The Malta Independent 20 June 2019, Thursday

PALAZZO PARISIO (and a mug of tea around the corner)

Monday, 5 January 2015, 11:40 Last update: about 5 years ago

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci

I would like to talk about Palazzo Parisio, a historically significant place found in Naxxar, across the road from the Parish Church. In a perfectly discreet and inconspicuous manner, this Palazzo has subtly succeeded in obscuring certain attitudes and principles of how one should perceive the role of art in society.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Malta was experiencing an intellectual and social disaster. Advanced modern technology had entered into everyday life by means of the drydocks, the Barrakka lift, the tram, the train and the motor vehicle, as well as the electrical system, the national water system, the beginning of modern political movements, the founding of political parties and workers' unions, and the rapid development of mercantile relations. Simultaneously, there existed the ecclesiastical hegemony which ardently and persistently endeavoured to impede the entrance of modern ideas into Maltese shores.

We accepted the entrance of the train without permitting thought to develop on the same progressive trajectory. I once read a beautiful statement by my friend and colleague Prof. Joe Friggieri: "You cannot open a window and expect the wind not to blow through". Those in power were well aware of this.

Such a situation engendered a national collective schizophrenia, a schizophrenia we are still suffering today: the experience and destiny of Zieme in front of the new Parliament building is affirmation of this. However, Ziemi has been discussed many times prior.

At the same time that Malta was witnessing an intense development of the modern wave of urbanisation, there were those in power who tried to mitigate the social and political effects of such a tsunami. In November of 1907, the Archbishop Monsignor P. Pace made a vehement declaration against the new thoughts which were steadily entering into the Maltese psyche: Modernism was in fact proclaimed as the greatest enemy of the Catholic Church. The modernist idiom was attacked even when it was being championed by people of Christian and Catholic faith.

And all of this had disastrous repercussions on art practice, when the accepted appearance of art was solely that of the Baroque. The Baroque was the pillar which stood against all other idioms, especially the modern one. However, the window was open, and other thoughts and idioms were blowing through, amongst them even the artistic styles which were inherited from British culture.

There initiated the hybrid cultural allegiance between the different powers who communicated in different languages, sometimes an issue pertaining to art. Alliances between, for example, Edward Caruana Dingli and Dun Karm, Calì and the Stock Exchange, together with the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It was a conservative yet important and aggressive alliance, since at the same time a modern, urban, progressive and proletarian culture was taking root before it: Manwel Dimech, Juan Mamo, Antonio Sciortino, together with the contradictions and opaque politics which history always paints.

Try as hard as one might, the modern revolution - with both its positive and negative qualities - gripped the 20th century. It became the dominant artistic idiom all over the world. In the 1970s, the negative reaction against the modern philosophy began, and comprised a potent contrary reaction which engendered an eclectic and confusing situation in the arts, one which likely never occurred in the arts in another period of human history.

This polemical reaction takes on many names, like Hydra with its many heads. I will use one term which is as accepted as it is confused: 'postmodernism'.

'Postmodernism' attacked all that the modern period had established and revived all the styles which were cleansed by the modernist victory of the 20th century. However, 'postmodernism' reincarnated these idioms, this time in an eclectic fashion: idioms from different periods began to pacifically coexist.

In other words, in a particular building, we encounter diverse styles from different periods of the history of art without the dominance of any school of thought. The relativism of the modern, which the Church was vigorously afraid of in the beginning of the 20th century, nevertheless asserted itself with 'postmodernism', precisely to attack the modern. And thus, today we have a miscellany of cultural amalgamations everywhere we look.

One would be wrong to assume that this condition is endemic to art, and so one should not concern themselves with such preoccupations. Art is a direct expression of truth, truth being social as well as moral, ethical, economic and beyond. Art itself displays the quality of its own thought.

What occurs in art is a reflection of ourselves and our identity as human beings. And here enters the peculiar masterpiece that is Palazzo Parisio.

'Postmodernism' attacked modern principles, yet it also engendered a vulgar relativist and eclectic culture, a product of the 21st century (even though it was born in the 1970s). However, in a paradoxical manner, Malta, by means of Palazzo Parisio, provided an example of 'postmodernism' at the beginning of the 20th century!

In the history of art, this makes absolutely no sense. In fact, this point was intriguingly discussed by the MA (Fine Arts) students within the Department of History of Art at the University of Malta.

Palazzo Parisio is an extremely interesting example of protopostmodernism, meaning work that appears illogical within its chronological context even though it may sit comfortably today or within another era. Palazzo Parisio is an anachronistic artistic language situated in the modern period, yet anachronistically new as a response to the modern.

As Clement Greenberg implies, it would have been of sublimely low taste to be built today. Without realising, Malta, with all her anachronisms, is part of the avant-garde. What a paradox.

Frederica Agius, an MPhil student within the Department of History of Art, arrived at very important and interesting analyses and conclusions when researching this Palazzo, a creation of the Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna (1855-1907) under the architectonic direction of Italian architect Carlo Sada (1849-1924) and Annibale Lupi (1869-1924). Other artists and craftsmen who worked on the Palazzo were Giuseppe Valenti, Vincenzo Cardona, Giulio Moschetti, Filippo Fortunato Venuti and Giacomo Olza.

In other words, this project was also a direct artistic confrontation to the introduction of the classical idiom which was ushered in by the British occupation. Sada was in fact one of the leading figures of the artistic movement known as 'eclectic progressivism': a mixture of various styles, and even opposing ones, such as the Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Greek, the Roman, the rococo and French eclecticism, and an interesting does of the Stile Liberty, and thus a connection to Art Nouveau.

It is also interesting that Sada included Pompeiian elements, appropriated from an obviously anti-Christian Roman culture. All was placed under the same roof and culminated with the Grand Ballroom, for here the French style of Louis XIV was implemented. In fact, it is in this space that we are able to witness the link to 'postmodernism'.

The Marquis Scicluna desired that this Palazzo would reflect contemporary artistic developments as he perceived them; not any development, yet that which determined the requirements of the dominant class. It was even a phenomenally strong artistic-political statement on the dire situation of the 20th century.

And the left continues to sips its cup of tea or coffee near the Parish Church, around the corner. Art is the language of revelation, and whoever occupies it finds him or herself in a dominant position of power, since it is art which determines our mode of thinking and perceiving reality. Yet we continue to drink cups of tea.



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