Entries tagged with “Valletta”.

If there is time for just one museum visit in Malta or Valletta I recommend it to be in the National Museum of Archeology.

(video source heartofmalta)

Located on the Republic Street, the 5th Avenue of Valletta which divides the city grid into two almost symmetrical halves, the museum is hosted by one of the beautiful palaces built by the architect of the co-cathedral Gerolama Cassan, the Auberge de Provence which was hosting the Provencal knights when coming into Malta. The palace was renovated by the end of the last century and the entrance hall and its beautiful painted ceiling is a great example of the architecture of the palaces of the first period after the foundation of the city.

auberge de Provence - entry hall

The collection of the museum covers several historical periods, however the megalithic finds section is by far the richest and the most extensive, with both a comprehensive and well documented timeline of the ancient history of the island, as well as a richness of objects and artifacts that document each period, plus a few exceptional top findings, among the most exquisite objects of such kind in the world.

Ghar Dalam animal heads

The first populations in the island were the agricultural and shepherds inhabitants who left the artifacts at Ghar Dalam from the period between 5200 and 4500 BC. They were related to the inhabitants of Sicily from the same Neolithic period, and actually objects found on site show that they were navigating or part of a cross-Mediterranean commerce that put them in contact with other civilizations of the same period.

red Skorba figurine

The immediate next period is well characterized by findings at Skorba. The figurines from the Red Skorba period (4400 – 4100 BC) are the first representations of human bodies found here, they are very similar to the Cyclades figurines again indicating a possible commerce and cultural interference, and were probably religious cult object.

fragment from the Hypogeum

One of the most famous Megalithic objectives to visit on the island of Malta is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum with its monument and underground cemetery. It accommodates a limited number of visitors each day, and the waiting queue was a few weeks even in the out-of-season period when we visited Malta. Luckily the National Museum of Archeology has documentation and a few artifacts brought from that place that we could see and learn about it.

Hagar Quim Altar

The Hagar Quim Altar is another example of a valuable object, brought in this case from a place that we had already visited. The form and dimensions of the altar are very similar to ones in works by Brancusi, and it left me wondering if the Romanian had maybe seen photos of the monuments and made me see in a different perspective some of his stone works.

animal representation

The period of maximal development of the temples civilizations in Malta bring up some of the most representative objects of artistic expression of the stone and bronze ages. Representations of animals – mostly domestic as there were few wild beasts on the small surface of the island are typical for a culture that made of growing animals one of the principal sources of living.


Back to human representation, some of the heads of the Temples period (4000 – 2500 BC) are superb.

standing statues

Many of the human representations were however having cult destination as are the standing statues from Tarxien and other places which presumably are fertility goddesses.

seated statues

A similar group of seated statues drew my attention as a proof that Botero did not really invent anything.

The Sleeping Lady

The absolute masterpiece of the Maltese Temple period art of The Sleeping Lady, discovered in the Hypogeum. It is interpreted representation of Death, the Eternal Sleep, but can also be viewed as a precursor of the Goya’s Majas and other reclined women portraits in the history of art.

The Venus of Malta

The Venus of Malta discovered at Hagar Quin is another representative piece of work, of an astonishing realism. Well, it may look different than Venus of Milo, or maybe beauty standards changed in the thousands of years in-between.

sarcophagi from Tarxien

The last great period of Megalithic art is the one represented by works from Tarxien, around 2500 BC. After that time the great period of the megalithic temples ends abruptly. The causes are not clear, maybe a natural catastrophe, maybe diseases, maybe over-exploitation of the natural resources. Ancient history of Malta ends here in any case, and so did our visit through the most interesting sections of this beautiful and recommended museum in Valletta.

I love to visit art museums. Big ones and small ones. Famous and anonymous. In the big metropolis of the world or in remote places. Visiting an art museum (at least 0ne) is an almost mandatory part of a trip, of my exploration of a new place. When I am in a lesser known museum I look for the local artists, I try to learn as much as I can about the history of the institution, and about the role of art in the life of the place.

The National Museum of Fine Arts

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta is located not far from the gate of the city, in a beautiful baroque palace located on South Street. It is one of the oldest mansions of the city, built in 1571. During the years of the British rule it hosted the Admiralty House and Winston Churchill is said to have been its guest.  It became home of the most important art institution in Malta in 1974.

