May29

A Chapel on the Ramparts

The Chapel of  St Roche on  St Michael Counterguard along the land front of Valletta’s bastioned enceinte.

Perched next to one of the echauguettes on St Michael Counterguard stand the remains of a building which once assumed a role far removed from its military surroundings. Until the middle of the 17th century, the presence of a quarantine establishment on Il-Gzira ta’ l-Isqof (today Manoel Island) was merely a temporary facility. In1643 Grand Master Lascaris embarked on a vigorous overhaul of this important institution, constructing a complex of purpose-built edifices serviced with all amenities in order to ensure minimal contact with the outside world. The Lazzaretto, as it came to be known, housed both patients afflicted with various contagious diseases as well as visitors to Malta undergoing a period of isolation before being given a clean bill of health.

To provide for the spiritual duties of the contumanianti without them having to leave their designated quarters, a chapel was built across Marsamxett Harbour in a strategically chosen lofty position atop Valletta’s outerworks from where Holy Mass was celebrated.[1]

It was constructed by Lascaris simultaneously with the new Lazzaretto on the isoletto in1643. It was appropriately dedicated to St Roche, patron saint of the plague-afflicted. Interestingly various texts make reference to a Chiesetta dedicata a’ S. Rocco. [2]

Inside the Lazzaretto itself besides that on St Michael Counterguard [3]

 and is also marked on an old plan of the complex. Whether such a building existed still remains to be confirmed. Soon after the construction of the quarantine buildings, plague broke out first in 1655 and then in 1675-76 when Malta suffered its worst recorded epidemic, leaving thousands dead in its wake. Popular devotion to St Roche is particularly evident in the significant amount of chapels and shrines dedicated to him around the Maltese Islands. His feast day celebrated on the 16th August was for a long time solemnly celebrated.

 

Above, Detail of the facade of St Roque Chapel showing the large frontal window and the adjoining echauguette. ( Image source: Heritage Malta)

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Video of 3D graphic reconstruction of St Roque Chapel and the surrounding Valletta fortifications by Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri.

In 1809 a titular painting by the Maltese artist Gaetano Calleja (1760-1838) was commissioned for the chapel. [4]

The distance across the water meant that celebration of Holy Mass was difficult making more of an intentional rather a deeply congregational affair.[5] Blessed Cardinal J.H. Newman staying at the Lazaretto in 1832 wrote the following: “This morning we saw a poor fellow in the lazaret close to us, cut off from the ordinance of his church, saying his prayers with his face to the house of God in his sight over the water”.[6]

A number of letters found at the National Archives describe how in the latter decades of the 19th century, the chapel was used only on certain occasions and was run by the Capuchin Friars of Floriana on commission by the colonial government. [7]

The friars would carry all sacred items with them whenever they celebrated Mass there and would access the building after obtaining a special permit from military authorities. [8]

St Roche’s remained in use until the 1930s. The present author interviewed one Ms Bianca Rizzo residing at the Lazzaretto and who distinctly recalls Mass being celebrated for all Roman Catholics. Someone on one of the roofs would be carefully observing the priest across the water, shouting out to the rest of the inmates when to respond, stand or get down on their knees. [9]

The chapel was demolished during World War Two most likely as a result of one of the countless raids aimed at the submarine base then housed in the Lazzaretto, then known as H.M.S. Talbot.

Above, Plan for the reconstruction of St Roque Chapel ( Image source: Heritage Malta/ Works Division)

The architecture of this chapel was almost as austere as the Lazzaretto itself. On plan it essentially consisted of one chamber having a somewhat trapezoidal shape. The room was roofed with the standard wooden beams and softstone roofing slabs. Access inside was through a doorway on the side facing the echauguette. No form of decoration was apparent on the inner three elevations however the fourth one, facing Marsamxett was quite unusual as far as chapels go in Malta. In order to be adequately visible from the Lazzaretto, the façade was designed around a large arched opening through which the celebrant would be clearly discernible. The altar was set on the back wall but squarely framed in the window and was sculpted, depicting the eight-pointed cross at its centre, much of which still survives today.[10]

The design of the altar is not unlike those found in the crypts beneath the chapels at Forts Ricasoli and Manoel. The façade was surmounted by an ornate cornice and topped with a bell cote at the centre, crowned also with a large eight-pointed cross, similar to St Anne’s Chapel at Fort St Angelo.

Above, View  from the rear of the remains of Roque Chapel ( Image source: Heritage Malta)

Above, Interior view of the remains of the arched opening with the Lazzaretto in the background. Note part of the altar with itseight-pointed cross (Images Source: Heritage Malta).

After the war, the altar was reassembled and parts of the ruins consolidated however much of the rubble was left strewn around the site. There was however a serious intention to reinstate the edifice. The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta has in its possession a dossier in which one finds photographs of St Roche’s taken before the war as well as close-up images taken after the bombing. In the same file are detailed architectural drawings, including plans, elevations and a section for a proposed reconstruction, dated 1954. For some reason the project never materialised.

Above, painting by Egidio Tonti, an italian artist who came to Malta in the 1930s, showing St Roque Chapel, with the Lazzaretto and Fort Manoel in the background (Image Source: Edward Said).

Such a scheme should be resuscitated as these drawings were clearly very accurately prepared after the original structure was meticulously studied. Besides these documents, plenty of photographs and paintings are available to enable a faithful replica of this lost landmark. Rebuilding it would complement well the Lazzaretto complex which will be restored shortly and maintain a sense on consistency with the ongoing extensive restoration of Fort Manoel with its recently rebuilt chapel of St Anthony of Padua, which was also blitzed during the war. Furthermore, in all the kilometres of Hospitaller fortifications that the Maltese Islands boast a building such as St Roche’s Chapel which was designed to serve a specific purpose and site is unique and thus its reconstruction is highly desirable.

Author: Arch. Edward Said 

Acknowledgements: National Museum of Archaeology, Heritage Malta; National Archives of Malta, Rabat; aoM Parntership, Manoel Island; Mr Winston L. Zammit

 

References:

1. Bussolin, G., Delle Istituzioni di Sanita' Marittima nel Bacino del Mediterraneo, (Trieste 1881), 272.
2. Abela, G. F., Della Descrittione di Malta, (Malta 1647), 27.
3. Ferris, A., Descrizione Storico delle Chiese di Malta e Gozo, (Malta1866), 246.
4. Castagna, P.P., Lis Storia ta Malta bil Gzejer Tahha, (Malta 1888), 19.
5. Ibid.
6. Cassar, P., Medical History of Malta, (London 1964), p. 303
7. National Archives of Malta, various letters identified, compiled and researched by Mr Winston L. Zammit
8. Ibid.
9. Personal communication with Ms Bianca Rizzo, daughter of Lazaretto chief of police and resident there from 1923 to 1937, (18th January, 2009)
10. Noted from photographs at the National Museum of Archeology, Valletta.

 

 


 

Author:
Arch. Edward Said
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