Development of Maltese Architecture

The  essay or feature below was originally published in the Rough Guide to Malta & Gozo, which was written by Victor Paul Borg  

Malta owes much of its distinctive architecture to the soft globigerina limestone from which most of the island’s buildings are constructed. Aside from the modern bricks made from imported cement, it’s the only vernacular stone suitable for construction; Malta’s type of clay expands, shrinks and cracks in response to seasonal temperature fluctuations while the upper coralline limestone is an unyieldingly hard mineral. Globigerina limestone, which was discovered during the Neolithic at around 3,000 BC, weathers elegantly to the colour of natural sandstone, and its plasticity allows it to be sculpted down to hairpin detail. As far as style is concerned, architecture has been dominated by Baroque since its development in Rome in the seventeenth century. The characteristics of Baroque are wide spaces and high ceilings; it overawes and belittles human presence, and its ornate motifs, curvaceously flaring uncontrollably like a blazing fire, are extravagant and vain. The Catholic Church took to Baroque with gusto to impose a heavenly presence larger than life or human life. Malta’s brand of Baroque is sometimes called Grand or High Baroque owing to the fact that in Malta this style has taken even greater proportions of grandeur. The parish churches, in this sense, tower over their respective towns, and to this day houses still retain large rooms, exuberant staircases skirted by stone or mahogany balustrades, protruding balconies, and ceilings that are eleven feet high. Although Baroque is still in vogue, and as a response to this trend the University of Malta set an International Institute for Baroque Studies in the mid-nineties’, recent decades have seen architects experimenting with interplays of modern styles influenced from European cities, while also incorporating older vernacular styles such as the loggias of medieval farmhouses. 



The Neolithic people starting building their temples from the hardy upper coralline limestone 5600 years ago. The earlier temples, such as Ggantija Temples in Gozo, were built entirely of this stone. It was cut from the surface in blocks of megaliths, and trundled towards the temples on round stones, then erected into place, one atop the other, by hoisting the megaliths over ramps of rubble. The temples were designed either on the outline of the sitting fat ladies or as an evolution of design from the interconnecting chambers of the collective rock cut tombs, in a series of lobed chambers. Their architecture is curvaceous and round, and corners are virtually non-existing in what is thought to be the round spatial arrangement that expresses fluidity, continuity, the conduit of human and divine energies – in a sense, a spatial representation of the pervasive spiral motifs. At one point, the Neolithic people discovered globigerina limestone, and later temples were built almost entirely from this stone, such as the Tarxien and Mnajdra Neolithic Temples.

The temples are the oldest built structures on earth, and the Neolithic community became the first known architectural civilization. Architecture became a study, and the stone model of the temples exhibited at the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta illustrates the studied considerations of temple design: the corner megaliths placed strategically to support the entire structure, the stepped roof and the corbelling arching towards the dome in what is the earliest, crude development of the principle of the arch.


The Medieval Era

The next principal architectural stage, medieval architecture, is unremarkable in that it was more closely tallied with climactic and lifestyle needs rather than esoteric, philosophical and divine principles. Its development emerging at around 870 AD with the Arabic influence and its characteristics prevailed until the last century in farmhouses. Medieval people converted caves into churches and hewed simple rock-cut chapels such as the catacombs of St Agatha and St Paul in Rabat. Whole communities throughout the Middle Ages – up to the arrival of the Knights – lived in caves; Ghar Il-Kbir in Dingli, the largest cave settlement, housed 27 families made up of 117 individuals, each family’s allotment defined by rubble walls. In open countryside, peasants lived in the girna, an oval hut built of rubble and resembling the shape of an igloo but with a more pointed roof. In later centuries, girnas, which retain a cool and constant air temperature, were used to store vegetables, and some of the latter incarnations survive intact in the countryside.

