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.1 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 with such brilliance under the feet of parishioners, tourists, and, for a damaging six decades in the nineteenth century, the jack-booted Royal Malta Fencibles, who stood at attention by plunking their long guns down on the delicate veneer.2 Although it is a study of gravestones, Memento Mori strikes a tone that is thoughtful rather than macabre, for Munro uses the co-cathedral’s monuments to address larger questions of mortality and the way we choose to commemorate it. The floor of St. John’s is one of those rare works of art that have been successfully fashioned by committee, a project, like the Piazza del Campo in Siena, that somehow speaks, with unerring rightness, for an entire community. In the case of St. John’s, that community was the Order of Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta, the warrior-friars who controlled the three islands of the Maltese archipelago from 1530 until their expulsion by Napoleon in 1798.

In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V offered the three islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino to the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem and Rhodes, an order of Christian soldiers originally founded during the Crusades to care for pilgrims en route to the Holy Land. The knights took vows of chastity and lived in community like medieval friars (they took the title Fra’, or brother), but they soon trained to fight as well as to heal the sick. After two centuries of battling Arab sheikhs for control of Jerusalem, they were forced to withdraw as far as Rhodes, where they exchanged fighting on land for harrying Muslim ships throughout the Mediterranean.

By 1522, the expansion of Ottoman Turkey had forced the knights out of Rhodes as well, and it was only then that they turned, with great reluctance, to Malta. For centuries, the three small islands had been the feudal property of various Sicilian nobles; now these lords’ ties of vassalage to Charles V compelled them to accept his proffered arrangement with the homeless knights. In the end, the islands’ location in the center of the Mediterranean and the superlative natural protection afforded by the Grand Harbor convinced the knights to take up the imperial gift, much to the annoyance of Malta’s aristocracy.

The Turks did not wait long to test the defenses of the knights’ new stronghold, strategically set halfway between Sicily and the coast of Tunisia. In 1565, the seventy-year-old Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent flung some 30,000 troops against 592 knights and several thousand Maltese. The knights, under their seventy-year-old Grand Master Jean de la Vallette (he was Süleiman’s exact contemporary), proved as tough as their Maltese neighbors, many of whom made their living as pirates. Guns blazed from land and sea, bodies floated in the harbor, severed heads flew from catapults; it is no wonder that most of the armor on display in the Palace of the Grand Masters in Malta has ominous dents in it. When a troop of seven thousand Spanish reinforcements arrived from Sicily, the ancient Turkish general, Mustafa Pasha, decided to withdraw. Brutal combat and the pounding of Turkish artillery had left most of the knights’ old fortifications in ruins, so they founded a new capital city on the highest promontory above the Grand Harbor, a headland that had seen some of the conflict’s most vicious fighting. They named their new city Valletta after their elderly Grand Master Jean de la Vallette, the hero of the Great Siege.

A Maltese architect, Glormu (Gerolamo) Cassar, created both the regular grid of Valletta’s city plan and the design of most of its buildings, executed by Maltese masons in the island’s warm golden limestone. These included the eight auberges, or headquarters of the different European branches of the order, called langues: Italy, León and Castile, Aragon, Provence, France, Auvergne, England-Bavaria, and Germany.3 Gaping moats, dug by Turkish slaves, surround the city, the sheer drop of their bedrock walls surmounted by row upon row of limestone bastions that were once loaded with legions of cannon—which must have sparked the present Maltese fondness for shooting off petards. A vast piazza just outside the first line of defenses, in the suburb of Valletta known as Floriana, stored huge reserves of grain under its rows of limestone manhole covers, still in place after all these centuries. Valletta was designed to be impregnable, and it has been; not even the 3,340 Axis air raids that pounded the islands during World War II could shake the heart of its sixteenth-century fort.4

Glormu Cassar also designed the knights’ cathedral (1572–1577), known until the nineteenth century as the Cathedral of the Priory, a church carved of raw limestone in a style as sturdy as the knights themselves. Its floor, however, at least as we see it today, is delicately refined, and it was centuries in the making, although the tombstones were only transferred to the floor from the cathedral’s various crypts in 1711. The earliest tombstone, for Fra’ Pietro del Ponte, dates from 1535, shortly after the knights’ arrival (it was transferred to Valletta from the knights’ old capital, Birgu); the latest, for the Maltese knight Fra’ Pawlu Bertis de Portughes, was added in 1835, a generation after the British took Malta from Napoleon in 1800. The tombstones are all different, as individual as the knights they commemorate, and yet they provide a sense of continuity, both within the order itself at any given moment and over the centuries. This overriding sense of community binds the elaborate floor together, both visually and spiritually, balancing and tempering the tombs’ highly varied expressions of individual loss.

