The Auberge d'Italie
The pilier or chief of the Italian Knights was traditionally the Grand Admiral of the Order. Elected by the Order’s Council, he headed the important langue of Italy, composed of seven Grand Priories ( Rome, Lombardy, Venice, Barletta, Capua, Pisa and Messina ) and five Bailiwicks. This langue had 142 commanderies and was outnumbered only by the combined commanderies of the three French langues ( Provence, Auvergne and France ), which number 219.
The piliers or their deputies, as conventual bailiffs, formed the core of the Grand Masters’ Council.
The origins of the hierarchical organisation of the Order’s Navy went back to the statutes established in medieval times.
On the Admiral depended the fleet, the arsenals, the naval officers, the troops, the crews and all maritime affairs, including the conferment of the galleys – and later the ships – of the Order to individual Captains and the squadron to the Captain General. The latter was appointed from any langue of the Order and he led the Order’s squadron on the Corso and held this office for two years.
From 1596, the Grand Admiral was helped by the Congregazione delle Galere, comprising the Grand Admiral, the Captain General and four Knights Grand Cross.
Tracing the roots of the Auberge d’Italie
The present Auberge is the third in the convent on Malta. ( The first being the one in the Borgo di Castel Sant’Angelo and quite interestingly the only Auberge outside the Collachio of Birgu; the second on the site of the Magistral Palace and the third still in situ.
The Italian langue was among the first to start discussions on the construction of an Auberge within the new piazza of Valletta as seat of the Convent. On the 23rd September, 1569 , the Knights Ercole Asinari and Nicolo’ Benigno, as the representatives of the Lingua, drafted the contract for the purchased of land. The contract was signed by the Grand Prior of Messina, Fra Pietro Giustiniano , representing the Grand Master and Council, and the Notary Placido Abel.
The first Auberge had been built on part of the site now occupied by the Magistral Place adjoining the properties of other Italian Knights ( Eustachio del Monte, Riamondo and Giannotto Bosio , and others), on the 30th January, 1570 , under the leadership of Grand Admiral Fra Giuseppe Cambiano , the langue agreed to go ahead with the construction of its Auberge with Architect Gerolamo Cassar responsible for its design.
To finance the project, a tax of 2.5% was imposed on the income of the Italian Knights , followed by the disposal of certain immovables ( may well have included the sites of the former Auberges ), as well as a quantity of precious objects. It is recorded that a number of loans were raised at a later stage and the tax was also raised to 10%.
The Auberge d’Italie is one of the finest in Valletta. There is no existing actual documentation that describes the progress of works. However, it can be deduced that the construction was completed towards the intiation of 1571. The Italian Knights had moved to the Valletta Auberge ( the site of the Magistral Palace ) towards April of that same year. In fact, in the meeting ( colletta ) of the 16th February , 1571 ( Grand Admiral Fra Antonio di Bologna ), it was decided ‘ to give Master Mason Gerolamo Cassar a cup decorated in silver for taking care of the construction of the Auberge ‘. However, it is unclear towards which Auberge construction-work Cassar received the gift.
The Italian Knights finally moved into the present Auberge in September 1579 ( Grand Admiral Fra Bartolomeo Vasco). The Construction was temporarily suspended after completion of the first floor. However, it was soon deemed necessary to enlarge the Auberge, so, after three years, on the 25th August, 1582 ( Grand Admiral Fra Pompeio Soardo ), the decision was taken to re-continue the structure, adopting a system of constructing gradually piece by piece. Consequently, the construction of the upper floor was started.
The first room to be constructed was the Main Hall. In April 1583 ( Grand Admiral Fra G. Francesco La Motta) , it was decided to construct a barrel vault, so as to save money ( on timber). The master mason, Gio. Andrea Farrugia, was responsible for the continuation of the works. However , he died before the works were completed. Works seemed to have progressed at a very slow pace, and the first time the construction of this floor was re-mentioned was in 1589, when more money was approved for the construction of this floor. On the 7th August of the same year ( Grand Admiral Fra Francesco Bonaiuto ) , a decision was taken to construct a staircase connecting these floors together.