Country farmhouses show a combination of Sicilian and Arabic influences: a cube-shaped house was built around a courtyard, the walls plastered out of rubble and mud, with rainwater spouts sticking out from their roofs. Spreading on two floors, the houses were designed for the Mediterranean climate. They faced south for maximum sun exposure, and their loggias were backed by a corridor through which the rooms branched. The corridor trapped an insulating buffer of air so that the temperature in the room was as constant as possible throughout the seasonal fluctuations, while small chinks in the rooms penetrated the walls to provide a measure of ventilation. Many of the houses had a rack of pigeon nestboxes hollowed in the surface walls of a puposely-designed square turret rising from one corner of the building. Some sported the Arab-style muxrabija, a fine-meshed wooden window-screen or projecting box from which the occupants could watch comings and goings outside their house without being seen. Built chapels, too, were cube-shaped, with one nave and a slightly pitched roof; the best-preserved examples include the Annunciation of the Virgin in Hal Millieri, San Bazilju in Mqabba, and Santa Marija ta’ Bir Miftuh.

In Mdina and Birgu (Vittoriosa), the only two towns of medieval Malta, more sophisticated palazzi resembled country houses but had decorative trimmings of simple geometric patterns. Dated loosely to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some survive in Mdina, including the palazzi Santa Sofia, Gatto Murina, Inguanez and Falzon. Their style is called Siculo-Norman because they show some Norman influences, particularly in their “two-light”, twin-arched windows which mark the climax of medieval architecture.


Enter the Knights

When the Knights moved to Valletta in 1571 they gave the job of designing their buildings to the Maltese architect Girolmu Cassar, who proceeded to marry different styles in his designs for Valletta’s Grandmaster’s Palace, St John’s Co-Cathedral and the seven original auberges. Born in Birgu in 1520, he first came to the attention of the Knights when he worked on the repair of the fortifications following damage in the Great Siege of 1565. Later, he assisted Francesco Laparelli design the new city, and when Laparelli departed, the job of designing the Knights’ building in Valletta fell to Cassar. His designs had to reflect the austerity of the Knights as a military and religious order, but Cassar also employed vernacular styles in the flat and undecorated facades, particularly using panels to articulate facades. He also introduced elements of the Renaissance and Mannerist styles he had observed in his internship in Rome.

In the early seventeenth century, the new style of Baroque, which arose in Italy and France, spread through the Roman Catholic countries of Europe. The Knights’ resident architect Francesco Bounamici introduced Baroque to Malta in 1635, when he designed the Jesuit Church. Thereafter a Baroque makeover swept through Valletta. The Knights erected new churches, rebuilt the auberges and public buildings, and dressed the gates piercing the city fortifications with Baroque plumes. The interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral was crowned with eruptions of flame-like forms, rippling all over the interior. The obsession culminated in 1741, with the rebuilding of the Auberge de Castille, now the most monumental Baroque building in Malta. It’s an imposing square building with a wide staircase that draws the eye to its main door that is topped by lush triumphal motifs carved in stone.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church competed with the Knights to create Baroque landmarks: in the late seventeenth century, a new drive began to build grander churches, topped by fat domes and belfries to stand proud over the townhouses. The most outstanding of these churches were designed by Lorenzo Gafa (1639–1703), one of the most influential architects in the development of Baroque in Malta. Gafa was born in Vittoriosa to a family skilled stone carvers and sculptors, and his older brother Melchiore achieved international fame with some of his sculptures in Rome, where he spent much of his working life. Gafa undertook no formal architectural training, but he was lucky to serve as an assistant to Bounamici, from whom he picked up valuable architectural skills. In his work – St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, the Cathedral in Gozo’s Citadel, St Lawrence Church in Vittoriosa, and a spate of other churches – Gafa opted for simpler, less ornate exteriors than his contemporaries, and he excelled in the composition. Instead of ornate facades, he put the Gozo Cathedral and St Lawrence Church in Vittoriosa on a podium reached by wide and steep external staircases as an effective visually-amplifying device to evoke an arresting presence. In Mdina’s St Paul’s Cathedral, he designed a facade with square proportions in that its width is equal to the height, a design that lends the church a grand and dramatic image. The belfries only marginally rise over the Classical pediment, but together with the dome, they are deeply sculptured like braids.  

