The Malta Independent 14 November 2018, Wednesday

The Grand Prior’s Palace In Vittoriosa

Malta Independent Wednesday, 9 May 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

During the past 60 years or so, Vittoriosa has been the victim of war and neglect. The Second World War brought havoc to the city and its cultural life. The damage was aggravated by haphazard post-war clearance which destroyed much which could have been restored. Some of the rebuilding carried out was done with complete disregard for the historic ambience of the ancient city. What survived was then subject to neglect. In the process, Vittoriosa lost such prized architectural monuments as the Clock Tower, the Sicolo-Norman Belfry, the Magisterial Palace and the Auberge d’Alemagne. Another often-forgotten treasure which was tragically lost was the Grand Prior’s Palace.

When the Order of St John set foot in Vittoriosa in 1530, the city was literally taken over and properties acquired and rebuilt to fit the order’s various activities. After a spell of 40 years, the order released these properties to private individuals, using the proceeds of the sales to finance the construction of new and more resplendent replacements in the new capital city. The Grand Prior’s Palace was sectioned to accommodate two small residences and a workshop; it remained in private hands until its final disappearance in 1981.

The palace stood at 113, Old Governor’s Palace Street, some distance away from the Magisterial Palace. It stood close to a small open space called piazzetta which was the downtown meeting place for the common city folk – in contrast to il-piazza, the city centre frequented by the upper crust and well-to-do and which also served as the parade ground, the piazza d’armi. It was a modest-sized 16th-century house with a plain façade in vernacular style, embellished with a decorated doorway and arched door light with gridiron bars, a covered wooden balcony and windows with flat borders. Until its demolition, people referred to it as id-dar tal-Prijur and id-dar ta’ l-anglu, the latter description being a reference to the angel in alto relievo which adorned the main door, holding a streamer with a biblical inscription taken from the Book of Amos.

The spacious vaulted entrance hall had rooms on both sides and led to the staircase. At the base of the balustrades at both ends stood two sculptured lions. This was typical at the time as evidenced by a similar feature still extant at the Auberge de France in Vittoriosa built at about the same time – the lion theme also recurring in the small backyard. Against a wall rose a strange, full-size stone statue of an allegorical woman breastfeeding a cub. This statue was removed by the owners before the war and placed in a country house outside Vittoriosa.

On the first floor next to the main hall, there was a room which had a distinctive feature – one of the walls had a recess at the centre and two side doors, all surrounded by beautiful sculptured foliage designs and crowned by a small niche with a statue of the Blessed Virgin. This could possibly have been the Grand Prior’s private chapel, with the altar resting across the recessed area.

During the war, the palace was damaged but was not beyond repair. Aware of its historical value, the owner Giuseppe De Raffaele asked for financial assistance to enable him to restore rather than replace it, but this was not forthcoming. In 1962, in terms of the Hubbard & Harrison post-war reconstruction plan, the house was partially restored on modern lines and consequently its artistic character was irretrievably lost. The only consolation is that the Curator of Museums at that time, Francis X. Mallia, took the initiative to make a site drawing of the edifice, supported with a photographic record of the ruins before their devastation. The building finally succumbed to the bulldozer in 1981, when, together with the entire piazzetta precincts, the area was flattened to make way for a monstrous road bridge, now thankfully dismantled, leading to a desecrated Fort St Angelo turned into a pseudo-entertainment spot.

What was the role of the Grand Prior? He occupied a high rank within the order, otherwise referred to as “the Convent”. He was head of the Conventual Chaplains who together formed the Assembly of the Conventual Chaplains. The residence of the chaplains is still in existence and is located at 7/9, Pope Alexander VII Street, Vittoriosa. This also suffered disfigurement, losing one of its wings in the 1920s.

The office of Grand Prior was created in 1181 by Pope Lucius III during the Crusades. He was literally the order’s spiritual leader and exercised control over the Conventual Church and the order’s parish church. In Vittoriosa, he was entrusted with the custody of St Lawrence Conventual Church, which was exclusively reserved for official liturgical functions. At the same time, he ran St Anthony the Abbot Parish Church, which stood close to his palace in Vittoriosa and catered for the daily sacramental needs of civilians in the service of the order.

