The Malta Independent 6 October 2022, Thursday
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200-year-old History in an old musty archive

Malta Independent Sunday, 11 March 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Andre Zammit is both an architect and an author. As an architect he was responsible for the Porte des Bombes flyover. As an author he wrote, among other things, about his life and times.

But in a lecture he gave to Din l-Art Ħelwa members in Valletta on Thursday, he added details to what he had already expounded in his 2009 book Our Architects.

In the late 1980s, Mr Zammit chanced upon an intriguing hoard of dog-eared documents left by long departed relatives, who were architects by profession, in a musty archive that had remained untouched in his grandfather’s house in Lija since the 1930s.

On his retirement from government service, he set out to investigate these papers and publish his findings, and in due course he identified 26 architects in the intricate branches and twigs of his extended family tree, brought about by several inter-marriages and spanning nine generations, starting with Francesco Sammut who was born in 1755 in Birkirkara.

Several of these architects had passed on their papers to their sons or nephews, and a sizeable and unique family archive was gradually assembled, consisting of around 850 architectural notebooks (pitazzi) and a large number of rolled up plans, drawings, personal papers and letters sealed in red wax.

It was the custom among old families that when the head of the family died, the house was sealed and all papers burned. Fortunately, this did not happen in Mr Zammit’s family.

The archive spans around 200 years, beginning with the last years of the Order, and right through the British period, ending with Mr Zammit’s own grandfather.

Architectural practices changed, even in simple things like the orientation of plans on the page. Today, we have houses by door number, but this was inexistent before 1811. Instead, people located a site by its more known neighbour, such as near Napuljun Camilleri (in Lija) or near Żeppu tal-ħelu who must have owned a popular confectionery in Melita Street, Valletta.

The first architect Mr Zammit described is architect Michele Cachia, who played an active role in the insurrection against the French and was one of the six delegates who travelled to London in 1802 to petition on behalf of the Maltese. Cachia designed the well-known portico of the tal-Providenza church in Siggiewi.

Mr Zammit also showed plans for a house with a courtyard in St Christopher’s Street as well as the house that later became the Union Club in St Paul Street, also with a courtyard in the middle.

Cachia also inspected many houses in Valletta – some 600 of them. They are easy to locate as the door houses (up till now) have not been changed.

Then comes the Scerri family from Żebbuġ, beginning with Saverio who had four sons, all architects. Salvatore, the eldest, was to become the architect of Bighi Hospital built under the British but he died before the foundation stone was laid and his brother Gaetano whose name appears on the foundation stone continued his work. However, although he was in line to become the Capo Mastro after the death of his elder brother, the British appointed an English colonel and for 10 years, Gaetano had to play second fiddle.

Also included in the archive were the details registered by another of Saverio’s sons, GiovanBattista who became a priest, of the wedding of his sister to Francesco Micallef, another architect, as well as the inventory of all that was left by his bachelor uncle Giuseppe Scerri.

Next comes the Sammut family from Birkirkara with no less than 150 notebooks left by Francesco, starting from 1820. The notebooks include sketches of houses of character like the Desain house in Paola, Villa Fontgalland in Rabat and other buildings in Tigné and Birżebbuġa.

Another house by the Sammut family is a beautiful house of character in Naxxar that was first used as a school and later as a police station. It seems this house lost its balcony when it was a police station.

Another sketched house was the one that belonged to Vincenzo Borg ‘Brared’ with its enormous garden, which was curtailed to create the square in front of the church.

Another sketch shows Xemxija Bay in St Paul’s Bay. The sketch shows that this bay had two entrenchements at either end – one is a restaurant today while the other, which belonged to Antonio Muscat Fenech, was removed to create the street.

Yet another sketch of what we today call Palazzo Falson in Mdina, then called the Casa dei Castelletti, shows a part that does not form part of the house today.

A member of the Sammut family of architects acted as consultant to the Mosta parish when the Mosta church was being built by Georges Grognet, who was not an architect.

Lastly, we come to the Zammit family, Mr Zammit’s own family, which originated in Luqa, the village of builders.

One of the early sketches is that of an Anglican church that a British colonel wanted to build on top of East Street so that it would tower over all those who entered Valletta through the Porta Marina (later Victoria Gate). However, this colonel’s ambitions were bigger than his funds and nothing came of the idea.

There is also a sketch of the Cotoner family home on the corner between St Christopher Street and Strait Street, with no less than 10 doors on the latter street, doors that later became bars.

A Zammit architect built the tomb of Bishop Francesco Xaverio Caruana in the Mdina Cathedral in record time. It was a rushed job, which was kept going night and day (and the nights were particularly cold) but then the bishop conveniently died just as the work was finished.

The Sliema Piazzetta (now unfortunately just a shell) is also by Francesco Sammut. The sketches also include a drawing of what used to be the Grand Hotel, today the Casino Maltese.

It was in Francesco Sammut’s time that calculations switched from the Maltese scud and tarì to the British pound and from the Maltese qasba to the British foot.

It was also a Zammit who drew up the cabreo (collection of drawings, maps, buildings and views accompanied by a corresponding descriptive text bound together in one volume) of the Massa Vescovile, the entire 600 hectares of land belonging to the bishop. The cover of this cabreo is on the jacket of Mr Zammit’s book.

The last part of Mr Zammit’s lecture showed many houses of character in Sliema, from the Villa Betharram in High Street, in the Palladian style, built for Alfonso Maria Galea in 1835, which cost £662, to Villa Fontgalland in Rabat and houses of the influential Mattei family in Victoria Avenue, now named Gorg Borg Olivier street in honour of Prime Minister George Borg Olivier who lived in one of these houses that belonged to his wife’s family, the Matteis.

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