Baroque symbolized prestige, power, and wealth, with its curvaceous forms, the colossal size of the buildings with their wide staircases and airy rooms, the coats of arms, broad interior courtyards, and so on. Nobles took the cue and started icing their facades with Baroque motifs, and building in grand style to flaunt their wealth and status.


Military Architecture

In less than three centuries, the Knights erected 40km of fortifications on Malta, pierced by 54 gates. The Grand Harbour was almost encircled with fortifications, and the entire low-lying east coast was protected by a chain of coastal towers, forts, redoubts, batteries and entrenchments.

Once Valletta was complete, the Knights sent for the Italian military engineer Pietro Paolo Floriani to look into strengthening the defences around the Grand Harbour. At this point the Knights’ policy in the event of an attack was to corral the entire population behind the fortifications. Floriani arrived in 1635 and he proposed an outer ring of bastions to encircle the towns around the Grand Harbour. His Floriana Lines sealed the Valletta peninsula and the emerging suburb of Floriana, and the same concept was borrowed for the Three Cities: the Margharita Lines to protect Cospicua, and beyond, an outer ring of bastions to envelope all three cities, the Cottonera Lines.

As Malta’s population increased and settled further north, on a coast pockmarked with bays where an enemy could disembark, the Knights had to review their defences. In 1715 a more strategic policy emerged, based on the “active defence of the islands”. About thirty coastal towers had already been built in the seventeenth century, intended to signal news of an attack to Valletta and act as assembly points for reinforcements in the event of an attack. Now, additional waves of larger, stronger towers were built (such as the Red Tower in Mellieha), and Grand Master Adrien de Wignacourt initiated the drive to beef up the coastal defences. The coastal batteries, designed by Phillippe de Vendome, are semi-circular, perched over the sea, with cannons poking through a saw-toothed parapet and barracks housed in the basement underneath the parapet. Twenty of these batteries still stand, although in a half-ruined state. Twenty similar, but smaller, coastal redoubts survive (the most intact is the recently-restored St Mary’s Battery in Comino), and between the two emplacements, the Knights built coastal lines, walls of bastions and entrenchments that skirted the entire east coast.


The Fougasse

Amid the array of military structures on Malta, the fougasse (a rock-cut mortar) is most obscure in origin, and found in just a handful of other countries; it was probably invented by the Italian engineer Marandon in 1740, though some evidence suggests an earlier date. It comprises a cone gouged into a boulder or rocky surface, wide enough for a man to crouch into and about 4m deep. Overlooking the flanks of landing bays, these fougasses – of which the Knights built around sixty – were designed to be packed with rocks and gunpowder, so that, when fired, they would shower stones over enemy boats. In February 1802, the British Brigadier-General Lawson tested one, loading it with 64kg of gunpowder and ten tonnes of rocks. “The explosion,” he wrote, “resembled the tremendous discharge of a volcano.” The best example of a fougasse that exists today can be seen on the eastern flank of Ramla Bay, carved into a rocky boulder facing the bay at an angle of 45°; ironically, it was never fired, and in 1798 Napoleon’s troops landed in Ramla Bay unhindered.


Architecture under the British

Following their takeover in 1800 the British made their architectural mark slowly, and even after 164 years of rule, there are probably less than a dozen surviving examples of British architecture in Malta excluding military buildings and small clusters of private homes. At the time, in a reaction to the excess of Baroque and Rococo, the Neoclassical style was in vogue in Britain; it marked a return to the established power of Classical Greece and Rome, once again borrowing the harmony but dramatic elements of the columns framing a facade topped by the ubiquitous pediment. 

The Neoclassical imprint can be seen in Malta’s early British buildings, notably the Anglican Cathedral in Valletta, as well as in secular buildings, many of which sport colonnaded porticos – Villa Portelli in Kalkara, Capua Palace in Sliema, Dragonara Palace in St Julian’s, and so on. Malta’s dominant Neoclassical building is the Mosta Dome, whose cornerstone was laid in 1833; it is one of the largest buildings in Malta, a monstrous circular church with a colonnaded facade and belltowers that jar as they are lost amid the overbearing columns and dome. In the 1860s the proponent of Gothic Revival in Malta, Emmanuele Luigi Galizia, designed the Addolarata Cemetery and later the Carmelite Church in Balluta Bay. (Galizia also designed three Moorish houses on Rudolph Street, Sliema, the only examples of their kind in Malta.)

