The recovery of rare materials and antique documents connected with Malta, in particular abroad, tucked away in distant archives, far away from the shores of Malta and Gozo, has always sent shivers down my spine, triggering off adrenaline and excitement, such as is not experienced in everyday life.
The emotion felt in September 1987 at the Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome, when I came face to face with the earliest extant dictionary of the Maltese language, or in March 1990 at the Istanbul State Archives, when I held in my hands the hitherto unknown Ottoman 1565 Malta Campaign Register, or in June 2001 when at the Newberry Library in Chicago, I recovered the only extant copy till then of Francesco Vella’s 1840 Taħdit Ħafif u Morali, is something quite difficult to describe.
Maybe, it can be compared to the emotions one experiences when one believes s/he is in love... and when this love is actually reciprocated. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), it seems that it is much easier for the love of research to remain eternal than that between two human beings. Whatever, this ‘research love’ emotion bug hit me again quite strongly in March 2017. I had been invited as a guest lecturer to the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and, as I normally do, I had enquired whether there were any archives or libraries in town that might have, among their holdings, old documents of Maltese interest. ‘Why not try the Gennadius Library?’, I was told.
And this I did. And, boy, was it worth it! In fact, the big surprise reserved for me by the Gennadius Library is that indeed it has a rich trove of holdings of Maltese interest, ranging from 16th century prints to 19th century original watercolours and photos of disappearing Malta, a veritable feast for the eyes of the Melitensia afficionado. Basically, the young Greek boy, Joannes Gennadius (1844-1932), after spending around two years (1855-1857) at the Protestant College in St Julian’s, matured into a seasoned diplomat, who was to spend the rest of his life collecting artistic treasures all over the world. Malta was to feature prominently in his collection.
Such ‘Melitensia’ material cannot be confined to a library abroad. Thus, together with Judge Giovanni Bonello, Dr Theresa Vella and Prof. William Zammit, we have embarked on a project which, hopefully, by the end of the year will lead to a book containing all the ‘Maltese’ materials collected by Gennadius during his lifetime. The book will be published by the Malta University Press.
Gennadius had acquired 11 watercolours with a Maltese theme in the course of his lifetime, two in black and white spread over two whole scrapbook pages, and nine smaller coloured watercolours. The two black and white watercolours consist of: A view of Valletta harbour from the Cottonera side, unnamed and no author, and a view of the Cottonera side of harbour from Valletta side, also unnamed and no author.
The nine coloured watercolours, two per page, consist of: A view of Bighi from Ricasoli, unnamed and no author; a view of Floriana from Corradino (unnamed and no author); Floriana Wignacourt tower (unnamed and no author); feast of St Paul, St Paul Street, Valletta, February 10 (unnamed and no author); Ricasoli point in a calm, title given, no author; Fort St Angelo view in Gregale (title given, no author); looking out of the Great Harbour during a Gregale (title given, no author); Fort Ricasoli (title given, no author) and Ricasoli point, Great harbour, during a Gregale (title given, no author).
We can still appreciate the natural beauty and riches our country had in the past, that beauty that some uncultured money-hungry Maltese of our times are destroying by the hour, day by day
The recurrent theme in seven out of eight coloured drawings – with the exception of the Wignacourt Water Tower drawing – is that, together with the two black and white drawings, they all depict different facets of the Grand Harbour, in Malta.
Gennadius must have been fascinated by the bustling human activity on the Valletta side of the port, which acted in symbiosis with the beauty of the monumental architecture on the opposite side and the mystery of nature and its elements, represented by the calm or choppy seas that separate the two sides of the natural harbour facing each other.
The ninth watercolour is in a completely different style and depicts the procession held on the feast in honour of St Paul on February 10. Vella will be dedicating a chapter in the forthcoming book to the study of these 11 watercolours.
The 46 black and white photographs collected by Gennadius shed an important light on the physical aspect of our country around mid-19th century.
In his chapter, Bonello revisits through an expert eye these photos of a Malta that is no longer. In most cases, they portray a very different Malta from how we know it today: Gżira and Sliema are simply just a vast expanse of fields and countryside, the Lazzaretto at Manoel Island – soon destined to become an island incorporating buildings destined both for residential and commercial use – is a mooring place for various boats, while the monument to Grand Master De Vilhena still stands proudly by the Fort Manoel chapel entrance. The Floriana Granaries and St Publius church are smaller than what they are today, while St George’s Bay boasts only Villa Rosa, with no highrise building planned for the area. The Pembroke ranges provide an enthralling sight, with all the encampments on the garigue, while the Mosta Church Rotunda is still being built and therefore deprived of its proverbial dome. What has hardly changed is the spectacular view of the Grand Harbour from St Barbara Bastions in Valletta.
The Gennadius Prints
Zammit will instead be dealing with the over 100 Malta prints to be found in the Gennadius collection.
The first couple of pages of Maltese interest, contained in one of Gennadius’s scrapbbooks, comprise a print of a map of Malta and other plans and views of Valletta. These are followed by three pages where one comes across two other maps of Valletta, a print of the Gate of Fort St Julian, three prints concerning the Indian troops of the 25th Madras infantry, who were present in Malta in 1878, and another print portraying the departure of the French Mediterranean Mail Steamer, Scamandre, leaving Malta harbour on August 25, 1849.
The following six scrapbook pages contain prints coming from a French source portraying various historic spots in Valletta, Fort Ricasoli, Binġemma hill, the Temple dedicated to Hercules in Marsaxlokk, the remains of various ancient buildings and tombs, the Groundplan of the Church in Musta as well as the fungus rock, Calypso’s cave and fishing scenes in Gozo.
Indeed, the last three pages of this scrapbook are all devoted to Gozo, in particular Ġgantija Temples. Nine prints, signed ‘Lemaitre direxit’, portray the Ġgantija temples depicted from different angles and entrances.
Zammit will be studying the above-mentioned prints together with a number of Malta-related rare pamphlets and ephimera which he dug up at the Gennadius on a subsequent visit to the library.
Joannes Gennadius was a person who I was totally unaware of just over two years ago. Today, my admiration for him does not limit itself to the fact that he was a man of great culture but goes much beyond.
In fact, on the background of a Malta that is fast disappearing in the 21st century, we owe it to this Greek gentleman if rare images of our country in the 19th century are still available to us and our future offspring.
It is also thanks to him that we can still appreciate the natural beauty and riches that our country had in the past, that beauty that some uncultured money-hungry Maltese of our times are destroying by the hour, day by day.
Arnold Cassola, academic and politician, is an independent candidate at the next MEP elections. He is former secretary general of the European Green Party and former member of the Italian Parliament.
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