved in carting away all old material from the site and in providing the new building materials.

12. On completion, the finished work is to be inspected by two 'periti eletti' who will be empowered to force Zerafa to rebuild all or part of the building at his own expense should they find any serious structural fault.

13. The Grand Priory of Catalonia which is financing the project reserves the right to send over at anytime during the course of construction, an expert architect to inspect both the progress achieved and the standard of the work.

14. Finally; all internal and external wooden fittings are to be painted with an oil-based primer of a grey colour and this as soon as they are placed in position.

It was the application of such building conditions that more than anything else enabled Maltese capomastri like Francesco Zerafa to improve the quality of the humble dwellings of the villages outside Valletta so as to streamline their construction, design and finish with those of their best creations in that fine city built by gentlemen for gentlemen. When one considers this in 1748 Zerafa built with his own hands the very large Valletta Palace that was the Castellania and that this magnificent Baroque building was executed under similar conditions of building construction and finish, it is immediately obvious that it was such care and attention combined with Zerafa's second hand knowledge of the principles and niceties of 'high' Baroque design, that eventually led to the overall improvement of the built fabric of rural Malta. Understandably, several village churches and houses outside Valletta now started assuming a very Baroque aura which was however not at all compatible with narrow irregularly planned streets still betraying primitive roots and, more than that, an utter ignorance of those Descartian mathematical considerations that had been largely responsible for transforming Mediaeval Europe into Baroque Europe. In such circumstances the innumerable Baroque vernacular interactions that happened in the Maltese villages in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were limited in their scope to individual buildings rather than to territory and landscape, this being betrayed by the fact that the overall planimetry and open spaces of rural settlements in Malta at the time were largely unaffected by them. It would be pertinent to point out in this respect that the heart of the Maltese village, that time-honored center of village life on Sundays and festa days that was the village square or pjazza, managed to resist Baroque aggression and retain its old irregular and unassuming form despite its obvious inadequacy to absorb the tremendous impact of the new and magnificent parish church attired in a Baroque costume which was purchased by Zerafa and others from the proud and aristocratic knights and their refined breed of Italian and French architects from whom the village builder had learnt much. Regrettably or fortunately, the capomastro who built this fine temple, however, had not managed to apply this knowledge to the village spaces outside which remained controlled by the conservative outlook of village dwellers who still favoured ambients which reflected labyrinthine predicament, secrecy and, unobtrusiveness is opposed to the straight axial lines, the transparency and the theatricality that were then being universally applied in the great cities of Baroque Europe. But then this ensured the survival of old Malta despite the Baroque forces of change which were then obliterating many a human settlement in other countries.


1. DE LUCCA, D., Vernacular Architecture in Malta - A Living Tradition in 'Companion to Contemporary Architectural Thought' edited by B. Farmer and H. Louw (London, 1993). 210-214.
2. MAHONEY, L., 5000 years of Architecture in Malta (Malta, 1996) 166.
3. DE LUCCA, D., Carapecchia - Master of Baroque Architecture in Early Eighteenth Century Malta (Malta, 1999) 212.
4. DE LUCCA, D., The Vernacular Idiom in Maltese Architecture in ATRIUM, no. 4. (Malta, 1984) 12-14.
5. HUGHES, J.Q., The Building of Malta 1530-1795 (London 1967)
6. TONNA, J., High and Folk Traditions in Malta in Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition - Cross cultural Perspectives edited by J.P. Bourdier and N. Alsayyad (London, 1989) 161-181.
7. MAHONEY, L., A History of Maltese Architecture (Malta, 1988).
8. DE LUCCA, D., Op.cit., (1933) 210-214 and The Maltese Perit in History in Melita Historica Vol VI no 4 (Malta, 1975) 431-435.
9. DE LUCCA, D., Mdina - A History of Its Urban Form and Architecture (Malta, 1995) 19.
10. Ibid.
11. LUTTRELL, A. (ed.), Mediaeval Malta - Studies on Malta before the Knights (London, 1975) 32.
12. PSADNI, J., Il Girna - Wirt Arkitettoniku u Etniku Malti (Malta, 1990).
13. AZZOPARDI, J. (ed), Giorgio Pullicino 1779-1851 - Architect and Painter (Malta, 1989) 12.
14. DE LUCCA, D., op.cit.(1993) 210.
15. DE LUCCA, D., Architects practicing in Malta during the Grand Mastership of Manuel de Vilhena, B.Arch. (Hons.) dissertation (typescript) (Malta, 1975) 248.
16. Manuscript 55 f. 124v-5, Mdina Cathedral Archives, Malta.
17. Ibid.
18. DE LUCCA, D., op.cit. (1975) 261-262.
19. A research programme about the subject of Maltese timber balconies in currently being carried out by the International Institute for Baroque Studies at the University of Malta with the help of tertiary level institutions in Turkey.
20. SPITERI, J.M. Towards the understanding of the character of the Maltese town and village in ATRIUM no. 4 (Malta,1984) 10-11.
21. Manscript 170, f.345, Mdina Cathedral Archives, Malta and Vol. Suppliche (1714-41), Vol 4, f. 227v-232, Archbishop's Palace Archives, Malta.
22. Vol. Suppliche (1734-41) Vol 4, f.245-247, Archbishop's Palace Archives, Malta.
23. Archives 1018, f.34 and 362, National Library, Malta. Also see various records preserved in the Notarial Archives in Valletta, Malta.
24. Cabreo della Fondazione Manoel, National Library, Malta.
25. Manuscript 565 and 566, f.6., Notarial Archives, Malta.