Malta’s strategic setting at the crossroad of the Mediterranean shipping lanes has always played a crucial role in the island’s history. Over the centuries the great Mediterranean powers have fought to dominate the island, each new arrival leaving its legacy. What you see today is a complex amalgam of ethnic influences. The Arabs introduced citrus trees and flat-topped houses,a nd laid the foundations for the Maltese language. The Aragoneses, from central Spain, left their mark on the medieval architecture of Malta’s historic town centres, and the enclosed wooden balconies which typify the splendid town houses.
Under the 268-years rule of the Knights of St John, Malta blossomed into a major cultural centre. The buildings they put up touched on almost every sphere of human activity, from water distribution to heavy fortifications. By the time the British arrived at the start of the 19th century, Malta was at the forefront of European culture in terms of architecture. In turn, the British developed the island for both military and commercial purposes.
The words which come most readily, to mind in characterizing Maltese architecture are religion, defence, and limestone. Neolithic people left their mark in the mighty temples to their gods, while the long, continuous Christian tradition has given rise to huge and ever-more splendid edifices to the glory of God. The island’s defences are equally eloquent, as can be seen in the siting of Arab Mdina, or the the fortifications of Aragonese Birgù, or in the obsessive and interminable military buildings of the Knights. Malta is above all a fortress, and the mighty defensive system, shoring up Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities, is one of the greatest exhibitions of pre-modern Christian military architecture to be seen anywhere in the world.
The great architectural tool of all these builders was, and remains,the abundant honey-couloured globigerina limestone, easily cut and pleasingly mellow to the eye.
The Church and Community
Malta’s long Christian tradition dates from AD 60 when St Paul was shipwrecked on the island. In spite of Islamic and other other cultural influences, Catolicism has always been a dominant force in Maltese life, influencing social, political, and even economic issues. Around 87 per cent of Maltese are regular churchgoers – a higher percentage than in any other country in Europe. The village festa, celebrating the local patron saint, plays an essential role in sementing in the community spirit, and there is intense rivalry between the different parishes which compete to mount the most spectacular parades and fireworks displays.
Further evidence of religious conviction is the abundance of street-corner shrines, from the finely carved to the crude and garishly coloured. Even some of the oldest-fashioned buses have a shrine inside, and a conspicuous ‘Jesus loves me’ sticker beneath.
The churches of Malta and Gozo are primarily Baroque in style. The great architect of the 16th century, Geralamo Cassar, designed St. John’s Co-Cathedral in addition to the Knights auberges, the fortification and the several others churches in Valletta. The 17th century saw the rise of another great Maltese architect, Lorenzo Gafa, whose work is the best seen in the parish churches and cathedrals of Mdina and Gozo. Splendid domes are hallmark of Maltese churches, their huge dimensions dwarfing the surrounding village houses.
The grandiose interiors have gilded arcades and ceiling, intricately ornate altars and canopies. Walls and vault are covered in painting and frescoes, the principal exponent being the Italian master Mattia Preti, who decorated St John’s Co-Cathedral and numerous other churches throughout Malta.
Art and Crafts
Malta’s once-flagging arts and crafts industry has been given a big boost by tourism. Craft villages on both Malta and Gozo have been set up to demonstrate (and sell) all the traditional handicrafts. Although outside these villages the artisans is a dying breed, you can still occasionally glimpse a fisherman weaving cane into fish traps, a farmer’s wife making baskets for eggs, or an old woman skillfully making lace in the streets of southern Gozo.