The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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‘Wandering’ Fountain pits ‘restorers’ vs ‘relocators’

Malta Independent Saturday, 9 April 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

The Wignacourt Fountain, which is at present sited at what used to be the upper end of Freedom Square, just underneath Inspirations, the St James Cavalier coffee shop, has a habit of wandering.

Originally the fountain was located at the City Gate side of the Ferreria opposite the current Royal Opera House site. It was erected in this location in 1615 with the laying of the Wignacourt Aqueduct.

When the Ferreria was replaced by Palazzo Francia in 1874 the fountain was shifted below St James Cavalier, at the side of the Royal Opera House. As part of the City Gate project of the 1960s the fountain was again relocated a few metres away but in the same area. The current site of the fountain is the result of another relocation in the year 2000 as part of the St James Art’s Centre.

But there is nothing in the fountain that exists today that dates back to its origins. In fact, when it was last restored, in 1998, by Din l-Art Ħelwa, so many of its features were changed that one person who took part in the Mepa board’s deliberation, said he considers it a modern ‘work of art’.

Besides, very significant changes were made to the original fountain. This is how Mepa lists them:

• The lion’s head, particularly the face, has been modelled on canine rather than feline features;

• The form of the chain rings were originally circular and not rectangular;

• The inscription ‘Omnibus Idem’ on the fountain was originally engraved within the stone and instead it has been replaced by brass lettering;

• The four jets of water are all additions. The only original water element was through the mouth of the lion.

So this was why, at Thursday’s Mepa board meeting, there was a very strong insistence by Mepa’s directorate and specifically the Heritage Planning Unit (HPU), to grab the occasion when the fountain again needs to be relocated to do a spot or two of restoration to bring the fountain as near to its baroque origins as can be possible.

But there was an equal resistance by Architect Konrad Buhagiar, to do so. All he was asking for, he argued, was for the fountain to be moved. He would not be held responsible for a restoration job that might turn out to be inadequate.

In particular, Mr Buhagiar objected to the directorate’s suggestion that “the lion’s head which seems like a dog shall be replaced by a grotesque mask with feline characteristics.”

The relocation is needed due to the ongoing works on the Piano project for City Gate. The fountain is being moved around six metres away, from its present location backing on to the Inspiration Coffee Shop where it faces the top end of the Royal Opera House, to underneath Casa Lanfreducci facing across what used to be Freedom Square and where the new Parliament will now be.

Over the last days, also thanks to help by Dr Giovanni Bonello, HPU uncovered much historical material about the original fountain – from paintings by Michele Bellanti dating from 1850 to a book by Paribeni and maybe also a Richard Ellis photo which may provide more details about the original fountain.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker stopped the discussion: The board has the applicant’s application to decide upon, and this is for the relocation, not the restoration, of the fountain. Mepa cannot impose a restoration on the applicant.

He was countered by members of his own team who reminded him that often Mepa insists on restoration even though an applicant would not have asked for it. They asked for some more weeks so that they could be in a position to have more details about the fountain.

Mr Walker was adamant that restoration cannot be made a condition of this application. However, it would be possible for Mepa to send the applicant a letter in which it urges him to reconsider his position as to restoration. Maybe too, there could be time between the dismantling of the present structure and its re-erecting in the new site, for some studies to be carried out.

Joe Magro Conti, from HPU, pointed out to some old photos of the fountain in its second location, with a balustrade at its back, where the fountain can be seen to be a better fit. He suggested that a balustrade at the back could be a better idea than the proposed railings. We are still in time, he said.

Another HPU official said the fountain was like Vilhena’s statue, in that it had a ‘wandering past’ but we are still in time to correct the mistakes that have been made.

Dr Giovanni Bonello, at the end, clinched the whole argument: Besides the restorations that have been mentioned, there were others. The escutcheons, for instance, of Wignacourt, had been removed by the British and were later restored in the 1880s. Restoration is less urgent than relocation, so let the board approve the relocation, then it will be up to the good sense of the applicant to see if restoration could be done as well.

This is what was agreed to.

But after all, is not one reason for the Renzo Piano project to remove the ‘bad’ restoration of City Gate done by the 1960s project?

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