Influences on Maltese Architecture
It was several years ago that I first visited Malta. I had never been before, I’d never even seen a picture of Malta before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Our flight from London was delayed and it was way past midnight before we left the airport. As my boyfriend drove the hire car from the airport to his mum’s apartment in St. Paul’s Bay (where we were staying), I was too tired and too nervous about meeting his family to even bother looking around at the scenery or the architecture. The only thing from that drive that I do remember is the putrid smell of the rubbish dump. We had to close the windows as we drove past.
His mum’s apartment was beautiful but the building itself still needed lots of work. It was a newly-built block of apartments, at the bottom of the Xemxija hill. Hers, and one other apartment, were the only apartments in the building that were completed and occupied. At that time, there was no entrance way, no front door, no lights and the lift wasn’t yet working. So, to get to her apartment, we had to walk through the unfinished shells of the apartments below, in the dark. It felt like the beginning of a zombie movie! I hate the dark. However, once we were inside her front door, it was a completely different story. Her flat was modern, spacious and elegant. His mum and sister had waited up to greet us and there were quick introductions before we all passed out in our beds.
The next morning, we woke up to a bright, sunny day. My boyfriend made us some coffee and his mum showed us around the flat. She had the most incredible, unobstructed view of Xemxija Bay from her front balcony. I remember being blown away by the colour of the water! That day, and the next, we spent lounging on the beach, eating and drinking way too much. I still didn’t really look around much. I was far too in love and it was August, and I’m British, so I was trying not to let the sun kill me.
It was only on the third day that we ventured further south and my boyfriend took me to Valletta. I was completely blown away by the architecture, both in Valletta, and everywhere else we passed on the way. The colour of the limestone; the iconic balconies; the impressive city walls and all of the grand buildings. One of my personal favourite things about Valletta is the random, old shop signs that you can still see hanging on buildings in some of the side streets. As we walked around Valletta, my boyfriend was the worst tour guide ever! “On your right, you’ll see a very old building and, on your left, you’ll see another, very old building.” Thanks, babe!
I’m normally one of those people who buys book after book after book. Before I travel somewhere, you can bet that I’ve read at least three travel guides on the place and dog-eared every page (sorry, bookmark lovers) that said anything interesting or recommended something nice to do or see. When it came to Malta, though, I didn’t read a thing beforehand. Partly because he invited me to join him last-minute (as he’d already booked his holiday before we met) and as well because I knew he was Maltese and I thought that having a local tour guide would be better than any book money could buy. Oh boy, how wrong I was!
When we got back that evening to his mom’s, his sister (who, in fact, used to be a tour guide) was thoroughly disappointed (and amused) at her little brother’s efforts. She spoke to me for ages about Malta’s history and taught me everything I know. I’m no history buff, but I love to listen and learn and read, especially about the past. Her knowledge is extensive and she’s really passionate about it. I was so happy she took the time to tell me all about Maltese history. In the end, my Maltese tour guide dream came true! Four years later we would move to the rock and she would take me on a tour of The Three Cities and tell me all about the Knights of Saint John.
Malta’s history is complex and I’m sure most Maltese know much more about it than I do. The history of this little Mediterranean country can be told through all the peoples who have conquered it, at one time or another. And there have been many! The marks of Malta’s history can be seen in the Malta of today. Like every country around the world, Malta’s language, food and architecture have all been shaped by its past. Influences from all who have reigned over Malta are apparent in the architecture of its buildings, including its farmhouses, churches, palazzos and villas.
Although Malta’s cuisine and language were heavily influenced by the Arabs, not much remains of their rule in terms of architecture. It has been suggested that the Maltese Balcony was inspired by the Arabic ‘Mashrabiya’. They also left behind the foundations of some buildings. Otherwise, the only evidence of their 9th century rule can be found in Malta’s cuisine, language and place names, such as Mdina.
Christianity had already been introduced to Malta with the arrival of St. Paul in the 1st century AD. Islam followed, when in 870 AD, Muslims from northern Africa conquered the island. After the Arabs left, Malta reverted back to Christianity. The departure of the Arabs coincided with Maltese architecture becoming very simple. Without their tools and their knowledge, Malta went ‘backwards’. Several, simple medieval chapels remain from this period, including a couple in Rabat. Not only that, some caves from that time (where people actually lived) can be found in Mellieha and Dingli, and all over Malta, in fact.
Over the years, Malta’s architecture became more and more elaborate and this reached a peak in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The Knights of Saint John reigned supreme and Malta entered the Baroque era. Exquisite examples of architecture and interior design from this time period can be found all over Malta. The gate of Mdina is just one of them – and perhaps the most understated. The Auberge de Castille in Valletta, which has been described as ‘Malta’s most beautiful building’, is a more elaborate example. This building now houses the offices of the Prime Minister. However, by far the most extravagant and flamboyant example of Baroque design in Malta is the interior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The rich colours of the intricately-designed walls, ceilings and floors are altogether overwhelming. It’s an incredible sight to see for anyone, foreign or not.
Then came the British and they brought with them something far less elaborate, yet still impressive. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, neoclassical design took over. This movement was a revival of classical architecture (from ancient Greece) and involved the construction of buildings that looked rather mathematical and had lots of imposing columns and the like. The Rotunda of Mosta is just one example of a structure from this era, and it’s certainly formidable.
Recently, due to the steep rise in Malta’ population, the dominant style of Maltese architecture has continued to change. Many modern apartments blocks have been, and are currently being, built all over the island. This is especially the case in Sliema, St. Julian’s and Gzira, as well as in Mosta and Mellieha. Who knows what the future holds for Maltese architecture! Are people keen to protect the past or embrace change?
As always, whether you’re looking to buy, rent or sell a Malta property (old or new), don’t hesitate to contact us. Our property experts at QuickLets and Zanzi Homes are there to help get you the best deal!