(video by PhoeniciaHotel)

The Museum of Valletta was founded in 1903, and its fine arts section became the National Museum of Fine Arts and moved in the location on South Street in 1974. It was the dream and deed Vincenzo Bonello who built the collection and led the fine arts section for much of the century. Unfortunately he did not live to see it in the beautiful home today. A short film about the man and the museum he created is available on YouTube.

inside the museum

The collection of the museum is strong in works that are inspired by Caravaggio, although no work of the master who spent two years in Malta (1607 to 1609) can be found here. We can however see works of Guido Reni or Mattia Preti -  the latest with an impressive gathering of Bible inspired art which can be seen at http://www.maltaart.com/pretismall/html/list_of_works.html

Maltese Prie-Dieu

Before getting to the paintings that seemed to be more interesting although out of the beaten path here is a beautiful piece of religious furniture from the 17th century, called a ‘prie-Dieu’ – you can imagine the knight or the noble man or lady kneeling in prayer and keeping his Bible (and maybe other artifacts) in its drawers.

the crystal sword

Two beautiful pieces of arms that could never be used in war are exposed at the first floor of the museum, near the superb spiral staircase. These are a sword and a dagger made of crystal, with exquisite ornaments that were a present by king Philip the 5th of Spain to the Knights of St. John, in sign of the special relation of friendship and protection between the kingdom of Spain and the island of the knights.

Le Valentin - Judith and Holofornes

One of the most caravaggian works in the museum belongs to Valentin de Boulogne (Le Valentin) is ‘Judith and Holofornes’ which matches the painting of Caravaggio which I had seen in Rome a few days earlier at the retrospective at Quirinale.

Jusepe de Ribera - St. Francis of Paola

Jusepe de Ribera also known as Lo Spagnoletto is also considered a disciple of Caravaggio. I like his style sometimes called ‘Tenebrist’ and works who seem to me to be a balancing act between the darkness of the Inquisition-haunted Spain he came from and the ideals of Renaissance of the Italy he lived and created much of his life. The portrait of St. Francis of Paola that can be found in the museum in Valletta is fascinating.

Venetian School - Flowers in a Vase

I am no big fan of floral arrangements paintings, but this painting from a 18th century Venetian school master drew my attention.

Louis Ducros - View of the Great Harbor

Local landscapes take a deserved place in the collection. Above is a painting of the Great Harbour of Valletta as painted by the Swiss Louis Ducros at the beginning of the 20th century.

Eugenio Maccagnani - Leah

Out of the more recent collection of art here is a piece by Italian sculptor Eugenio Maccagnani from the beginning of the 20th century.

facade of St. John's Co-Cathedral

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is not only the most visited tourist attraction on the island, but also one of the most beautiful churches and religious monuments in Europe. It is located in the center of the city of Valletta and was built between the years 1573 and 1578, the years of the foundation of the city following the Grand Siege of Malta. Its austere exterior reminds a military fortification, and this is no coincidence. The architect who was commissioned with designing and building the church was Gerolamo Cassar. Descendant of a well known Maltese family, Cassar was a knight, a military architect and an inventor of military machines during the siege. His architectural contributions to the shape took by the city of Valletta include beside the Co-Cathedral the Palace of the Grand Masters and several of the knights auberges – actually palaces that are today part of the Valletta original look.

the Co-Cathedral Interior

The simple exterior makes even stronger the impact of the viewer with the rich decoration, opulence and elegance of the Baroque style interior. Much of the design of the interior is attributed to master Mattia Preti, who also authored some of the paintings in the chapels and ceiling. The big WOW reaction of many of the visitors is by no means exaggerated. Some of the relief and decorations are not built separately and applied to the structure, but carved directly in the limestone which is the material of building of choice in Malta, the church being no exception.

tombstones in the Co-Cathedral floor

It is not only the walls but also the floor of the co-cathedral that impresses the visitors. Inlaid marble tombs cover the almost the whole surfaces, and each of the tombs is a work of art by itself, inviting admiration for their beauty and reflection about the passing nature of life and things in this world.



On the two sides of the church there are several splendid chapels, each one richly decorated with paintings, sculptures and carvings. Eight of them are dedicated to the eight langues that were used by the knights of St. John coming from the different nations of Europe.

a Grand Master's Tomb

Also of a great beauty are some of the tombs of the Grand Masters and bishops who are buried in the church. For more than two centuries between the inauguration until the occupation of the island by Napoleon’s army the church hosted the throne of the Grand Master. During the British rule this was taken over by the governor, and now it belongs to the bishop, who shares his time between this church and the one in Mdina, hence the designation of the church as a co-cathedral.

Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio - source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_Co-Cathedral

The museum of the cathedral hosts several remarkable pieces of art as well as objects and documents related to the functions and history of the building. The cornerstones of the collection are beyond any doubt the two works of Caravaggio painted during the artist’s stay here in 1607 and 1608. Running away from Rome where he had killed a man in a street fight, Caravaggio arrived here and was made in a short time knight (quite an exception as he was no soldier and not of noble origin) and commissioned to paint several works among which the two kept nowadays in the cathedral museum. He soon got himself again into trouble, fought a fellow knight, was arrested and imprisoned, to escape in 1608 from prison and from the island. He was promptly expelled from the order. Seeing the two works at their original place was a beautiful continuation of the visit I had paid a few days ago at the great Caravaggio retrospective at Quirinale in Rome.

St. Jerome Writing by Caravaggio - source http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/caravaggio.html

The co-cathedral has a beautiful web site - http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/

Whoever knows me well also knows about my passion for visiting and photographing lighthouses whenever and wherever I have the occasion. I could not miss the opportunity during my vacation in Malta, a place which I suspected may have some beautiful such constructions, related to the naval history of this island located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean.

St. Elmo and Ricasoli

The first relevant place that I encountered was in the city of Valletta. A couple of lighthouses mark the entrance in the harbor on the East side of the peninsula. One is located on extremity of Fort St. Elmo. The present structure dates from 1908 according to http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/lighthouse/mlt.htm, but I suspect that there may have been a lighthouse there for quite long time before, maybe since the 16th century when the city was built. Oposite to it, at the extremity of the breakwater on the Three Cities side one can see the lighthouse of Ricasoli, built the same year. Both are active, and can be admired and photographed from almost any place on the East side of Valletta.

Delimara Point

In order to see the other two lighthouses we had to rent a car which was an experience by itself in a place where they drive on the correct side of the road. Delimara Point is located on the South East extremity of the island, and in order to reach it you need to cross the small fishing and touristic village of Marsaxlokk, and engage on a country road. The result is rewarding, as the lighthouse location offers a beautiful view of the gulf where the village is located and of the open sea. Built in 1855 it is inactive since 1990, but a restoration project is under way and may lead to the site being open for visiting.


In order to reach the third point of interest we had to cross the whole island, as Cirkewva is located on the North-West extremity of Malta, close to the embarking for the ferry-boat that crosses the straight to the island of Gozo. The drive is about 40km, by the way. Unfortunately, not too much is left from the original shape of the lighthouse which is inactive and was transformed in a platform which does offer splendid views and photo opportunities to the sea and to Gozo, but does not seem to care much about authenticity or history. At least I took a few beautiful pictures of the sea.

the sea from Cirkewva

S-a-mbracat în zale lucii cavalerii de la Malta,
Papa cu-a lui trei coroane, puse una peste alta,
Fulgerele adunat-au contra fulgerului care
În turbarea-i furtunoasa a cuprins pamânt si mare.

The Maltese Knights dressed themselves in shining armors …

Such retells Mihai Eminescu, the Romanian national poet an episode in the heroic resistance of the Romanian prince Mircea (the Elder) against the Turkish expansion, and this verses learned by heart by any Romanian pupil are stuck in the common memory. Yet, mentioning the Malta Knights or the Knights of St. John in a poem about a battle that happened in 1395 is just a poetical license. Actually it’s only more than one century later, after 1531 that the knights arrive in Malta!

historical fresco in the State Rooms - the Siege of Malta

The Knights Hospitaller is one of the religious orders founded in Jerusalem during the period of the Crusades, more exactly in 1023, with the principal goal of taking care of the pilgrims in the Holy Land. It became a military order (as the Templar or the Teutonic knights) in the centuries to come. With the defeat of the Crusaders the St. John Knights had to abandon the Holy Land and settled in Rhodes but two centuries later that island fell under the Turks, so by 1531 there was no other new home for them in an Europe caught in the conflicts of the Reformation, but to resettle them in Malta. The Turks came after them, but the famous siege in 1565 put a stop to the Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean, in a military event event that marked and remained as milestone in the history of the island.

Grand Master de la Valette

The knights now completely ruled over the island for more than two centuries. They built the fortified city of Valletta with its historical buildings, impressive churches and picturesque streets. They managed the economy and ruled the island based upon the support of the pope and of the Spanish kings, until Europe and the church itself ran into social crisis in the 18th century culminating with the French Revolution and the ascension of Napoleon.  When the French army occupied the island in 1798 they encountered almost no resistance. Part of the knights found refuge in Russia electing for a short time the Czar as Grand Master, the rest found refuge in Rome where the order is headquartered until today, focusing on welfare and hospital activities. Their presence in Malta nowadays is just symbolic.

