A view of the ancient city of Valletta, Malta.  All photos: Jim Hornsby

The Malta Museum of Fine Arts

By Jim Hornsby

I enjoy viewing art when I travel and it is a special treat when I find a good collection in a city that is itself a work of art. Such was my good fortune this spring when I visited the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, Malta.

Malta is located about 60 miles south of Sicily on a few small islands that have been consistently inhabited for over 7,000 years. Picasso-like clay and stone carvings have been unearthed there that pre-date the pyramids. Its strategic location in the geographic center of the Mediterranean Ocean and its large natural harbors have made Malta a desirable prize for various navies, and it has endured many invasions from a succession of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Norsemen, Vandals, Moors, Spaniards, Frenchmen and the English. It gained its independence from England in 1967 and is now a republic in the European Commonwealth.

An old fort commands the most seaward point of Malta’s capitol city, Valletta, and enormous walls — over 330 feet high in some places — surround the city in its entirety. The spires and domes of ancient halls and cathedrals look out over their protective ramparts and give the city a story-book appearance that, while massively solid, seems somehow make-believe.

The construction and fortification of Valletta, as it is seen today, began about 1530 when the King of Spain deeded Malta to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem — the Hospitaller Knights — an adventuresome religious order equally at home in prayer or battle. Legend has it that in return for the grant, the Knights were obligated to give the King one gold falcon statuette each year. Dashiell Hammett used that legend as a premise for his famous book, The Maltese Falcon.

Great fortunes from shipping and commerce have accumulated in Malta and wealth is evident in Valletta. The city is firmly built to withstand the assaults of men and time, but elegant and timeless in its design and structure. Primarily Baroque in character, British Prime Minister Disraeli described it as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen.” It is home to the oldest working theatre in Europe, one of the earliest and best equipped hospitals in the Mediterranean, a national library established in 1555, grand residences, ornate cathedrals, beautiful gardens and splendid plazas.

The Museum of Fine Arts is located on South Street, a particularly refined area noted for its historical palaces. The building, one of the oldest in Valletta, was built in the late 1500s by the Hospitallers and opulently rebuilt in 1760 as the personal residence for a wealthy knight of the order.

After Napoleon captured Malta in 1798 and drove out the Hospitallers, the palace became home to a succession of French and later English royalty until 1974 when it was officially designated Malta’s National Museum of Fine Arts. It is a charming facility, recently honored by the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Fine Arts as the site for its 2011 annual meeting.

The art collection is relatively small compared to those in the major European cities, but it is discerning and quite impressive for its size. The artwork dates from the 1500s and includes a number of paintings by Mattia Preti, an Italian Knight of the Malta Order. European and English sculptors and artists are well represented, including Edward Lear and J.M.W. Turner, whose watercolor, The Grand Harbor of Malta, is a highlight of the collection. To top it off, there is a fine assortment of antique furniture, silverware, pottery, period clothing and rare maps. All in all, wonderful art in a wonderful city on a wonderful afternoon.

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