The processional statue of St Lawrence dressed in historic vestments. Note the fine craftsmanship and the design of the pedestal and walnut platform.The processional statue of St Lawrence dressed in historic vestments. Note the fine craftsmanship and the design of the pedestal and walnut platform.

The people of the medieval city of Vittoriosa today celebrate the liturgical feast of St Lawrence with unbridled fervour and dedication, following in the ingrained tradition of their forefathers when Spanish galleys, berthed in Porto delle Galere, brought from Catalunya, Spain, to Vittoriosa not only a measure of prosperity but also Spanish customs and traditions.

The festa celebrations are immersed in the checkered history of this maritime city when influential medieval noble de Gueveras and de Navas families from Aragon, Spain, were instrumental in initiating Spanish devotions and traditions in ancient Vittoriosa, as evidenced by the processional statue of St Lawrence dressed in historic precious vestments, including a linen alb donated by the last Inquisitor, Giulio Carpegna, in 1797.

This tradition also dearly held for the Good Friday statuary, compelled the late 17th-century Vittoriosa citizens to reputedly decline an offer by the renowned sculptor Melchiorre Gafà, a native of this city, to provide them with a wooden artistic effigy.

On festa day, San Lorenzo-a-Mare, as the parish church of St Lawrence was known until the Knights’ period, is beautifully decorated for the occasion, displaying ancient artistic treasures brought over from Rhodes in 1530. Had Vittoriosa no other claim to artistic fame, the rich ancient collection of objets d’art from the Rhodes sojourn would establish it as an exceptional city of substance.

An early 16th-century chalice previously used in the ancient troglodytic chapel in Fort St Angelo. Right: Interior of St Lawrence church, Vittoriosa, formerly the conventual church of the Order of St John.An early 16th-century chalice previously used in the ancient troglodytic chapel in Fort St Angelo. Right: Interior of St Lawrence church, Vittoriosa, formerly the conventual church of the Order of St John.

A late 14th-century thurible of unique Gothic design.A late 14th-century thurible of unique Gothic design.

These ecclesiastical works of art include a 15th-century processional silver cross of exceptional workmanship which currently serves as the main altar cross on the feast of St Lawrence, a 14th-century thurible (censer) in the shape of a hexagonal tower suspended on chains unique in its gothic idiom, and a 15th-century devotional cross set with precious stones and used by the Grand Masters when taking the oath of office.

Another interesting item is a delicate early 16th-century chalice which, according to tradition, was a gift of the Knights to the troglodytic Nativity church on Fort St Angelo, which has been under the jurisdiction of the Vittoriosa parish since medieval times.

Of great interest is the recently identified painting La Sacra Coversazione by the great 16th-century artist Palma Vecchio (c1486-1528), an artist who shares with Giorgione and the Titian the unique distinction of revitalising Venetian art in the late 15th century. This oeuvre, painted in the sumptuous colours typical of the Venetian High Renaissance, would confer on this city the distinction of possessing one of the finest paintings in the Maltese islands. Some of these artistic treasures will be on display on festa day.

Birgu, the ancient maritime city that proudly flaunts another title, Vittoriosa, is packed with history and artistic splendour particularly on festa day

Other masterpieces portray The Three Plague Saints, namely St Paul, St Rocco and St Sebastian, an ex-voto painting of the Great Plague of 1592 by the Mannerist painter Filippo Paladini (c1544-1616) commissioned for an altar dedicated to St Rocco of Montpellier, whose cult as a plague saint was brought over by the Knights in 1530. One perceives in this oeuvre echoes of the Andrea del Sarto.

Another large canvas attributed to Stefano Erardi (1630-1716), The Flight into Egypt, hangs in the ancient chapel dedicated to St Joseph. Many legends are associated with the provenance of this painting. Because of its Bolognese and classical idioms, it is sometimes attributed to Domenico Zampieri, known as Domenichino (1581-1641).

The artistic baptismal font erected in 1741. Right: The Martyrdom of St Lawrence on the high altar of the church is Mattia Preti’s largest canvas and also his favourite.The artistic baptismal font erected in 1741. Right: The Martyrdom of St Lawrence on the high altar of the church is Mattia Preti’s largest canvas and also his favourite.

On festa day, the focal point of the festivities is the huge painting over the main altar, The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, the largest canvas by Mattia Preti, the most distinguished painter of the Neapolitan baroque. This painting was commissioned by Canon Antonio Testaferrata in 1689 and enjoys the distinction of being Preti’s favourite masterpiece. There are echoes of Caravaggio in the subtle use of the chiaroscuro and the dramatic vitality of the macabre cruel death on a grid iron.

