Lorenzo Gafà: The Great Maltese Baroque Architect

A view of the walls and towers of the Co Cathedral of the ancient city of Mdina, Malta
A view of the walls and towers of the Co Cathedral of the ancient city of Mdina, Malta | © Christopher Woodhouse / Alamy Stock Photo
Christine Spiteri

Changing the landscape of this island nation, Lorenzo Gafà (1638 – 1703) is regarded as one of the most significant architects in the history of Maltese Baroque architecture. Christine and Joe Spiteri explore the life and work of this esteemed figure, revealing three of his iconic structures that still stand today.

One of the most important architects in the history of Maltese Baroque architecture, Lorenzo Gafà was born the youngest to a family of ten siblings in the ancient maritime city of Birgu (or Città Vittoriosa) on the Southern harbour in Malta. He lived here for the most part of his life and remained professionally active till the very last days of his life.
Sources recording the architect’s early life are very limited, however it is known that Lorenzo started out as a stonemason (scalpellino), possibly following the footsteps of his brother Melchiorre, a famous Baroque sculptor who for the majority of his life was based in Rome. Both brothers may have been influenced by their father’s passion for stone carving, since it is suggested that he too was an accomplished sculptor. Lorenzo’s time as a scalpellino was formative both in developing his skills and also in making important contacts, which acted as a springboard to greater commissions later in his life.
The mid-17th century was an era of stylistic transition throughout the rest of Europe, which was characterised by new explorations in the aesthetics of form and detail. In Malta, this spirit was imported through the influence of Italian Baroque architecture. In fact, Gafà started out as an assistant to the Italian military engineer Francesco Buonamici (1596 – 1677). Buonamici arrived on the Islands in 1635 to serve the Order of the Knights of St John (locally: Il-Kavallieri) and is considered the pioneer of Baroque architecture in Malta. Under this guidance Gafà learnt the foundations of the Baroque style, which he would one day make his own.

Lorenzo Gafà spent most of his professional life building churches across villages in Malta and Gozo, reconstructing existing ones, and designing and supervising the erection of chapels. He stands out as such an influential figure because of his ability to assimilate this imported style, forging it into one that soon became his signature. This architectural contribution was evident in his ability to promote the Baroque style as an integral part of the Maltese rural fabric, outside the capital of Valletta.
Gafà’s greatest contribution to the Maltese architectural landscape is the design and building of the masonry church domes. Until that time, domes were intended to be seen from inside the church, and thus the exterior part of the dome was ignored and bore a horizontally flat appearance. However, Gafà daring approach saw him experiment with various types of roofing structures, until he landed on the perfect balance: that of reconciling the physical structure and the aesthetic of the dome, both internally and externally.
The following are three examples of his most prominent ecclesiastical works:

St Nicholas’ Church in Siġġiewi /sij-jee-wee/ (1676 – 1687)

Siġġiewi is a quaint village on a plateau, in the Southeast part of Malta. Its parish church was an important project in Gafà’s career because through its construction he started designing and mastering his own works. The building is freestanding, and being situated on top of a hill makes this attribute more prominent. The church gives off the aura of an important monument and its atmosphere of grandiose entices one to enter. Inside, the decoration is based on a set of Ionic coupled pilasters with a complimentary entablature, which continues around the church without corner interruptions, due to the curved termination walls. The church took 11 years to build. It was funded by local parishioners and is dedicated to St Nicholas.

St Lawrence’s Church in Birgu /birr-goo/ (1681 – 1698)

The parish church of Birgu, Gafà’s hometown, took 17 years to be completed. It was a commission through which Gafà needed to prove himself worthy of his skill, but at the same time he felt confident enough to be creative by experimenting with the knowledge he had gained through his previous works. Here he was able to exercise manipulation of space, a typical feature of Baroque.

As opposed to the church in Siġġiewi, this location was less prominent and more ambiguous due to a split in levels, and therefore more attention needed to be devoted to its façade. He also managed the challenge of creating space within a limited and restricted site. In fact, the interior promises an optical illusion, such that the nave was made to seem bigger than it actually was.

What is so unique about this church is its location, being so close to the sea. Gafà designed many of the buildings in the Birgu waterfront area, some of which have recently been restored. This is a scenic area offering picturesque walks along the harbour, with views of the famous Upper Barakka Gardens in Valletta and the village of Senglea (locally: Isla). It is recommended to pair this evening with a lavish dinner in one of the many restaurants in the area.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina /im-dee-na/ (1693 – 1706)

The fortified medieval city of Mdina is a couple of kilometres away from Siġġiewi. It served as a capital city since the arrival of the Knights (officially on 1530) before receding its title to Valletta after the Great Siege victory of 1565. Interestingly, the Knights began to administer the island from Birgu, however Mdina still retained its status as the country’s capital and therefore required a monumental cathedral.

This cathedral was built to replace a ruined one which was destroyed during the 1693 earthquake, and is undoubtedly one of Gafà’s most prestigious commissions. The reconstruction process was reinitiated with the building of the choir behind the altar, blending in a modern style to an ancient building. The interior of the cathedral is intricately decorated, also featuring works of art by the famous Mattia Preti. The marble paving includes tombstones that depict the emblems of the Mdina bishops, as well as other members of the clergy.

The awe-inspiring cathedral bears a prominent façade, which dominates the landscape of Mdina’s narrow streets. However, Gafà’s greatest challenge was in designing the outstanding dome, which today is synonymous with Malta’s skyline. This was the biggest dome he ever built. Unfortunately, Gafà died before he saw it completed. The cathedral is dedicated to St Paul. According to tradition, the site where the cathedral sits was the area where St. Paul converted Publius, the Roman governor, to Christianity.
Collaborative editorial by Christine Spiteri and Joe Spiteri

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