The Malta Independent 22 June 2021, Tuesday

The art and craft of marble

Malta Independent Thursday, 22 August 2013, 09:45 Last update: about 8 years ago

One can perhaps surmise that Malta responded to the culture of art and craft in marble during the building of the new city of Valletta around 1567.  It was in this domain that the classics had been mainly laid. The Island was losing interest in mediaeval history and it was ready to look to Rome and further afield for their modern influences.

With the building of Valletta’s new Auberges, palazzi, churches and the well renowned St John’s Co Cathedral, no luxury eastern product had a more all persuasive effect on the interior appearance than the colourful and exotic imported marble.

The paved polychrome floors inside St John’s are considered to be one of the most unique treasures in the world. Other floors worth mentioning can be seen in both the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the intricate work of the Crucifix chapel in the Mdina Cathedral, exceptional 18th century examples of Maltese craftsmanship. There are other endless varieties of marble altars, monuments and many more religious and decorative works found in local churches and large buildings. Certainly this period was one of the most successful phases for art and craft locally.

Other strong influences were evident in the numerous contemporary works of art, fashion and style that were present in Europe and gradually became much desired in the new city of Valletta, which was to host a collection of artistic treasures all in keeping with the grand planning of the Order.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Maltese were still influenced by the Neapolitan styles of ornamentation, generally found in the south of Italy and Sicily. One can say that Baroque in Malta will never disappear and will continue to flower and prosper. This is very much in evidence in the churches and imposing residences.

In the 19th century, Malta reached a high standard in contemporary marble sculpture. The craftsmen looked to their own national inspiration and adapted their artistic talent to suit their clientele. Small tables known as tavolini were introduced having inlaid floral colourful marble tops. Some of these examples were displayed at the London Exhibition of 1854 and also at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition of 1886.

The well-known Darmanin family created high-style marble table tops inlaid with various naturalistic foliage subjects. One of these masterpieces, with delicate outlines and exquisite colour schemes, is at Buckingham Palace, London.

The renowned master craftsman and designer Ronald Pisani showed, at a very early age, great interest in visual art and music. In 1974 he participated for the first time in local group exhibitions. These were followed by others abroad. He succeeded in winning first prize in numerous of these exhibitions and other competitions.

Pisani is a man of many talents. Besides achieving an art degree, he also taught himself music. Later he took private lessons in violin and eventually obtained a diploma in violin and music from the London College of Music and the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music.  He played the violin with the National Orchestra for a number of years.  Ronald also composed romantic music for philharmonic bands and other orchestral compositions.

Over time Pisani carried out many commissions, including in several churches, for the Government and private societies. Ronnie created a highly descriptive mixture of art and craft, designing all his projects in a monumental style and with a high standard of technical skill. 

The most important influence in his approach is drawn from antiquity and seemingly from drawings while visiting foreign towns. He describes how he often followed the styles and designs of the exterior facades and belfries of the churches he was working on.  He incorporates the modern outlook with the original settings, especially in the choice of marble colours, hence giving more expression to periods and importance to symbolic subjects.

The church of Santa Maria in Zebbug, Gozo was built 300 years ago under the patronage of Dun Francesco Vella. Later, the church was enlarged with Victor Vella responsible for the masonry works. He was also the mason for the building of the Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary.

According to the historian Agius de Solanis, a huge chunk of onyx was found behind the Zebbug church.  Perhaps it was the beginning of the Gozo alabaster which, in time, became very much in demand. In fact, like all other valuable and rare materials, alabaster was especially suitable for statutes and busts.

In 1980 Pisani was commissioned to carry out all the marble works in the church. Ronnie used his skill and ability in carving marble to create intricate and arresting biblical designs, in a variety of motifs. Fine craftsmanship can also be seen in the walls all covered in marble in the macchia aperta style. He also designed the lectern, the pillars, the baptismal font and many more items.

The table altar is definitely the main attraction. Demonstrating the ornate chalice with loaves, this descriptive detail evokes a devotional scene. Pisani continues with the beautifully sculptured grapes bringing to life the ecstatic adoration of the Eucharist. The marked contrast between the dark green marble and the decorative tints of the alabaster merges the structure in an illuminating result.

Still in Gozo, the parish church of San Lawrenz also presents some beautiful marble works. The table altar, designed by Michael Camilleri Cauchi and executed by Pisani, is made in bianco di Carrara, a marble commonly used because it is easier to work with and more resistant.  The altar is made in the late Baroque style, still known as a powerful expression of religious might. Its structure embodies decorative feriles, curves and linear motifs which give added richness to the subject. It also features a detailed pelican, symbol of the Eucharist, and finishes with putti on each side.

Other interesting monuments can be found in St Lawrence parish church, Birgu. The original manifold designs together with the use of the late Baroque motifs illustrate the different biblical symbols and enhance the dramatic effect. This is important to the ornamentation in the many works of art and craft in churches.

The church of San Lawrenz is home to a number of monuments, amongst them one to commemorate the 900 years as a parish church.  Another commemorates the martyrdom of St Lawrence, which historically took place 1600 years ago.

It is said that St Lawrence once asked the reigning Emperor Maximilian whether he could present him with some treasures. The Emperor accepted gladly, but when he found that the treasures were only the poor of the church, he was offended and condemned Lawrence to be burnt alive.

In 2008 Pisani designed and constructed a striking impressive monument to commemorate these events. It is made of polychrome marble depicting a plinth carved with letters in gold. A distinctive arabesque, funereal urn enhanced with a central contemporary bronze panel, allied with the decoration of the subject. 

The urn is a replica of the one in the private chapel of the Vatican. St Lawrence’s skull executed in bianco di Carrara is enclosed in the overlying sarcophagus made of Gozo alabaster, The upper part of the decoration displays an exquisite obelisk in verde antico and edged in Rosolin marble. This example has a unique individuality urging inspiration and reverence towards religious art.

The cannons on both sides of the obelisk unite the rich structure and are the symbolic reminder of the glorious victory of Birgu.  These are made in dark verde Guatemala marble to give the impression of bronze.  Finally the overlying coat-of-arms of the Colligate of Birgu enthusiastically displays the full meaning of the monument, the skill of the artist and the national victory over the Turks.

Also from Pisani’s workshop is a table altar constructed for St Hilda’s Church in Stevenage, Hardforshire in the United Kingdom. It is made in contemporary romantic style and worked mainly in bianco di statuaro and porto giallo, as for the base it is carved in nero assoluto.

The theme is adoration, with the kneeling angels taking charge of the scene. The combination of the chalice with the overflowing grapes and the mystery of the host is arranged in an exact harmony that prevails so exclusively.

A more recent work of Pisani, from 2012 was the design of the commemorative slab lapida to mark the elevation to the Cardinalage of Mgr Prospero Grech, which was inaugurated in the parish church, Birgu.

Earlier, in 1999, Pisani was commissioned to conceive a slab for a large table to the small church in St Paul’s Bay. The original design was by Gronet de Vasse but that was never executed, and Pisani’s conception was to be based on the same design. This piece of art commemorates St Paul’s shipwreck. 

The tablet displays a roundel with a well designed stick entwined with the poisonous snake escaping from the flames, executed in bardiglio di capella and giallo di Siena marbles. The background shows sodium blue blended with other shades which together convey an impression of sky. 

The exterior border is a decorative neo-classical design, inlaid in honey suckle motifs made in an eclectic manner very similar to the Mosta dome ornamental frieze.  Pisani also introduced anolato rosso di Francia and verde Guatemala marble. The translucent and finesse effect of the different shades of colours enrich the overall composition.

To be concluded next week

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