How to weave a Flemish controversy…

CYNTHIA DE GIORGIO, curator of the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum, defends plans to build an extension for a priceless collection of 29 17th century Flemish tapestries 

Cynthia de Giorgio, curator of the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum
Cynthia de Giorgio, curator of the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum

It always feels a little odd to play the tourist in your own country: especially when one’s last visit to the St John’s Co-Cathedral Museum dates back to a school visit some 30 years earlier. 

On this occasion it felt odd for another reason. Unlike the two Caravaggios and the Cathedral itself – every conceivable nook or cranny of which is arguably a work of art in its own right – I had never given much thought to its collection of 17th century Flemish tapestries since that visit long ago. They had faded into a distant and unremarkable memory, from a time when ‘giant hanging carpets’ (so they seemed to me, at any rate) held little fascination for young schoolboys with attention span disorders.

Seeing them again today is a different experience. Even if only five of the 29 tapestries are actually on display, they are enough to evoke an image of grandeur that is every bit as impressive as its other, more famous exhibits. You are left wondering how much more impressive the collection would appear, if exhibited in its totality…

Cynthia De Giorgio, curator of the museum, has just taken me on a guided tour to outline the Cathedral Foundation’s plans to extend and refurbish the museum. It involved walking through the (admittedly tiny) hall which serves that purpose today; then out into the courtyard facing Merchants Street… which is where the new tapestry chamber would be built, if the Foundation has its way in the end.

Unlike the original 2007 plans for an underground museum, the architects now envisage a chamber built at first floor level along the length of the façade: part of which would overhang the existing courtyard, which would in turn be redesigned as an entrance.  

Later in her office we pore over artistic impressions of how the finished project would look. The lower half of the façade from street level would be virtually unchanged… except for the removal of the existing platform beneath the Great Siege monument (which would remain in place), and the addition of a glass façade in front of the existing arches. Once in the courtyard, however, one would no longer see the side of the Cathedral.

Compared to the dramatic architectural changes experienced in other parts of Malta, the visual impact is not particularly extensive. But then again, this is not exactly any old part of Malta. This is Valletta: a Unesco World Heritage site where even the conversion of a washroom into a penthouse can instantly spark outrage, among an increasingly heritage-conscious population.

The Foundation’s plans are no exception: heritage conservation groups such as Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar have objected to the project, arguing that it would transform the visual impact of the Cathedral beyond recognition. 

Before talking about the objections themselves: this is the second time the Foundation has proposed a new museum… suggesting that (from the Foundation’s perspective) the project is a priority. Why, exactly, is it so necessary to build an extension to the museum to achieve this aim? 

“One of the responsibilities of any museum is to look after its artefacts, to study them, and to exhibit them in the best possible conditions for the enjoyment and knowledge of the public in general,” she replies. “I think that’s a good enough reason…”

Perhaps it is, in generic terms. But we are also talking about a construction project in the heart of Valletta, where (judging by other recent projects) any form of intervention is bound to cause controversy. Surely this is not in itself a bad thing, as it denotes concern with preserving cultural heritage… 

Cynthia De Giorgio nods. “Yes. I do understand the concern. Change is hard to accept. But you have to weigh that change against the benefits to be gained. I’m sure that once the project is ready, and people go into that chamber, and see all the tapestries together, they are going to be really impressed. I for one have never seen them all together, and I’m the museum curator…”

The remaining tapestries are currently in storage, she adds. “The truth is we are not giving these works of art the importance they deserve. And it reflects on how poorly we value our cultural heritage, if we don’t exhibit them in the best possible manner. We are talking about the largest complete set of Flemish tapestries in the world: over 780 square metres in total, woven on the ‘modelli’ designed by Peter Paul Rubens – one of the most important Flemish artists of the Baroque. We have his works of art here in Malta, and we are keeping them dispersed in different rooms, in conditions where they cannot be viewed properly. Nor do we get an impression of what this gift was meant to be, and how awe-inspiring it was in its time. By keeping a piece here and a piece there, we are doing the collection a disservice…”

The collection itself was a gift from newly elected Grand Master Perellos in 1697. They were commissioned the following year: and such was the scale of the order that the entire weaving industry of Brussels had to be enlisted to meet the demand. 

