There are literally skeletons in the closet upstairs at the Mainguard on Misrah San Ġorġ in Valletta. Two crouching painted skeletons prop up either end of a door frame leading to offices recently vacated by the Attorney General. In each of them, in cupboards created by arched vaults, a further two skeletons lie supine painted against a brick background. One of them is being tempted by the devil. In the same room, another skeleton dressed in a friar’s robe, painted in 1881, has had his eyes gouged out.
The painting has a number on it, one of a concentration of overlapping wall paintings and designs dating back to the mid-19th century, many of which were inventoried in a catalogue compiled by British soldiers during their occupation of the building.
“What for you make the ‘laugh.’ You want speak any things with me? I is Maltese GENTIL MAN. More better as you!!!” reads the text accompanying an insert lampooning a caricature of a Maltese dandy. To the right of this panel, two flags of the Kings Own Malta Regiment, painted in 1972 by Adrian Strickland assisted by the late Paul Debono and Louis J. Sant Cassia replace the actual banners which once hung there, their brackets still visible. Great care was taken to paint the flags as though they were in the background so as not to overpaint the pre-existing paintings, including a dragon, a polo player, and copies of lithographs of hunting scenes, which they have circumvented.
This approach pre-empts that taken by the team of Heritage Malta conservator-restorers. The skeletons once sat on a green dado that skirts the large officers’ mess where the majority of the paintings are situated. However, the dado is now significantly higher. “We have to respect the history of the wall; we cannot go back to the original.” This a point that Anthony Spagnol, Senior Conservator within Heritage Malta, is keen to convey. “Where possible, we must reveal without cancelling any aging. If the intervention changes any part of the painting’s current state or reverts to an earlier version of a regiment’s uniform, you are tampering with history.”
Although exploratory research commenced as far back as 2013, actual restoration work started in 2018 based on groundwork undertaken by Heritage Malta conservator Ritianne Psaila, who submitted an in-depth report on the wall paintings’ condition, their manufacturing techniques, and previous interventions carried out. Anthony, in a supervisory role, is being assisted by conservator-restorers, Sofia Almagro from Spain and Sara Mattioli from Italy.
Examining the wall paintings under Infrared, UV, and raking lights helps expose the bulges, cracks, and ridges in the wall, which in some instances may also determine if images are hidden beneath. Photographic documentation of the room helps to confirm other findings such as re-touching and overpaintings. Following documentation, the next step is conservation.
An assessment is made of the damages a wall painting has suffered. One of the images which presented the biggest challenge is an allegory of the Father Time carrying a scythe. Originally his missing hand held a clock that once hung over the fireplace. ‘There was a lot of water infiltration in this area, causing extensive deterioration.” Sofia recalls.
Fluctuations of relative humidity might cause the migration of salts and consequent exfoliation during dry periods. The primary concern is to affix the painting to the wall without losing anything of the original. A preparatory ethanol treatment is applied to the area. With large hollow spaces, micro holes are subsequently drilled into the substrate, and injections of grouting secure the painting once again to the wall. An acrylic adhesive is used with smaller gaps. The process is a scientific one involving teamwork and consultation with historians. “You cannot have a one size fits all approach,” Spagnol asserts. The choice of consolidants, for example, depends on the condition of the artwork and the different media used, be it pencil, ink, gouache, oil, or watercolour in this case.
Many of the wall paintings were re-touched and varnished by Emvin Cremona between the years 1944-46. “The paint Emvin used is more resistant than what lies underneath. If you try and remove the upper layer, there is the risk of also removing what you have beneath.” Varnish degrades with time, assuming a yellow hue. The next step involves removing the varnish without causing overcleaning. To this end, they employ the expert advice of Military Historian Dennis Darmanin, who in Spagnol’s words, treats the Officers’ Mess as though it was the ‘Sistine Chapel of Malta,’ such is the former’s dedication to detail. Incomplete paintings are not filled in. Instead, a process referred to as ‘neutral integration’ is carried out whereby a border is painstakingly filled with a series of dots akin to pointillism. As Spagnol clarifies, “A conservator cannot invent.”
Most of the paintings were executed by officers with plenty of time on their hands. Originally called ‘Guardia della Piazza,’ as the name implies, the Mainguard was built in 1603 as a guardhouse by the Order of St John and later the guards of the ‘Governor of Malta’ who resided in The Grandmaster’s Palace just across the square. Although it once served as the Libyan Cultural Centre, the building has always been a symbol of British Rule in Malta. On the relief of the British Coat of Arms, above the colonial addition of a neoclassical portico, the Latin inscription reads: ‘The love of the Maltese and the voice of Europe assigned these Islands to great and unconquered Britain. A.D. 1814.’
I ask Sofia which painting she has enjoyed restoring most, and she leads me to one satirically entitled ‘Mainguard Pleasures’ which is divided into two sections. The winter section depicts the monotony endured by a British officer repeatedly rushing downstairs to stationary guard duty. In the summer section, the fan has stopped working, mosquitoes parade to the sound of opera wafting in from Strait Street, located behind the Mainguard, whilst a sweating officer lays slumped on an armchair, fanning himself. “It’s true, it is really hot here in summer, and you can still hear music coming in from the streets,” Sofia laughs, identifying with the comic scene.
The walls are a snapshot in time, alive with everyday scenes in Valletta. There is a monochrome painting of a woman in a faldetta trailing a priest wearing a cassock and a wide brimmed hat. There are processions and parades, pictures of sweethearts and ladies of more dubious repute, military insignia, sea craft, and a surrealist sequence where a brush and tankard metamorphosise into a man.
The words; ‘Behind these sorry relics, once stood a sorry gut’, accompany a moustache, glued to the wall, bequeathed to posterity by its owner. Some of the paintings are trompe l’oeil attempts to give three dimensionality to objects that once stood in their stead. A shelf painting with a book on it lies adjacent to a painting of a hook in the wall (ganġetta) that originally held a door open. Likewise, paintings of a hanger and swords substitute the actual items which hung in situ.
“The ongoing work at the Mainguard is a hallmark of how conservation and restoration should be carried out. Heritage Malta is setting an example of the standard we wish to maintain,” Spagnol states proudly. The public will be able to appreciate all the hard work carried out behind closed doors when the Mainguard enters its next reincarnation as an interactive visitor centre for historical sights in Valletta. The forgotten longings, aspirations, and observations of these officers will come back to life when these walls speak again.
By Warren J. Bugeja, Executive Communications, Heritage Malta