The Royal Opera House
At the entrance of Valletta, next to the new House of Parliament, stand the ruins of the Royal Opera House. This ‘Teatro dell’Opera’ was built in 1861 on the site of a demolished house, known as ‘Casa La Giornata’, the residence of the Turcopilier of the Auberge d’Angleterre (English Auberge).
There were several reasons which led to the building of a new Opera House at Valletta. The Manoel Theatre had become too small to house an ever increasing number of people. The Manoel’s stage became too small to stage certain type of operas such as those of Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini and Verdi. The number of tourists visiting the island was increasing, some wanted to visit this theatre for an opera night. The need for a new bigger theatre was being felt and an English architect Edward M. Barry was chosen for the project. The facade of the Opera House was typically Corinthian and it had a colonnade on all its sides. Its cost amounted to £60,000 which was a huge sum of money at the time.
An attraction of this theatre was the salon, which was placed over the entrance hall. This hall was lit by five large windows. The theatre’s painting-room and the workshops were on the roof. As the Opera House was one of Valletta’s attractions, the local government tried its best to manage this ‘musical heaven’. The day to day running was left in the hands of a committee which was appointed by the government of the day. By time the new theatre started to be very popular with both the Maltese and the families of the British servicemen who were stationed in Malta. The village elite used to dress up in their best attire and hire a ‘karozzin’ (Maltese traditional horse-driven coach) to take them to Valletta to watch an opera at this theatre.
The Royal Opera House opened on the night of 9 October, 1866, with Bellini’s famous opera ‘I Puritani’. Month after month, year after year, the opera seasons went on uninterruptedly, even during the First World War. There was only one exception; that is a brief interruption from 1874 to 1877 following a fire. This incident had destroyed the theatre’s interior fittings and decorations. It was reopened on 11 October, 1877, with Verdi’s new opera Aida. The theatre became more beautiful with boxes in five tiers and a pit which could accommodate more than 1,000 persons.
The Second World War brought the end of a long story of famous operas, composers’ visits and resonant voices. During this great war, one direct hit from an air attack brought the theatre to its knees. There were many attempts to rebuild the Royal Opera House. In the end it was decided to convert the site into an open-air theatre known as Pjazza Teatru Rjal.
The Sacra Infermeria
The Mediterranean Conference Centre at Valletta was built by the Knights as a major hospital, known as the ‘Sacra Infermeria’. It was considered to be one of the major buildings in the new capital city. Its construction began in 1574 according to plans by Gerolamo Cassar.
At first the Sacra Infermeria included a courtyard and two main wards built at right angle to each other. The Old Ward or Great Ward was built along the St Lazarus curtain overlooking the Grand Harbour. The smaller ward was known either as Saletta or Small Ward. The other rooms were used for patients with specialised cases or contagious diseases. These rooms were reached through a covered and balustrated passage.
A decision was taken to enlarge the building. This occurred during the grand masterships of Rafael and Nicolas Cotoner. The large ward was extended and became known as ‘Sala Grande’. In the old ward, niches were created. Each niche provided facilities for two patients. These were used as latrines or as patients’ dressing rooms. Other additions were made to the building such as spaces for the new pharmacy and the residential quarters for the hospital staff. A series of internal staircases connected the two floors and the basements.
The beds of the sick were placed inside the halls and it was also here where the knights used to serve the poor sick persons in silver items. The drugs were kept in majolica jars made in Caltagirone (Sicily). The walls were covered by woollen tapestries in winter and paintings by Mattia Preti in summer. The patients with acute cases were placed along the right side of the ward while those with chronic cases along the opposite wall. The ceiling was covered with timber supported by wooden corbels.
Under the ‘Sala Grande’ there is an underground ward known as ‘Sala del Magazzeno Grande’ (Grand Magazine Ward known now as La Valette Hall) where galley slaves (buonavoglie) and sailors who needed hospitalisation were kept. Part of this area served as storage too. Its roof is cross vaulted with bosses of coats-of-arms of Grand Masters Jean L’Evesque de Cassiere and the Cotoner brothers. Below this ward there is another basement with plain ceiling supported by stone arches springing from the ground.
