The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

Three main cemeteries in Malta built by the same man

Malta Independent Sunday, 11 November 2012, 08:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The three main cemeteries connected to the three main religions in Malta were all built by one and the same man – Emmanuele Luigi Galizia.

This was, for many people, the revelation of a symposium held in the beautifully-restored church of St Catherine in Valletta last week, organized by the Faculty of the History of Art at the university.

The symposium consisted of three speeches by past and present students of the faculty, focusing on 19th century art in Malta. A fourth speaker, who was meant to speak about the Jewish cemetery that is adjacent to the Ottoman Cemetery at Paola, had urgent personal business and did not attend.

Janica Buhagiar, who spoke first, described the genesis of the Ta’ Braxia cemetery at Pieta.

She revealed that there was huge controversy when this cemetery was built by the British colonial powers because the Catholic Maltese feared this was another attempt by the British to undermine the hold of the Catholic Church.

Hitherto, burials had always taken place in or around churches but the British, engaged in a huge effort to eradicate disease from Malta, decided to build a new cemetery on the outskirts of Floriana, a cemetery which would be open to all people of whatever religion.

Previously, the British buried their dead in the Msida Bastion Cemetery but this had become too small for requirements and a new cemetery was needed.

This outraged the Maltese and the papers of those times were full of letters of protest that the church was about to lose its control over who was to be buried in a cemetery and who in unhallowed ground. They also protested because the Church was not represented on the cemetery’s board and that its construction had been given to an unknown 25-year-old architect, Emmanuele Luigi Galizia.

Despite all these protests, the cemetery was built and was opened by the Bishop of Gibraltar in October 1857. It was later enlarged twice.

This new cemetery also brought a number of new architectural typologies to Malta, hitherto not connected to the church. One can find traces of an Egyptian revival, neo-Gothic, neo-classical, Liberty and even the Eclectic styles.

Freed from the control of the Church, the cemetery includes clear Freemason symbols.

Many people may think that the chapel in the middle of the cemetery is the chapel for the whole cemetery, but this is not so. The chapel is a private one, built by the ninth Governor of New Zealand in honour of his wife. The exterior has elaborate carvings but the chapel inside is quite bare.

The best monument in the cemetery is dedicated to Olaf Gollcher, with a bronze bust representing him on top of a pillar and a statue of his widow grieving him at ground level.

Mario Borg then spoke about the Addolorata Cemetery.

Following the controversies that accompanied the building of the Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, which originally was intended for all people of whatever religion, the British rulers decided to build a new cemetery for Catholics.

There was a move in all countries to build a cemetery outside the city centres and the Addolorata was carefully planned midway between Valletta and the Three Cities, so that people did not have much to walk to attend a funeral.

In order to encourage people to start burying their dead there, the tombs were offered free to those families who had vaults under churches and who agreed not to use them any more.

Once again, the British chose Emmanuele Luigi Galizia to build this cemetery and this, one can say, is his masterpiece.

The cemetery took seven years to build, from 1862 to 1869, and Galizia, after two foreign tours, decided to abandon the baroque style so dear to Maltese Catholics and to go for something modern, by which he meant neo-Gothic.

The Catholic opposition to British-built cemeteries was appeased by the presence of priests at all times and by the fact that Mass would be celebrated for the dead every day in the Gothic chapel that Galizia built on the highest point, accessed by steps and by avenues today with trees, especially cypresses, that were planted then.

Mr Borg listed a number of chapels that were built in the early years of the cemetery – including the Ettore Carbone chapel, half of which is underground; flamboyant Gothic chapels, the Nicola Zammit chapel with a unique naturalist style and palm trees of stone, the Andrea Vassallo pyramid, etc. There are also examples of the Egyptian revival and the Liberty style.

In a short time, the cemetery became a necropolis, a city of the dead, a memory bank of the Maltese people but it also reinforced social statuses, since those with money could buy multiple plots and build chapels while the poor contented themselves with just a grave.

Conrad Thake then spoke about the Ottoman cemetery, which today is mainly hidden by vegetation and in a state of neglect.

Prior to this cemetery, Turkish and Muslim slaves were buried first in a graveyard for the Turkish dead of the 1565 Great Siege, which was recently rediscovered during road works at Il-Menqa, Marsa. Then, in 1674 the Knights built a new cemetery near Spencer Hill. This was on government land but there were continuous arguments about who should pay for its maintenance between the colonial government and the Ottoman Empire.

It was only after the westernised Sultan Abdel Aziz I came to Malta and agreed to fork out money for a new cemetery that it came to be built. (The Sultan, overwhelmed by debts was deposed in a coup two years later and reportedly committed suicide).

Once again, Galizia, now an old man, was commissioned to build this new cemetery. Consistent with what he had earlier done, he went for a contemporary reading of Moorish architecture, following in the examples of such buildings as the Brighton Pavilion, then very popular in the British Empire.

The Ottoman Cemetery is famous for its elaborate doorway and for the building at the far end where the Muslim rites of burial were carried out.


Richard England ‘sermon’

At the end of the symposium, Richard England was meant to come out with an appraisal of the three speeches. Instead, to the amazement of many, he made, from the church’s lectern, what may only be called a secular sermon on death and the beyond.

He dwelt about his own personal experience of a near-death situation when a botched operation almost killed him and he still remembers being in a tunnel and seeing his body at a distance with the doctors frantically trying to revive him.

For all the stories of people being raised from death in the Bible, none tell us what it was like on the other side, not even Lazarus, nor Christ.

But those who do not believe there is anything after death will not be able to rejoice they got it right, since they would be swallowed in nothingness.

Death is a release: the ultimate punishment would be to remain alive forever. We live mainly in the memory of those we love.

Quoting from Ladislas Boros and Jonathan Sachs, Prof. England concluded: “God in whom we lost our faith, never lost his faith in us.”

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