On my first day here I only walked a short way into Valletta proper, only really grabbing a bit to eat with Gareth and not exploring the area too greatly. So it was very nice to get back over and to do so with Howard who not only has been here before but has done some actual travel writing about Malta and so provided lots of information about everything we saw.
We took a cab over that let us off at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, and we initially stepped over to the Saluting Battery that looks out over the Grand Harbour. We were there a little early for the midday salute, but greatly enjoyed the view looking back across the water into the city. Howard explained some of the history surrounding the building of the battery by the Order of St. John back in the 16th century and the story of the “Great Siege” of 1565 when the Ottomans were famously held back there.
From there we took the short walk through the very crowded streets (especially for a Monday, we thought) to St. John’s Co-Cathedral where we joined hundreds of other tourists going inside for a look.
Built in the 1570s by the Order of St. John and dedicated to John the Baptist, the exterior doesn’t seem all that immediately striking, featuring a somewhat plain style. It kind of looks like the battery, really, and I’m reading that “fortress”-like appearance might have been intended somewhat as it was built just after the Great Siege. Step inside, though, and the interior’s dazzling decoration is quite stunning, with every inch of the carved stone walls, marble floors, and painted ceilings filled with artistic expression full of symbolism and/or contributing to various narratives.
The audio guide helped explain the certain aspects such as the painted vaulted ceilings, the tombstones in the floor, and the intricate tapestries hung all about. I took a few photos, though none are particularly great (that’s one of mine up above from the battery, which you can click to embiggen). Better to watch this short video that more or less replicates much of what I saw (with a soundtrack added and minus the huge crowd):
The highlight, though, were the paintings by Caravaggio, in particular the famous oil painting of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicting his execution. (No photo/video allowed where those were, so they aren’t in the video.) It occupies the far end of the Oratory, taking up the entire wall and inviting the close study it deserves. Indeed, after a lengthy time looking upon it and discussing it, it was almost difficult to leave and look at other Caravaggios on the adjoining walls, it casts such a gripping spell.
We did leave, however, and after exiting the cathedral did some more walking. As we did I recalled how Caravaggio had also painted at least one work depicting card players, called The Cardsharps. I had that in mind because of having recently gone back over some of the history of Cassius M. Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings for an installment of Poker & Pop Culture, for which some have suggested Coolidge modeled the canines and their holding of cards after Caravaggio (and some other artists).
Not far from the cathedral is the Casa del Commun Tesoro where Malta’s first post office was once located. In the early 19th century the British used the building for certain governmental administrative work, and as a plaque on the outside explained the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge worked there as the Acting Public Secretary from 1804-1805. That led me to discuss having in the past taught “Xanadu,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” some of the Biographia Literaria and other STC works, and studying still more like “Christabel” and “Frost at Midnight.”
If I’m retracing our steps correctly, from there we circled back through more busy streets in search of a lunch spot Howard remembered, but unfortunately was closed on Mondays, then proceeded back around to the Lower Barrakka Gardens and then walked back up the coastline to where we originally began. I may get one more chance to get out and about (have one other late shift coming up, I believe), but regardless it was a fantastic opportunity to get a look around and absorb even just a small bit of Malta’s rich history.
By the time we were in the cab heading back over to the Portomaso Casino we were already talking poker again, and the day provided some interesting battles as well, the most significant of which you can read about over on the PokerStars blog. No “Great Siege” mind you, but some spirited defenses and attacks nonetheless.