Auberges in Valletta
Being away from their country of origin, many Knights of the Order of St. John would probably have felt homesick without their hostels in Malta, the auberges. Each of the eight European territories that were present in the Order – the so-called langues – built its own auberge, which served as accommodation for its members but also for pilgrims and visitors from its home country. Moreover, the hostels were used for meetings, dining and other social activities.
Shortly after the Order of St. John had arrived in Malta in 1530, each langue started to erect its auberge in Birgu. The two French langues of Provence and Auvergne shared one building, so that seven hostels were built in Birgu, of which only three have survived: the Auberge de France, the Auberge d’Angleterre and the Auberge de Provence and Auvergne.
After the foundation of Valletta in 1566, the Order obviously had to “move” their auberges to the new city. Therefore, new hostels had to be constructed for all langues with the exception of the English one, which was forced to disband due to the Reformation of 1534. The Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar was commissioned with the design of the seven auberges.
Each langue was responsible for the financing of the building, and it was supposed to build the auberge in a certain part of Valletta, namely near the section of the fortification where the langue was responsible for the defence of the new city. At the same time, the hostels had to have a central location.
The Auberge was administered by a grand gentleman knight known as the bali, also known as the Grand Conservator, who was responsible for the purchasing of food and clothing and for the provision of transport and everything necessary for both the hospitals and the troops. Life at the Auberge was, to all intents and purposes, monastic with regular holy masses to attend and offices to be said. Obedience was practiced and fasting was obligatory. Thursdays and Sundays were slightly different and the residents used to dine in the refectory, the largest room in the edifice.
Cassar’s predecessor and teacher, Francesco Laparelli, had already planned to build each auberge with a piazza in front. Eventually, at least three auberges were built with an open space in front: the Auberge d’Aragon, the Auberge d’Auvergne and the Auberge de Castille. Whether any of the other auberges were situated on a piazza, is not certain but shall be discussed later on.
Unfortunately, only three of Cassar’s seven auberges have survived. The German auberge was already destroyed in 1839 to make space for the Anglican Cathedral. There is almost nothing known about this auberge. The Auberge d’Auvergne and the Auberge de France were both completely destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War.
As most auberges turned out to be too small throughout the years and because they were also meant to represent some kind of status symbol of each langue, they were all later enlarged and modified. The Auberge de Castille underwent the most extreme change – it was totally rebuilt and redesigned.
Cassar was a big fan of corner rustications. He applied them on all his auberges – with the exception of the one of Castille. One can even make out a development in their design: Starting from plain alternating long and shorter quoins (Auberge d’Aragon, Auberge d’Auvergne), the rustications became more varied and innovative throughout the years (for example, the diamond shaped quoins on the Auberge d’Italie).
Actually, there is a reason why Cassar used these rustications (or, in the case of the Auberge de Castille, the panelled pilasters) on the corners of his buildings: It was an instruction from the Order to decorate all corners in the new city of Valletta. Rustications have their roots in military architecture. In the Quattrocento they came into fashion on secular buildings in Florence, from where they became more and more fashionable in Rome and the whole south of Italy. Until the baroque, they formed a typical feature of secular architecture, and from the 16th century onwards they were mainly used for decoration of corners and openings such as windows and doors.
When comparing Cassar’s auberges to contemporary secular architecture in Italy, it is striking that Cassar’s style is much more plain, sober and especially stricter. However, this soberness and strictness is explainable with the Order’s influences on Cassar’s building style. Until the 16th century the auberges were meant to represent the military and religious character of the Order of St. John, and Cassar was supposed to adapt his buildings to the Order’s practical requirements.
After the Order of St. John did not have to fear further attacks by the Turks or other naval powers anymore, they spent less time with taking measures of defence, and consequently, they gave up the strict, military building style more and more. The plainness and strictness was completely abolished in the baroque when all buildings were richly decorated.
Probably not the best example for a baroque building is the eighth auberge that was finally built in Valletta at the end of the 17th century, the Auberge de Baviere et Angleterre. The Anglo-Bavarian langue had just formed in the late 17th century and moved into its new auberge at St. Elmo Bay in 1696.
The last auberge to be constructed and certainly the most important 18th century building is the second Auberge de Castille. The Knights of Castille et Leon must have found the original Auberge de Castille too modest and too small, so that they decided to engage the baroque architect Domenico Cachia with the design of a new and larger auberge in 1744.
Cachia must have had so much empathy for the original design that he actually orientated himself on the first Auberge de Castille when designing the current one. It is also rectangular in plan and has a central courtyard – but obviously on a bigger scale than Cassar’s auberges. Cachia also applied pilasters that divide the façade vertically. The magnificent staircase hall inside the auberge is remarkable, and the facade is probably the most successful and best balanced and proportioned architectural work in Maltese baroque.
The Valletta auberges are definitely the best representation of how Valletta has changed throughout the centuries. The modifications on Cassar’s sober auberges in the baroque changed Valletta’s military character completely.
The eight Auberges
Auberge D’Allemagne was demolished to make room for the Anglican Cathedral of St Paul.
Auberge D’Auvergne was demolished during the war and it has now been replaced by the Law Courts.
Auberge De France was also demolished during the war and it has now been replaced by the Worker’s Memorial Building.
Auberge De Castille et Leon, by far the most magnificent of the eight, today houses the Office of the Prime Minister.
Auberge D’Aragon, just opposite the former Auberge D’Allemagne today houses the Ministry for Home Affairs.
Auberge D’Italie today houses the Malta Tourism Authority, having housed the Law Courts in former times.
Auberge De Provence today houses the National Museums of Archaeology.
Auberge De Baviere et Angleterre today houses the main offices of the GPD, having been a Primary School in former times.
The Langues of the Knights of St John
Tongues or langues were the geographic-cultural subgroupings of the members of the Knights of Rhodes/Maltese Knights from the 14th to the 18th century. Functionally they corresponded roughly to the Provinces of other religious orders.