Works were probably finally completed in 1595 ( Grand Admiral Fra Pietro Della Rocca ), when documentation mentions the payment for the works carried out by the Engineer Francesco Antrini. The name of the architect was quickly forgotten and, in fact only Architect Gerolamo Cassar is given credit for the work, but as is evident , various engineers and master masons are connected with a sequence of works throughout the Auberge’s development since Cassar’s original plans and work on site.
In 1603, a number of cracks resulted in one of the walls in the Main Hall at the uppermost level. After a year, Alessandro Stafrace started restoration works. The mezzanine beneath the Admiral’s Room was constructed between 1649 and 1650. Beneath this apartment , there was a large room accessible from Melita Street. Due to its enormous size, it was impossible to sell. So, in 1654, it was decided to divide this large room into four rooms. These were ideally used as shopping outlets. The construction of the Archives continued in 1678 and, in fact, the library shelving was ordered.
Two years later ( 1680 ), works involved the decoration of the façade. The project entailed the siting of the Trophy of Arms, the Coat of Arms and the effigy of Grand Master Fra Gregorio Carafa ( reigned May 1680 to 21st July 1690 ) in a beautifully ornate design by La Fe’ above the portone.
The second floor of the Auberge was paid at the Grand Master’s own expense, in recognition of which the aforementioned bronze bust and inscription was placed by the Italian Knights over the entrance. Actually, the whole façade ( Merchants Street ) was remodelled by Mederico Blondel, including the ground floor window mouldings in 1680, though the heavily rusticated quoins of Cassar were retained and repeated, though interrupted by the original band and cornice, right up to the top floor cornice. According to the historian Conte Ciantar, writing in the late eighteenth century, the marble used for this sculpture work of art came from the Roman temple of Proserpina discovered at Mtarfa in 1613, and conveniently offered the sculptor with a sufficiently large block of marble surface area required to work on.
From the juxtaposition of the beautiful modelled ornate well head arch in the courtyard, so delicately balanced and framed by the portone, when viewed before entering the Auberge, I suspected that the whole scenographic effect was created by one designer – that is, none other than Blondel himself .
The symmetrical façade was maintained in the top floor. This exquisite façade certainly emphasised the new main entrance, which developed on the previous side or secondary doorway of the building, making the original main entrance and façade on South Street redundant especially with the building up of the original piazza of the Auberge’s main façade in 1629, though these buildings – now replaced by the Bank of Valletta International and the Valletta Police Station – did not block completely the whole façade.
It is evident that the progressive development of the Auberge construction was vertical and the present building occupies the same ground area as planned by Cassar – his heavily rusticated quoins marking the buildings’ corners still demark the building ( though rebuilt or renovated ). It is worth noting the Zachary Street side quoin, abutting on the Bank of Valletta International building up of the original piazza of the Auberge’s main façade entrance facing the Victory Church. Part of the space between the Church of Santa Caterina ( di Alessandra ) and the Auberge was utilised for the construction of a number of rooms. On the 3rd November, 1629 ( Grand Admiral Fra Ant. Marco Brancaccio), these rooms were rented out to Knights at eight scudi per room. ( Another empty space on the side of the V ictory Church was utilised to construct two houses. )
The Auberge is rectangular in plan, surrounded on three sides ( Zackary, Melita and Merchants Streets ) and an open piazza ( now occupied by the by the Bank of Valletta International and the Valletta Police Station) and the Church of Santa Caterina on the South Street side. It is laid out with rooms on all four sides, built around a large countryard, which is almost square ( 51’ x 54’ ) and this agrees with the usual Italian practice. There is a covered way along the perimeter of this courtyard formed by an arched ( sail vaulted ) roofing this corridor on one side only ( still standing ), the Merchants Street side.
