( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The city of Valetta, founded in 1566, by the grand master whose name it bears, is the capital of Malta. The city of La Sangle, and the city of Victoria, which occupy two points of land on the other side of the harbor of the Marse, together with the suburbs of Floriana and Burmola, complete the town; encircled by bastions, ramparts, counterscarps, forts, and fortifications, to an extent which renders siege impossible ! If you follow one of the streets which surround the town, at each step that you take, you find yourself face to face with a cannon. Gibraltar itself does not bristle more completely with mouths of fire. The inconvenience of these extended works is, that they enclose a vast radius, and demand to defend them, in case of attack, an enormous garrison; always difficult to maintain at a distance from the mother country.
From the height of the ramparts, one sees in the distance the blue and transparent sea, broken into ripples by the breeze, and dotted with snowy sails. The scarlet sentinels are on guard from point to point, and the heat of the sun is so fierce upon the glacis, that a cloth stretched upon a frame and turning upon a pivot at the top of a pole, forms a shade for the soldiers, who, without this precaution, must inevitably be roasted on their posts. .
The city of Valetta, altho built with regularity, and, so to speak, all in one "block," is not, therefore, the less picturesque. The decided slope of the ground neutralizes what the accurate lines of the street might otherwise have of monotony, and the town mounts by degrees and by terraces the hillside, which it forms into an amphitheater. The houses, built very high like those of Cadiz, terminate in flat roofs that their inhabitants may the better enjoy the sea view. They are all of white Maltese stone; a sort of sandstone easy to work, and with which, at small expense, one can indulge various caprices of sculpture and ornamentation. These rectilinear houses stand well, and have an air of grandeur, which they owe to the absence of (visible) roofs, cornices, and attics. They stand out sharply and squarely against the azure of the heavens, which their dazzling whiteaess renders only the more intense; but that which chiefly gives them a character of originality is the projecting balcony hung upon each front; like the "moucharabys" of the East, or the "miradores" of Spain.
The palace of the grand masters-today the palace of the government—has nothing remarkable in the way of architecture. Its date is recent, and it responds but imperfectly to the idea one would form of the residence of Villiers de I'lle Adam, of Lavalette, and of their warlike ancestors. Nevertheless, it has a certain monumental air, and produces a fine effect upon the great Place, of which it forms one entire side. Two doorways, with rustic columns, break the uniformity of the long facade; while an immense balcony, supported by gigantic sculptured brackets, encircles the building at the level of the first floor, and gives to the edifice the stamp of Malta. This de-tail, so strictly local in its character, relieves what might be heavy and flat in this architecture; and this palace, otherwise vulgar, becomes thus original. The interior, which I visited, presents a range of vast halls and galleries, decorated with pictures representing battles by sea and land, sieges, and combats between Turkish galleys and the galleys of the "Religion."
To finish with the knights, I turned my steps toward the Church of St. John-the Pantheon of the Order. Its facade, with a triangular porch flanked by two towers terminating in stone belfries, having for ornament only four pillars, and pierced by a window and door, without sculpture or decoration, by no means prepares the traveler for the splendor within.
The first thing which arrests the sight is an immense arch, painted in fresco, which runs the whole length of the nave. This fresco, unhappily much deteriorated by time, is the work of Matteo Preti, called the Calabrese; one of those great second-rate masters, who, if they have less genius, have often more talent than the princes of the art. What there is of science, facility, spirit, expression, and abundant resource, in this colossal picture, is beyond description.
Each section of the arch contains a scene from the life of St. John, to whom the church is dedicated, and who was the patron of the Order. These sections are supported, at their descent, by groups of captives—Saracens, Turks, Christians, and others—half naked, or clad in the re-mains of shattered armor, and placed in positions of humiliation or constraint, who form a species of barbaric caryatides strikingly suited to the subject. All this part of the fresco is full of character, and has a force of coloring very rare in this species of picture. These solid and massive effects give additional strength to the lighter tone of the arch, and throw the skies into a relief and distance singularly profound. I know no similar work of equal grandeur except the ceiling by Fumiana in the Church of St. Pantaleone at Venice, representing the life, martyrdom, and apotheosis of that saint. But the style of the decadence makes itself less felt in the work of the Calabrese than in that of the Venetian. In recompense of this gigantic work, the artist had the honor, like Carravaggio, to be made a Knight of the Order.
The pavement of the church is composed of four hundred tombs of knights, incrusted with jasper, porphyry, verd-antique, and precious stones of various kinds, which should form the most splendid sepulchral mosaics conceivable. I say should form, because at the moment of my visit, the whole floor was covered with those immense mats, so constantly used for carpeting the southern churches—a usage which is explained by the absence of pews or chairs, and the habit of kneeling upon the floor to perform one's devotions. I regretted this exceedingly; but the crypt and the chapel contain enough sepulchral wealth to offer some atonement.