The organization of the Order into tongues emerged in the early 14th century when the Knights Hospitaller took possession of Rhodes and was based on a decision of the Order’s Chapter-General in 1301. The initial seven tongues were: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (with Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany. In 1462 Castile and Portugal split off from Aragon and formed a tongue of their own. For a brief period in the 18th century there also was a separate tongue of Bavaria. In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, some of the tongues, notably the English and German ones, were substantially weakened and could no longer adequately meet their obligations. This led a reorganization and a reduction in the number of tongues.
Despite the seeming link to language, this organization was not strictly aligned with linguistic boundaries, but tended to combine the Order’s knights and possessions in several nations or states. The German tongue, for instance, included Scandinavia, Hungary, Poland and Bohemia. Each tongue covered at least one Grand Priory. The Grand Prior and the Chapter, which comprised representatives of all bailiwicks and commanderies, administered the individual tongues — including the Order’s possessions, its charitable activities (hospitals etc.), parishes incorporated into the Order, and the financial contributions for the defence of Rhodes and later Malta and for the maintenance of the Order’s naval forces in the Mediterranean.
At the centre, each tongue was represented in the Chapter-General by at least one knight, typically the Bailli who commanded the tongue’s knights at the headquarters in Rhodes/Malta and administered its auberge (hostel) where the local members lodged and took their meals. Each tongue was responsible for the maintenance and defence of a specific portion of the fortress defences and had to man it with sufficient numbers of knights and soldiers.
Militarily each tongue was headed by a Pilier (also known as Bailliffs or Baillis), who would also hold one of the high offices of the order, the Grand Commander, Marshal, Hospitallier, Admiral, Turcoplier, Drapier. Only the Treasurer was independent of the Tongues. The Piliers were answerable only to the Grand Master, which office each tongue was seeking to gain for one of its own.
In effect the tongues were also knightly brotherhoods built around the residences or Auberges that the tongues maintained. These brotherhoods were also political units within the Order, with langues competing over many matters, from the purity of the ancestry required to attain membership to more mundane matters such as the luxury of the Tongue’s Auberge. The Auberge’s of several tongues still exist, and are notable buildings in Valletta, and in the knights older capital at Birgu.
The division even extended to manning and command of the Knights fortifications, with each tongue responsible for the maintenance and defence of a specific portion of the fortress defences and responsible for manning it with sufficient numbers of knights and soldiers.
Supporting the tongue as a military unit was an administrative organisation, made up of priories, which in turn were made up of commanderies, the estates and houses that provided the people and funds that supported the Orders activities.
Each tongue covered at least one Grand Priory. The Grand Prior and the Chapter, which comprised representatives of all bailiwicks and commanderies, administered the individual tongues — including the Order’s possessions, its charitable activities (hospitals etc.) and parishes incorporated into the Order.
The tongues were expected to provide a number of knights to the Orders military headquarters, and financial contributions for the defence of Rhodes and later Malta and for the maintenance of the Order’s naval forces in the Mediterranean.
By the time of the siege of Malta the tongue of England had been reduced to a single knight. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries having also abolished the Langue in England and annexed the tongue of England’s commanderies.
Structure after the Reorganization of 1301
Tongue of the Provence: southern France, with Grand Priories in Toulouse and Saint-Gilles
- Tongue of the Auvergne: central France, with the Grand Priory in Bourganeuf
Tongue of France: northern France, with three Grand Priories
Tongue of Aragon: Iberian peninsula, with Grand Priories for Aragon, Catalonia, Castille and León, Navarre, and Portugal;
Reorganized in 1462:
Tongue of Aragon: Grand Priories of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre
Tongue of Castille: Grand Priories of Castille-León and Portugal
Tongue of Italy: Grand Priories of Messina, Barletta, Capua, Rome, Pisa, Lombardy, and Venice
Tongue of England: covering the British Isles, with the Grand Priories of England (including Scotland) and Ireland
Tongue of Germany: Grand Priories of Bohemia, Upper Germany, Lower Germany, Dacia (i.e. covering Denmark, Sweden, Norway and modern day Finland), Poland, and Hungary
After the reorganisation in 1462
Tongue of the Provence: southern France, with Grand Priories in Toulouse and Saint-Gilles
Tongue of the Auvergne: central France, with the Grand Priory in Bourganeuf
Tongue of France: northern France, with three Grand Priories
Tongue of Aragon: Grand Priories of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre
Tongue of Castille: Grand Priories of Castille-León and Portugal
Tongue of Italy: Grand Priories of Messina, Barletta, Capua, Rome, Pisa, Lombardy, and Venice
Tongue of England: covering the British Isles, with the Grand Priories of England (including Scotland) and Ireland
Tongue of Germany: Grand Priories of Bohemia, Upper Germany, Lower Germany, Dacia ( i.e. covering Denmark, Sweden, Norway and modern day Finland), Poland, and Hungary
St John’s Co-Cathedral
In 1604, each Tongue was given a chapel in the conventual church of St. John, Malta and the arms of the Langue appear in the decoration on the walls and ceiling:
Provence: St Michael
Auvergne: St Sebastian
France: conversion of St Paul
Castille and Leon: St James the Less
Aragon: St George (the church of the Langue is consecrated to Our Lady of the Pillar)
Italy: St Catherine
England: Flagellation of Christ
The Auberge d’Allemagne was the conventual home of the German Knights Hospitaller. Built between 1571 and 1575 in Strada Ponente (West Street). The Architect was Gerolamo Cassar.
When Queen Adelaide, the widow of William IV, spent the winter of 1838/39 in Malta she was dismayed to find no proper Anglican Church. The British authorities had resisted previous suggestions to build, ostensibly on the grounds of expense, but partly out of consideration for the Roman Catholic Maltese population. Anglican services were held in a room of the Grand Master’s Palace and was “insufficient to contain more than the chief English families”. The vast majority of English residents were spiritually neglected. Queen Adelaide’s offer to pay for a church (nearly £20,000 at the time) overcame all objections. The British Government provided a site, on the spot where the Auberge d’Allemagne had stood. Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone on 20th March 1839. Queen Adelaide’s Banner hangs majestically above the choir stalls.
