Tuesday 4 August 2015

Magistral Palace Armoury, Valletta

The Palace Armoury owes its origin to a Statute of Grand Master de la Sengle of 1555 which required that all arms and armour belonging to the Knights of St John were to become the property of the Common Treasury,  to be maintained  for the defence of the Convent. In 1604 Grand Master Fra' Alof de Wignacourt transferred the Order's Arsenal from Vittoriosa to the Magistral Palace in Valletta.

Armoury door, Magistral Palace

Under the rule of Fra' Manuel Pinto de Fonseca (1741-1773) the Armoury moved into the magnificent  first floor gallery in the Palace where it stayed until the modern era when the hall was taken over by the Maltese Parliament.  In Pinto's day the Armoury contained  arms for 25 000 men, but the procurators of the Common Treasury in 1763, directed that the Commandant of the Artillery was to clear  the Palace Armoury of old and obsolete weapons, and that henceforth it was to be used only for new equipment. By the end of the 18th century the Armoury was used  for the display of trophies and historic weapons. What had originated as an arsenal of weapons for use had become an Armoury of Honours (Armeria di Rispetto) to preserve and display the insignia of the Knight's  victories.

The arrival of Napoleon dealt the collection a grievous blow with so items dissapearing that today only 5 721 pieces are left on display in the former stables of the Palace. Although only a fraction of its original size the Armoury still contains an unprecedented collection of pieces of Italian, French, Spanish and German armour. The collection also holds pieces of Islamic and Ottoman arms and armour. Apart from the massed arms of the common soldiers the collection also holds some of the armour that had protected the nobility.

The most  splendid suits of armour date from about 1550-1620 and are connected with some of the Grand Masters and Grand Commanders of the Order. These dignitaries only wore armour of the highest quality, lavishly ornamented, commissioned at the best workshops in Europe. One of them is a complete suit of German armour, about 1550, reputed to have been worn by Grand Master Martin Garzes (1596-1601).

Armour worn by Grand Master Martin Garzes (1596-1601)

There is a Milanese suit of armour, about 1580 that belonged  to Grand Commander Fra' Jean Jacques de Verdelin (1590-1673) and was worn by him in the portrait now hanging in the National Gallery,

Armour that belonged to Grand Commander Fra' Jean Jacques de Verdelin (1590-1673)

The collection includes a suit of half armour with morion and round shield in the style of the famous armourer Pompeo della Chiesa of Milan, c 1550 traditionally associated with Grand Master Valette.

Armour associated with Grand Master Fra' Jean Pariso de Valette

The most sumptuous suit of all is  that of Grand Master Fra' Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622) in which he was portrayed by Carravaggio. The Wignacourt armour formed a large garniture, a set of many pieces in a homogenous style, used for battle, tournament or display.

Armour that belonged to Grand Master Fra' Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622)

Of the horse armour belonging to the garniture only the chanfron is extant. in the Milanese style of about 1600, the surface of the armour is russeted, etched and gilded, and scales, floral and armourial motifs are appliqued.

The greater part of the collection consist of battle pieces, arms and armour from the brilliant period of the Order between 1560 and 1600. This is what makes the collection unique. There is little doubt that these pieces are the actual equipment of the numerous knights and soldiers who fought in the Order's wars.

Hundreds of peaked or combed morions that were in general use by pikemen and musketeers survive in the Armoury.

Besides the morions the burgonet type of helmet, usually of buff, was very popular. There are also examples of the distinctive Savoyard helmet.

There are many cuirasses, collars, pauldrons, vambraces and tassets for the use of the heavy infantry. Some of them are of smooth bright steel without decoration, others are adorned with simple embossed volutes. There is also a large group of armour pieces ornamented with Italian style etching with grotesque and scroll work, with sprays of leafwork, with medallions of ancient and allegorical figures, or, most numerous, with bands of armorial trophies. The same design is often repeated. The design is rarely found elsewhere so it can be assumed that these pieces of armour were commissioned by the Order, in large consignments from North Italian workshops, to be manufactured at the same time, in a common manner.

There are also a few examples of a special form of light and movable cuirass, made of overlapping horizontal lames, called "anime", which were probably for galley service, and also waist-coat armour which imitates civilian doublets.

Among the offensive arms, rapiers and staff weapons were in general use by the infantry in the field, on walls and in the galleys. Extremely long rapier blades were not only carried on horseback; they were effectively used in wall defence.

