Lorenzo A. Zahra traces the history of the auberges of the French Langues of the Order of St John in Birgu.
France, Auvergne and Provence were three of the eight Langues forming part of the Order of St John at the time of its arrival in Malta in 1530. Although France was then a single nation, ruled by a powerful monarch, the three French-speaking communities had been grouped under different Langues and occupied separate auberges since 12661, thereby retaining their respective provincial identity and coat of arms: that of France, the fleur de lys, symbol of French royalty; that of Auvergne, the dolphin; and that of Provence, the five golden crosses, the banner that led the first crusade to Palestine.
Three French Langues
Bosio, the famous chronicler of the Order, makes mention of the existence of three distinct auberges in Rhodes in 1418. He explains how the Auberge de Provence had been damaged by earth tremors in that year. He also describes how the Auberge de France was enlarged end embellished in 1511 to become one of the most attractive on the Island Fortress2.
In 1526 the Order sent an eight-man commission of knights, one representative for each Langue3, to prepare a report on the state of the island with its 12,000 inhabitants. In their report about Malta4, they described Birgu (Vittoriosa) as a small defenceless town in the Grand Harbour, with several old houses mainly in poor condition, lurking in the shadow of the Castle of St Angelo.
They also mentioned in detail Malta’s ancient hilltop walled capital, Notabile, home of the nobility. In view of the Order’s maritime involvement, the Order chose Birgu as their new base. Grand Master L’Isle Adam, set up his magisterial palace at the Castle of St Angelo, which he took over from the De Navas, while the Order established its organisation in Birgu. Old houses were taken over and converted to suit the Order’s administrative needs, including the creation of auberges, much on the same lines as the Order was accustomed to for over 200 years in Rhodes.
As the Order’s stay in Malta became more permanent, and as the reconstruction and refurbishment of buildings to suit the Order’s needs intensified, Birgu also adapted itself to accommodate the Greek community who came with the Order from Rhodes. Birgu became a different city and was renamed, Citta’ Nuova (New City), in contrast to Mdina, known as the Citta’ Vecchia, following the building of Valletta.
Another description of Malta was given by Jean Quintin d’Autun from Burgundy who was a conventual chaplain and also the Grand Master’s secretary. In his description, written in Latin in 1533 and published three years later, he mentions the existence of the ruins of a temple dedicated to Juno on the rocks near the Castle of St Angelo5.
As a convent of men who had dedicated themselves to knighthood, the Order felt the need, as had been the case in Rhodes, to locate its headquarters within a confined area for their own exclusive use called collacchio. All the Birgu auberges (except that of Italy which stood close to the marina due to the Langue of Italy’s mari-time responsibilities) were situated along or close to the main street within this area, which was called Strada della Castiglia (now Hilda Tabone Street) as it led to the massive post of Castile. The entrance to collacchio was marked by a granite bollard, still in existence, in Birgu Square. When the Order moved to Valletta, the concept of a “reserved area” was dropped. The regulations governing the collacchio at Birgu were discussed by the general council of the Order in 15336.
The three auberges of the French knights were located next to each other along the Strada della Castiglia. Bosio reported that these auberges were already functional as early as 15317, while the Order’s records confirm their existence in August 15328. In this short period there was little time for the building of new premises, which means that the French knights must have contented themselves with the building as it was when requisitioned from its Maltese owners. Indeed, during the early years after 1530, the Order was still undecided about whether to stay on permanently in Malta. As the years went by, and the Order’s stay in Malta became a fixture, reconstruction work on the auberges was taken in hand.
The Auberge de France
The first structural adaptations to the Auberge de France are attributed to Nicolo Flavari, who was the architect accompanying the Order of Malta9. However, major alterations to the building, including the façade, were undertaken by Bartolomeo Genga10, the same architect who had already made preliminary sketches for a new city on Sceberras Hill, to be later amplified by Francesco Laparelli.
The main door, with its decorative sculptures, still retains its originality. The wrought-iron lattice across the door-light of the main entrance bears the fleur-de-lys and the emblem of the Langue de France. The
symmetrical architecture of the façade is characterised by the so-called Maltese mouldings, a unique style introduced by the Order and used in most of its buildings in Birgu. Its simple lines contrast sharply with the heavy baroque of the Order’s later auberges and palaces in Valletta.
The auberge has an elegant arched entrance with lateral rooms. The renaissance roof, with its square shaped tile design in stone, is still intact. The entrance hall and the entire building receive light from the airy backyard. A covered staircase on the left of the main hall leads to the loggia on the upper floor. In the middle landing of the staircase there is a beautifully carved stone lion, a feature that was quite common in palatial buildings. The main hall on the upper floor, with its high walls and sombre roof borne by timber joists, must have served as the assembly hall where major decisions relating to the Langue of France were taken.
The basement of the auberge is at a level with Ancient Street, which runs parallel to the back of the building.
The basement contains elements that clearly indicate that it formed part of a building that pre-dated the Order. Ancient Street is so called because it was one of the oldest in Birgu, with flagged paving and lined with old buildings. It was the street leading to the densely populated district of il manderaggio until the whole area was pulled down for redevelopment in the 1970s, completely obliterating the historic precincts.
On 4 April 1570 the French knights appointed a commission comprising Renat Sammut, Carlo Montaguy and Giovanni Debono to make the necessary arrangements for the construction of a new auberge in the planned new city of Sceberras Promontory11. The Valletta auberge was soon completed and was occupied in 1571 when the Order moved to the new city. It consisted of a palace of modest size situated at No. 2/3 Old Mint Street, Valletta12, with a façade not very different to that of the Birgu auberge. Yet, because of the great number of French knights, the Birgu auberge was kept until 158613. By 1588, the French Langue had built a larger and more spacious auberge in South Street. This was destroyed during the war and its site is now occupied by the General Workers Union.
Part II will be carried next week.
Lorenzo Zahra is a historian and the author of several articles on Birgu. He is the secretary of the Historic and Cultural Society in Vittoriosa.
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2002 issue of Treasures of Malta, which is published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. ‘Treasures of Malta is a magazine about art and culture that is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.
1 NML 919 Arch 47
2 Bosio Lib II p 438; Arch Melit Vol III-I p 51
3 Bosio p 29
4 Abbe' de Vertot p 18
5 Ins Melit Desc 1536, translation by Horace C Vella 1980
6 G Porsella Flores, Il Delfino no 89
7 Bosio p 109
8 AOM Vol 85 p 104; Vol 209 p 127
9 Q Hughes, The Building of Malta p 32
10 AOM 89/126
11AOM Vol 92/220; Arch Stor Di Malta 1931 Vol II p 61
12 V Denaro, Houses of Valletta p 77
13 Arch Stor di Malta p 60