Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 2(1956)1(57-58)

J. Quentin Hughes (M.C., B.Arch., Ph.D., A.R.I.B.A.) The Building of Malta during the Period of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem 1530-1795. London, Alec Tiranti Ltd., 1956; pp. viii, 242; ill. 332.

The Author of this excellently written and superbly produced volume is already well-known to the readers of “Melita Historica” through his article “The influence of Italian Mannerism upon Maltese Architecture.” In spite of a few inaccuracies in the dates and attributions of certain of the lesser known buildings, the book is a most important contribution to the history of Maltese Architecture, nothing on the same scale ever having been attempted before.

It is astonishing how, in the relatively short period he spent in Malta, the Author was able to enter into the spirit underlying the Maltese building of the Knights of St. John. In spite of the fact that the leaders of the Order were members of the most influential and affluent families of some of the most powerful countries of the time, they invariably employed Maltese architects for their civil and ecclesiastical buildings, and rarely allowed their own taste to influence the builders to a greater extent than the latter may have been influenced by what they saw during their travels. As a result, Maltese architecture, from the middle of the 16th to the end of the 18th century presents, on the whole, a logical and homogeneous sequence, which it is possible to follow with clarity and simplicity, from the late Renaissance which the Knights introduced in 1530 to the early Neo-Classic which they left behind in 1798.

Dr. Hughes has an analytical eye and a sensitive mind and is able, without too many technicalities, to explain exactly how the progress was achieved, pointing out variations and innovations in style as well as in technique. How such things as the construction of roofs, the development of church plans and facades, the decoration of panels, the design of mouldings and cornices and the construction of domes, progressed from the immaturity of Birgu and the early building of Valletta, to the Baroque majesty of Gafŕ and Cachia, may be followed with ease by the most uninstructed layman.

[p.58] The buildings described are classified under three main headings: military, ecclesiastical and civil. The chapter on military architecture is a rapid but comprehensive survey of the fortifications of Malta and Gozo, from the hastily erected bulwarks of St. Elmo and St. Angelo on the arrival of the Knights, until the construction of Forts Manoel and Tigne more than two centuries later. It was only in this class of building that foreign craftsmen predominated: with the sole exception of Girolamo Cassar, the men who worked on the ramparts of Malta and Gozo were Italians, Frenchmen or Spaniards. The survey is interesting as far as it goes, but the subject is important enough to merit a volume for itself.

The next important part of the book is the chapter on the Churches of Malta, which is a masterly review of local ecclesiastical architecture which for the sake of convenience the Author has subdivided into various sections, according to period, style and planning, followed by a summary of the characteristics of Maltese churches. The pages on the development of the smaller monocellular churches of the 16th and early 17th centuries I found particularly interesting.

The chapter on civil architecture is less comprehensive than the other, possibly owing to the relative inaccessibility of many of the buildings described, especially the interior of the private houses. But the drawing of plans and facades which illustrate the article, many of them published for the first time, are of great interest; and the whole chapter is, without doubt, a most important contribution to the study of the subject.

There is no doubt that the book is a “must” for all students of the history and art of Malta, as well as for all collectors of Melitensia.

E. S.