A bejewelled history of Maltese vanity | Francesca Balzan

We speak to Francesca Balzan, curator of ‘Vanity, Profanity & Worship: Jewellery from the Maltese Islands’, which will be on display at Casino Maltese, Republic Street, Valletta until May 26.

Cockatiel brooch dating to the late 19th or early 20th century.
Cockatiel brooch dating to the late 19th or early 20th century.

The aim of the exhibit

The exhibition is  the latest offering of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti (FPM): Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti  (Maltese Heritage Foundation) was set up in January 1992 by a small group of  individuals who were passionate about the islands' cultural heritage, and  concerned about its welfare. It is a non-profit making organisation  with the aim of spreading awareness of the island's extensive heritage  locally and internationally, through museums, exhibitions and  publications.

Early on in the Foundation's life it was decided that its  aim would be best reached through the organisation of exhibitions of notable  interest, with objets d'art from private collections that have never  been previously viewed publicly. This is where Patrimonju's  forte lies, in its ability to bring together these hidden treasures, staging  them professionally in sumptuous surroundings, and making them accessible to  the viewing public.

Patrimonju has already earned an enviable  reputation for the spectacular exhibitions it has already organised in its relatively short existence.

Its latest exhibition - Vanity, Profanity & Worship: Jewellery from the Maltese Islands - continues the Patrimonju tradition. It has been designed completely in-house by Michael Lowell, CEO of FPM and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.

Its main aim is to reach out and familiarise the public with the history of jewellery as it unfolded in Malta, making the point that jewellery is an art which is worthy of  preservation and exhibition and that the conservation and appreciation of  jewellery should occur because it is so relevant and tells us so much about  our history.

Nowadays we are being bombarded with adverts to  trade in old gold for cash with the consequent risk that old, historically important pieces may be unwittingly consigned to the melting point and destroyed forever. It is hoped that this exhibition will make the point that  the value of old jewellery is far more than its intrinsic value but is  actually enriched further by its historical value.

Amassing the jewellery

Patrimonju's forte is in drawing out artefacts for display which are not normally available for viewing by the public. This entails much research and viewing of artefacts in private homes, church treasuries and State collections. This preparatory phase takes years and is crucial in order to select the best or most representative pieces which to  include in the exhibition.

A wide time-span, a wide variety

The  spread is wide. The earliest pieces are pre-historic and date to the Neolithic period (3,600-2,500 BC) and the latest pieces date to contemporary times.

The exhibition is organised thematically and takes  the visitor along a route that explains the relevance and the place of  jewellery in Maltese society.

Thus amulets and the superstitious wearing of them is explored; a room dedicated to early pieces which focuses of some exquisite baroque examples which are treasures being shown to the public for  the first time, many of which attest to Maltese society's deep devotion to  the holy; 19th century trends are explored, both in terms of material and style; traditional jewellery and the Maltese terms given to them are shown as are the richly gemmed pieces worn by the upper crust; Maltese filigree which was so deeply appreciated in the 19th century is showcased and the variety presented is remarkable; modern and contemporary pieces show the Maltese very much in touch with what happens internationally and collecting  accordingly and the final section is dedicated to Andrew Grima, one of the most celebrated of international jewellery designers, who was descended from a Maltese family.

The 'target audience'

Everyone owns at least one piece of jewellery. It is the most personal and intimate form of art that one could possibly possess as it is worn against the body to embellish, to protect, to beautify or just  to declare one's status. We all immediately understand this 'language' and therefore an exhibition which showcases the collecting habits and wearing of  jewellery by the Maltese and why it was worn should potentially interest  everyone.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of activities and workshops. Opening hours: 10:00 to 18:00 (Monday to Sunday; last entrance at 17:30); until 21:00 on Friday (last entrance at 20:00). Entrance fees are at €5 (adults);

€3 (senior citizens, 12-17 year olds, student youth card holders and groups of 10 and over). Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. For more information and a full programme of events, log on to Patimonju's website.