The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

A Valletta 2018 suggestion to the Chamber of Commerce

Noel Grima Monday, 2 May 2016, 16:01 Last update: about 7 years ago

After reading this book, I have a suggestion to make to the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry which, if found acceptable, can probably make it by the time Valletta is the European Capital of Culture.

In the book, Theresa Vella reveals that the classic façade of the Borsa once had a statuary group, featuring Mercury standing in the centre flanked by the seated figures of Navigation and Mercantile Progress.

She says the statuary group in stucco was installed over the main entrance of the building in 1912 to commemorate the first centenary of the setting up of the two banks which were based in the halls that flank the building - the Anglo-Maltese Bank and the Banco di Malta, as the marble tablet that formed part of the statuary group.

The statuary group did not enjoy a long life, either because of the deterioration of the material chosen by the artist, reported to have been the Sicilian artist Prof. Vincenzo Cardona, or because it was damaged during the war and not put back.

Earlier, the architect of the Borsa, Giuseppe Bonavia, had also come up with a suggestion for a statuary group to integrate the colonnaded portico, with a full-length sculpture of Mercury atop a globe and two winged horses and two reclining female figures - similar to the bronze sculpture that is found in the atrium even today.

This coffee-table book, beautifully designed with many photos, celebrates the history of the Borsa.

The first section tells in five voices, the history of the Malta Chamber. The Chamber of Commerce, writes Robert Micallef, was one of the first to be established as a constituted body within the British Empire, in 1848, 35 years before the London Chamber of Commerce which was set up in 1881.

Even before that, in the times of the Order, there was not just the Camera di Commercio, which was short-lived and controlled by the Order, as well as the Consolato del Mare, a sort of tribunal for commercial and maritime law cases with the direct participation of the merchants.

By the mid-1840s, Maltese merchants had outnumbered British ones. The establishment of a Chamber of Commerce representing the united interests of English and Maltese became a priority.

From its establishment, it was agreed that the new institution should be housed in the old Borsa in St Paul Street. The new building was inaugurated in 1857. At that time, about 200 ships, mostly Maltese, were registered in Valletta. Mr Micallef writes that the new Chamber was not successful in trying to establish social services for retired and invalid seamen and their orphans and widows as well as an apprenticeship scheme for sailors.

Otherwise the Chamber, from its first years, was keenly involved in encouraging the development of a more competent merchant mariner class. The Chamber also facilitated better services that helped build up the Maltese trade. The Chamber always strongly defended the interests of merchant shipping against those of the Admiralty and at one point also decided to construct a floating dock in the Grand Harbour.

The Chamber was always a very small section of the population and it continued to accompany the Maltese population through the years, through World War II, through Independence, through the difficult Mintoff years, through the 1990s and through accession in the EU and in the euro.

John Consiglio writes about many of the some 60 presidents the Chamber had in its 165 years of existence from the first president, Agostino Portelli (1848 - 1851) right down to Joseph N. Tabone (1985-86, 1989 - 1990, and 1993).

I note a certain amnesia in the book, not just this article, as regards Tancred Tabone (2011 - 2013).

Apart from being a centre for the transaction of matters pertaining to business, the Borsa was also an informal space where persons in business could get together to socialize and develop their business contacts and connections. Vicki Ann Cremona writes about the history of the Borsa as a social club, as in fact it was too, along with a café and a restaurant. At one point, the club also served for preparatory meetings for the celebration of St Paul's feast (although the Borsa is in St Dominic parish).

In 1857, during the inauguration, a grand ball was held. It would seem there was a certain amount of confusion both as regards the invitations for the inauguration and even more about the invitations for the ball.

The Borsa frequently was the venue for official dinners with a variety of guests, such as the Turkish consul, the outgoing Governor, and even the Archbishop of Malta (Mgr Gonzi) and even Princess Elizabeth  (1949).

Apart from these official events, the Borsa was also known for its "the dansant" and also for its children Carnival parties. The adults too had their Carnival balls which were renowned and which attracted the top levels of Malta. In time, the Borsa Carnival balls lost appeal and were replaced by other venues.

Alfred Zahra de Domenico and Michael Mallia provide a very useful antidote to these social pages.

Mr Zahra de Domenico was secretary general in 1981-82 and later vice-president. Mr Mallia was president of the Malta Employers Association and an active member of the Chamber at around the same time.

The two provide a graphic and detailed account of the Chamber under massive attack by the Labour administration, threatened with being taken over and replaced.

Acting Prime Minister Joseph Cassar declared in Parliament that the government would not issue the necessary permits for the holding of the annual Trade Fair. Then MLP president Leo Brincat suggested that the government should cease to recognise constituted business bodies unless these declared expressly whether or not they had attended a meeting called by Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami prior to his call for civil disobedience on Mnarja Day.

The Chamber stopped being consulted by government especially with regards to initiatives that affected its members, local manufacturers and importers. Government then appointed selected individuals to act as contact persons, thus bypassing the Chamber's structures.

On one occasion, a Chamber member, a leading firm of car importers received a letter from their principal in Eastern Europe in which he told them that a person close to the Labour Party had written to tell them he was going to be appointed minister in the next Labour government and asked the company to change its agent in Malta to a company he named. Unfortunately, we are not told the name of this person.

In 1982, things came to a head in the country as a whole and in the government-Chamber relations in particular. Prime Minister Dom Mintoff twice attacked the Chamber in speeches in Parliament, even claiming the Chamber was being bribed by the British government and the Intelligence Service.

The Chamber prepared itself for the worst. A parallel structure was set up and premises in Valletta were identified from which to continue operating in case of a government takeover. The historical records were taken to a safe place and certain paintings were removed and sent "for restoration".

On a wider level, the government onslaught led to the coming together of six private enterprise bodies setting up COPE, the Confederation of Private Enterprise.

Unfortunately, Mr Mallia says, COPE was wound down as soon as Labour lost the election in 1987 until, quite recently, the Chamber joined the Federation of Industries.

David Felice and (as mentioned) Theresa Vella speak about the Exchange buildings. The middle years of the 19th century saw three important building projects in Valletta - the Royal Opera House, the Market Building in Merchants Street and the Borsa.

The Valletta Market building of masonry and iron, reminds us of Crystal Palace in London and even more the Les Halles in Paris.

The Borsa was designed by Maltese architect Giuseppe Bonavia, a radical departure from the Mannerist and Baroque architecture of Valletta, reminiscent of classical architecture such as that embodied by Robert Adam.

The second part of the book is an analysis of the portrait gallery of the Chamber, with some articles written by the late Emmanuel Fiorentino and the others by Krystle Farrugia.

The paintings are almost all by well-known Maltese artists such as Giuseppe Cali, Edward Caruana Dingli, Willie Apap, Giorgio Preca, Aldo Micallef Grimaud, Esprit Barthet, Raymond Pitre and others.

Lastly, Ms Vella studies three outstanding landscape paintings showing the city of Valletta and its two harbours in the early years of the 18th century while Charlene Vella writes about the Malta Chamber Art Collection including paintings such as Willie Apap's Sacred Heart, John Borg Manduca, Trevor Borg, Madeleine Gera, Ebba von Ferzen Balzan, Alexia Coppini and others.


Ed. Giovanni Bonello

La Borsa

The People - The Building - The History

A Malta Chamber Publication


193 pp

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