In their first century on Malta, the British continued building more forts and batteries, especially north and south of the Grand Harbour, and around Marsaxlokk. Meanwhile, advances in military technology rendered the Knights’ coastal defences obsolete; in 1832 one Colonel Morshead put forward a plan to demolish 15 coastal towers and 25 redoubts – fortunately for posterity, his recommendations were shelved. However, the British did expand on the Knights’ concept of defensive walls of fortification, constructing the extensive Victoria Lines that straddle Malta east to west. Taking advantage of the Great Fault, a geological rift that dissects Malta on two levels, the idea was to reinforce this escarpment, 239m at its highest, along the line of the rift that runs from Fomm Ir-Rih in the west to Bahar Ic-Caghaq in the east – in effect dividing Malta in two. “A few detached forts on this line,” wrote Brigadier-General John Adye, the proponent of the Victoria Lines, “would cut off all that westerly portion of the island where there are good bays and facilities for landing.” The Victoria Lines were built in the 1870s, a low-lying bastion that threads its way for 15km along the edge of the Great Fault. To back the Victoria Lines with firepower three forts were built, at Bingemma, Mosta and Madliena.


Modern and Contemporary Architecture

At the beginning of the twentieth century, architects began to experiment with more styles: the Romanesque Ta’ Pinu Basilica, the Neo-Gothic Ghajnsielem Church, the Art Nouveau Balluta Buildings. All the while, however, Baroque remained the dominant style, matching the Maltese taste for the grand gesture. After World War II, many people built for themselves grand Baroque houses, with prominent enclosed or balustraded balconies and exuberant interiors. The most recent two churches built in the Maltese islands – Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Valletta and the Xewkija Church on Gozo, both completed in the 1980s – are grander than ever, reasserting Baroque dominance. Even luzzus (wooden fishing-boats) and ordinary buses and lorries are these days painted with the lavish colours and curlicued designs of Baroque.

The last two decades have witnessed more innovative, hybrid styles influenced by an increased appreciation of the islands’ architectural heritage and current trends in Europe. Farmhouses, whose design harks back to their medieval forebearers, are now restored into highly-prized villas. The latest large-scale project called Portomaso in St Julian’s incorporates loggias as a recurrent motif in the design, plus the balconies and wide spaces of Baroque alongside a modern glass tower, Malta’s highest building. Richard England, Malta’s most famous living architect, has spent a lifetime perfecting his round architecture. This can be seen in some of his churches, most notable Manikata’s parish church, and in his excellent restoration of St James’ Cavalier in Valletta. He has also recently designed the extensive extension to the University of Malta in Msida, where he created a cluster of stout tower-like structures, some squarish, some round, others a hybrid of round and square designs, most with slanting roofs, and various window-shapes like fancy geometric cutouts. The overall effect makes the eye rove over what has the aura of an elite cluster of ivory towers, expressing the cultural and intellectual distinction of a University, though the designs also make it look like a closed, esoteric world. Along with Renzo Piano, England is also the co-designer of the Valletta Master Plan, and here he shows his flair. The design proposes the lowering of the Bus Terminus to make the fortifications stand out more gloriously, while the Bus Terminus will be moved underground and the plaza at ground level is fashioned into a triangle, mimicking the proportions of a bastion in a continuity to Valletta’s fortifications. Freedom Square will also completely be rebuilt and England chose this place to showcase his round architecture with its fluidity, a conduit of human movement and urban energies – a return, if you will, to the earliest innovation of all when the Neolithic Era gave birth to architecture. 


© Victor Paul Borg. The above essay was originally published in the Rough Guide to Malta & Gozo, which was researched and written entirely by Victor Paul Borg.


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