During French and British rules this building served many needs. It served as a military hospital, Police Headquarters, for theatrical productions, a school, a general elections vote counting centre and an examination centre. It became known as Knightshall. It was badly damaged during the Second World War, AND remained in A dilapidated state for many years. Then it was decided to adapt this historic and architectural gem to the needs of a conference centre. Its halls have been cleverly adapted to offer an ideal venue as a modern conference centre.
The Mediterranean Conference Centre is made up of nine halls. The La Valette Hall is used for banqueting. The main court yard was turned into a theatre (Republic Hall) with a seating capacity for 1,000. The Mediterranean Conference Centre also houses an audio-visual presentation – ‘The Malta Experience’ and a permanent exhibition of the Order of St John.
The Manoel Theatre
During the times of the Knights, plays and theatrical productions were generally held in the great halls of the auberges. Valletta was in need of a court theatre. This problem was finally solved when Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena acquired a site from the Priory of Navarre for the sum of 2,186 scudi.
It was modelled after the plan of the contemporary Palermo theatre ‘for the honest recreation of the people’. The design is attributed to Romano Carapecchia. Work on the theatre started immediately after the signing of the deed of purchase and it was completed in the short period of ten months. The theatre was given a very simple facade. It had special accommodation for the actors who were generally brought over from foreign countries at the expense of the impresario.
The theatre opened its doors on 19 January, 1732, with a performance of Merope by Maffei. Two well known impresarios were Melchiorre Prevost Lanarelli and Giovanni Le Brun. From 1768 to 1770 the impresario was a woman, Natalia Farrugia. During the times of the Knights, the Grand Master appointed a person who used to supervise the management and the theatrical productions.
In 1783 the theatre underwent some modifications and redecoration. Natale Marini sent Comm. Scozzini, one of the commissioners of the theatre, a plan and a model of the interior. This included the stage too, as well as scenery and illumination. When the model was displayed before the Inquisitor and many senior members of the Order (Grand Crosses) and Knights, their comments were very positive, so much so that the commissioners decided to add a further sum of money as bonus to the 49 scudi requested by Marini. The top balcony and the boxes which are housed near the stage were added during the early nineteenth century.
This theatre includes a museum. It houses a collection of early librettos, a portrait of the theatre founder and some machines used for theatrical productions. One of the attractions of this museum is a rotating display of stage costumes drawn from the theatre’s large collection. A case in point is a scarlet costume and accessories which were used for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. Other beautiful costumes include a purple dress used for Giordano’s opera Fedora and a girl’s costume used during a nineteenth century pantomime Alice in Wonderland. Both the museum and the theatre are open to the public.
In former days, Carnival festivities started with the ‘Parata’ on Carnival Saturday. This consists of an ancient Maltese sword-dance which commemorates the Maltese victory over the Turks in 1565. It comprises of a company of young men or children dressed up in gay ribbons and armed with wooden swords. The dancers represent either Christian or Turkish soldiers.
The members of the company form two concentric rings of an equal number of dancers representing the two different ‘armies’. The dance is directed by a leader who blows a whistle and strikes his own sword against the first one of the opposing group. The dancers of the outer ring start to move to the left three paces at a time, striking the sword of the dancers in the inner circle to the beat of a bass drum. While this is going on there would also be the playing of a violin and a bagpipe.
When the dance reaches the end a girl who represents the ‘Għarusa tal-Parata’ (the bride of the Parata) is lifted shoulder-high. This young girl will be splendidly dressed up in a white dress and a red cloak – the colours of the national flag. She also carries a small dagger. She is carried around the square as a sign of the Christian victory.
Under the Knights, the ‘Parata’ was considered to be a very serious activity. People eagerly awaited the performance of the dance. They knew quite well that if there was no ‘Parata’ there would be no Carnival. This created the need for the dancers to wait outside the Palace of the Grandmaster (today the Palace of the President) until they received permission for the celebration of Carnival. It was the custom for the Knight Grand Cross who had been last appointed to call on the Grand Master to remind him about this permission. When the request was granted then a ‘bandu’ proclaiming the opening of Carnival was immediately issued.