The original building proved unstable and work started again in 1841 under new designs by William Scamp, who had been employed for some years as Clerk of Works to Sir James Wyattville on the remodeling of Windsor Castle. The Cathedral was built between 1839 and 1844.
A Valletta landmark due to its spire rising over 60 meters, it is constructed with Maltese limestone in a neo-classical style. The cathedral has columns with capitals of the Corinthian order while the capitals of the six columns of the portico are of the Ionic order. The internal dimensions of the building are 33.5 metres x 20.4 metres.
The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Lady Chapel located to the left of the pulpit facing the altar.
Above the entrance to the Cathedral is located the organ that originated in Chester Cathedral in northwest England. The one-manual instrument was built in 1684 by Bernard Smith and is said to have been played by George Frederick Handel while en route to Dublin for the first performance of the Messiah.
The oak panels around the High Altar are a memorial to the Allied units which took part in the defence of Malta between 1940 and 1943 and twelve flags hang in the aisles representing amongst others the Royal Air Force, the British Merchant Navy, and the Royal Navy.
The construction date of the Auberge d’Auvergne, which was destroyed in 1942, is controversial. It was either built in 1571 or 1574, and construction was finished around 1583. On the 8 June 1570, the Langue of Auvergne was authorized by the Grand Council of the Order of St John to finance the erection of its own Auberge in the new city of Valletta. The building was erected to the design of Girolamo Cassar The square plan of this French auberge consists of a central courtyard surrounded by rooms and on two sides by arcades. It was situated in Strada San Giorgio (Republic Street), exactly where today’s Law Courts can be found. So it also had a piazza in front, with the nave of St. John’s Co-Cathedral bordering on the opposite side.
Even this auberge shows several hints of a later enlargement, which was carried out left of the building in 1783 and which is visible from the plan and the facade. First of all, the decentralized location of the main entrance appears very unusual. Secondly, the wall between the third and the fourth rooms on the left front side appears thicker than between the other rooms.
The third proof for a later enlargement is the vertical rustication that shows between the third and the fourth windows on the front facade and which looks very similar to the corner rustication of the Auberge d’Aragon. As Cassar only applied rustications on the corners of his buildings and as this rustication appears in the same place as the thicker wall, this must have been the original left corner of the auberge. The entrance would also have appeared in a central position then.
In 1825 it became the seat of the Tribunale di Pirateria and of the Corte di Fallimento. In 1840, during the governorship of General Sir Henry Bouverie, the Civil Courts moved into the building.
During World War II the entire complex was destroyed by a German parachute mine on Tuesday 29 May 1941. It was rebuilt in the late sixties to the classical design we see today. During the period until the new building was completed, the Superior Courts and the Court of Magistrates (Malta) were housed in two different buildings, both in Valletta, although there were periods when the courts were also situated in different towns.
The Law Courts Building stands on the site of what was previously the Knights’ Auberge d’Auvergne. The present building comprises seven floors, three of which are below the level of Republic Street. These three levels house the Civil Courts Registry, the Court Archives, the police lock-up and a car park. Up till a few years ago, the Valletta Police Station was also housed in one of these three under-street-level floors.
The building was inaugurated on the 9 January 1971 by the then Prime Minister Dr George Borg Olivier, in the presence of the Governor Sir Maurice Dorman, the Archbishop Sir Michael Gonzi, Judges and Magistrates, ministers and other distinguished guests. The first case to be heard in the new building was scheduled for Monday 11 January 1971 and was an appeal lodged by two Sicilians against the order for their extradition.
Auberge De France
The last auberge that was designed by Gerolamo Cassar was the Auberge de France. Actually, even this auberge had its predecessor: The first Auberge de France was situated on a corner in South Street and dates back to 1570. It was also designed by Cassar, because the remaining part of the building shows Cassar’s typical window frames and rustication.
This first Auberge de France also turned out to be too small for the French Knights. The second auberge was erected only one street block away in 1588. Unfortunately, this auberge was totally destroyed on 8 April 1942.
The plan of the second Auberge de France varies from Cassar’s usual plans, probably because he had to integrate an already existing building in his design. The main entrance is placed totally decentralized on the right of the façade, and the courtyard appears at the back of the building, being separated from it by a gallery.
The facade also appears quite strange compared to Cassar’s other designs. Due to the integration of the building, all windows and the main entrance are placed without any symmetry. The windows are also different in size and design, partly even without a frame.
In 1955 The Workers’ Memorial Building was built in memory of the workers who gave their life during World War II. It now houses the Offices of the General Workers’ Union.
Auberge De Castille
In 1573, the auberge for the langues of Castille and Leon was built. Today’s Auberge de Castille is actually the second one on this building site – the original Auberge de Castille was designed by Gerolamo Cassar, and it was probably his most innovative auberge design.
The outer appearance of the original auberge is recorded in a painting from the late 17th century, after which Roger de Giorgio had made an elevation, and in a drawing from the early 18th century, which was discovered by Giovanni Bonello.
The most striking and innovative features of this auberge are the panelled pilasters that divide the facade vertically. It is the first time that Cassar introduced this architectural feature on a facade and that he does not apply his typical corner rustications.
Panelled pilasters or pillars can be found in the courtyards and interiors of his secular and ecclesiastical buildings respectively. During the baroque period the first Auberge de Castille must have undergone some alterations: the staircase in the drawing is typical baroque in its style, as well as the coat of arms above the main entrance.
The site acquired in 1569 was to host a stately structure, referred to as the Casa Grande with a frontage along St. Paul Street. The construction cost was met through a levy imposed in 1570 on the members of this Langue. This house, which could only accommodate the Pilier and a limited number of other knights, served as the Auberge between 1571 and 1573 when the Langue, still residing in Birgu decided to go ahead with a bigger building.