The firearms of the Armoury, flintlock guns and pistols of Italian, French, Spanish and German origin, are from the late 17th century. The early matchlock muskets, the basic weapon of the Great Siege, have vanished. Only rows of powder flasks and primers left over from the period remind us of the fame of Maltese musketeers.

Thursday 23 July 2015

De Redin Towers, Malta

Between 1658 and 1659 Grand Master Fra' Martin de Redin (1657-1660) erected thirteen watch towers around the  coast of Malta.

Madalena Tower

The towers were not intended to prevent an enemy from landing. They were an early warning system. Bonfires were to be lit on their flat roofs as a warning of an invasion and a combination of flags and gunfire were developed to pass on other information to the populace.

Ghallis  Tower

Before the arrival of the Knights, the seas around Malta had been plied by pirates who frequently came ashore to pillage and plunder the countryside. Many of the older men were killed by the pirates who carried off the younger men and women to slavery on the Barbary coast.

Qalet Marku Tower

The de Redin Towers were all built to a similar plan. They were nine meters wide and approximately twelve meters high. Inside were two vaulted rooms, one on top of the other but with no internal access between them. Entry to the upper storey was by a wooden ladder. Although the walls are approximately three meters thick at the base, strong enough to withstand musket fire and an attack by a small raiding party, they would not have been able to withstand a sustained attack.

Madalena Tower

Each tower was guarded by four men who were paid for by the Universities of Notabile and Valletta and two guns provided by the Order. De Redin raised a regular Maltese corps of 4000 highly trained and well armed musketeers. In a letter to the Pope he wrote "The Maltese will defend their wives and children like lions. They are the best soldiers :strong, agile and fit to undergo the hardships of a campaign".

Hamrija Tower

Grand Master Fra' Martin de Redin (1579-1660)

Sunday 19 July 2015

Sarria Church, Floriana

The Sarria Church in Floriana, the suburb of Valletta, was designed by  Fra' Mattia Preti and built by Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa in 1678

The Sarria Church is said to have been a personal votive offering by Preti to commemorate the island's deliverance from a devastating outbreak of the plague. The church is circular in plan and it displays elements of both the Classical and the Baroque styles that were prevalent in Malta at that time.

Mattia Preti was responsible for all the paintings in the Church.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Clock at the Palace, Valletta

The ornamental clock on top the turret of the smaller courtyard of the Magistral palace in Valletta was created for Grand Master Fra' Manoel Pinto de Fonseca (1741-1773).

The clock has four dials; the main one in the centre shows the hours and minutes; above it  a smaller one registers the phases of the moon. To the left a small dial shows the month while another on the right shows the date.

On top of the turret are four bronzes representing Moorish slaves holding hammers which they swing to strike the gongs. The central two figures are larger than those at the sides, as is the gong they strike with their hammers. On either side of the large central gong are two smaller ones.

The Moorish slaves on the sides strike every fifteen minutes, once each, twice each and three times each , until the hour is complete. Then they strike four times in rotation before the two larger figures take their turn striking the central gong, once, twice, etc according to the hour up to twelve.

The turret is flanked by pilasters and volutes and surmounted by a broken pediment. The weights that wind the clock hang within the turret.

The clock first started to work on Tuesday 22 June, 1745 and has done so ever since.

The position of the clock was chosen carefully, from its high position on the turret it's chimes could be heard across the city.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Dwerja Tower, Gozo

The Dwerja tower (also known as Qawra tower) was completed in 1652 during the reign of Grand Master Fra' Jean Paul Lascaris de Castellar (1636-1657) but it was built at the expense of the Universitas of Gozo (the local government). The tower formed part of the network of coastal protection of the Maltese islands and commands views over the sea passage from North Africa to Sicily.

Dwerja tower also overlooks Fungus Rock, famous for its rare and much prized medicinal plant.

The tower is 12 m square and its walls are 3.5 m thick. The lower floor is cut into the living rock and has a large rock cut well. The middle floor provided living accommodation for the guards while the small room on the roof was the powder store.

Access to the roof is via a stone staircase on the east side of the tower.

The tower was manned by a Capo Maestro, or bombardier or his adjutant, together with two other guards whose wages were also paid by he Universitas. The bombardier was able to supplement his income from the sale of salt collected from the nearby pans. The tower was armed with 3 six pound canon, swivel guns muskets and spontoons (pikes) provided from the armoury of the knights of St John. There is however no record of any of these weapons being fired in anger.

