The very sparsely-attended presentation of the opulent and impressive book, Storie di Restauri nella Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista a La Valletta, la Cappella di Santa Caterina della Lingua d`Italia e le Committenze del Gran Maestro Gregorio Caraffa, heard support for the controversial plan come from two highly-placed and non-controversial quarters.
Italian ambassador Paulo Andrea Trabalza said in his speech thatsomething similar had been done at the Monza Duomo where treasures, which are unique worldwide such as the iron crown first used by Charlemagne and later by Napoleon that is said to be fashioned from one nail used on Christ’s cross, are exhibited.
Dr Trabalza urged the Foundation to contact the Monza authorities to see how they did it and to create a twinning between the two institutions.
And right at the end of the presentation, restorer Sante Guido made more trenchant comments on the issue.
He referred to the work done in St John’s against rising damp and said the damp, which had obliterated most of the gilding of the church that is now being restored, had come from the two cisterns just in front of St John’s on the Republic Street side. He described the huge cisterns as very beautiful, saying that once the cisterns were drained of water, the damp problem would disappear.
So why not turn the cisterns into museums, he asked, and thus provide a far better space for their exhibition than the present cramped quarters?
Mattia Preti who found out the propensity of the Maltese globigerina limestone for damp also tackled the problem by painting in oil instead of in the traditional way.
After an introduction by Mgr Philip Calleja, Ray Bondin, coming to an end of his Valletta Rehabilitation Project experience, looked back at what has been achieved in Valletta since 1987. He complained that the few things he had asked to be corrected in the book were not included and the international committee of experts was hardly mentioned. Nor is there a chapter on the restoration of the organ in the oratory, one of the oldest 15 organs produced in Italy, nor a mention of the workers who helped in the restoration.
Former president Guido de Marco said that according to painter Censu Apap, the Gloria of St John’s was designed by Melchiorre Cafà, who was killed when a block of marble fell on him during the work and the statue of St John baptising Christ was done by Mazzuoli.
He reminisced about the Te Deum sang at the Independence celebrations of 1987, after the fall of the Mintoff regime, when Malta became free once again and compared the emotions of that day to the Te Deum sung by the Maltese when the French occupation was over.
He has been coming to this church ever since he was a boy and admitted that he sometimes neglected his religious duties as he was more interested in the tombstones and their epitaphs than in the Mass.
He was characteristically lavish in his praise of Italy: Italy always kept its promises. He pointed out that during the times of the Knights, Italy had not yet become one country but the Italian knights chose to be in one langue, Italia, and they inscribed the name on a black background in expectation of the day when their country could really exist.
Finally, Prof. De Marco spoke about the yet unfinished restoration of the Santa Caterina church near Castile. This was the church were his parents were married and where he too was married and he wants to see the completion of its restoration done as soon as possible.
Ambassador Trabalza said he urges ambassadors of the other nations represented in St John’s to emulate Italy’s example and contribute to the restoration of the chapels of their langues.
Minister George Pullicino said the restoration of the Cappella d’Italia was done on time and within budget. Speaking on a somewhat unrelated theme, he said e36 million will be spent over the next seven years on the restoration of the bastions.
President Fenech Adami praised the book for listing the names of the hitherto unknown artisans, mostly from Cottonera, who had taken part in the embellishment of the church under Mattia Preti.
Prof. Sante Guido urged a particular twinning between Malta and Calabria, the birthplace of Mattia Preti and of Grand Master Gregorio Carafa (and also his). It would be useful if a collection of Mattia Preti paintings were sent to tour Calabria to show we are two peoples but one community.
The involvement of his firm in the restoration of St John’s has continued even after the completion of the restoration of the Cappella d’Italia. Only two half arches remain unrestored as all the other arches are now ready. The back of the church, now equally restored, is also worth especial appreciation.