The Malta Independent 18 October 2021, Monday

The Architectural legacy of Grand Master Pinto (2)

Malta Independent Friday, 16 May 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

The Castellania Palace, which is situated at the corner of Merchants’ street and St. John’s Street, served as the Civil Law Courts of the ruling Order of St. John. The designs of the Castellania were prepared by the Order’s capo maestro, Francesco Zerafa and the first stone of the palace was laid in 1757. The Castellania ranks as one of the most ornate eighteenth century Baroque palaces in Valletta. The main façade over Merchants’ Street consists of two storeys and a mezzanine level. The spaces on the ground floor that line the public street were leased as shops. There are a total of eight shops, with four on each side of the main entrance. Overlying the shops is a mezzanine level which was used for the storage of merchandise by the shop owners. A series of square shaped windows are aligned to the arched door opening to the shops underneath.

The main architectural decoration of the façade is concentrated around the central bay which also comprised the main entrance to the palace. The arched entrance portal is flanked by a cluster of pilasters which support a full Doric entablature. Grand Master Pinto’s heraldic half moon crescents are repeatedly carved in the metopes of the frieze and throughout the frame around the entrance. A small cartouche above the main entrance bears a Latin inscription praising the Grand Master for rebuilding the Law Courts at his own expense. At the first floor level an ornate doorway flanked by graceful pilasters provides access to a wrought iron open balcony. The marble centre-piece on the upper level extends upwards to the full height of the building with its crowning segmental pediment breaking through the cornice.

The architectural decoration attains a climax in the upper level centre-piece. A scene is depicted with rich allegorical images that are symbolically related to the function of the palace as a Law Courts. Two female figures stand in a reclined posture over the broken segmental pediment of the balcony doorway. The figure of Justice on the left, bears a raised sword in her arm and a pair of scales in her left arm (now missing). The figure of Truth on the right, holds a mirror in her right arm while with her other hand she strangles a writhing serpent. Between these two figures there is an empty recess which probably accommodated a bust of Grand Master Pinto. Above the empty quadrilateral framed recess are two other smaller figures – a winged female figure with billowing drapes blowing a trumpet in her right hand and holding a laurel wreath with the other, and on the other side is a putto pointing to a central void which may once have contained a shield carved with the Grand Master’s coat of arms. The missing bust and coat of arms were probably removed during the French occupation of Malta (1798-1800) or during the governorship of Sir Thomas Maitland (1812-1824), who had both ordered the removal of the arms and emblems of the Order of St. John from public buildings.

The sculptor who was responsible for most of the carvings on the façade was an Italian convict by the name of Gianni Puglisi. Puglisi had been sentenced by a Neapolitan Law Court to spend the remainder of his life rowing in the galleys of the Order. Besides his work on the Castellania, Maestro Gianni also decorated with his sculptures the chapel of the same palace, the cavallerizza of the palace of the Grand Master and the niche in the charnel-house of the “Ta’ Giesu” church in St. Ursula Street. Upon the completion of the Castellania, the Italian sculptor was charged with murder. Maestro Gianni’s pleas of innocence were all in vain for he was convicted and was sentenced to death by hanging in the same Castellania which he had embellished.

The façade of the Castellania on St. John’s Street is not as ornate as that on Merchants’ Street. A set of wooden balconies projects on two levels and are supported by stone corbels carved with Pinto’s half moon. On this elevation there are located the entrance to the underground prison cells which accommodated the convicts and those detailed awaiting trial. The corner of the palace at the junction of the two streets is cut away and a cylindrical pedestal or column, some three metres in height, is enclosed within the recess. This was the pillory on which offenders would be forced to stand and be exposed to public ridicule. For the more serious offenders, the pillory was the stage-set of various forms of torture including the notorious corda.

Although the façade on Merchants’ Street is symmetrical this is not a true reflection of the plan which is asymmetrical. The various rooms of the palace are arranged around three sides of a courtyard at the back end of the palace. Most of the accommodation is along the Merchants’ street frontage including the shops at the ground floor and the main hall on the piano nobile which extends for almost the whole width of the façade. The side wings of the palace are wider, with the one on the left having a depth of two rooms and the rooms within the right wing being arranged around a smaller open court. The Civil Law Courts ceased to function within the Castellania in 1840. Since 1896, the palace has to this day hosted the Public Health department and the related offices of the Ministry of Health.

On 10 August 1752, Grand Master Pinto officially inaugurated the completion of an impressive array of nineteen warehouses of palatial proportions which stood along the Grand harbour waterfront. For the special occasion the wharf was lit up with torches and boats flocked to the area for the water carnival which was organised. Adjoining the warehouses, a small church was built which was dedicated to the “Flight of the Holy family in Egypt”. The architect of this exquisitely ornate Baroque church is not known although an attribution to the elusive figure of Andrea Belli has been proposed. Stylistically, this church is related to two other contemporary central plan churches; that of the Tal-Providenza church, limits of Siggiewi (1750-53) and the Tal-Abbanduati church, in Zebbug, (1758).

Grand Master Pinto was also responsible for various alterations to the Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta. Gerolamo Cassar’s austere façade was embellished by the addition of two Baroque gateways with both the arched entrance portals being flanked by banded hardstone columns and with the overlying Doric entablature supporting an open wrought iron balcony. Other interventions included a second main entrance to the palace courtyard from old Theatre Street and the impressive closed timber balconies that wrap around the palace facades. The balconies are supported by stone corbels which are decorated with stucco work and escutcheons of grand masters. In 1745, Pinto commissioned the construction of an ornate clock that was placed on one side of Prince Alfred’s courtyard. The Pinto clock carries four bronze figures representing Moorish slaves holding hammers which shift sideways when striking the gongs. The weights of the clock are contained within the stone turret which is decorated by pilasters and volutes.

Grand Master Pinto also left his physical mark beyond the urban enclaves of Valletta and floriana. Even in the rural landscape one is bound to encounter landmarks commissioned by the Portuguese Grand Master. One such example is the Monte di Redenzione gateway which is situated below Selmun castle on the periphery of a field track in the environs of Qala Mistra. The gateway was the equivalent of a toll-gate whereby a levy was imposed on travellers taking a route through the private property of the Monte di Redenzione. The purpose of this foundation was the raising of funds for the redemption of Christian slaves from the Barbary states. The Qala Mistra armorial gate bears Grand Master Pinto’s heraldic arms and the shield of the foundation depicting three cones surmounted by the inscribed letter, ‘R’.

The pioneering historical work by Dr. Carmel Testa, entitled The Life and times of Grand Master Pinto, 1741-1773, is an enlightening exposition of the economic, social and political conditions prevailing during Pinto’s reign. It is high time that the architectural history of the Pinto-era be the subject of an equally accomplished academic study and that this architectural legacy be given the recognition it deserves.

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

The first part of this article was published in The Malta Independent lastdnesday

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