As you proceed to Vittoriosa through the three-gate bent entrances, a symbol of the city’s European ethos, you realise that a sense of history pervades the place in spite of the bedecked lofty battlement and high cavaliers with the numerous flags of the Knights fluttering in the summer breeze and the joyous pealing of the festa bells. Birgu, the ancient maritime city that proudly flaunts another title, Vittoriosa, bes­towed upon it by Grand Master Jean de Valette, is packed with history and artistic splendour particularly on festa day.

As one wanders down its finely decorated streets to the ancient medieval Collachio, layers of different cultures unfold, stretching from the Roman period to the medieval overlords to the glorious Knights’ period when the home of the mighty Order of St John was the pride of Europe as it basked in the glamour of the momentous victory after the bitter siege of 1565.

This historic encounter against the might of the great Ottoman Empire now immortalised by recently published narrative history books as Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley (2008) and bestselling historical novels like The Sword and the Scimitar by Daniel Ball, Blood Rock by James Jackson and The Religion by Tim Willocks.

The fortifications on the land front of Vittoriosa with St James Cavalier in the foreground.The fortifications on the land front of Vittoriosa with St James Cavalier in the foreground.

As you gently stroll along this walled city girdled by mighty fortification to reach the church parvis, memories of its past haunt you in spite of its present vibrancy, with its magnificent churches, band clubs, football clubs, bars, taverns and restaurants mingling with the gentle populace of this proud yet humble city.

Visitors to St Lawrence church, built to the design of Gafà, the great Maltese exponent of baroque architecture born and bred in this city, will surely admire this monumental church redolent with history.

It is described by the late architect historian Leonard Mahoney as “a symphony in stone”, exuding all the elements of the baroque, particularly the unsurpassed sculpture and fine workmanship, the fruit of artistic refinement and good taste represented by the exquisite design of the organ loft, the walnut and ebony platform for the processional statue of St Lawrence, the baptismal font erected in 1741 and the inlaid walnut pulpit, all emerging from the numerous botteghe housed in the medieval Collachio.

An aerial view of Vittoriosa flanked by Porto delle Galere (left), now known as Dockyard Creek, and Kalkara Creek. Pictures from the archives of the late Anthony Marquis Cassar de Sain by courtesy of the family.An aerial view of Vittoriosa flanked by Porto delle Galere (left), now known as Dockyard Creek, and Kalkara Creek. Pictures from the archives of the late Anthony Marquis Cassar de Sain by courtesy of the family.

A trip down memory lane reveals special festivities around the Vittoriosa promontory on August 10 of bygone years. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Vittoriosa waterfront, then known as the Marina Grande, and Dockyard Creek, then known as Porto delle Galere, were the focal points of the outdoor festivities in honour of St Lawrence.

The following colourful description of the 1827 festa in a contemporary newspaper, brought to my attention by Prof. Domenic Fenech, reveals the extent of these festivities as well as the very active participation of the British naval and army units stationed in this area as they joined the local populace in a great water festival:

On the night when the stars shed their legendary tears in lamentation of the martyred saint, Vittoriosa beckons, inviting all nostalgic citizens to join in the celebrations

“The church, forts, houses and shipping were brilliantly illuminated with variegated lamps, transparencies with suitable devices, a very good display of fireworks; the Grand Harbour, Bighi Bay, Dockyard, Renella and Isola Creek were covered with the native boats and yachts and one distinct batch of barges, launches, yawls, cutters, Dockyard boats, deck punts, pontoons, pleasure boats with bands from the different regiments, the latter being taken in tow by the former, tables groaning with every species of refreshment, the night was delightfully cool and the heavens bespangled with stars which were reflected by the sea , together with the lights from fifteen hundred boats produced a blaze of splendour to what we read of the Venetian style, and extreme animating, catches, songs and glees in all languages and instrumental music of the highest description , rendered it altogether truly of the Arabian Nights first order... there must have been thousands assembled.”

The Marina Grande is now throbbing again with activities, with super-yachts lining the elegant marina dominated by the National Maritime Museum, in the shadow of iconic Castrum Maris, prepared for another Notte di San Lorenzo on the night when the stars shed their legendary tears in lamentation of the martyred saint.

On this day, Vittoriosa beckons, inviting all nostalgic citizens to join in the celebrations. Synonymous with deep emotions, power, drama and sheer energy, the Baroque elements of Vittoriosa reach their climax on all fronts in the packed ex-conventual church enhanced by the vibrant Baroque music of Can. Luigi Fenech in the final stages of the festivities.

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