The Knights tried to transform the austere military character of their city by replacing the original buildings with others in a new, flamboyant Baroque style. As an expression of power and prestige it won popular approval throughout the islands, such that the affluent, sought to express their opulence by facing their own houses with the trappings of this splendid style.
The new Auberge was built between 1741 and 1745.
Both the facade and the plan are the finest works of architecture in eighteenth century Valletta. The façade is rich yet has pleasing proportions and the main theme is the exaltation of Grand Master Pinto. The Grand Master’s symbol, the crescent moon, is displayed lavishly throughout the building; the Grand Master’s swaggering white marble bust is placed over the doorway and his coat of arms provides the climax to the central window. A heavy masonry pediment unifies the façade with the coat of arms of the Langue of Spain and Portugal.
After the landing of Napoleon and his forces in 1798 on June 20, the Spanish knights obtained permission to evacuate Malta with their movable property and the French occupied the Auberge de Castille for the use of the Commission for National Property.
In 1800, Malta was recaptured by the Maltese with the great assistance of Great Britain and thus Malta became a British colony. The British and Maltese toasted to their victory in the Auberge de Castille. The armed forces established their headquarters in the Auberge de Castille in 1805 and it was also used as lodgings for the British officers.
In 1814, the Auberge was used to accommodate a disabled contingent from the army of Egypt. Also, in 1840, one of the rooms of the first floor was converted into the first Protestant chapel. In 1860, a British regiment occupied the Auberge and installed a signalling station on the roof terrace in 1889, to communicate with warships berthed in the harbour.
The Auberge de Castille has also been used as the General Headquarters of the Army for Malta, Libya and following the expulsion of the Army from Egypt in 1954, for Cyprus too. During the Second World War in 1942, the Auberge was bombed on the right side of the entrance.
Since March 4, 1972, the Auberge de Castille has been used as the seat of the Prime Minister. It is here that the Prime Minister conducts the business of Government . The weekly meetings of the Cabinet are also held in the Auberge.
Restoration work on the façades of the Auberge de Castille was started in 2009 and completed in July 2014, five years after the first scaffolding went up.
The project involving the cleaning and repair of the intricate stonework, started in Merchants’ Street and continued along the main façade and then the St Paul Street side – which needed most work because it was more exposed to the sun, sea salt and power station emissions. The project was handled by the Restoration Unit of the Infrastructure Ministry.
One of the first auberges to be built in Valletta was the one for the Spanish provinces of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre. Construction of the Auberge d’Aragon began in 1571 after Girolamo Cassar’s plans. The auberge is situated in Archbishop Street on the Marsamxett Harbour side and has a piazza in front. It is the only Valletta auberge that has survived in its almost original state.
However, there is a reason why the Auberge d’Aragon was never modified: It was only meant as a temporary accommodation for the Spanish knights, and a larger hostel was planned closer to the centre of Valletta. This also explains the extreme plainness of the one-storey building.
It is rectangular in plan with a central courtyard surrounded by asymmetrically placed and interconnecting rooms. The entrance of the auberge lies almost in the centre of the main facade. It opens to the entrance hall with a coffered barrel-vault and a flight of stairs, which lead to the courtyard with arcades.
The plain front facade consists of a Doric portico, which is a later addition and the only alteration on the building, with three rectangular windows on each side. Due to the asymmetrical arrangement of the rooms, these simply framed windows are also placed without actual symmetry. The only decorations on the facade are the corner rustication and the rather plain roof cornice.
It is recorded that the site was purchased in the acts of the Maltese Notary Placido Abela on 20 th September 1569 for the sum of 80 scudi and 8 tari. The place for accommodation in the submerge is not really satisfactory and the Knights attached to this particular inn lived in a nearby property, part of which is now the Manoel Theatre.
The earthquake of 1693 damaged the Auberge and left it in a sad state and in urgent need of repair. Architect Frederick Blondel reported that the facade and the adjacent wall running down Strada Ponente were damaged and dislodged.
Towards the middle of the 18th Century more accommodation was added on a piece of land overlooking Marsamxetto. The later addition of the portico was a naïve attempt at piling prestige onto the venerable old building. The Auberge d’Aragon is a palace of simple design, built not as the ultimate and prestigious edifice of the Knights of Aragon would aspire to, but as a necessary and functional religious inn.
When Napoleon came to Malta in 1798 the knights of the language of Aragon were made to pack their bags and leave their adopted homeland. French soldiers replaced the noble defenders at the Auberge, albeit for a short period of time. When the British came to Malta in 1800, following the surrender of the French Garrison, the Auberge d’Aragon was requisitioned by the Quartermaster. It was temporarily let in portions to various tenants.
Between 1822 and 1824 it served as the government printing press.
Tenants at the Auberge included Sir John Richardson, Colonel Sir Frederick Hankey, Chief secretary to the Government of Malta and one Dr Tomlinson Protestant Lord Bishop of Gibraltar who in 1842 took residence at the Auberge. He changed the name of the historic palace to ‘Gibraltar House’ and is alleged to have tried to change Strada Vescovo (Bishop Street) to Strada Vescovi (Bishops Street). It is probably at this time that the steps outside the front door were removed to be replaced by a doric portico. Perhaps because the Lord Bishop was frequently away on pastoral visits, the Auberge was let on a very short lease to a Captain Stewart RN, who could have been Admiral Sir Houston Stewart, one time member of the Malta Council of Government.
In 1921, when Malta was granted a certain amount of self-government, the Auberge was turned into a school. Following Sir Ugo Mifsud’s election as Prime Minister in 1924 the Auberge once again changed role and became the official seat of the Prime Minister. With the suspension of the constitution and with war starting in 1939 the Auberge was made available to the British Institute.
Since the return of self-government in 1947 four prime Ministers have used Auberge d’Aragon as their office starting with Sir Paul Boffa. He was followed by Dr Enrico Mizzi in 1950 and Dr Giorgio Borg Olivier who succeeded Nerik Mizzi after the latter died in office.
It was Dr Borg Olivier who successfully negotiated sovereign Independence for the Maltese Islands . The historic table at which many discussions were held survives in the old refectory of the Auberge.
