Christian Attard | The hidden beauty in the ugly

Maltese academic Christian Attard, winner in the category of best research for his book 'The Art of Dying Well: Visual Cultures in Times of Piety and Plague Malta 1675-1814' at the National Book Prize 2023, speaks to LAURA CALLEJA about drawing inspiration from other authors, and learning how to hone his craft through them

Christian Attard
Christian Attard

Could you tell us about your trajectory as a writer or researcher?

My training is very much visually orientated. In the mid-1990s, I had the privilege to be one of the students of Prof Mario Buhagiar, who was instrumental in instilling within us both the discipline of and a profound passion for art history.

I am deeply interested in the power of images and how images convey meaning to and are, in turn, given meaning by the public. I reject the notion that images come preloaded with meaning awaiting only to be deciphered. Instead, I perceive a reciprocal transaction between producer and consumer, and that is where I try to position myself as an author to understand that transaction. Naturally, I drew inspiration from a number of authors; Michael Baxandall was a master of his craft, and there is so much to learn from his books. I love John Berger’s style. He wears his deep knowledge lightly, never bogging down his readers with big words or convoluted ideas.

I love how Rozsika Parker opens up her subject matter, the critical questions she continually poses, and the insightful ways she follows when answering them. But the scholar who left a deep impact upon me, even because I came to know him personally, is Nigel Llewellyn. It was a book of his, Art of Death, Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual, which made me realize how deeply generative the method of inquiry he adopts and the subject matter he tackles. The latter might, at face value, seem morbid and dark, but ultimately, it is a subject that reflects upon the human condition and how we strive to make existential sense and beauty out of the inherent ugliness and inescapability of disease and death.

What was the process of crafting your award-winning book like?

The book is based on a six-year research project that led to my doctoral dissertation presented to the University of Malta some eight years ago. The process was supervised by Nigel Llewellyn and Keith Sciberras and, thus, any merits that are present in the book are also due to their constant questioning and ideas which made me revaluate and think deeper about the arguments tackled.

The book takes a four-pronged approach. It brings together art, plague, death and people’s ways of thinking or, as the French would have it, their mentalité, during a time bookended by two virulent plague-bouts: that of 1676 that killed some 11,000 people out of a population that was around 50,000, and the plague of 1813, which left some 5000 casualties in a population that had, by the time, doubled to 100,000.

At least two different ways of juggling were involved in carrying out this study. One way was to keep the aforementioned four-pronged approach in some sort of meaningful balance, delving into how these themes fed into each other and influenced one other. The other involved a more practical balancing act. How to dedicate so much time to researching and writing during a period when my two children, Sarah and Noah, were still young. So obviously, this study was also possible due to the support I was given by my wife, Marcelle. 

The published book is a heavily revised version of the thesis. A lot of rewriting took place mainly to wean away the study’s voice from sounding like that of a university project to one that sounds more like a book meant to hold the interest of a wider audience.

How did it feel to win the National Book Prize in 2023?

It obviously meant a great honour and one that came quite as a surprise especially when considering the level that book production has reached in Malta. Ultimately a book is far from a one-person job. I do have to share the credit with others who were deeply involved in this book’s production, chief amongst them the book’s main photographers, Joe P. Borg and Ian Noel Pace, and Gordon Pisani and Sarah Galea of Kite Publishers.

I would like the National Book Prize, although it is and should remain centred upon Malta, to also help push and promote publications away from Maltese shores and into foreign markets.    

Who are some of your favourite Maltese authors working today?

There are many Maltese scholars coming from different disciplines who are presently publishing interesting research with deep Maltese connections. There are books that are somehow, directly or indirectly, telling us so much about our fragmented identity, about Malta’s role in the wider world and where we stand, as a population, in the great tide of history.

But away from pure academia, I find the works of Immanuel Mifsud and Alex Vella Gera extremely interesting. Theirs might be works of fiction but they do tackle the same themes and pose similar questions to the ones just outlined. I do think that both authors have raised the bar of what is achievable with the Maltese language. Their works are written in Maltese and, very often, they embrace a Maltese context, yet there is nothing that can be considered parochial or insular about them.   

What inspired you to delve into the visual culture of death in Malta during the period of 1675-1814?

This is a subject that has intrigued me for years and it still does. It may seem to be dark and morbid; it is after all a study about death and plague and the visual culture they engendered, but at its very core it is a study about hope and resilience, and about humanity’s quest for beauty and redemption. It is about how people try to bring back a degree of normality in a landscape that was heavily disturbed by something they could not understand, something as big and as mysterious (at least for them) as bubonic plague. The book delves into how those who lived through such times and survived them managed to harness the power of faith and art in a bid to reclaim their lives. Art and images are thus here considered as an essential part of the human experience, both mirroring it and conceivably influencing it, rather than standing aloof or detached from it.

Change is another element that the study takes into consideration. It tackles a 140-year period during which Malta, and the wider world, underwent deep political and cultural changes: the Enlightenment and the many ensuing revolutions, and, in Malta, the expulsion of the Order, the short French presence and the coming of the British. One question this book poses is whether these profound changes did effectively modify people’s way of thinking and hence the artistic styles they adopted or the imagery they promulgated.

The study of plague and death also proved to be somewhat prescient in the sense that the death in the form of bubonic plague that is repeatedly mentioned was soon to become present in our own age with the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the overlap between past plague bouts and COVID-19 was dealt with in another book I edited, made up of a collection of studies written by foreign and local scholars. Published by Midsea Books in 2023, it is titled: Contagion and Visual Culture in the Central Mediterranean.     

What’s next for you?

There are so many subjects that intrigue me. I do think that in our age images are becoming even more important than words, a phenomenon that scholars have christened as the Visual Turn. n a world dominated by images one is bound to be interested in the manner images shape meaning, identity and experience.

This is the method of inquiry I adopted when studying the works of Antoine Camilleri in a book I edited in 2023 and published by Kite. It is titled Antoine Camilleri: A World Within and it also contains insightful studies by scholars of the calibre of Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, Joe Friggieri and the French Marie Gloc.

I am a lecturer at the University of Malta’s Department of Art and Art History, and I also lecture at the Malta School of Art. It worries me that so many academic works seem to hover above the interests of the public but never really manage to pique the interest of the lay-but-interested person, possibly because these are books that are considered (rightly or wrongly) too narrow, abstruse and inaccessible. In line with the great divulgation of art and its power, Ernst Gombrich, John Berger, Kenneth Clark, Philippe Daverio, Mary Beard or Nigel Spivey, I dream of a book which strives to demystify art, making it accessible to the public – possibly even to young students who are inclined to pursue the study of art – without it being in any way patronising, condescending, or simplistic.

READ ALSO: Mark Vella | The immense potentialities of a language

In collaboration with the National Book Council, MaltaToday will be interviewing the winners of the 2023 National Book Prize and Terramaxka Prize for children and young adults. More information regarding the awards can be found at