Grand Master's Palace

A good place to learn about the history of the knights and the relation with Malta is the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta. It is located on the main street of Valletta, not an imposing building seen from the exterior, but with quite an interesting interior. It was one of the first palaces built in the city in the year 1571 by the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. The building houses today the office of the President and the House of Representatives of Malta in the State Apartments, and the Palace Armoury in the separate wing. The very impressive corridors are decorated with frescoes and portraits of the Grand Masters, as well as with elaborated ceilings with the symbols of Malta as they evolved in history.

ceiling of the State Rooms

office of the President

interior court of the Grand Master's Palace

The Armoury hosts an impressive collection of weapons and military equipment from the period of the knights. There are some impressive pieces acquired by the knights from the best manufactures of the Western Europe of the period, or captured from the battles with the Ottoman archenemies. The gathering of metallic pieces of armoury or helmets sometimes give the impression of the remains of an ancient field of battle cast in metal or maybe testimony to the visit of an alien race in these places. This is maybe what the knight of St. John were in their passing on the island.

Palace Armoury


'alien' helmets

city walls

The first thing that strikes the visitor after walking away from the central bus station towards the city are the walls. Valletta is located on a rocky peninsula and is protected by maybe the most impressive fortified walls that I have ever seen. Built by the Knights of St. John after the Great Siege by the Turks in 1565, the city actually never fell to a foreign invader in war. The only conqueror of the island was Napoleon, but the knights had fled to Russia abandoning the city, by the time the future emperor entered here.

Valletta Map

The city is the principal tourist attraction on the island and a mandatory stop for any trip here. It succeeds to be crowded it any season, and for us, who visited out of season it was almost the sole crowded place we have encountered during the vacation.

city gate

The land access to the city is through the city gate, which looks like a triumphal arch whose days of glory are well passed. It is actually pretty new, built in the 1970s, but not that well maintained. As in other places on the island we saw here as well signs about something new to be build soon instead – it looks like Malta is a place where the European money comes slowly, or when it comes it is not immediately used for the targeted purposes.

the bombed theatre

Right after the gate the visitor can see the ruins of the old and imposing building that stood here until the second world war and was destroyed in the savage bombing that the German aviation subjected the city to in 1942. Malta was the only country who had the entire population decorated by the British king during the war for the steadiness and will to resist the enemy under fire.

Auberge de Castille

Valletta is a beautiful city, and it’s beauty comes from the combination of refined architecture mixing palaces, churches, and sloppy streets and the spectacular setting of the peninsula surrounded by the blue of the the sea. Many of the beautiful places in the city come directly from history – for example the Auberges (Inns) which look to the contemporary eyes as real palaces where the knights were hosting the guests from various places in Europe. The buildings perform various functions nowadays, among other Auberge de Castille is one of the most imposing, hosting the office of the Maltese Prime Minister.

view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens

One place to watch the landscape of the city are the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Across the bay one can see the Three Cities, and down the slopes the bastions, wharfs, and especially the esplanades of the lower gardens, with the canons that once defended the city.

cafe Gordina

All streets in Malta streets have two names – one in Maltese and the other in English. For example the principal street in Valletta is Triq Ir-Repubblika, or the Road of the Republic, which crosses the peninsula and the city from South to North, and divides the city into a West side and a East side, as in Manhattan, all proportions kept, of course. The street looks very much like a tourist spot as in many other places in the world, but some special buildings remind you that you are in a special place. For example Cafe Gordina has a definite European flavor, with a superb chocolates and cakes assortment.

the Manoel Theatre

Just down the street from Cafe Gordina you will find the almost only open plaza area in the city. The Manoel Theatre – the most famous theater and opera place on the island stands across the road from the Grand Master’s Palace and State Building, where the parliament and the president of the Republic have their residences.

flags and balconies

Visitors to Valletta and to Malta in general will find out soon after visiting the first city or village that balconies are kind of the local passion, the preferred architectural ornament and a reflection of the social status of the owner of the apartment or of the house.

saints behind the corner

Valletta is also a city of churches, and there are many from the imposing St. John’s Co-Cathedral which will be the subject of a dedicated episode to small churches on the side streets. The religious fervor of the inhabitants is reflected not only in the multitude of churches however, religious art seems to have freely escaped from the perimeter of the walls of the churches in the streets of the city. It looks like at every street corner at least one saint carved in stone or painted on the walls is extending his blessing to the travelers.

San Francisco on the Mediterranean

The most beautiful places in the city demand however some efforts to explore and walk. If you step aside from the main road you find yourself soon on quite streets on slopes, which seem all to descend to the sea, whatever direction you take. The comparison with San Francisco immediately comes to mind, but the tram is missing. One just needs to remember that anything that goes down will inevitably go up as well, as the only point to exit the city is the entrance gate. The slopes back can really be brutal, at the end of a day of walking the city.