Mr. Dom Mintoff who won the 1971 General Election moved the Office of the Prime Minister out of the Auberge d’Aragon to the more opulent and majestic Auberge de Castille on 4 March 1972.
Ms Agatha Barbara, who eventually became Malta’s first woman President, took over the Auberge d’Aragon for her Ministry of Education and Culture. The change in Government in 1987 saw Mr. John Dalli in as Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and later as Minister for Economic Affairs. Later the Auberge housed the Ministry for Economic Services headed by Dr George Bonello Dupius and later by Dr Josef Bonnici. After the 2003 election the Auberge housed the Ministry of Finance and Economic Services. In March 2004 the Auberge d’Aragon became the office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice and Home Affairs, Dr Tonio Borg. After the 2008 election the Auberge d’Aragon became the office of Dr. Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici as Minsiter for Justice and Home Affairs and subsequently in 2012 as Minister for Home and Parliamentary Affairs.
From 30 May 2012 it housed the Ministry for Home Affairs. As from 13 March 2013 it is housing the Ministry for EU Affairs and Implementation of the Electoral Manifesto
The third auberge that has survived until today is the one of the Italian langue. However, today’s Auberge d’Italie in Merchants Street (ex Strada San Giacomo) was not the first Italian auberge in Valletta: In 1570, the Italian langue had built its first hostel on the site where only one year later the Grand Master Palace was erected. Actually, this first Italian auberge, which was most probably also designed by Cassar, was later integrated in the plan of the Palace.
Construction for the current Auberge d’Italie was begun in 1574. The building is almost square in plan, with a central courtyard surrounded by the rooms. The central main entrance on Merchant Street leads to the entrance hall, which is roofed by a coffered barrel-vault. This type of plan, which Cassar repeatedly uses in his auberges, is also typical for Italian palazzi of the 15th and 16th centuries.
The auberge was originally a one-storeyed building, but it proofed to be too small for the Italian langue, so that in 1582 they decided to enlarge building. As the auberge already filled a whole street block, a horizontal enlargement was not possible. Therefore, a second storey had to be added, which was probably finished in 1595. Cassar died in 1592 (or even earlier), and therefore someone else must have supervised the construction of the second floor. Apparently, a certain Francesco Amitrini was responsible for the supervision, and probably he even modified the design.
On the Auberge d’Italie Cassar varied the design of his corner rustications for the first time, and he applied the same rustication design on the portal (the coat of arms above the portal is a later addition from 1683). The simple window frames with their roofings are again typical of Cassar; merely the consoles and the mezzanine windows with their frames are new features that Cassar introduces here.
However, many architectural elements of the Auberge d’Italie were definitely inspired by contemporary Italian architecture. The diamond-shaped rustications, for example, can be found on some Italian buildings of the Quattro and Cinquecento. The mezzanine window frames are also typical features of Italian Renaissance architecture.
Giovanni Bonello assumes that even the Auberge d’Italie had a piazza in front. Obviously, there would not have been any space for a piazza in Merchants Street, and therefore Bonello suggests that the original front facade of the Italian auberge and its piazza used to be in South Street. He justifies this assumption with the now walled-up entrance in South Street that has also a coffered barrel-vault. According to Bonello this side used to be the main facade until 1629, when another building was erected in front of it, i.e. on the piazza.
However, there are several arguments that are against this assumption. Engravings from the 16th century, for example, show the auberge with its main façade facing Merchants Street. Secondly, the main entrance on South Street would not have been in the centre of the building but on the left, and it does not lead into courtyard like in Cassar’s other auberges – and like the even wider entrance in Merchants Street does.
And last but not least, shortly after the auberge’s construction, namely in 1576, the Italian langue began with the erection of its chapel, which is attached to side of the auberge that lies on South Street. Therefore, there would not have been enough space for a proper piazza. I find all these arguments so significant that I must disagree here with Mr Bonello. It seems more reasonable that the former entrance facing South Street served as a side entrance only.
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.
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 30 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 16 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. After three years, on 25 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 7 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 facade. 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 21 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 facade (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 18th 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.
The symmetrical facade was maintained in the top floor. This exquisite facade certainly emphasised the new main entrance, which developed on the previous side or secondary doorway of the building, making the original main entrance and facade on South Street redundant especially with the building up of the original piazza of the Auberge’s main facade in 1629, though these buildings did not block completely the whole facade. These buildings (housing the Bank of Valletta International and the Valletta Police Station) have been pulled down in 2011 to make a piazza as part of the Piano Project Scheme.
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 facade 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 3 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 Victory Church was utilised to construct two houses.)
The Auberge is rectangular in plan, surrounded on three sides (Zachary, Melita and Merchants Streets) and an open piazza (till 2011 occupied by buildings housing 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).
The rooms abut 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 facade. 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 facade 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 facade 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 facade 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) facade 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 facade 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 facade 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 Church (Republic Street) central facade 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. 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.
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 (Palazzo Parisio).
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 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 19th century) for the outpatient treatment of the needy poor. This is how the present Government Clinics 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. After the War part of it served as Superior Courts of Justice.
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.
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 5 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 31 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 Malta Tourism Authority. Major works were commenced, including the paving and flooring, decorating, refitting and restoration of the building. On 18 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 (situated in a restored, war damaged 16th century building ) into the former home of the Italian Knights on 1 March 2002.
In 2012 a decision was taken to bring back the National Museum of Fine Arts from Ramon de Sousa y Silva’s Rococo Palace in South Street to this magnificent Auberge.
Auberge De Provence
The Auberge de Provence situated on Republic Street and now hosting the National Museum of Archaeology, was either built in 1571 or later, namely around 1574/5. However, its current facade is definitely a later addition. It does not show any traces of Cassar’s design, and there is proof that it dates from 1638, the year this auberge was enlarged.
