Malta’s strategic setting at the crossroads 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 islands, each new arrival leaving its legacy. What you see today is a complex amalgam of ethnic influences. The Arabs introduced citrus trees and the flat-topped houses, and they laid the foundations for the Maltese language. The Aragonese, from central Spain, left their mark in the medieval architecture of Malta’s historic town centers and the enclosed wooden balconies which typify the splendid town houses.
Under the 268-year rule of the Knights of St John, Malta blossomed into a major cultural center. 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 forefront of European culture in terms of its 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 marks 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 fortifications of Aragonese Birgù (now Vittoriosa) or in the obsessive and interminable military building of the Knights. Malta is above all a fortress and the mighty defensive system, shoring up Valetta, Floriana and the Three Cities, is one of the greastest exhibition architecture to be seen anywhere in the world.
The great architectural tool of all these builders was, and remains, the abundant honey-coloured globigerina limestone, easily cut and pleasingly mellow to the eye.
Malta’s long Christian tradition dates from AD60 when St Paul was shipwrecked on the island. In spite of Islamic and other cultural influences, Catholicism 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 fest, celebrating the local patron saint, plays an essential role in cementing community spirit and there is intense rivalry between the different parishes who 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 old-fashioned buses have a little 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 was Geralamo Cassar (1526-86) who designed St John’s Co-Cathedral in addition to the Knights’auberges, the fortifications and several others churches in Valetta. The 17th century saw the rise of another great Maltese architect, Lorenzo Gafà, whose work is best seen in the parish churches and cathedrals of Mdina and Gozo. Splendid domes are a hallmark of Maltese churches, their huge dimensions dwarfing the surrounding village houses. The interiors are grandiose, characterised by gilded arcades and ceiling, intricately ornate altars and canopies. Walls and vaults are covered in paintings and frescos, the principal exponent being the Italian master Mattia Preti, who decorated St John’s Co-Cathedral and numerous other churches throughout Malta.
Arts 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. Though outside these villages the artisan is a dying breed, you can still occasionally glimpse a fisherman weaving cane into fish traps, a farmer’s wife making skilfully making lace in the streets of southern Gozo.