Once the permission reached the dancers they would start to perform the dance on the Palace Square (Piazza San Giorgio). Similar dances were then performed in front of the houses of wealthy persons who were likely to pay the dancers for their trouble.
During the times of the Knights, there was a custom of hanging a stone from the ‘Castellania’ or the Palace of Justice balcony (today the offices of the Medical and Health Ministry) as a sign that justice had been suspended for the three days of Carnival. It is recorded that in 1752 the Knight Grand Cross failed to appear before the Grand Master. The people started to protest but he was warned in time to make the amends by obtaining the Grand Master’s permission before any acts of violence could start.
New Year Day’s Lunch
In former days, on New Year’s Day (l-Istrina), the Maltese used to give money gifts to the young members of the family. The well-to-do families also used to give money gifts to their domestic servants as well as to other people who rendered them a service throughout the year.
The Maltese used to give great importance to New Year’s Day lunch. In the past, many Maltese preferred to have fish for this meal on New Year’s Day. Fish was considered, by the Maltese, to be an augury of good luck. Whilst trying to include fish, they also tried to exclude hotch-potch soup from this lunch as they believed that those persons who ate this type of soup would grow ham bones for the rest of the year. Another belief which concerns this day’s lunch is a warning for those who eat cabbages on this special day. According to this belief, these people would groan for a whole year.
Family members were expected to be present at lunch-time on this particular day. It was held that those who absented themselves would die by the end of the same year.
The importance of fish on the first day of the year died out. Due to British influence, fish lost its place of honour. It was taken over by the turkey. New Year Day’s lunch became very similar to that of Christmas Day. It included soup and ‘timpana’ (a locally made pasta dish). Turkey was served with potatoes and vegetables. White Maltese wine dominated the New Year Day’s lunch and for sweets there were either Christmas pudding and mince pies or Maltese sufflè. Nuts also accompanied the day’s sweets.
Usually there was a guest or two invited for this special lunch. There was a custom among Maltese families, to invite a brother’s or a sisters’ family for lunch for Christmas day and this brother or sister and their partner would reciprocate this gesture by inviting the host family for New Year’s Day. Unmarried siblings were also invited for this lunch who would usually turn up accompanied by a widowed mother or father.
When the guests arrived, they used to give money gifts to the children of the host family, who placed these gifts inside a wooden box. The children were expected to wait till lunch was over and guests to leave, to open their wooden boxes and count the money they would have received.
The sanctuary of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu
A large sanctuary stands on a hillock in the locality known as Ta’ Għammar, half-way between the Gozitan villages of Għarb and Għasri. This sanctuary has a particular story to tell. It started with the building of a small chapel by the Gentili family, dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. Around 1592 this chapel became the property of Filippinu Gauci who repaired it and commissioned a new titular painting. The chapel started to be know as ‘Santa Marija ta’ Pinu’ (Pinu is a name which orginated from Filippinu).
It was rumoured that a certain spinster from Għarb was invited by Our Lady to frequent this chapel in order to pray. One morning this woman was rather late and decided to recite her prayers while proceeding on her way to the chapel. As she approached the chapel’s footpath she heard a voice coming apparently from within the chapel: ‘Come! Come!’ She paused for a while and the voice continued: ‘Come today, for you will not be able to come back for a whole year.’ She went to fetch the key and entered the chapel. The voice continued: ’Recite three Hail Marys in honour of the three days that my body rested in the tomb.’
Many people got to know about this story and rumours started to be added. The church authorities wanted to put an end to these rumours published the true story in a diocesan newspaper. People started visiting this chapel. Priests began celebrating Mass from under a canopy which was erected in front of the chapel. As prayers were answered by Our Lady the offerings increased. Many holy pictures of the titular painting were printed. People started taking some oil from the lamp which was lit in front of the effigy. When they returned home they would anoint their sick with this oil.
The Gozitan Bishop decided to build a church next to this chapel. Its foundation stone was laid in 1920. The sanctuary edifice was completed after 16 years. Today this sanctuary is the main Marian church in Gozo. It is still visited by many people asking for the intervention of the Mother of God on their behalf. One of the visitors was Pope John Paul II who said Mass on the sanctuary parvis. In the ceremony he placed a halo of golden stars studded with diamonds around the head of the Marian effigy.