The nine rectangular front rooms, which now contain the shops on Republic Street and the entrance of the museum, were definitely part of this enlargement, because they do not fit into the usual plan that Cassar had applied in all his auberges (the original courtyard of the Auberge de Provence was later changed as well).
However, there are more hints showing that these rooms and the facade were not part of the original structure: Before the recent renovation of the interior, the thicker wall at the back of the nine front rooms revealed some walled-up windows, which must have been the windows of Cassar’s facade. Moreover, the side facades in Melita Street and Carts Street show a “seam”, i.e. a construction join, exactly where the later added front part begins.
Therefore, Cassar’s original facade of the Auberge de Provence was recessed by some metres. Giovanni Bonello concludes from this discovery that the Auberge de Provence used to have a piazza in front, which seems very reasonable.
The way the facade is embossed with Mannerist characteristics seems to imply that the construction of the Auberge was probably entrusted to the local architect Ġlormu Cassar who was assigned to build all the important buildings in Valletta at that time. When compared to other auberges, the Auberge de Provence has a superior design, expressing some of the best Baroque architecture in Malta and reflecting the fashion being employed throughout the rest of Europe at that time. Of particular note amongst the myriad of fascinating features of the Auberge is the large top floor salon, the Grand Salon, with its richly painted walls and wooden beamed ceiling. It was used by the Knights as a place to negotiate business, and as a dining and banqueting hall, where the Knights feasted, seated at long tables according to seniority. Nowadays this Grand Salon is used for temporary exhibitions and is also rented out for conferences and other activities.
1798 saw the taking over of Malta by the French army who forced out the Order of the Knights of St. John out from Malta and took over and administered the property during their two-year occupation of the Islands. Malta once again changed hands during the 1800, passing on to the British Government. During that time the Auberge served a myriad of purposes amongst which, a military barrack and a hotel.
In 1826 the Malta Union Club leased the premises for its own activities and events, a lease which was however terminated earlier than agreed on 12 August 1955 when the Auberge was allocated to house Malta’s National Museum.
The National Museum at the Auberge de Provençe was officially launched in January 1958 by Ms Agatha Barbara, then Minister of Education. The first director of the museum was Captain Charles G Zammit the son of Malta’s most illustrious Maltese archaeologist Sir Themi Zammit. The collection at that time included not only the archaeological collection but also the Fine Arts collection. The collections started growing till they reached an extent that made it necessary to separate the collections and house them into different edifices. The Fine Arts collection was transferred to the Admiralty House in South Street, Valletta where it was inaugurated as the National Museum of Fine Arts in 1974.
The National Museum at the Auberge de Provençe was then renamed as the National Museum of Archaeology. Exhibition display development along the years dictated that the museum display be refurbished, an exercise that saw the newly refurbished museum open in 1998 after two years of closure. The present display exhibits artefacts from Malta’s Neolithic period but works are currently undergoing in order to open the Upper Floor Halls with the Bronze Age, Phoenician, Punic, Roman and Byzantine periods permanent displays.
Auberge De Baviere et Angleterre
Probably not the best example for a baroque building is the eighth auberge that was finally built in Valletta at the end of the 17th century, the Auberge de Baviere et Angleterre. The Anglo-Bavarian langue had just been formed in the late 17th century and moved into its new auberge at St. Elmo Bay in 1696. Architecturally, the auberge is not outstanding or innovative at all. Hughes even called it a “monotonous block of masonry”. Its architect is not known.
This Palace was built in 1696 by Fra Gaspare Carniero, Bali of Acre, on the site of an old lime-kiln leased to the Bali for the “term of two lives”. At the end of this term the Treasury was to receive twenty-one scudi per annum corresponding to the rent of the previously existing building. The remaining balance was to go towards the acquisition of bronze guns for the defence of the fortress, or for the galleys, or towards the purchase of a gift “gioia” for the Conventual Church-St John’sCo-Cathedral.
Between 13 September 1702 and 13 April 1719, the Palace was let jointly to Fra Ottavio Zondadari, nephew of Pope Alexander VII. Zondadari was elevated to Grand Master in 1720, and according to tradition, the Palace continued to be his residence up to the time of his death.
In 1725 Pope Benedict XIII presented Grand Master Antonio de Vilhena with the “Stoc and Piliet” (Sword and Hat), a symbol conferred by the Pope to Heads of State. As it was the first time that this honour was given to a Grand Master, the news was received with great jubilation in Malta and the event celebrated with due ceremony. The Papal Legate, Mons. Giovanni Francesco Abbate Olivieri arrived in Malta from Leghorn on 19 April 1725 on board a French vessel, and was conducted with due pomp to the Palazzo Carniero, which had been magnificently furnished to accommodate this distinguished visitor.
When Grand Master Emanuel de Rohan instituted the Anglo-Bavarian League, the Carnieri Palace was brought to serve as its Auberge. The Palace was given over to the Anglo-Bavarian Knights for the sum of 20,000 scudi – less than half of the real value of the property. The Anglo-Bavarian Knights were entrusted with the defence of St. Lazarus Bastion and their Chief was the Commander of Cavalry and the Coast Guard.
In 1824, the building was handed to the British Military Authorities who returned it to the Civil Government after self-government was granted to the Island of Malta in 1921.
Despite suffering damages during the Second World War, these were only minor ones and the Palace is still in its original state. It has been used as a school and more recently has housed various government departments among which was the Housing Department and the Lands Department.
The GPD has used the Auberge as its corporate base since the inception of the Department in 1997. The former Land Directorate had been housed at the Auberge since 1979.
In 2001 an extensive Auberge de Bavière Rehabilitation Project was initiated to make the building more suitable for the functional needs of the GPD. This project was undertaken under the guidance of the Restoration Unit of the Works Division to conserve the historical nature of the building.
The Auberge de Bavière houses the main offices of the GPD, including the Director General’s Office, the Finance & Administration Directorate, The Estate Management Directorate, the Land Directorate and the Joint Office Directorate.
Auberges in Birgu
When settling down in the harbour town Birgu, the Knights erected seven auberges, one for each tongue of the Order (the tongue of Provence and the Auvergne shared one hostel). The Birgu auberges were built between 1533 and 1535; their architect is not known.
