The Malta Independent 20 August 2019, Tuesday

The Architectural legacy of Grand Master Pinto (1)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 14 May 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Patrick Brydone in his travel account, A Tour through Sicily and Malta, published in London in 1773, provides us with a vivid account of his personal encounter with the Portuguese Grand Master Emanuel Pinto de Fonseca during the last years of his reign.

“He has now been at the head of this singular little state for upwards of thirty years. He received us with great politeness, and was highly pleased to find that some of us had been to Portugal... he is a clear-headed, sensible little old man; which; at so advanced a period of life, is very uncommon. Although he is considerably upwards of ninety, he retains all the faculties of his mind in perfection. He has no minister, but manages everything himself; and has immediate information of the most minute occurrences... his household attendance and court are all very princely; and as grand master of Malta, he is more absolute, and possesses more power than most sovereign princes”.

Grand Master Pinto’s reign spanning over 32 years between 1741-1773, was by far the longest for any Grand Master of the Order. The image of the grand master as a potent sovereign ruler in the tradition of the great absolutist royal monarchs in Europe is forever immortalised in Antoine de Favray’s portrait of Pinto clad in scarlet and pointing with a royal gesture to a crown. In many ways, his rhetorical posturing and the preoccupation with rituals and grand ceremonies was highly representative of the Order of St. John’s lifestyle during the mid-eighteenth century, where scenographic imagery assumed a heightened significance.

The earlier days of austerity that characterised the Order during the 16th and early 17th century had long been forgotten. With the irreversible decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the Order of St. John had in large measure lost its original raison d’etre during the eighteenth century. The Order was no longer a major political force within the Mediterranean region and its persistent financial problems had made it appear to be an anachronistic religious and military institution. It is within this context that the Knights sought to re-assert themselves within their own domain where they could project themselves to the local population as absolutist sovereign rulers. The reign of Grand Master Pinto embodied this new found spirit as a paradoxical reflection of an opulent imagery that vainly attempted to conceal the degenerate lifestyle and decline of the Order.

The architectural legacy of Grand Master Pinto is impressive. A list of the major architectural works would include the reconstruction of the Auberge de Castille in Valletta (1741-1744), the embellishment of the Grand Master’s palace in Valletta (1745), the Pinto warehouses along the Grand Harbour waterfront (1752), and the Castellania building in Valletta (1757-1760). These architectural works can be considered to be the last flourishing of Baroque architecture on the island. After the end of Pinto’s reign, academic Neo-Classicism gradually permeated the local architectural scene as witnessed by Giuseppe Bonnici’s Customs House in Valletta, (1774-79) and Stefano Ittar’s Bibliotheca in Valletta, (1786-96).

Although Grand Master Pinto left his indelible physical mark on the architectural scene in Valletta and Floriana, very little is known about the architects of his grand projects. The careers of the three main protagonists of Maltese baroque architecture during the late 17th and early 18th century: Lorenzo Gafà (1639-1703), François de Mondion (1683-1733) and Romano Carapecchia (1668-1738), had all preceded the reign of Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773). To this day we do not know the identity of the architects of such fine buildings as the Auberge de Castille and the Pinto warehouses. The architects and capo maestri who appear to have been active during Pinto’s reign include Francesco Zerafa (?-1758), Andrea Belli (1703-1772), and Giuseppe Bonnici (1707-1779). However, the only definitive attribution on the basis of documentary evidence that could be made to one of the Pinto-era buildings is that of the Castellania building which was designed by Francesco Zerafa and completed after his death in 1758, by Giuseppe Bonnici. Otherwise all other attributions, particularly those pertaining to Andrea Belli, are based on purely speculative stylistic considerations.

The first Auberge de Castille had been built in the late sixteenth century to a design by Gerolamo Cassar. The original Auberge was completely rebuilt on a monumental scale and in a highly decorative Baroque style between 1741-44. The palace symbolises the spirit of eighteenth century Baroque absolution and the pre-eminence of the langue of Castille and Leon. The main façade is impressive not only on the basis of its imposing scale but also for the orchestration of various decorative elements that celebrated the munificence of Grand Master Pinto. The primary focus of the main façade is the ornate central entrance portal flanked by free-standing columns and raised on a high podium of stairs. The bronze bust of Grand Master Pinto stands amidst the stone carvings of war trophies and banners that decorate the pediment over the entrance.

The façade overlooking Castille Square is subdivided into eleven bays; the five central bays are separated by superimposed pilasters and the three outer bays by plain strip panelling. Wide end pilasters wrap around the corners of the palace. The outer bay windows are set within recessed wall panels which are rusticated at the ground floor level and plain on the upper level. The piano nobile windows have omega hood moulds and decorative surrounds.

The Auberge de Castille has been compared by the architectural historian, Quentin Hughes to the highly decorated contemporary palaces to be found in the southern Italian peninsula, especially the Prefettura in Lecce. However, such a comparison is rather superficial as the decoration in the local submerge is restrained and does not obscure the structural composition of the façade as is the case with Zimbalo’s Prefettura. It is highly improbable that the architect responsible for the Auberge de Castille would have been familiar with the Prefettura, situated in such an isolated place as Lecce. A more valid comparison can be made with Ferdinand Fuga’s Palazzo della Consulta, in the Piazza del Quirinale in Rome. Even then, the Roman palace adheres to a more classical interpretation and there is none of the ornate and rhetorical imagery manifested in the Maltese auberge. It would be more appropriate to seek stylistic influences from the nearby Municipal Palace or the Casa di Città, which was completed two decades earlier and is attributed to the Italian architect, Romano Carapecchia. Similar features include the imposing cornice supported by underlying stone carved corbels, the superimposed end pilasters, the raised centre-piece and the decorative window mouldings.

The plan of the auberge is based on a central open courtyard which is directly aligned to the monumental staircase set within the entrance vestibule and the equally grand external flight of stairs. On the lateral wings of the courtyard along Merchants’ Street and St. Paul’s Street, there is a double room arrangement with independent entrances situated in the centre of the lateral façade. A single row of rooms bounds the rear of the courtyard which is surrounded by a two storey colonnade along three sides.

Conrad Thake is an architect and author of articles on Maltese architecture. He is co-author with Dr Quentin Hughes of Malta the Baroque Island (2003) and Malta, War and Peace (2005).

This article first appeared in the Easter 1996 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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