The Floor of Floors

Memento Mori: A Companion to the Most Beautiful Floor in the World

by Dane Munro, with photographs by Maurizio Urso
Malta: MJ Publications, two volumes, 520 pp., H250.00

Most visitors to Malta arrive at Valletta, Malta’s sixteenth-century capital, where they go first to the golden limestone church now known as the Co-Cathedral of St. John. They come to see the paintings by Caravaggio, particularly the powerful Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and the exotic decorations of the building itself: the carved limestone piers, painted limestone vaults, sculpted tombs, Baroque metalwork, and a floor literally carpeted with hundreds of tombstones, all worked in elaborately inlaid marble.

The effect of this sudden immersion in pure art is both strange and overwhelming; there is too much to take in all at once, and it comes from too many different cultural directions. But the co-cathedral is only the beginning. By the end of the day, these same visitors may also have seen one or two Neolithic temples, Neolithic sculptures of sexy fat ladies, the bust of the gloriously named archaeologist Sir Themistocles Zammit, one of the world’s most spectacular harbors, with one of its most impregnable forts, and a fleet of ancient English buses, gaily painted orange, white, and chrome yellow, many decorated with bristling Fifties fins, grilles, colored lights, and holy cards.

A limestone spur in the center of the Mediterranean, Malta, with its three islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino, has always been a crossroads with its own distinctive character. The most recent research suggests that the Maltese language descends from Tunisian Arabic, with heavy Italian, especially Sicilian, overlays; it is thus a remarkable combination of Semitic structure with Indo-European vocabulary. The islands’ present population reflects a similar mixture of Europe and North Africa, together with descendants of Sephardic Jews who escaped from Spain in the 1490s, and an English colony that had its origins already in Elizabethan times. (Malta’s earlier populations seem to have been carried off wholesale by successive waves of ancient and medieval pirates.)

For most of the past five hundred years, because of its location and its splendid Grand Harbor, Malta has looked to war as its chief source of income, first under the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John (the Knights of Malta) and then under Britain’s Royal Navy. As airplanes, satellites, and politics have diminished Malta’s military significance, the country, independent since 1974 and a member of the European Union since 2004, has chosen to base its economy increasingly on culture, including its extraordinary works of art, some of them imported, some native, some, like the co-cathedral, an overpowering mixture of everything at once. In some deep sense, Malta is, and long has been, an image both of the Mediterranean and of Europe, so that a book like Dane Munro’s Memento Mori, a detailed study of one Maltese monument, reaches beyond this single small archipelago to the world at large.

Memento Mori provides a complete record, in text and gorgeous photographs (by Maurizio Urso), of the flat tombstones set into the floor of the Co-Cathedral of St. John, the individual pieces of the colored marble carpet that spreads …

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