The Malta Independent 20 June 2019, Thursday

The Auberges of France in Birgu (II)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

When the Order found no further use for its properties in Birgu (Vittoriosa), these were sold to private owners, mainly in order to raise funds for the building of Valletta, and the French auberge, like all the other auberges in Birgu, passed into private hands. Thankfully, it retained its original shape, both internally and externally. Only in the early 19th century did it start to gain prominence again, when it was acquired by the well-to-do Vella family at a time when Birgu was experiencing a fresh revival in city life caused by the presence of the British Admiralty. For this reason, the building was popularly called il-Palazz tal-Miljunarju (The Palace of the Millionaire).

In 1852, when the British colonial government was making education available to most children, in line with similar openings in the United Kingdom, the Auberge de France was rented by the government to serve as a primary school. It remained as such until 1918, when the primary school was transferred to the old armoury of the Order in Birgu.

In 1921 the building was rented to Lorenzo Zammit Naro, who turned it into a furniture factory. It was around this time that he installed a stone statuette of St Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, on its portal1. This was later removed.

Canon Gian Mari Farrugia, Dean of the Chapter of St Lawrence Collegiate Church, was an ardent believer in the hitherto unrecognised wealth of Birgu’s historical heritage. In 1938, he invited Sir Harry Luke, himself a lover of Maltese heritage, to visit the Auberge de France. Sir Harry was impressed with its beautiful architecture and he urged the government to acquire it from private hands. An indicative inscription was fixed on its façade. Unfortunately, any plans for the better use of the building had to be shelved because of the war.

After the war, the Birgu auberge was again left in a desolate state. It was only in 1980 that Dr Ladislav Lajcha, a Czech cultural consultant to the Malta government, was commissioned to help in its restoration and in the following year the palace was converted into a Political History Museum. Not well frequented, the museum was closed down in 1987 and the building again fell into disuse and was in need of repair. Indeed, in 1990 the ceiling had to be renovated due to severe damage because of rainwater. It seems that the Museums Depart-ment has no funds for its continued upkeep and, more seriously, there are still no plans for its future use. Suggestions for the possible use of the building as a documentation, exhibition or conference centre or for other educational purposes by the French Embassy or by the Alliance Francaise have so far proved futile. Luckily, the Auberge de France is now being looked after voluntarily by Birgu local council from the meagre finances allocated to it, using the building as a cultural


The Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence

The building on the right hand side of the Auberge de France in Birgu is the Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence. In reality the building consisted of twin houses with a common façade, one being the Auberge d’Auvergne and the other the Auberge de Provence. Bosio clearly affirms the presence of separate auberges for the two French Langues2.

A reconstitution of the façade demonstrates the existence of two similar buildings that were subsequently marred by modifications. The architecture of the two auberges was also in the vernacular style but differed from that of the Auberge de France. From the interior, the two auberges were apparently joined.

A section of the auberge at the extreme right, probably that belonging to Auvergne, was demolished in the immediate pre-war period to make way for a modern residence, thereby obliterating the symmetry of the original façade, though the main entrance of the auberge and a small balcony on top of it still remain as a reminder of the former auberge. This part of the building was the property of the Confraternity of St Catherine. It is now a private residence.

The surviving Auberge adjacent to the Auberge de France, probably that of Provence, is still broadly intact superficially, though deformed in some places through alterations.

A recent comprehensive study of the Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence conducted in 1992 by Mr Paul Saliba3 established that the interior is very much in its original state, despite its having been partitioned into four separate privately-owned houses.

Gaining access to the interior, he examined the building and discovered architectural elements, notably in the ground floor and basement, which probably date to the 15th century and there are also extremely old remnants – probably from the Byzantine period – not found anywhere else in Malta. As in the case of the Auberge de France, the basement and cellars lead to Ancient Street at the back of the building.

One looks forward to the publication of this elaborate study, which has shed light on the history of the French knights at Birgu. It is also hoped that it will give rise to greater interest in the preservation of old buildings and ensure that action is taken by the authorities not to allow further destruction of such a unique architectural heritage. It is indeed unfortunate that historic mansions like the three French 450-year old auberges at Birgu and innumerable other old buildings in the same city – the list is interminable – have never attracted the attention of the Museum authorities, and have never provoked the sponsoring of thorough surveys as has been done by private initiative. The acquisition by the government of the magnificent building that makes up the Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence, probably unique in Malta, and its proper restoration would be a very worthwhile endeavour.

Lorenzo Zahra is a historian and the author of several articles on Birgu. He is the secretary of the Historic and Cultural Society in Birgu.

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.

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