De Giorgio invites me to consider what the undertaking would have meant for the time. “Every Grandmaster was obliged, and wanted, to give a gift to St John’s. And they competed amongst themselves. In those days, exuberance and opulence and ostentation were not just tolerated, but expected. This is the Baroque phase we are talking about. Today’s values have changed. Today, if you’re ostentatious, it’s considered bad taste. Back then, it was the other way round. If you didn’t, for instance, wear the longest possible wig – a sign of magisterial grace – people would say you didn’t think enough of yourself. This is why Perellos wanted to give an exceptional gift…”

The Grandmaster was however confronted by an age-old problem: what can one possibly give to a recipient that already has everything you could dream of? 

“This was 1697, when the church itself was ready. Some of the tombstones were laid, the chapels were carved and gilded… everything we associate with St John’s: the Mattia Pretis, the altar pieces, the Caravaggio, the Oratory… they were already there. So it was pretty ingenious of him to manage to find a gift that would outshine everyone else. Whoever conceived the idea – whether it was Perellos himself or any of his ambassadors – they really deserve to be applauded.” 

Three hundred years later, she adds, Perellos’s gift still has the power to fascinate. “We’ve had art historians who have come over from Belgium to give lectures, and students who have done their PhDs on this collection. Artistically it is very important, yet we are just sitting with it and not giving it the importance it deserves…”

Even on an iconographic level, the tapestries have a significance of their own as part of the Baroque artistic canon. Apart from adding a layer of ostentation to an already elaborate Cathedral, the collection itself pays homage to the ‘triumph of the Eucharist’. 

“At the time, this was one of the major themes of the Counter-Reformation. There was a topical relevance to the set which went beyond decoration. The tapestries tell a story; but it can only be told in full when all 29 of them are displayed together. You won’t get this effect by exhibiting only three or four of them. It’s similar to having a set of fine bone china. You don’t put out two or three plates when entertaining… you put out the entire set…”

Coming back to the main concerns raised by objectors: these include the visual impact on St John’s itself, and also – separately – the fact that modifications will have to be made to the Great Siege monument. This latter detail is particularly emotive, as this ‘monument’ is widely regarded as the final resting place of the Knights who fell defending Malta in 1565. 

Some have therefore described the proposal as a ‘sacrilege’ which would ‘desecrate’ a graveyard of extreme cultural and historical significance…

But De Giorgio is already shaking her head before I finish the sentence. “There is no ‘desecration’ involved here. Even the terminology that’s being used is inaccurate. First of all, graves are not ‘sacred’ – that word applies only to the divine. Even if it’s the grave of a great hero… great heroes are not gods. Their graves cannot be ‘desecrated’…”

In any case, she adds, the reality is that there are no graves under that monument at all. “The place was bombed in the war. There are no bones left… maybe a few scraps, but it is not correct to describe the site as a graveyard. The base of the monument you see today is actually concrete, and it was raised there in the 1960s. What they tried to do back then was preserve the memory of the Great Siege fallen: not their remains, which had been lost. The most important issue is to perpetuate the memory... and the design will specifically aim at doing the same.”

Again she points towards artists’ impressions to show that the 17th century monument would be given greater prominence under the new designs.

“What I find insane about all this is: do they really think that myself, as curator, or the council – three of whom are Monsignori – would obliterate the Great Siege monument? If that happened, we’d deserve the worst…” 

Another misconception concerns the possibility of excavating the courtyard. Some people, De Giorgio suggests, may be confusing today’s project with the 2010 one. “I don’t want to mix the two, because they are very different. Under these proposals there will be no excavations at all, except for a basement underneath the arches. There are already basements there; but for them to be made available to the public, there is an EU law that states a public space has to be of a certain height. So about 80cm would need to be excavated to meet that criterion…” 

As for the view of the Cathedral, De Giorgio returns to her argument that the impact must be viewed in the context of the project’s benefits. “This is not a Gothic cathedral. This is not Chartres or Notre Dame, or the Duomo. A Gothic cathedral’s beauty is external; in St John’s, the focus is on the interior, not the exterior. Besides, there will be minimal visual impact on the first floor.”

