The Malta Independent 15 November 2018, Thursday

Scenographic Baroque Staircases (Part 1)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Elaborate ceremonies and rituals conducted by the Order and the local Church assumed a heightened significance during the 18th century. The Ottoman Turkish empire was in decline and its depleted army no longer posed any real threat to the security of the islands. Hence, the need to construct new fortifications and to consolidate the existing defences was no longer considered a major priority. Furthermore, the new spirit of the age on the European continent celebrated the emergence of powerful nation states by absolutist monarchs.

The sovereign Order of St John was not immune to this preoccupation with rhetorical imagery, which was intended to impress upon the local population the benevolent despotism of the state. The sombre austerity of the early days of the Order gave way to resplendent rituals and public spectacles, which flourished during the reign of Grand Master Vilhena (1722-1736) and attained a climax under the Portuguese Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773). This radical shift in the Order’s lifestyle and the image projected deeply influenced the course of Maltese Baroque architecture.

The late 16th century auberges of Gerolamo Cassar, although imposing in their mass and volume, were devoid of any decoration which would have tempered the overall sombre atmosphere. Even the early Baroque architectural works of Francesco Buonamici (1596-1677) such as the Jesuit Church and College in Valletta were restrained and academic in character. However, in the ‘High Baroque’ period the form and aesthetics of both secular and religious buildings evolved to reflect the new cultural and political climate. Under Grand Master Carafa, the entrance to the Auberge d’Italie was remodelled with the insertion of a profusely ornate sculptural ensemble of a dedicatory bust amidst various war trophies and paraphernalia. Just around the corner, the Church of Santa Catarina d’Italia was remodelled in the early 18th century by the architect Romano Carapecchia (1668-1738). The Roman architect proceeded to add an elegantly proportioned entrance vestibule with a symmetrical flight of stairs to the existing church. This was analogous to an open architectural canopy which served as a viewing gallery to the public street.

Staircases in the 18th century Baroque palaces became more monumental and ornate.

They were no longer perceived as purely utilitarian architectural elements to be hidden away from public view and to be absorbed within the building fabric.

Instead they assumed a new meaning as free-standing objects of intrinsic artistic merit and which were intended to serve as a prestigious status symbol of the patron’s affluence and power. Staircases became an integral part of a scenographic set, intended to impress upon any visitor the building’s spatial qualities. This scenic approach was not only restricted to the building interiors, but the setting could also serve to link the external public space with the interior spaces. In some cases, such as Francesco de Sanctis’ famous Spanish Steps in Rome (1723-5), the external staircase is orchestrated as a cascading series of stairs which ensemble forms a public teatro within the surrounding urban fabric.

In 18th century Malta, there are three notable staircases which possess considerable scenic qualities and which were heavily influenced by contemporary architectural developments in Baroque Italy, Austria and Bavaria. The three staircases are those of the Augustinian convent in Rabat, the Auberge de Castille in Valletta and the most lavish of the three, being that within the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. Except for the Augustinian staircase which was built to the design of Andrea Belli (1703-1772), the architects of the other staircases are as yet not documented. However, the local art historians Michael Ellul, and the late Leonard Mahoney have also attributed the staircases of the Auberge de Castille and that of the Fine Arts Museum, to the same Belli on the basis of stylistic similarities.

The first major building of the Order to deviate from the usual formula of hiding away the staircase was the Magisterial Palace in Mdina (1726-28).

Its architect Francois de Mondion (1683-1733) designed a steep flight of stairs occupying the full width of the narrow entrance vestibule and which led directly to the piano nobile. The staircase is externally visible from the palace’s cour d’honneur and forms part of the elaborate processional route that connects the outer gateway, the open forecourt and the main palace entrance. At the landing of the staircase was placed a bronze bust of Grand Master Vilhena by the distinguished sculptor Pietro Paolo Troisi (1687-1750?). The staircase encased within the internal walls serves to accentuate the dynamic movement along the central axis with Vilhena’s bust acting as a fixed terminal element.

Conrad Thake is the author of articles on Maltese architecture, and co-author with Dr Quentin Hughes of Malta the Baroque Island (2003) and Malta, war and peace (2005). The photographs in this article are by the author. The second part of the article will be published next Wednesday.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1995 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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