The three surviving auberges, the Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence, the Auberge de France and the Auberge d’Angleterre, all consist of two floors. On the ground floor one could find the kitchen, stables and store rooms, while on the first floor the main rooms for meetings and dinners could be found.
All auberges are similar in plan: They have an open courtyard, which is surrounded by two wings. In two of the surviving auberges, the main entrance leads into a hall with a tunnel-vault. The facades also share many common features. The main door is usually placed in the centre of the facade. Each auberge also has side entrances.
On the mezzanine floor one can find small windows, which are mostly frameless, and the main floor, the piano nobile, shows larger, rectangular windows, which are surrounded by the typical Maltese window frame, the so-called “Melitan triple roll moulding” or “Melitan fat moulding”.
This decorative feature can be found on many buildings in Malta from the 16th and 17th centuries. It is used on windows and doors. Most probably it was introduced to Malta by the Knights of St. John, because it does not appear on any buildings before 1530. A frame which looks very similar to the “Melitan triple roll moulding” can be found around the windows of a court building in Rhodes.
Auberge D’Angleterre in Birgu
When the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in October 1530, they established themselves without delay in the small humble fishing village of Il Borgo (Birgu), also known today as Vittoriosa, after the success achieved during the Great Siege of 1565 when Grandmaster La Vallette acclaimed it as the victorious city. For 41 years the streets of Il Borgo were occupied by the Knights and each nationality known as Language, “Langue” for short, took over or built residences (palaces) termed Auberges. At first these palaces were modest when compared with the later ones in Valletta; most of them still survive in Vittoriosa including the Auberge d’Angleterre that serves today as a regional library. It is the best one kept out of all the surviving ones in Vittoriosa.
English Knights of noble birth vied to become members of the Order of St John that was a monastic institution; they figured prominently in the early history of the Knights. One of the English Knights, Sir Richard Salford, was a representative of the Knights who had visited Malta and recommended that the island of Malta should be the permanent base of the Knights of St John after their greatest loss of the island of Rhodes in 1522. During this transitional period when the Knights wanted to find a permanent home as a base, Grandmaster L’Isle Adam even travelled to England asking King Henry VIII for the possibility of a base, but this request was unsuccessful. History recalls that nobody in Europe wanted this religious institution to have a base in their country after losing the island of Rhodes.
After about eight years wandering in the Mediterranean, it was Sir William Weston who commanded the vessel, the carrack Sant’Anna that carried Grandmaster L’Isle Adam and the Knights, to the island of Malta on October 26th, 1530. Sir William Weston died of a heart attack in 1540 on hearing the bad news of the suppression of the English Langue by King Henry VIII. The suppression took part because Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, to marry her beautiful Lady in waiting, Anna Boleyn, and Pope Paul III (1534-1549), Alessandro Farnese, did not give his consent for the divorce, as it was against the principle and status of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Wolsley, a great friend of both the Pope and Henry, could not accept the proposition made by Henry to ask the Pope for the consent. The King acted himself, the Parliament was on his side, the Archbishop of Canterbury was on his side and he suppressed completely the English Langue, as he did not want to see England being represented by the Order of St John because it was a religious institution. Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Emperor Charles V of Aragon, to whom the Maltese islands belonged, until they were given by a feudal agreement to the Knights in 1530.
History recalls that Sir Weston was buried like other English Knights in the first Conventual church of St Lawrence, but his tomb is not marked. Another English Knight, Sir Nicholas Upton, was also buried in St Lawrence church, but again his tomb is not marked. Sir Upton distinguished himself during earlier attacks by the Turks. He was the Patron of a great galley of the Order in 1537 whilst Sir William Tyrrel brought urgent food supplies from Marseilles. Sir Upton was killed in the first Siege of 1551 by Dragut, the dreaded corsaire and his army when the latter attempted to conquer Malta, and he conquered the sister island of Gozo instead.
Sir Oliver Starkey, another English Knight, presented himself as the right hand and secretary of Grandmaster La Vallette during the major Ottoman attacks. He assisted the Grandmaster during the Great Siege of 1565. He is buried in the crypt of St John in Valletta. He is the only person to be buried in this crypt below the rank of Grandmaster. In this crypt there are buried the earlier Grandmasters. His house in Birgu could still be seen today next to the Auberge D’Angleterre. His house in Valletta in Merchants’ Street, which he built when the Order moved there from Vittoriosa in 1571, is today is occupied by the Russian institute of culture.
There are references to English members of the Order of St John that could be found in the former Library of the Order in Valletta including all the names of all the English Knights within the Order. These are also available in the Auberge in Vittoriosa and can be shown on request. In the library at Valletta one could also see the historic decree of 1532 requiring aspirants for knighthood in the English Langue to present their proof of nobility before joining in Malta as Knights of Justice. The title of the Head of the English Langue was Turcopilier and he was responsible for the militia including the manning of the Post of England that was close to that of Germany, both overlooking on the north walls of Birgu on the Grand Harbour. The word Turcopilier meant a Turkish light cavalryman, that was actually the title of the Conventual Bailiff of the English Langue, and it took its name from “Turcopoles”, a sort of light cavalry mentioned in the history of the wars carried on by the Christians against Muslims in Palestine. Originally it meant a light-armed Turkish soldier, son of a Turk.
There was just only one English Knight left by the year 1600 serving in Malta, and all the Commandaries in England were all confiscated during the disassociation of the Langue from the Order. Later, the English Langue was going to be established during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor in 1557. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and she was a religious lady because she never forgot her mother’s religion. But the Langue was suppressed again by Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anna Boleyn. Elizabeth I was later excommunicated by Pope Pius V (1566-1572). Unfortunately Queen Mary Tudor reigned for only five years on the throne of England, and those five years were not enough to re-establish the English Langue again according to her wishes.
