The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

The Restoration of the Manoel Theatre

Malta Independent Sunday, 24 September 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Four years ago, Malta International Airport was privatised and the government’s shareholding was acquired by Vienna International Airport.

In a policy making decision, it was agreed that the funding structure of sponsorship would be allocated to three pillars pertaining directly to Maltese society. These were identified as the Environment, Sports and Culture.

“When it came to culture, it was immediately noted how rich Malta’s cultural heritage is,” explained Rosette Fenech, the chairperson of the Manoel Theatre restoration committee, “and the major project that was chosen was in fact the restoration of the Manoel Theatre.”

The Manoel Theatre, Malta’s national theatre, a gem of baroque architecture was found to be in dire need of renovation.

“It was initially decided that there would be three phases of restoration, she added. “But, after deciding what work needed to be done in these three phases, we realised that it would be a pity not to add another phase as there was still a major item that needed restoration, and that was the ceiling. This fourth phase has just been completed and the result will be unveiled shortly.”

The restoration project was divided into four phases to be undertaken in the course of four years during the summer break in theatre productions. Moreover, a working committee was appointed chaired by MIA, as the major sponsor, that included the chairman of the Manoel Theatre.

The basic structure of the theatre is made of wood, and the paintings were executed on wood as well. One significant fact is that, originally, the theatre was lit up by candles and the wax and smoke they produced were detrimental to the fixtures and furnishings. That is why, principally, the theatre needed to be cleaned before restoration work could start. Specialists Sante Guido and Giuseppe Mantella, professional restorers from the Istituto Centrale di Restauro in Rome, used a proven methodology and technique to reveal the former colours and design. They also had the opportunity to research the documentation and history of the theatre throughout the restoration to help them.

They have restored several other monuments, including The Chapel of Italy in St John’s Co-Cathedral and are well accustomed to baroque monuments.

However, there is very little documentation about the architectural style used in earlier times, which is why it was impossible to restore the Manoel Theatre to its original state. It was therefore decided to stick to the 19th century style.

The first phase, which took place in 2003, included the restoration of the paintings on the frontispiece of the auditorium boxes. The conservation work included the fumigation and treatment against insects and organic growth, the cleaning, repair and the consolidation of the painted and gilt surfaces, and the application of protective coating. Very detailed scenes have come to light, mostly images of instruments, floral garlands and landscapes. “Subsequent to this,” said Ms Fenech, “what was revealed was so beautiful that we issued a series of postcard for collectors.”

The second phase included the cleaning of the gilt. “This phase may not have been so evident to people,” declared Ms Fenech, “but the restorers have explained that it is a very complex process. When the original gilt had to be restored the methods used to save money had damaged it.” The gilt was dark and embedded with grime and to make matters worse was covered with a thick layer of dark red gum, which had to be removed. That was the most expensive element of the restoration. The maintenance phase on the balconies also unearthed paintings that could shed new light on the history of the theatre. Although the gallery was added in 1811, the restorers are not ruling out that the paintings on the balconies could be the original designs dating back to the inauguration of the theatre in 1731. However, nothing can be established until thorough scientific tests are carried out.

The third phase included the restoration of the proscenium arch and the boxes it incorporates. The conservation of this part has proved to be a very complex task as the rusted metal in most parts had to be treated without causing any damage to the structure. “When the proscenium was cleaned a blue colour was exposed, which the restorers expected to be found also in the ceiling. It was this that prompted our decision to restore the ceiling,” explained Ms Fenech.

The fourth phase was the ceiling’s restoration. It includes the thorough cleaning of the ceiling which revealed a light blue colour with a darker hue on the outside to a lighter hue towards the inner circles to create a dome effect on a flat ceiling. Twenty-four-carat gold leaf was re-applied so that the entire ceiling will shine brilliantly. This was a difficult phase because a lot of structures had to be erected in order to carry out the restoration work on the ceiling.

Everything will be revealed on Wednesday and the season opens on 3 October. A concert will be held, specifically to inaugurate the sparkling, new ceiling.

“Obviously, there are other things that need to be done,” concluded Ms Fenech, “and possibly a decision will be taken shortly. MIA must persuade the sponsors to proceed to a fifth phase. But it is not yet decided. A lot of things are still in need of restoration, the fire curtain for example, and the backstage.”

However, as from next Wednesday, visitors will be able to admire the striking baroque architecture of the Manoel Theatre again and enjoy it as much as the performances to be held there.

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