What about the surrounding streetscape? Wouldn’t going up one storey permanently alter the alignment of Merchants Street?

She shakes her head. “Photomontages were prepared when applying for the permit. The addition to St John’s will not be higher than the surrounding buildings. Besides, what a lot of people don’t know is that this area was built over after being bombed in the war. There was no view of the Cathedral from Merchants Street….”

She produces a photograph dating to 1920, taken at the corner of Merchants and Sta Lucia Streets. The buildings (all destroyed in the blitz of 1942) were originally three storeys high. “When this area was rebuilt in 1964, there was a decision to leave the courtyard visible from the street, and to stop at one storey. But that was never the original intention…”

Ultimately, it all boils down to a choice of priorities. “What would you prefer: to have the view as it is, or to have the tapestries exhibited properly? You will always lose something; but you have to also see what you’re gaining…”

Is she concerned that the resistance might derail the project, as similar objections did in the past?

“I am disappointed at the uninformed critics. We have been working on this project for two years. We have gone through all the committees of the competent authorities: from the superintendence of cultural heritage, to the heritage protection unit, to the heritage advisory board, through all the MEPA committees. Do you think they haven’t asked the same questions? Of course they have…”

Has there been any similar communication between the Foundation and the project’s main objectors: for instance, Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar? 

“No,” she replies simply. “They never asked. Had they asked, we would have been more than happy to show them the plans. Din l-Art Helwa, on the other hand, asked for a meeting and we discussed the project in detail. And they’re not objecting…”

The concept of the project has been accepted by the highest authorities, she adds. “It is only a handful of people who are objecting. I don’t think a handful is representative of the entire nation. A lot of other people are commenting positively about the project. To begin with, the tourist guides. They keep asking us when the new museum will be complete…” 

To be fair, I don’t think FAA’s objection is to the intention behind the project… but rather its execution. One argument, for instance, is that the collection could be housed elsewhere in Valletta: this might even provide the impetus to restore a neglected site…

“But where can we put them? The set belongs to the St John’s Church... it wouldn’t make sense to house it anywhere else. Apart from that, you have 780 square metres of tapestry to exhibit. Is there anywhere in Valletta, close enough to the Cathedral, that has that kind of space available?”

As for somehow making better use of the available space (another argument that has been raised), that is very clearly impossible. “The space we have today is very confined. It was built in the 1960s, when the number of tourists visiting Malta would have been very small. Those who criticise clearly do not understand the pressures of having to handle 2,000 tourists in a day. Even they themselves pass comments like, ‘how do you allow us to practically brush against the tapestries?’ St John’s is the most visited site in the Maltese islands. We must give the best experience and service possible.”

This brings us to another pressing concern: the possibility of damaging the tapestries themselves. How vulnerable are they? And what’s been done to preserve them to date? 

“The Foundation is in the process of restoring the entire collection, and has already spent €1 million in the process. The project started in 2006, and should be completed by 2018. It takes a year to restore a tapestry. Two a year are sent back to Brussels, where they were made, to be washed, rolled onto looms again… every square centimetre is studied and repaired…”

For all this, the collection proved to be in fairly good shape. “The colours had faded, but only slightly: bear in mind that for most of that time they were rolled up and kept in storage. They were only hung on display in the Cathedral once a year for a few weeks. But now, they are not only ‘liturgical accessories’. Now they are works of art. We need to house them in a museum with the right lighting conditions… because light is the most damaging element to tapestries. Ultraviolet rays actually disintegrate the fabric… it becomes hard and brittle, and literally dusts off…” 

All this raises the question of why there is so much resistance in the first place. How does Cynthia De Giorgio account for it herself? 

“Those who criticise have misunderstood the project. It’s as simple as that. And some people won’t accept change, even if it’s change for the better. Should I compare it to the tapestry of the Triumph of the Church, which shows Ignorance and Blindness being trampled by Ecclesia’s chariot? If you cannot see the value in exhibiting this priceless set of tapestries, you must be blind…”