Remove Queen Victoria’s statue? ‘We are not amused’...

To me, that famous wartime photograph of Queen Victoria, surveying the devastation of wartime Valletta, tells us more about our own country’s past than all the history I learnt at school put together

Queen Vic... with commoner pigeon on lap
Queen Vic... with commoner pigeon on lap

In a way, I sort of vaguely comprehend how historians like Mark Camilleri might feel about having a statue commemorating Queen Victoria in front of the National Library, slap-bang at the pulsating heart of Malta’s capital city (a square formerly known as, ahem, ‘Pjazza Regina’.)

We are, after all, talking about the former Supreme Leader of the largest military empire the world has ever seen; and the age we are living is deep into the process of ‘revisiting’ the global cultural impact of Colonialism, and all it once represented.

So yes, I can perfectly understand that there may be valid academic arguments when it comes to things like ‘the strategic placing of national monuments’, and all that.

In a sense, it’s a process we’ve already been through (albeit on a smaller scale). I myself was raised in a street parallel to what we once called ‘Victoria Avenue’ in Sliema… round the corner, as it happens, from ‘Victoria Gardens’, ‘Victoria Junction’ (upper and lower); ‘Windsor Terrance’, and… now, what was Manuel Dimech Street originally? Ah yes: ‘The Prince of Wales’.

And while I have to admit to a nostalgic tendency to mentally allude to them by their Colonial-era names anyway – just because they’re the names I grew up with - I personally still find ‘Gorg Borg Olivier Street’ to be far more appropriate and sensible... for two reasons, primarily.

One, because Borg Olivier was the first Prime Minister of a Malta that had achieved its Independence from Britain: so there is a satisfying poetic justice in the fact that his name should symbolically ‘overthrow’ that of the leader he replaced. (Sort of ‘Tit-for-Tat’, if you know what I mean).

And two, because… erm…what the heck? Gorg Borg Olivier actually lived there: and I can confirm that myself, as we were practically neighbours for a while. Queen Victoria, on the other hand, never even bothered to so much as visit the avenue we named after her (nor, for that matter, the Gozitan capital that still bears her name to this day.)

How’s that for gratitude, huh? No wonder so many colonies rebelled…

Having said all that, however: there is a small difference between ‘street-names’ and ‘statues’…. if nothing else, because the latter tend to have a rather large aesthetic impact, and to interact with their surroundings slightly more than names ever could.

So on a purely academic level, I might even agree that: yes, actually… it would make a lot more sense to commemorate a ‘Maltese intellectual’ in such a prominent location in our capital (note: and we could have fun for centuries just fighting about the choice. I, for one, would nominate Charles Clews)… but I still can’t agree with removing that statue, because… well, I happen to rather like it, myself; and I happen to rather like it exactly where it is.

The Queen Victoria statue amid the ruins of war-torn Valletta
The Queen Victoria statue amid the ruins of war-torn Valletta

There is, after all, something to be said for the artistic merits of commemorative statues, as works of art in their own right.  And with perhaps one or two exceptions – like Antonio Sciortino’s ‘Christ the King’ statue in Floriana, or Dante Aligheri at Blada l-Bajda – I personally consider the Queen Victoria statue as arguably one of the best of its kind… quite possibly, one of the very few historical monuments that actually reflects a little thought given to its visual (as opposed to political) impact.

Viewed only as a statue carved out of marble (and, more pertinently, compared to other historical monuments in the immediate vicinity)… few can realistically deny that this particular sculpture is:

a) a very good artistic likeness of its subject-matter (which also means that it looks like a distant cousin of everyone’s ‘nanna’… and who could possibly dislike a monument to their own great-aunt?);

b) it is aesthetically/proportionally pleasing to the eye (unlike, say, the one of Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena that it replaced in 1891… which always looks like it’s about to topple off its pedestal). And, most important of all;

c) it adds a certain gravitas and elegance – even, dare I say it, ‘majesty’ – to its immediate surroundings.

None of that, however, is exuded by the identity of its subject. I would say it’s just the result of being a generally well-wrought work of art: something that is attributable only to the quality of the craftsmanship, and the artist’s attention to detail.

Consider, for instance, how a fold of Queen Victoria’s dress is draped over the lip of the pedestal at one corner. It’s a small touch; but I find that it adds an overwhelming sense of verisimilitude. She’s not just perched in that chair for dramatic effect… like a military statue might represent a man on horseback, for instance; oh no, she’s actually sitting on it, right there in the middle of Pjazza Regina: and in a moment, she’s going to have to hitch up that dress…

Then there’s the posture: half-reclining, half- sitting up straight… with one arm outstretched, almost as if to reach for a cup of tea from one the scattered tables of Café Cordina and Eddie’s Bar…

Whatever you make of its historical significance, this is very clearly a sculpture made at a time when a lot of importance was given to such purely artistic details, just for their own sake. Can the same really be said for anything we might erect in its place today (regardless, again, of the cultural significance of having a Maltese subject for a commemorative statue on the same spot)?

Besides: even factoring in who and what the statue represents: there is still a certain artistic impact that (in my view, at any rate) transcends the original intentions of the sculptor… or, even more so, the political intentions of erecting it in the first place.

For even if it was intended to glorify the British Empire - and undeniably to cow (ahem) the unruly natives of Malta into submission - well, just look at it today.

I mean… poor Queen Victoria: forced to sit there and watch, implacably, as all the historical vicissitudes that crumbled her own Empire were played out over the course of a century (on a much smaller scale, naturally) right there, under her own nose.

Who knows, for instance, what she would have made of Malta’s Independence Day celebrations in 1964: when she had to endure parades and celebrations passing her by, relentlessly, on a street was that once named after her own monarchy: ‘Strada Reale’?

This brings me to another thing I admire about this particular monument: we will never know what lurks behind that inscrutable facial expression.  It could be hauteur or arrogance; it could be boredom or irritation; it could even be quiet exasperation, as she looks downwards with undisguised contempt upon all her former subjects, walking past her without even noticing or caring (where, in centuries gone by, her presence there would have been a cause for excitement, celebration and reverence).

And for much the same reason, I also feel a curious satisfaction in the knowledge that the same statue, in the same location, once looked downwards (with the same facial expression) upon the smouldering ruins of a city as it was bombed to smithereens by the Nazis in World War Two…. precisely because we were British subjects, at the time.

To me, that famous wartime photograph of Queen Victoria, surveying the devastation of wartime Valletta, tells us more about our own country’s past than all the history I learnt at school put together.

In one image, it captures the legacy of at least three major influences that have (for better or worse) shaped the Malta that we know and live in today: the British Empire, as embodied by its most famous monarch; the Knights, whose palaces and churches lie reduced to rubble in the background; and also the Italians (unseen in the photograph, naturally) who dropped so many of those bombs in the first place.

Even just the fact that a monument to a British Queen, to be erected in a Maltese city, was actually sculpted by a Sicilian artist… it attests to the curious (and often violent) contrast between British and Italian cultural influences at the turn of the 19th century… which almost brought Malta to the point of civil war in the 1930s; and which, to this day, can still be felt in such seemingly trivial spheres as international (and club-level) football…

I don’t know. Far be it from me to contradict historians and academics … but unless we can replace that statue which something that can pack so much meaning into one visual image… and that would complement its surroundings with even a fraction of the same gravitas… I’d respond to the proposal in much the same way as Queen Victoria herself seems to be responding, from her perch in Pjazza Regina:

‘We are not amused’.