The Main Guard and the Chancellery
The Main Guard and the Chancellery were built in 1603 on order of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. The buildings face the Grand Master’s Palace across Misrah San Gorg. The central building served as the Guard Room of the Regimento di Guardia – the Grand Master’s personal guards. It later served as the Main Guard to the British Governor.
The building consists of a single floor on the front part and three floors on the rear onto Triq id-Dejqa owing to the differences in level between the streets.
In 1814 a portico was added in front of the entrance to the Guard Room. The portico is crowned by a stone sculpture of the British Royal Coat of Arms with lion and unicorn supporters. Below these carvings is an inscription in Latin dated 1814 recording Malta’s request to become a British protectorate.
For most of the circa 200 years that the British Empire reigned over Malta, British soldiers used to man the Main Guard across the square from The Palace, in Valletta. The walls of the Main Guard’s inner rooms are the product of a very boring life that the Captain of the Guard must have led with mostly nothing to do except run out and salute every time the Governor or the Archbishop passed by. He dedicated most of the time to carve in the stone walls of the Main Guard’s inner rooms. The product of such boredom is no less than 300 wall paintings and carvings. Most are regimental badges but there are other paintings – nostalgia features big, but also countless amateur paintings of pretty girls. Many Maltese are not aware that the Main Guard, or to give it its original name, the Guardia della Piazza, was built by the Knights. It was the British who, as they did to various other buildings in Valletta (except the Law Courts, a post-war Maltese creation), added a portico.
A series of prints from the times of the Knights show a column at the Archbishop Street corner with Republic Street. They also show that the main flagpoles of the palace at the time of the Knights were on the corner of Republic Street with Old Theatre Street.
It was a priest from Zejtun, an Anglophile, who composed the Latin inscription on the façade of the portico. The inscription insists it was the Maltese love for Britain that invited the British in – reflecting the general fear in 1814 that the Knights could come back.
The inscription on the Main Guard portico reads:
MAGNAE ET INVICTAE BRITANNIAE
MELITENSIUM AMOR ET EUROPAE VOX
HAS INSULAS CONFIRMAT
But, it seems there was a typo when it was re-cut in 1851. The last word should be CONFIRMANT (plural). The inscription translates “To Great and Unconquered Britain, the Love of the Maltese and the Voice of Europe Confirms these Islands. A.D. 1814”
The “Voice of Europe” is a euphemism for the Treaty of Paris 1814, a Constitutional Statute signed 30 May, 1814 to end the Napoleonic Wars, and in particular reference to Article 7:
“The Island of Malta and its Dependencies shall belong in full right and Sovereignty to His Britannic Majesty.”
Thus, 1814 is when Malta became part of the British Empire as a Crown Colony.
Another item dating back to the time of the British is a clock right under the coat of arms which was restored in 2009 by Stephen Zammit. The timepiece was taken apart and cleaned and parts of it were changed. After years of not working, it started ticking away on 4 October 2009.
When the Main Guard was given to the Libyans and became the Libyan Cultural Centre in December 1974, the coat of arms and inscription were covered with hardboard. Similarly, the 300 paintings inside were covered with plastic and survived undamaged.
When the Libyan Cultural Centre vacated the place in the 1990s the Main Guard became an annex of the Attorney General’s office. Since the Attorney General is also moving out of the Palace, the government in 2012 bought a new building in Archbishop Street to house the AG’s office under one roof.
Once the imposing building in St George’s Square across the Palace is vacated, it will be used by the Valletta Local Council for their offices.
The building on the right, corner with Archbishop Street was the Order’s Chancellery (Cancelleria) which housed the Order’s archives. The building, built in 1602 by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, was originally used as an armoury. Later on, the documents of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta were transferred there and it consequently adopted the name and functions of the Order’s Chancellery.