When the Knights left Vittoriosa and went to the new city Valletta in 1571, no English Auberge was built in Valletta though it was hoped that this Langue might be revived in future. So the unique English Auberge is found only in Vittoriosa.
A historical sitting of the Knights of the English Langue took place on March 4th 1532. This sitting mentioned a modest house in Birgu for the English Knights. The Knights were present at the meeting. This actual house was acquired by an English Knight, Sir Clement West in December 1534. He purchased it from a Maltese woman Catherine Abela whose husband was a slave (not a prisoner) of the Order. Sir Clement West donated the house in Majjistrall Street (North West Street) to the English Langue in May 1535. When the Langue was deprived of its properties in 1540, a few years later in 1546 the Grandmaster directed that an annual provision should be made to maintain the Auberge. The small house was converted into the present large palace or auberge, a 16th century building with Melitan moulding windows at the facade.
Now the Auberge is used as a Public Library by the Vittoriosa local Council.
The Auberge of France in Birgu after 1571
When the Order found no further use for its properties in Birgu (Vittoriosa), these were sold to private owners, mainly in order to raise funds for the building of Valletta, and the French Auberge, like all the other Auberges in Birgu, passed into private hands. Thankfully, it retained its original shape, both internally and externally. Only in the early 19th century did it start to gain prominence again, when it was acquired by the well-to-do Vella family at a time when Birgu was experiencing a fresh revival in city life caused by the presence of the British Admiralty. For this reason, the building was popularly called il-Palazz tal-Miljunarju (The Palace of the Millionaire).
In 1852, when the British colonial government was making education available to most children, in line with similar openings in the United Kingdom, the Auberge de France was rented by the government to serve as a primary school. It remained as such until 1918, when the primary school was transferred to the old armoury of the Order in Birgu.
In 1921 the building was rented to Lorenzo Zammit Naro, who turned it into a furniture factory. It was around this time that he installed a stone statuette of St Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, on its portal. This was later removed.
Canon Gian Mari Farrugia, Dean of the Chapter of St Lawrence Collegiate Church, was an ardent believer in the hitherto unrecognised wealth of Birgu’s historical heritage. In 1938, he invited Sir Harry Luke, himself a lover of Maltese heritage, to visit the Auberge de France. Sir Harry was impressed with its beautiful architecture and he urged the government to acquire it from private hands. An indicative inscription was fixed on its facade. Unfortunately, any plans for the better use of the building had to be shelved because of the war. After the war, the Birgu Auberge was again left in a desolate state.
Between 1966 and 1978, it was used as a carpenter’s workshop again.
It was only in 1980 that Dr Ladislav Lajcha, a Czech cultural consultant to the Malta government, was commissioned to help in its restoration and in the following year the palace was converted into a Political History Museum. Not well frequented, the museum was closed down in 1987 and the building again fell into disuse and was in need of repair. Indeed, in 1990 the ceiling had to be renovated due to severe damage because of rainwater. It seems that the Museums Department had no funds for its continued upkeep.
On 6 March 2012 the Auberge de France has been transferred to the Vittoriosa council for an annual rent of €2,000 a year for three years.It is now being restored by the Birgu Local Council to move the Local Council Offices to this magnificent palace.
The Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence after 1571
The building on the right hand side of the Auberge de France in Birgu is the Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence. In reality the building consisted of twin houses with a common facade, one being the Auberge d’Auvergne and the other the Auberge de Provence. Bosio clearly affirms the presence of separate Auberges for the two French Langues.
A reconstitution of the facade demonstrates the existence of two similar buildings that were subsequently marred by modifications. The architecture of the two auberges was also in the vernacular style but differed from that of the Auberge de France. From the interior, the two auberges were apparently joined.
A section of the auberge at the extreme right, probably that belonging to Auvergne, was demolished in the immediate pre-war period to make way for a modern residence, thereby obliterating the symmetry of the original facade, though the main entrance of the auberge and a small balcony on top of it still remain as a reminder of the former auberge. This part of the building was the property of the Confraternity of St Catherine. It is now a private residence.
The surviving Auberge adjacent to the Auberge de France, probably that of Provence, is still broadly intact superficially, though deformed in some places through alterations.
A recent comprehensive study of the Auberge d’Auvergne et Provence conducted in 1992 by Mr Paul Saliba established that the interior is very much in its original state, despite its having been partitioned into four separate privately-owned houses.
Gaining access to the interior, he examined the building and discovered architectural elements, notably in the ground floor and basement, which probably date to the 15th century and there are also extremely old remnants – probably from the Byzantine period – not found anywhere else in Malta. As in the case of the Auberge de France, the basement and cellars lead to Ancient Street at the back of the building.
Auberge d’Italie in Birgu
The Italian Knights were strongly represented and highly influential within the Order. The langue occupied a prestigious post within the Order – Captain General of the Fleet.
The original auberge was destroyed during World War II and unsympathetically rebuilt in 1961-1963, and thus little remains of the original fabric. This auberge was the only one to be built outside the collacchio due to its naval and maritime responsibilities related to the post it occupied within the Order.
This auberge also incorporated a naval hospital and a small chapel (dedicated to St Catherine).
The current auberge was built in 1553-1554 on the same site of the original auberge and thus it is attributed to Niccolo’ Bellavante. It is interesting to note that the first carnival festivities and revelry were introduced by the Italian Langue in 1535, and for this purpose a raised platform was built in front of the auberge.
The only visible remains of the Auberge d’Italie on the façade consist of a corner quoin, a partially defaced coat-of-arms, a small number of mouldings around first floor apertures similar to those found on the other auberges and the corbels and base of a balcony.
The reconstruction during the 1960s has totally disfigured the original design of the façade. Moreover, unsympathetic material (concrete) was also introduced. One should note that the dwellings seem to be of a sub-standard nature and this compounds the visual deficiencies of the incongruent design of the recent additions. Auberge d’Italie, Triq San Lawrenz, Vittoriosa, was scheduled by MEPA as a Grade 1 national monument as per Government Notice number 1082/09 in the Government Gazette dated December 22, 2009.