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Scenographic Baroque Staircases (Part 2)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 1 August 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The Augustinian convent in Rabat was constructed in the 1740s to a design by Andrea Belli. Belli’s design was judged to be the best proposal of the three designs that were submitted to the scrutiny of the famous Gabriele Valvassori, architect of the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili in Rome (1731-4). The staircase of the convent is not visible from the main entrance and was placed perpendicular to a central courtyard. Its layout bears a striking resemblance to Baldassare Longhena’s staircase within the monastery of S. Giorgio Maggiore, in Venice (1634-5). Two parallel staircases ascend along the internal walls to a common landing at mid-height, from which point a single flight of stairs ascends to the level of the piano nobile.

The staircase of the Augustinian convent is a testimony of Belli’s consummate skill as a master of scenic architecture.

The staircase is robust and the restrained ornamentation is in keeping with the character of the building as an Augustinian Priory. Belli’s intention was to emphasise the spatial qualities of the interior and the chiaroscuro contrasts of light and shade. The staircase is well-lit from a series of windows and other openings inserted within the loggia that surrounds the central courtyard. It is interesting to note that the geometric forms of the openings around the Augustinian cloister are very similar to those around the internal courtyard of the Seminary building in Mdina.

The internal staircase of the Auberge de Castille was clearly modelled after that of the Augustinian convent although on a grander and more impressive scale. The auberge, which was completely rebuilt to a new design in the mid-18th century, epitomises the spirit of Baroque absolutism that had permeated the ruling Order. Special emphasis was placed on the

central axis of the main façade, with its imposing podium of external stairs leading to the entrance portal flanked by free-standing columns and surmounted by the bust of Grand Master Pinto amidst stone carvings of

war trophies, banners, armour and other paraphernalia. The external staircase was continued internally as a wide flight of stairs. From the internal landing, two symmetrical flight of stairs completed the ascent to the level of the piano nobile.

In no other Baroque building in Malta does one find such a monumental orchestration of space and such a strong linkage between the external public realm and the internal space. The scenographic setting was intended to convey an image of absolutist power, where the physical hierarchical ordering of space represents the ultimate subjugation of the surrounding environment and human subjects. To this day, local architectural historians still debate the authorship of the Auberge de Castille. The traditional attribution to Domenico Cachia is not supported by documentary evidence and Mahoney’s suggestion that it could have been designed by Belli is speculative.

The most eloquent 18th century Baroque

staircase is that within the palace that serves as the Museum of Fine Arts. The palace was built in 1761-3, by the Order for Fra Raimondo de Sousa y Silva, Bali of Lesa, in an attempt to entice him to take up permanent residence in Malta. The staircase has the same layout as that of Castille, although on a much smaller scale. It is distinguished for its ornamental elegance rather than for its size. Unlike the Augustinian staircase, it is a free-standing staircase totally detached from the surrounding internal walls. There are explicit Rococo overtones as the plasticity of the florid decorative forms dissolves the hard boundaries of the staircase.

The designer employed the oblique order for the balusters which are parallel to the incline of the stairs. This serves to create a less rigid

setting, where the pure stark white staircase, flooded by natural lighting from the central courtyard, emerges as a sculptural object in its own right.

The ornate qualities of the Fine Arts staircase recalls a number of similar scenographic staircases in Bavaria and Austria. Some of the finer examples include the grand ceremonial staircase in the Würzburg Residenz (1737-42) by Balthasar Neumann and Johann Lucas Hildebrandt’s staircases at the Daun-Kinsky Palace (1713-16) and that of the Upper Belvedere (1721-22) in Vienna. It is inconceivable that the designer of the staircase of the Fine Arts Museum would not have been familiar with some of these foreign examples.

The altered perception of staircases beyond their merely functional purpose have ever since conditioned the design of public buildings. The Italian architect Stefano Ittar (?-1790), although espousing a more Neo-Classical approach, incorporated a grand monumental staircase in his design for the Order’s National Library (1786), in Valletta.

In Ittar’s staircase there are none of the elegant Rococo details of the Fine Arts Museum, but a high vaulted staircase which leads one directly to the monumental reading room on the upper level.

The tradition of scenographic staircases has persisted to this very day. It has become part of the collective memory, unconsciously rooted in those fine 18th century Baroque examples.

These staircases must have had a lasting impression on the local population, for they have served as a perennial fount of inspiration, albeit on a domestic scale. For even in some of the recently built villas and terraced houses, one is still at times confronted by a symmetrical external staircase or is immediately welcomed by a marble staircase, complete with a mahogany balustrade.

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 first part of this article appeared last Wednesday. The photographs are by the author himself.

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 that is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.

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