The knights of St John built long kilometres of fortified walls. They also built palaces and ‘auberges’ as places of residence. On the other hand, they seemed not to be keen to build castles. Throughout the years they only built one at Boschetto, a few kilometres away from Rabat/Mdina – Verdala Castle. The Maltese nobles built a few but only one is on a large scale – Selmun Castle.
The Grand Master, as head of the Order of St John, had his own castle – Verdala Castle. It was built during the time of Cardinal Grand Master Huges Loubenx de Verdalle as a summer palace. This castle is on high ground to benefit from cool summer breezes. It was built according to the design of Girolamo Cassar in 1586. It has a square plan. Next to it there is its chapel with its titular painting, a work of Mattia Preti.
This edifice is three storeys high and its corners are in the form of a tower. In case of enemy attack, from its rooftop, messages could be sent to the Valletta Magisterial Palace (today the President’s Palace). Its major attractions are a series of paintings depicting the life of Grand Master de Verdalle, executed by Filippo Paladini and its elliptical staircase. The castle is used by the Head of State as a summer residence. As sometimes this palace is opened to the public, I suggest that you ask the Tourist Information Office whether you could visit this historic place of interest.
The other castle was built on the plans of Maltese architect Domenico Cachia, around the year 1786. Its design was influenced by eighteenth-century architectural trends in Europe for fortified villas. It was built at the expense of a Maltese noble family. This castle stands on Mellieħa ridge. At its corners there are bastioned turrets. This castle is famous for its imposing hall as well as its banqueting room. It is worthwhile to mention that later this castle was used as a residence of the British petrol firm’s (BP) chairman residence. Subsequent it was turned into a hotel, a restaurant and tea rooms for a number of years.
The Floriana major memorials
Floriana, Valletta’s suburb, is full of public gardens and memorials. The main memorials are assembled along the main route – Floriana’s St Anne Street – and before Valletta’s entrance area.
As you pass by Porte des Bombes on your right you will find the Dante Alighieri memorial. This was erected on the initiative of the Società Dante Alighieri. The monument is based on the winning design of Vincent Apap. It shows this Italian poet standing on rocks while in deep meditations. The pedestal is a rarity as it consists of 3 roughly cut boulders, symbolising Paradiso (paradise) Purgatorio (purgatory) and L’ Infermo (hell) the three ‘divisions’ of Dante Alighieri’s greatest literacy work – La Divina Comedia.
A few meters away along the same street, there is the Manoel de Vilhena Memorial. This monument was originally placed in the ‘Piazza d’Armi’ of Fort Manoel on Manoel Island. The monument was erected on the initiative of Fra Felician de Mont Savasse, a knight of the Order of St John. The figure was cast in bronze in the Order’s foundry by Aloisio Bouchut. The monument was relocated first in Valletta in ‘Piazza Tesoreria’ and later at the entrance of the Maglio Gardens. In 1989 it was relocated again to its present location in Pope John XXIII Square to make way for the Independence Monument.
At the end of St Anne Street there is the War Memorial. It was erected according to the design of Louis Naudi. This square-faced obelisk was constructed in Maltese lower globigerina limestone. At the bottom there are 4 commemorative plaques. The obelisk is a good example of British pre-war military and colonial art.
The Air Force Memorial is found at the left of the War Memorial. It consists of a column which is topped with a gilded eagle. At the bottom of this monument, there are circular plaques bearing the names of the fallen Air Forces heroes. It was designed by Charles Wheeler and Hubert Worthington. This monument is reminiscent of the pro-Anglican post war period. It is worthwhile to mention that every year wreath laying ceremonies takes places in front of these two memorials, in the presence of the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and other dignitaries.
Next to this monument there is the Christ the King Memorial. Designed by Antonio Sciortino to mark the beginning of the 20th century, the 1900 Holy Year dedicated to Christ the Redeemer and the Eucharistic Congress of 1913. This congress was held in Malta. The bronze works were cast in the Rome Buongirolami foundry. The central figure represents Christ in a moving pose while the other figure represents Malta, in a veneration act. In former times this monument was the starting point of pilgrimages which used to end at St John’s Co-Cathedral.