The system of the plan is rotary and similar to other Cassar plans (for example, Auberge d’Aragon, Valletta).
The rooms abut ( touch each other ) in a clockwise direction and overlap at one corner.Cassar had tried to place his windows centrally and iternally, at the same time setting some sort of rhythm on the façade. Most of the rooms at ground level are spanned with traditional arches supporting flat stone slabs ( xorok ), whilst the Merchants Street and South Street entrances have coffered barrel vaults. Two rooms on the eastern side of the Merchants Street façade are vaulted. The coffered barrel vault was a commonly used feature by Cassar and may be found at the Sacra Infermeria and St. Mark’s Church ( Valletta ). A loggia encircled the courtyard.
The Merchants Street façade is symmetrical and has rhythm. There are large areas of walling between the outer windows and those which adjoin them. The size of the window opening has no relationship with the volume of the light necessary to illuminate the room. The façade is clearly divided into two, with the ground and mezzanine floors dominating. The band, which separates the floors, also divides the rusticated quoins. The original Auberge ended at the cornice level above the mezzanine. The Merchants Street doorway ( without the Carafa Coat of Arms and effigy ) would have certainly been better proportioned to a building of this size.
The original astylar main entrance ( South Street ) façade is asymmetric with the main entrance set to one side and the ( broken ) rhythm of the windows and mouldings are similar to Cassar’s Verdala Palace.
The rusticated quoins became the hallmark of Cassar’s façade corners for two very good reasons. First of all, rusticated quoins were an expression of strength. Then, they provided relief from the complete starkness of his unadorned walls without being conspicuously decorative. At the Auberge d’Italie, he installed boldly decorated quoins with alternating vermiculated and diamond-pointed dressed stones and raised on baroque plinths of various heights embellished with robust cyma-recta mouldings at each corner to compensate for the difference in street levels.
The Merchants Street side main entrance is similarly decorated with rusticated voussoirs. The chief voussoir ( keystone ) is highly decorated with an elaborately decorated cartouche supporting a shield carrying the Admiral’s symbol: a dolphin ( diving, sinister not to confuse with the Langue de Provence’s heraldic dolphin leaping dexter ) and surmounted by an Admiral’s ceremonial ostrich-plumed helmet reaching up into the portal’s architrave.
The Merchants Street façade is symmetrical, with windows on all floors ( ground / mezzanine and top ) following a rhythm and a variety of decorated corbels, mouldings and hood-moulds. The ground floor windows’ lower corbels are decorated with stylistic fish-fins, while the hood-mould corbels are decorated by pairs of alternating faces of grimacing, grotesque mostri ( ogres ) and classical goddesses, or are they ‘catarins’? The mezzanine windows are roll-moulded – similar to the St. Francis
( Republic Street ) central façade moulding around the Carafa coat-of-arms installed by Mederico Blondel – while the top floor windows are elegantly corbelled and hooded, but less symbolically embellished than the ground floor ones.
A fine outstanding feature of the Auberge is its monumental well head arch. Composed of an ornate entablature supported by pillars made up of clusters of composite pilasters supporting an architrave; frieze and broken arcing and overhanging cornice, the whole crowned by richly carved ornament depicting on the obverse Grand Master Fra Gregorio Carafa’s coat-of-arms, supported by a rich trofeo d’armi and surmounted by an Admiral’s ceremonial ostrich-plumed helmet proper. The reverse carries a statue of St. Catherine of Alexandria crowned and insignaed ( sword, marty’s palm and broken wheel ) standing in an ornate escalloped, garlanded and hooded niche. The ‘jewel ‘ is linked to the broken cornice by garlands.
The well-head arch lies atop the octagonal well-head, raised on two octagonal surrounding steps, somewhat Venetian in appearance. This outstanding piece of ornamental architecture is further embellished on both sides by carved voussoirs , depicting grimacing Ottoman slaves. The stone at the rear frieze, covering the wooden beam, to which the iron pulley ring is attached, carries two engraved dates: 1756 and 1862. I suspected that these dates do not relate to construction, but to record when the wooden truss was serviced or changed. The monument was polychromatic with the coat-of-arms painted in its heraldic colours, which have been meticulously restored in 2001.
