The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has issued a conservation and protection order to safeguard a viewing gallery in a Valletta palazzo, which housed a projection room in what is believed to be one of the first cinemas in Malta.

The move followed a formal request by the Church’s Environment Commission, which seems to be on a collision course with the Curia which owns the historic 400-year-old building. Known as Palazzo Caraffa, the property enjoys maximum protection by law as it is a Grade 1 scheduled building.

Earlier this year, the Church had leased the property, which served as the premises of Circolo Gioventù Cattolica for many years, to a third party on condition it would be returned to its former glory.

Subsequently, the tenant – Neville Agius – filed a planning application to restore and embellish the dilapidated building, which application is still pending.

Last month, the commission sounded the alarm bells saying that a “historic wooden stage” which formed part of a theatre built in the interwar years had been removed by the developer. The latter, however, insisted that the structure was in a very bad state, while describing the theatre in general as an amateurish accretion to a historic building.

In turn, the commission disputed the developer’s claim saying when it had visited the site a year ago that many features of the stage were still in usable condition. It requested the intervention of the superintendence to prevent the removal of a concrete balcony believed to date back to the inter-war years.

The theatre prior to the removal of the stage. Photo: Reuben Caruana.The theatre prior to the removal of the stage. Photo: Reuben Caruana.

Church commission says structure could be 'of outstanding significance'

According to the commission, the structure could be of outstanding significance for the history of cinema and public entertainment in Malta as it was used to house a projector room.

The developer, however, is insisting the structure probably dates to the 1970s while noting that this accretion cut through a doorway leading to one of the facade balconies and an internal door.

Yet, the superintendence now has decided to issue a Conservation and Protection Order which means that no intervention is allowed unless with the consent of the respective authorities. It noted that when it had made an onsite inspection in June the wooden stage had already been removed.

The superintendence clarified it had not objected to the removal of the concrete balcony as at that stage this structure was “potentially attributed” to post Second World War and not before. However, information received by the commission prompted it to change its position. The move took the Curia completely by surprise, which questioned the decision of the cultural watchdog.

'Rape of our heritage'

Times of Malta sought the reaction of theatre expert Vicki Ann Cremona who visited the theatre in February as part of a research project which included the venue’s history.

“This is another example of the rape of our heritage and environment by people who only care about their pockets and not about our history. It is sad to see that our authorities, both state and Church, have placed personal gain above public interest,” she said.

Cremona said this was a fine example of a theatre built with a community purpose in mind in an already existing building.

It is sad to see that our authorities, both state and Church, have placed personal gain above public interest

The theatre had a raked stage (used to create an effect of depth) which was quite a rare feature, while the trapdoor and the prompter’s box were still intact. Curtains, lights and the wooden stairs below the stage were still in place, as well as the wooden rollers used to pull up scenery.

According to the expert, the stage was in relatively good condition and its wooden supports were in excellent shape.

Her account contrasts with that of the Curia which said the wooden structure was rotten by the ingress of water and infested with worms.

While the stage was removed, the facade known as proscenium arch was left intact. 

Cremona noted that the motifs had been designed by renowned artist Vincent Apap, the renowned Maltese sculptor who designed the iconic Triton Fountain in Valletta.

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