The Chancellery building has a series of large windows set within a panel having slightly projecting sills and heavier cornices above the plain lintels. The Chancellery has a large hall which was decorated with ceiling frescos during the Vilhena grandmastership. The mural plaque at the entrance to the building recalls the work undertaken by Grand Master Wignacourt in finding a place for the Order’s arms and official records. The building was subsequently adapted during the Chancellorship of Manoel de Vilhena who later became Grand Master. The main Hall bears his coat of arms as well as that of another Grand Master, the Portuguese Pinto who was the fourth from the last to occupy this dignity before Napoleon expelled the Order from Malta.
The ceiling’s frescoes are the work of Nicolò Nasoni, a painter from Siena, who stayed in Malta from 1723 to 1725.
Other works by Nasoni may be seen at the President’s Palace in Valletta, formerly seat of Parliament, in the Vestibule of the Auberge de Provence, which currently hosts the National Museum of Archaeology, at the Palaces of Verdala and San Anton, the residences of the President of the Republic and in the Grand Masters’ Crypt within St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
The following inscription can still be read on a marble tablet set over the main door:
“To the Grand Master F. Alof Wignacourt who, mindful both of his Civil duties and his military concerns, removed to a more suitable place, that is to the palace, the public armoury, and brought here the records of the Chancery. To the excellent Prince who took the greatest care that the country should be always arrayed with arms and armed with laws, the Order of Jerusalem unable to adequately express its gratitude, can only wish him perpetual happiness.”
The Chancery was the most important institution of the Order, and was presided over by the Vice Chancellor, which dignity was one of the most lucrative enjoyed by the knights of the small cross. Originally it was reserved to the Conventual Chaplains, who were considered to be more fitted to fill the post than the knights who were trained in the profession of arms. The Vice Chancellor was required to be a man of letters well versed in jurisprudence, as it was he who directed the Council and drew up a report in all cases of litigation. This official managed the Chancery in which were kept all the records, acts, documents and titles of the Order.
In 1680, the dignity of Grand Cross was conferred by Pontifical Brief on Vice Chancellor D. Emanuel Arias. The Grand Chancellor Brandao pretended that, in view of the pre-eminence now enjoyed by Balì Arias, another person was to be nominated to the Vice Chancellorship, which he held to be vacant, as he considered that it was incompatible for the same person to be both councillor and minister of the Council. It was further pointed out that past Vice Chancellors had renounced to this post when invested with the Grand Cross. On the other hand, Balì Arias maintained that the Vice Chancellorship was to be considered equal to any other dignity, and showed that it was in no way incompatible for the same person to be both Grand Cross and Vice Chancellor; however, in view of his dignity, it was ordained that when he was exercising his duties as Vice Chancellor he was to sit on a chair similar to that of the other Councillors instead of on the customary stool, and that he was to write the acts of the Council at a table. The decrees were, in future, to be proclaimed by the Secretary. It was further decreed that the Secretary was to assist at the taking of the oath by the religious, whilst the Balì Vice Chancellor was to assist at that taken by the Grand Crosses. In this manner the office was adapted to the Grand Cross and not the Grand Cross to the office.
The Staff of the Chancery consisted of the Vice Chancellor, his lieutenant (always a Conventual Chaplain) and numerous clerks. This office was charged with the registration of Papal Bulls, Briefs, Orders and Decrees, as well as with the execution of the decisions of the Council, including matters appertaining to the Commanderies, Pensions and Benefices.
During the colonial period, part of the building housed the Governor’s Personal Guards whilst the other part housed the garrisons’ Library. Therefore, the building’s tradition as a cultural centre dates from this period. Following Independence, it became the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of the Commonwealth. When the Foreign Affairs Ministry moved to Palazzo Parisio in October 1973 the building was assigned to the Italian Cultural Institute.
The Italian Cultural Institute was founded in February 1971. It was housed temporarily at the Embassy of Italy until 1974 although it was quite active from its inception. The Embassy’s Cultural Attaché is also the Director of the Institute. In 1974, the Institute was transferred to its current seat in Valletta.
Mepa scheduled the Main Guard and the Cancelleria as a Grade 1 national monument as per Government Notice No. 276/08 in the Government Gazette dated 28 March 2008