Malta Diary When Malta turned RED – not politically but in bricks, stone and mortar!
Sadly most of these buildings are no longer with us
Perhaps not many people are aware of the effect of different colours on humanity and history. Right, so we know that bright colours signify jollity and entertainment; grey, black and purple denote a more sombre mood, particularly black for mourning; white is associated with purity particlularly in the bridal gowns of yore when a woman about to be married was assessed to be ‘pure’ – that is, still a virgin; the paler colours signified neutrality and being lukewarm.
Some years ago the Maltese historian, Dr Giovanni Bonello, a researcher of history, a former lawyer and then a Judge Emeritus as well as a collector or art treasures, wrote a series of articles in “The Times of Malta” relating his researches of the use of different colours with an emphasis on the colours of Maltese buildings during a particular era.
His researches concluded that different colours have throughout history acquired specific symbolic meanings. In Europe, heraldry had, by the Middle Ages, strictly codified the connotation of every colour.
He wrote that since Roman times, colours had a parallel ‘political’ meaning: we still call a person running for office a candidate, because Romans offering themselves for election wore white (candidus) and they reserved purpura (purple) to the concept of sovereignty – see Cardinals of the Roman Church, titled ‘Porporati’.
In Russian, red equals beautiful – the name of Red Square in Moscow predates the Communist revolution and only means ‘the beautiful piazza’. But red today stands for extreme left-wing in politics, just as the blues represents a sad state of being.
Additionally, in heraldry, the colour red indicates generosity, strength, courage and martyrdom. Coats of arms are actually colour-coded to signify virtues.
Malta itself passed through a stage in history during which many of its buildings, public and private, had their exteriors painted red. Was there any particular reason? Why did this happen? What motivated it? This was during the Victorian era and therefore, did the red building craze in Victorian Malta have political symbolism?
The fashion of Malta’s buildings turning red may have started in the 1830s and according to Bonello’s researches it is believed the first important building to be painted red was the British Governor’s Palace. This, he concluded, would explain why so many others instantly mimicked the model to be in line with ‘the almighty power’.
This aping by the subjects of examples set by the mighty follows old patterns, contended Bonello. The Grand Master was the very first to add a covered wooden balcony and instantly everybody aspired to covered wooden balconies on their facades.
The speculation why the British Governor wanted his residence painted red concluded that British subjects in overseas territories always desired a home-from-home familiarity and many important buildings in Britain, together with houses were at the time constructed in red brick, with white trimmings.
Painting Maltese facades red, with the protruding profiles in white, was the closest they would get to anglicising local buildings.
The red ‘craze’ slowly died out. However, it still persists vigorously to this day on church domes, both the plain cupola type and the segmented ones in between the ribs.
That Victorian Malta had an abundance of buildings painted red cannot be doubted. What is more problematic is to assert with certainty what buildings in particular turned red during that period.
Some buildings went on being repainted red long after the fashion had ebbed, one being the Red Tower outside Mellieħa. In others, traces of the red colouring are still visible, like some corners of the Palace façade in Valletta, much more conspicuous before the recent restoration.
Times and fashions however move on. Nowadays, innovative buildings housing technology or science content are given an external silver sheen. To avoid the dreariness, large apartment blocks are being painted multi-coloured, but the eternal dominating colour of Maltese buildings is that of the yellowish hues of limestone quarried into blocks.
Pictures and research with thanks to Dr Giovanni Bonello and ‘The Times of Malta’.
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