Although the present staircase at the east end of Merchants Street side corridors seems unimportant – this was the early Auberge’s main and only staircase – from the physical study it can be easily deducted that the staircase was once larger that the present one and incorporated the room adjacent to the present staircase , with the first flight of stairs starting from the end of the corridor. The way the corridor cornice terminates ( sloping upwards ) also indicates that the staircase rose from the existing step at the end of the corridor.
As with most buildings in Valletta, the Auberge D’Italie has incurred many changes since it was constructed.
By foraging through the Archives of the order ( AOM ), the langues’ records and other historical sources, it can be ascertained that the following is a decription of the ground floor plan of the early Auberge ( sixteen century ).
As one of the major buildings of Valletta, the Auberge d’Italie had had various occupants since the departure of the Knights in 1798. After a constant habitation by Italian Knights spanning three centuries, the first was the French Military Command, which conveniently lodged close to their General of the Army, Napoleon Bonaparte’s quarters across the street in Chevalier Pariseo’s Palace.
Under the British Administration, the building was utilised by both military and civil service. It has served as a Corps Headquarters and officers Mess up to the 1920’s, when it became the site for Malta’s Museum Of Archaeology, curated by Professor ( later Sir ) Temi Zammit.
An outstanding and almost ignored part of Maltese social history is the medical phase of the building.
Dr. John Davy ( 1790 – 1868 ) spent seven years in Malta on the Army Medical Staff and he was the moving spirit behind the creation of the first public dispensary at the Auberge d’ Italie ( in the early nineteenth century ) for the outpatient treatment of the needy poor. This is how the present Government Polyclinics originated and still today the Maltese unwittingly are still obstinately referring to these as ‘ Il-Berga ‘ – the Auberge ( d’italie ).
It is also to be noted that Dr, John Davy also left his imprint as the practitioner, who treated two distinguished visitors to Malta – namely, Sir Walter Scott ( 1831 ) and the Rev. ( later Cardinal ) John Henry Newman ( 1838 ).
During World War II, the Auberge was extensively demaged and, after the war, a major part of the building was reconstructed. In March 1956, the Auberge – being used by the Department of Museums – was a School of Art and works were carried out to cover the main staircase with Carrara marble and to the same year. This was possible, as the Department of Museums were about to move into the Auberge de Provence.
In March 1971, the Auberge – having been vacated by the Superior Courts of Justice – was to be fitted and prepared for examination purposes, taking over the role of the Knights Hall ( at the Sacra Infermeria, today the Mediterranean Conference Centre ).
On the 5th August, 1971, the Posts and Telephones Department was ordered to move to the Auberge ( from Palazzo Parisio ). Extensive works were carried out to accommodate the new occupants, including decoration works, electric lighting installation, joinery works plumbing and masonry works. What is of particular interest, listed in a report on the 31st March, 1972, is the dismantling of a part of a staircase and other renovation works at No. 4 Zachary Street. This probably formerly formed part of the Donat’s Apartment.
By October 1974, the extensive works – including structural and tiling works, the installation of iron bars on window and wall safes- were completed for the General Post Office.
Since then, other users at the Auberge were the Water and Electricity Department, the Agricultural Department and the Central Office of Statistics.
In 1997, a decision was taken to utilise the Auberge as the Ministry of Tourism and the offices of the future Malta Tourism Authority. Major works were commenced, including the paving and flooring, decorating, refitting and restoration of the building. On the 18th February, 2002, the Ministry of Tourism moved into the Auberge from the country residence of a former pilier of the langue of Italy, the Grand Admiral Fra Paolo Raffaele Spinola.
The Malta Tourism Authority moved from its previous Head Office at 280 Republic Street into the former home of the Italian Knights on the 1st March 2002.