The Grand Prior was additionally obliged to make occasional pastoral visits, in processional manner, to all churches and chapels belonging to the order, both in Malta and in the overseas commanderies, as well as to the hospital. He administered such benefices and pious foundations as devolved on the order’s ecclesiastical properties, just as the Bishop’s Curia was responsible for those emanating from the local diocese.

An expert in canon law and in the order’s regulations, the Grand Prior enjoyed special privileges. To denote his power and prestige, his arms were displayed at the main entrance of the Conventual Church for his investiture and were left there for the following three days. By a papal decree of 1541, it was established that the Grand Prior was second in rank to the Grand Master and the Bishop of Malta, and took precedence over the Bailiffs, Commanders and Priors of the various Langues. At times, there was friction between the Grand Prior and the Bishop.

Indeed, the latter, to drive home his distinctive status, had his own palace constructed in Vittoriosa at the heart of the order’s headquarters, even though his cathedral was in Mdina. The Bishop’s Palace in Vittoriosa is still in existence, situated at 26/29, Bishop’s Palace Street. It is privately owned, but vacant and in need of repair.

To avoid clashes between the two offices, the Bishop of Malta was sometimes selected from among the Conventual Chaplains and in some instances, the Grand Prior himself, Domenico Cubelles (Grand Prior 1539-1540) to mention one, was appointed Bishop.

The first Grand Prior based in Vittoriosa was Fra Ponto de Laurenzin, a Frenchman who died in 1539 and was buried in St Lawrence Church. He must have seen to the reconstruction of the church after the previous one caught fire in 1532. Another Grand Prior who died and was buried at St Lawrence Church and who is commemorated by a marble tablet, is the Rhodian Antonio Corogna. The last Grand Prior in Vittoriosa was Antonio Cressino, who organised the transfer of his office to Valletta after 1571.

The prestigious position of the Grand Prior was reflected in his dress. His black cassock had a purple lining similar to that of high church prelates, over which he wore a purple muzzetta with a white eight-pointed cross. During liturgical functions he wore a pectoral cross, donned a mitre and held a pastoral crook. From 1747, Bartolomeo Rull (another Grand Prior who was subsequently promoted to Bishop) even started to put on the cappa magna and the rukkett, which until then were exclusively reserved for the Bishop.

The Grand Prior also started to say Solemn High Mass at the Conventual Church in modo pontificio, at par with the Bishop when celebrating mass at the Cathedral.

This privilege, unique in Malta, was bestowed on the Church of St Lawrence when it was later raised to a collegiate, even if this had ceased to function as Conventual Church.

For many years, this privilege was the pride of the St Lawrence’s chapter and of the people of Vittoriosa. This special concession was abruptly rescinded in 1936 following the recommendations of Cardinal Lepicier, endorsed by the Archbishop.

The anguished protests of the Vittoriosa community on the sad loss of this historical link with the Grand Prior’s presence at St Lawrence Church were of no avail.

References

Can. G.M. Farrugia, Dawra mal-Birgu, Il-Malti, June 1926 – also reproduced in Offprint, Empire Press, 1926; Can. Dean G. Psaila Combo, Il Priore della Chiesa Conventuale. Can. P. Buttigieg, Lehen is-Sewwa, 29 November 1950; B. Del Pozzo, Hist. della Sacra Rel. Mel. S. Giov. Vol II, p.630; Achivio Storico di Malta, Vol. VII, p.297; Archivium Melitensis, Vol. I, p.167; Melita Historica, La Missione di Duzzina. A.P. Vella; MSS Arch. 800, 1063, 1926, 1927, 6430, 6403; AAM Schema Concilii Regionalis Melitensis Decreta 1935-36; and museum ile 61/1958.

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

This article first appeared in the Easter 2002 issue of “Treasures of Malta”, which is published by “Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti”. “Treasures of Malta” is a magazine about art and culture which is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.

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