When the Ottomans landed in Marsaxlokk on that fateful day of May 19, 1565, they all gathered on the beach to be briefed by their Commander-in-Chief, the invincible Dragut.
“Right,” roared Dragut, pointing at a rough map he’d drawn in the sand. “This is what we’re going to do,” he said, and proceeded to mark the march from Marsaxlokk to Mount Sciberras (still a mound of rocks back then) and explain the attack on Fort St Elmo.
“Whatever and whoever we find on our way we pillage and plunder! I want to instil the fear of Allah in these people! Kunu ħadar! (Show no mercy). They must stand no chance against us!”
His men drew their scimitars, raised them in the air and noisily swore their allegiance. On their march, true to their promise, they ransacked and ravaged everywhere. All the puny houses they came across in villages were turned to rubble and smoke. All, that is, bar one house on the outskirts of the village of Tarxien, which was adorned with beautiful, exquisite architecture.
We do not know exactly what happened but very possibly, as Dragut’s men charged for it, he boomed a “Tawaquf!” (Stop!) and the men’s pointy shoes and Alibaba pants could be heard flapping to a halt. “La Talamasuha! (Don't touch it!)
“Eh?!” exclaimed the men, puzzled, looking at each other and then at their leader with their scimitar still in the air. “What on earth do you want to save?” they blurted.
But Dragut knew beauty when he saw it, and he knew that once the victory was in hand and Malta became his, this would make the perfect country house for him until he was summoned to the next war.
As it happened, a month later Dragut was fatally injured on the battlefield. His death meant infernal squabbling between his two second-in-command officers, resulting in a series of disastrous decisions that (luckily for us) gave a break to the Knights and the Maltese.
So while the Ottomans sailed back home nursing their floppiest siege ever, the Tarxien house lived on. And on, and on.
By the time we realise that beauty is not a luxury, it will be too late
Today Villa Barbaro is 500 years old. It’s one of Malta’s oldest country houses and has been in the hands of the Barbaro family – passed on from one generation to the next – since at least 1535. It is now owned by Marquis Anthony Cremona-Barbaro; his ancestors must have been praying on their knees behind its walls when they heard the Ottomans walk past their house.
Because it is a historical treasure, this country house with its peculiarly red stone colour, has been scheduled and preserved.
However, although back then it may have been spared the wrath of the Ottomans, it is now under attack by the greed of developers who want to build a five-storey apartment block directly in front of it.
This means that if you go in the villa’s garden and look up, your eyes will completely ignore the beautiful centuries-old arched terrace, and instead will have to drink in the monstrosity of a ginormous block of concrete towering behind it.
In short, the best view of the villa’s garden will be from the windows of the concrete flats, and unless you wear horse blinkers, a walk in the villa’s garden will be a tragic reminder of the uglification of the island.
The owner is fighting a battle to save its context. He is not the first to do so. On my walks past Villa Bologna in Attard, I daily witness those grey high-rises overlooking it – a veritable visual heartache.
God knows how many other historic houses are suffering the same fate of having their skyline space obliterated. And it is terribly unfair because these owners, generation after generation over the centuries, would have given their financial all to take care of this heritage which belongs to the children of the future.
The British philosopher Roger Scruton, writing recently in The Spectator, queried what had happened to the commandment of loving your neighbour as yourself. “In my view that is most evidently violated by the uglifying blocks that are being dumped on our cities,” he said.
He believes that every day beauty is “a matter of manners, not style”, but seeing as manners are no longer de rigeur, what does it take for the Planning Authority to have the proper policies in place to safeguard these buildings and their gardens from disproportionately high surrounding development?
“Malta is at a make-or-break point,” outgoing Din l-Art Ħelwa president Maria Grazia Cassar said in an interview last week. The NGO is filing an average of 12 objections a week to planning applications. The majority are ignored, and she is tired of hearing the argument: “What on earth do you want to save?” (Sounds familiar?)
I very much fear that by the time we realise that beauty is not a luxury, it will be too late. I have never met Marquis Cremona-Barbaro, nor have I ever been inside his house, but for me, Villa Barbaro is a reference point in Tarxien that needs protection.
In his plea to The Sunday Times of Malta recently, I was struck by his warning that Malta risks becoming “a nation without a soul” if it keeps consciously turning its back on its past. “The measure of a country’s maturity,” he said, is in the way “it cherishes and respects its past”.
He is fighting a battle which his ancestors were spared. But sadly, this time round he is up against people who have no idea of the importance of beauty.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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