Godwin Vella: The Gran Castello at Rabat, Gozo – an appreciation of the civil architectural legacy, Malta, 2011, 56 pp.
Gozo’s Gran Castello dominates Gozo’s history as it does its geography. Its central position, and its distance from the sea which in the past often meant perilous piratical incursions, must have made it an obvious place of settlement by the early inhabitants.
Godwin Vella’s study concentrates on the castello from medieval times to the end of the 19th century and explains how this architectural jewel has developed to reflect changing times and defensive strategies.
There was a time under the Order when it was seriously mooted to demolish the castello and its walls and to move lock, stock, and barrel to the high plateau overlooking Marsalforn. Even the site of Fort Chambray had been considered as an alternative site.
Looking at the site today with its many derelict structures at the back of the main square that houses the cathedral and the law courts, it is hard to imagine the central role of the site in Gozo’s history, certainly from late medieval times until the time when the countryside could be safely populated when the corsair threat was practically vanquished in the 17th century.
Vella’s text covers the architectural history of the castello first by analysing how the urban fabric started deteriorating from late medieval time, and by the end of the 16th century many houses were described as ruined, no doubt a direct result of the cataclysmic siege of 1551 which depopulated the island.
The improvement of the fortifications led to a short-lived renaissance but the 1637 revoking of the order that had stipulated that all Gozitans had to retire behind the walls for the night was a most serious blow.
By 1645 the razing of the castello was actually discussed, while in 1667 only 116 inhabited residences are recorded. The 1693 earthquake that brought down the church of Santa Marija was the final straw.
By 1715 the inhabitants had dwindled to 196 souls, a mere three per cent of Gozo’s population. Vella documents the main events and gives the statistics that show this downward trend.
The second, longer, and more important, part of the book “outlines the habitual building techniques and singles out the most representative stylistic and planimetric characteristics” of the buildings still standing.
The relevance of the study lies in the fact that the castello civilian architecture mirrors the main stylistic developments from the 15th to the 19th century, making it a most interesting microcosm.
The oldest surviving domestic structure is the complex of five houses that make the excellently restored Museum of Folklore. Of these houses, three date to around 1530 and give us a good idea of what a medieval house must have been like.
The governor’s palace, next to the law courts, is a fine example of early Knights’ architecture, as is the roughly contemporaneous Casa Bondi, which houses the Museum of Archaeology. Their structures and their developments, including later restorations and interventions, are described in detail, with the aid of contemporary plans and sketches, and some old photographs.
The clerical owner of Casa Bondi was assassinated together with his maid within the house in 1723; he had willed all his possessions towards a new hospital for men four years earlier. The house was excellently restored in the 1930s from an extremely dilapidated condition.
According to Vella, the castello was hardly touched by the British authorities for the first 50 years of their stay, conscious no doubt of its very limited military relevance, although it was still listed as a.
It was only in the 1850s that some interventions began, such as the transformation of the vaults at the foot of St John cavalier into a detention centre, followed by the move of the clock tower to a more conspicuous place, and the building of very large water reservoirs to serve Rabat.
The approach to the castello was also changed with the building of a new way, while the surrounding walls were unfortunately breached in the 1950s to make way for a new opening.
Perhaps the only good thing about this gate is that at the time there was no foreign expert to advise that the breach should be left as an open wound.
Vella, the author, served for 12 years as secretary of Wirt Għawdex and is at present senior curator at the Ethnography Unit of Heritage Malta. Most of the photographs are by top Gozitan photographer Daniel Cilia who also compiled a photographic portfolio of the architectural legacy in the castello in 1988 and which is published as an appendix in the publication.
Three other appendices give a list of the inhabitants in 1667 from the Episcopal archives and a note of the cisterns in the houses, and one on the ruined houses from the archives at the National Library.
This book was published as part of the 30th anniversary of Wirt Għawdex, the active NGO that has been doing sterling work to safeguard the natural, archaeological, historical, and anthropological heritage of Gozo and Comino.
Obtaining a copy of the book will therefore be a small way of helping Wirt Għawdex continue its valuable work. The NGO, through a management agreement with the Ministry for Gozo, has restored and opened to the public the St John demi-bastion gunpowder magazine, three grain silos dating to the time of the Order, the low battery, and five small Second World War shelters.
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