The Mdina Cathedral Museum stands out as an institution that is continuously evolving. Joseph Agius talks to its curator, Mgr EDGAR VELLA and exhibition coordinator, JOSEPH P. BORG about its ethos and the recent bequest of the collection of John Bugeja Caruana.

When asked why collectors have such a faith in the museum in that they are ready to donate their much-cherished collections, the curator of the Mdina Cathedral Museum, Mgr Edgar Vella, replies: “They are generally afraid that their collections might be dispersed. The Mdina Cathedral Museum is a trustworthy institution; its legacy lies in the numerous bequests and donations during the last two centuries.

“From its origins, the museum was conducive to donations by private individuals. This, thus, makes the museum a unique and eclectic one as its holdings are not strictly ecclesiastical.”

The museum, in fact, houses collections that are not just specific to ecclesiastical artefacts and Mdina Cathedral-related objets d’art.

The curator continues: “We stress on the eclecticism of this museum, which caters for the different tastes of our guests.

“On the same principles of the Vatican Museum, which houses collections from antiquity to the modern era, our museum also holds various eclectic collections.

“A common denominator in typical European Cathedral museums reflects a determined modern space conserving liturgical artefacts,” Mgr Vella claims.

<em>Capodemonte </em>&ndash; Neptune, god of the sea and freshwater in Roman mythology.Capodemonte – Neptune, god of the sea and freshwater in Roman mythology.

“We used to have a dress-me-up facility where visitors could don period costumes, go around the museum and take selfies, etc. We had to put a stop to this because of COVID but we intend to reintroduce it when things settle down.”

John Bugeja Caruana’s bequest is special for the museum as the donation was not effected posthumously.

Bugeja Caruana, a passionate art collector, had been compiling his collection over a span of more than 40 years. The intention of the benefactor was to maintain its holistic dimension.

Exhibition coordinator Joseph P. Borg said: “Through the Bugeja Caruana collection in the Piano Nobile, we created a time capsule, a journey back to baroque Malta.”

The hall was officially inaugurated on August 25, 2021 by Archbishop Charles Scicluna along with Bugeja Caruana himself.

“On entering this space, it is an awe-inspiring effect of surprise and wonder that visitors utter at the hall. I’m after people feeling like 18th-century guests in a Nobility Hall,” Vella remarks.

Giovanni Odazzi (1663-1731), <em>The Annunciation</em>

Giovanni Odazzi (1663-1731), The Annunciation

Mattia Preti (1663-1699), <em>Sacrifice of Isaac</em>

Mattia Preti (1663-1699), Sacrifice of Isaac

Maximilian Pfeiler (1656-1746), <em>Still Life with Fruit, Gilt Ewer and Murano Glass</em>

Maximilian Pfeiler (1656-1746), Still Life with Fruit, Gilt Ewer and Murano Glass

Interestingly, there are no tags and other descriptive paraphernalia one usually encounters in conventional museums.

“We are investing in QR codes to accompany the important pieces,” Vella explains.

“The Gen Z and Gen Alpha generations are accustomed to this technology. They are after information that is immediate, concise and fast. We also have to cater for visitors who are here for a short while.

“Information cannot be long and dragging, although there are detailed sheets for those who have time to linger and who are after more detailed guidance.”

Borg says what makes the Bugeja Caruana bequest more poignant is that the donor was very much present during the setting up of the Piano Nobile, delivering suggestions on the placement of the artefacts and supplying very relevant information.

“The hall reflects the taste of the collector... in fact, through the donation, we get to meet the collector,” he said.

Amid a prestigious collection of paintings by Mattia Preti, Antoine Favray, Francesco Zahra and continental artists, including Gimignani, Odazzi and Pietro d’Asaro, besides priceless silverware, sculptures, inlaid furniture and other noteworthy pieces, Mgr Vella and Borg agree that the 17th-century secretaire is the jewel in the crown.

The unique Italian architectural cabinet.The unique Italian architectural cabinet.

Borg describes the secretaire in detail.

“It boasts a sublime architectural structure, its interior is veneered with ebony and inlaid with ivory and semi-precious stones.

“It has an internal niche displaying a female figure holding on to a column, the word Costanza inscribed upon its plinth, which supports the coat of arms of Fra Carlo Gattola, who was captain of the Kaptana galley of the Order of St John.

“He distinguished himself in the Battle of the Dardanelles, in 1656.”

Mgr Vella reckons that it is meant to hide things, a top-notch architecture piece of furniture, with tortoise-shell veneering and probably manufactured in the south of Italy.

“The provenance is important; it is the gift that Grand Master Gregorio Carafa (1615-1690) gave to Gattola. It, therefore, carries a baggage of historical importance,” he said.

An exquisite detail among many of the cabinet&rsquo;s interior.An exquisite detail among many of the cabinet’s interior.

‘The Money Gallery’

Borg said that another vacant hall will house the Bugeja Caruana collection of Maltese silver, furniture, paintings and watercolours, creating another time capsule devoted to Malta’s 19th century, showcasing the change in taste and style due to the islands being taken over by the British Empire. 

The numismatic part of the Bugeja Caruana collection is still to be displayed as part of the exhibits in the completely refurbished former Numismatic Hall.

“It won’t be called the Numismatic Hall, as it had been prior to its refurbishment,” Mgr Vella explains.

“We are going to call it ‘The Money Gallery’, subliminally making it more accessible to one and all. We were advised by experts from the British Museum in this respect and they insist that such disciplines of collecting should be conceptually accessible to all, not just to the specialised scholar and numismatic collector.”

Loius XVI Gold Snuffbox with miniatures by Adrein-Jean-Maximilien Vachette marked Paris 1786, with gouache paintings attributed to Edme-Charles,Loius XVI Gold Snuffbox with miniatures by Adrein-Jean-Maximilien Vachette marked Paris 1786, with gouache paintings attributed to Edme-Charles,

The Bugeja Caruana numismatic collection is probably one of the largest of Knight-era coins in private hands which will now augment and address lacunae in the former museum collection.

“We are hoping that ‘The Money Gallery’ will be officially inaugurated early next year,” Borg points out.

In the meantime, other bequests are being discussed with other collectors, which would thus enrich the Mdina museum, promising a blossoming museological future.

“Collectors know that their bequests are safe here. Dr Bugeja Caruana knows that our successors are not going to change anything in the Piano Nobile Hall and other halls which are, and which will be, housing his collection,” Borg said.

The Mdina Cathedral Museum is open Mondays to Saturdays from 9.30am to 4.45pm. It is closed on Sundays.

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