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Friday, August 21, 2015

Renaissance Cities--Mdina, Malta

Malta's ancient capital of Mdina, now and then.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Mdina's St. Paul's Cathedral, 2001.
My wife and I first visited the island of Malta in 2001, followed again by a visit in 2013. Having spent two days on what is, actually, a relatively small island smack in the middle of the Mediterranean some fifty miles south of Sicily, I gained something of a "feel" for both the "now" and "then" of the country. In thinking about the Renaissance era as to do with Malta, it's important to realize that, though the island has one of the longest continuous histories of anywhere in the vast, inland sea, most of the important events shaping the culture, art, architecture, and people of the islands of Malta (there are several) came after the Renaissance. The nation's capital today, Valetta, was little more than a coastal fortification during the that time. The capital city (if you can stretch the definition of city a little), was the fortified hilltop near the center of the island called Mdina (top), seen pretty much as it looked at the time. It's been (and is being) extremely well preserved. No automobiles are permitted inside its medieval walls.

The Beheading of Saint John (the Baptist), 1607, Caravaggio.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, Mdina.
At the center of Mdina is St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by the Italian architect Lorenzo Gafa and built between 1697 and 1702 (a remarkably short time as cathedral construction goes). Actually, it was a rebuilding job replacing a Norman era cathedral destroyed in an earthquake in 1693. It's in a Baroque style which means, despite its location in the ancient capital city, it dates from well after the Renaissance. There's also a co-cathedral in Valetta designed by Maltese military architect, Girolamo Cassar, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, which is older (1573-78), much larger, and far more ornate. Inside you can view Caravaggio's The Beheading of Saint John (above) from 1607, painted for the Knights of Malta during a time when Caravaggio was a fugitive from Rome. Incidentally, Caravaggio was forced to flee Malta the following year after yet another felonious altercation for which he has become notorious.

Malta today, the most densely populated country in the European Union,
with Valetta, the union's smallest capital.
The Island of Malta has long been blessed by its centralized location along maritime trade routes both east and west as well as north and south. It has several excellent harbors and a warm (if somewhat dry) climate reminding one of north Africa. However, these "blessings" have also turned out to be something of a curse. Archaeologist tell us that the island was first settled by Neolithic hunters and farmers about 5,200 BC. The Greeks and Phoenicians came nearly five thousand years later. They were the first to inhabit the area around present day Mdina. In the centuries that followed, there came the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines (for four centuries), the Goths, the Vandals, the Muslims, the Normans, the Germans, the French, the Spanish, Napoleon Bonaparte, and finally the English from 1814 until the country gained independence in 1964. The British painter, J.M.W. Turner contributed his impression of the Valetta's Grand Harbor (below). Today, Malta bears a great number of lingering cultural attributes resulting from 150 years of British rule (except that they drive on the right-hand side of the road).

J.M.W. Turner's depiction of The Grand Harbour (Valetta)
Jean Parisot de Valette
As might be expected due to the island's long history of foreign rulers, Malta has an even longer history of military strife. Twice it has been subject to prolonged sieges, the first by the Ottomans in 1565, the second by the Axis Powers during WW II during which the city of Valetta was heavily bombed by Mussolini's Italian (German) bombers in an attempt to neutralize its use as an Allied naval coaling station (below). Valetta was named for the French Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean Parisot de Valette, who withstood the Ottoman siege, and founded the city on the northeast coast of the island. Although Valette and the Knights of Malta left an indelible mark on the island of Malta during the Renaissance, the same could be said for Napoleon, who vanquished the Knights as he stopped by to conquer the island on his way to conquering the Egyptians in 1798. Napoleon reformed the national administration with the creation of a Government Commission, created twelve municipalities, a public finance administration, abolished all feudal rights and privileges, abolished slavery, granted freedom to all Turkish and Jewish slaves, established a judicial family code, established public education, and then sailed off for Egypt leaving a substantial garrison in Malta. All this he did in just six days. Presumably he rested on the seventh day.

Bomb-damaged Kingsway (now Republic Street) in Valletta during the Siege of Malta, 1942.
The Blue Lagoon, on the island of Comino.
Quite apart from the vestiges of Caravaggio, today there is much art on the island of Malta. Native artist, Cedric Galea Pirotta, whose 2005 watercolor pen and ink wash of Medina (below), marks him as among the best works full time capturing the rich architectural details of the many cultures which have crisscrossed the island over the centuries. Malta is also famous today for its art glass industry which feeds the needs of tourists and collectors around the world (bottom). And if all this fails to intrigue you, there's also the watery grottos of the Blue Lagoon (above, left) to be found on the tiny island of Comino. (Been there, done that; I was not impressed.)

Mdina, 2005, by Maltese artist, Cedric Galea Pirotta

The fine art of Mdina Glass, founded in 1968 by
British artists, Eric Dobson and Michael Harris.


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