Mediterranean Conservation

by Charlie Wellingham,

This year the Scholars were invited to visit the fortified city of Valletta on the island of Malta, to experience alternative approaches to conservation and management of heritage in a cultural and political climate (as well as weather climate!) to that of the United Kingdom. Witnessing the successes and challenges of international projects is a great way to reflect on the frameworks that we operate within back home, evidencing where they are strong and where they could benefit from improvement. This includes the systems for funding, statutory permissions and management of sites, as well as the procurement of projects and control of quality of work on site. During this intensive week we attended 18 sites in 5 days, and as representatives of the SPAB we were able to raise the profile of the philosophies of conservative repair with the new contacts we met.

Although small, Malta is the perfect location for this kind of trip as it has such a dense and diverse history, from the neolithic settlements of immigrants from Sicily in 5000 BC, through the centuries of conquest and occupation by nearly every seafaring empire of Europe and Africa. The island was given to the Knights of the Order of St.John by King Philip of Spain in 1530, as an outpost for the hospitallers to treat the wounded coming back from Crusades. The city of Valletta began construction in the 1560s following the Knights’ survival of a devastating siege by the Ottoman armies of Saladin – fortified and designed to be fully self-sufficient to ensure its impregnability for future centuries. Valetta lays claim to being amongst Europe’s oldest fully planned ‘new’ cities; an interesting example of its insightful design was the requirement of all houses inside the city walls to have a below-ground water cistern and food store (for surviving potential siege), and that the stone excavated in the basement construction should be exactly the amount of stone required to build the dwelling above. Below is a quick description of some of the week’s highlights.

St.John’s Co-Cathedral (1560s)
We were invited to observe the conservative repairs of the limestone West Elevation, with Jean Frendo of the Malta Restoration Directorate. This includes raking out previous cement pointing, pinning stone indents where required with stainless steel rods and epoxy resins, cleaning the stonework with brushes and poultices, and strengthening fragile carvings with ammonium-oxalate consolidants. It was interesting to hear that lime work cannot be carried out when the temperatures exceed 25 degrees centigrade – and as such the ‘lime season’ is throughout the winter months (the opposite practice to the UK!).

Scaffold, Malta

The Church of Our Lady of Valletta (1560s)
Maria Grazia of heritage body Din L’Art Helwa introduced us to the conservators working on the painted ceiling of Valletta’s oldest church (and the first building completed when city construction began). The painted ceiling is being cleaned and repaired by conservators from the Courtauld Institute in London, supporting the loose surface where it has flaked away from its substrate with a weak lime putty plaster. It was interesting to see the meeting of differing approaches between the Maltese client, and the UK conservators.

Ceiling, Valetta, Malta
Hagir Qim Neolithic site (c.3000 BC)
The recently completed protective canopy at Hagar Qim is designed to protect the exposed archaeological remains at this Unesco World Heritage site, and is a controversially invasive proposal. Various options were proposed for slowing the increasing decay of the limestone (including re-burying the site that was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th Century), and the tent structure as built was designed to meet the ground in as few locations as possible. We spent some time debating the appropriateness of the scheme and its complex pros and cons, including the potential creation of an unpredictable new micro-climate beneath the canopy, the loss of the site’s connection to it’s coastline landscape, and its usefulness in the improved management of tourist footfall and infrastructure.


City Gate Project (2014)
The centre-piece development of Renzo Piano’s Valletta masterplan, which was begun in 1989, is the creation of a new city gate and head quarters building for the Maltese parliament. We were shown around the live site by local architect Guilliame Dreyfuss from partner practice Architecture Projects. It was interesting to see this new design working in and around the historic fabric, conserving and repairing former wounds at an urban scale – piecing the ruined Opera House back into the city with new pedestrian routes and squares. The gate itself is an interesting design exercise, exemplifying a bold contemporary statement that still honours the history of such a significant location and its many former incarnations.


Many thanks to former Scholar Charlie de Bono for his time in preparing the site visits on our behalf – and chaperoning us for the week! It was a fantastic opportunity to get under the skin of a fascinating historic city.

Sketch by Charlie Wellingham


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