In front of the Maglio Gardens’ entrance there is the Independence Memorial. It was erected in 1989 showing a female figure representing Malta being unwrapped from a big, long bandage.
The crib in Malta
Christmas traditions in Malta seem to be a combination of lay and semi-religious manifestations. The crib is one of the main semi-religious activities. Some folklore writers think that the first crib was introduced in Malta in 1617/18 by Blackfriars in their Rabat church. This crib was lit up on Christmas Eve with earthenware lamps burning inside paper lanterns.
Cribs were later introduced in state hospitals. Then the locals started producing their own for their homes. Maltese crib figures started to be made out of clay. Only the figure of the Infant Jesus and sheep were made out of wax. The Maltese created two types of cribs – small ones (know locally as ‘il-grotta’) and bigger ones. One of these crib makers was Maestro Saverio Laferla. His fame was widespread all over the islands, so much so that an eighteenth-century diarist entered the following comment for the 19 January 1761: ‘the death has occurred of Maestro Saverio Laferla, a barber, acclaimed for his skills in making cribs and statues of papier-mâché.’
In the 1870s we come across a large-scale mechanised crib at Ħal Qormi. It seems that this crib created such a sensation that 7 years later there was another one at Tas-Sliema. By the turn of the twentieth century the large-scale cribs became so popular with the Maltese that we find several references to them in the local press.
Nowadays we find cribs in many Maltese homes. Schools and other public institutions such as old people’s homes and hospitals also have their own crib. The crib’s popularity increased due to the activities of two crib clubs – one in Malta and another in Gozo. Both clubs organise a crib exhibition a few days before Christmas Day.
Clay crib figures have become popular again. We find two types of crib figures – the Maltese and Palestine types. The Maltese figures are dressed up in local costumes while the Palestine type wears biblical attire. The main figures of the Virgin and St Joseph as well as the three Magi (sometimes referred to as ‘kings’) are always dressed up in biblical style. Many Maltese open their crib to the public. Some of theses cribs are exhibited in garages and small chapels. The local press usually features some addresses to help both locals and tourists visit these cribs.
When Maltese bells peal
A characteristic of the Maltese Islands is the pealing of bells. These are heard in old parts of towns and villages especially when one is passing by a major church. The visitor may wonder at the different peals and frequency of ringing.
The best two localities, famous for ringing bells, are Ħal Qormi (St George’s) and Birkirkara (St Helen’s). Their bells have kept the traditional rule of informing the faithful of events occurring in the locality.
The bells start the day very early. At around 4.30 am the ‘Pater Noster’ is rung with 33 strokes. 33 stands for the number of years Our Lord spent on earth. The other three main ringing times are at 8.00 am, midday and sunset. Many people associated these ringing times with a prayer called ‘Angelus’. The day ends with the ringing of the last bells an hour after the evening ‘Angelus’. This is referred to as ‘De Profundis’. In some localities, their bells ring again another hour after ‘De Profundis’ to remind the faithful that the first hour of the night had already passed.
The celebration of Mass has its particular pealing. Mass is announced by a few strokes of a bell fifteen minutes before it starts. This gives enough time for the faithful to leave home and gather in church. Another particular pealing occurs when a church is elevated to the dignity of a Collegiate. In this case the bells ring a two-toned peal for fifteen minutes to inform everyone that the members of the church’s Chapter will gather for matins and vespers.
In former days, the church bells used to peal to announce that someone in the parish was dying. This started by nine strokes which were followed by three strokes every hour until the passing bell was rung. The passing bell was followed by the death bell. These last two types of bells are still very common in old towns and villages. There was also a special bell peal called ‘Gloria’ when an infant died.
Feast days and sermons had their special pealing. On a festive season, before High Mass and vespers of the titular feast the church bells ring in four periods. When the feast is of secondary importance, the bells ring in three periods of ringing. When there is a special sermon the church bells ring a few minutes before it starts.