Friday 3 July 2015

St Catherine of Italy, Valletta

The little church of St Catherine of Italy, the church of the Langue of Italy is next to the Auberge of Italy and faces Our Lady of Victory in Victory Square, Valletta. The original church was designed by Gerolamo Cassar and dedicated to the patron Saint of Italy, St Catherine of Siena in 1576.

St Catherine of Italy was remodelled in the 1680's when it was given an octagonal floor plan, possibly under the direction of the architect Francois Blondel.  The church was remodeled again in 1713 by Romano Carapecchia who added the porch, now  St Catherine's defining feature.

The altarpiece of the Martyrdom of St Catherine was executed in Naples in 1659 and donated by the artist Mattia Preti to the Italian knights to demonstrate his talent, and as such is one of the first works by the great painter in Malta. 

The Italian knights commissioned Preti to design the painting of the vault of St Catherine's although the work was executed by another artist.

One of the most important dates in the year of the Langue of Italy was the Feast Day of St Catherine, 25th November.On the eve of the feast the Grand Master and the Knights Grand Cross assembled in the church of St Catherine where they assisted at the First Vespers chanted by the Conventual Chaplains of the Langue of Italy.

On the Feast  itself, at 8 in the morning, the Grand Master and the Knights Grand Cross a assembled once more at the Church of St Catherine for a High Mass. At the same time a high Mass  was celebrated in the Chapel of St Catherine in the Conventual church of St John. Then a procession was formed under the direction of the Vice-Prior to carry the Order's most precious relic, the hand of St John the Baptist through the main doors of St John's, down Zachary Street to St Catherine's.

When the relic arrived at St Catherine's the Antiphon of the Benedictus was intoned before the procession then made its way back to St John's, accompanied now by the Grand Master and the Knights Grand Cross holding lighted torches.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Annunciation of Our Lady, Rabat

This chapel in St Paul Street, Rabat is dedicated to St Mary and to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, hence its' popular name, ta' Duna, that means 'the gifts' in Maltese.

The chapel was rebuilt by Canon Gio. Batt. Zahra between 1662 and 1666, on the site of an earlier building dedicated to St John the Baptist. Such was the popularity of this chapel that as early as 1575 Mass had been heard here on Saturdays and on the feast day.

The chapel has one altar and a sacristy. It is decorated through out with beautiful frescoes covering the walls and the ceiling.

In 1658 Canon Antonio Famicelli donated a marble statue of St Mary to the chapel, to be celebrated on the feast every 18th January, since held on  the 15th August.

In 1774 the chapel procurator (who was also vicar general of the Bishop) gave a forty day indulgence for those who visited the chapel.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Fort St Lucian, Marsaxlokk

Fort St Lucian was built in 1610 by Grand Master Fra' Alof de Wignacourt. This powerful rectangular fort was intended to defend the great unprotected bay of Marsaxlokk in the south of Malta where the Turks had landed in 1565. The fort was named after the church where Wignacourt was christened.

A legend reports how a female slave from Tunisia, on being converted to Christianity, confessed to a Jesuit priest that St John the Baptist appeared to her, warning her of an imminent threat and advising of the construction of a fort at Marsaxlokk. the grand master was told but was too busy building his aqueduct to take much notice. However the following summer eight Turkish galleys attempted to land in the bay but were prevented by the coastguard convinced the grand master to build the fort at a cost of 11,745 scudi.

Fort St Lucian was completed by 11 June 1611 when a bronze canon was installed. It is a strong square tower built on a promontory with four bastions, one at each corner. The walls are twenty three feet thick at the base surrounding two barreled vaulted chambers with two more on the upper storey from which extend six splayed embrasures in the sixteen foot thick walls.

In 1614 a large Turkish expedition attempted to enter the harbour but was repulsed by a bombardment from the guns of Fort St Lucian. In 1641 the Turks attacked Malta again, putting ashore about 5,000 men in Marsaxlokk bay. However they were contained by the Maltese cavalry and the guns of Fort St Lucian drove the galleys from the beaches.

In 1722 the fort was garrisoned by thirty men and armed with six cannons. A battery was built on the seaward side and equipped with eight cannons. In 1761 French engineers reported that it, 'is very solid, vaulted to perfection and on a platform holds five cannon of 10 pounds and two of six pounds with two little mortars.'

In 1793 Grand Master Rohan had a ditch excavated around the fort to further strengthen its defences, his escutcheon was carved over the entrance and it was  named Fort Rohan in his honour.