The knights themselves came from all over Europe, including Malta itself; the floor reflects their differences in language, taste, and personality, from the austere white plaques that honor the earliest knights, to Italian Baroque dramas, French neoclassical trophies, and the Byronic wall tomb of ?Gu?zeppi Lauron (1823), who looks more like a dying Romantic poet than a “Maltese priest, Doctor of both Civil and Canon Law, Canon of the Cathedral-Church, Commendator of the Jerusalemite Order.” A special crypt contains the remains of the Grand Masters including Jean de la Vallette himself, and the great and severe Alsatian Alof di Wignacourt, patron of Caravaggio. Another Grand Master’s tomb greets visitors aboveground in the Chapel of Léon and Castile, that of the vain eighteenth-century Portuguese Emanuel Pinto, who assumed ermine robes and a closed royal crown along with his luxuriant periwig.

Only the most illustrious knights had the privilege of a commemorative slab on the floor of their priory. Hence theirs is an unusual cemetery: there are no epitaphs to dead children, no young mothers cut down in childbirth. No portraits of poignantly young adults stare out at us like those touching ancient faces from Fayum and Alexandria in Egypt. Most of the knights who made it to the floor of their cathedral were elderly. Many were in their eighties; one brags of having almost reached one hundred.5 Usually, therefore, their inscriptions record long lives intensively lived. These Christian soldiers faced death with deep faith in an afterlife, and not only the afterlife in Heaven: true aristocrats, they also trusted in the immortality of their own good deeds and the longevity of their order. Still, their testaments, especially in Dane Munro’s sensitive translations, sometimes have the haunting ring of a poem by Cavafy, especially in the rare cases where the commemorated knight has died young:

To God, Supreme and Almighty.

Passer-by, do you wish to know about the life and death of Loyac?
He was Knight famous for his ancient lineage, a Knight famous for his merits.
He did not condemn his wealth to obscurity,
but more replenishing than rain,
he had grown accustomed to nurturing the countless needy.
I have not revealed everything, for who could?
I shall speak about his final achievements,
by which he lost his life and deserved [another].
While he was applying dressings to patients’ limbs and nursing the ill,
he contracted a disease and died.
A good death makes one blessed, but a good life also,
Happy is he who has lived and died so well.
The noble Jacques de Loyac de la Bachellerie finished his life
On the 16th of November of the year 1765.
He had lived for 26 years.

Old men can also make for poignant epitaphs. Fra’ Mattia Preti, the seventeenth-century Italian painter whose work adorns the co-cathedral’s vaulted ceiling (where, remarkably, he painted directly on the limestone), lies buried beneath a slab of somber black marble adorned by skulls and crossbones and a friend’s eulogy:

To God, Supreme and Almighty.

Here lies the great splendour of painting,
Commendator Frà. Mattia Preti
who, after he had gained the highest repute with his painter’s brush
in Rome, Venice and Naples,
came to Malta under the patronage of the most eminent Grand Master De Redin,
where he, showered with praise by the Order of Jerusalem,
was gratuitously admitted to the company of Knights of the Venerable Tongue of Italy,
when he had embellished this church with unparalleled painting.
Soon, roused with zeal of graver compassion,
he gave an immense sum of money, earned from his paintings, to the poor,
leaving behind an example to painters
so that they might learn to paint for eternity,
to which he flew four years before his ninetieth birthday
on the 3rd of January 1699.
Frà. Camillo Albertini, Prior of Barletta,
this tombstone for his dearly missed friend.

Not all the knights’ life on Malta was devoted to poverty, chastity, obedience, and hospitality.6 Elderly knights or their executors sometimes argued with unseemly enthusiasm for a good place on the floor. As the Book of Ecclesiastes could have told them, however, “all is vanity”; those wranglings were entirely undone by a well-meaning Maltese artist, Giuseppe Hyzler, in 1833. With the blessing of the cathedral’s canons, Hyzler reset the floor to range its tomb slabs in a cross pattern more in line with reigning neoclassical tastes, placing the monuments with respect to their colors and designs rather than the rank of their owners, their aristocratic names, or their grand ambitions. Yet despite this earnest redecorating, the tombs closer to the high altar still tend to belong to more grandly titled knights; their inlays are richer than others in design and in execution, with highlights in semiprecious stones and mother-of-pearl.

Grandest of all, needless to say, are the tombs of the Grand Masters. The epitaph of Alof de Wignacourt outdoes them all, with its forty-one lines of text inscribed in black marble to commemorate “a nobleman…the favourite of kings, the splendour of the Knights, the terror of the barbarians, the abode of virtues.” It continues:

He will live in the memory of the coming generations, in the annals of kings, in the
exalted dignity of his successors, in Valletta embellished with famous buildings,
in the extended name and honour of the Holy Jerusalemite Cross,
anywhere in the world.

By contrast, Grand Master Pinto, he of the ermine robes, has only six lines:

Frà. Don Emanuel Pinto,
Grand Master of the Jerusalemite Order,
ruled for 32 years,
lived for 92 years,
died in 1773.
Affection placed [this monument] with gratitude.

This simple text is inscribed, however, not on a slab in the floor but on the undulating surface of a black marble cenotaph crowned by a colored marble obelisk. A plump, sexy statue of Fame, in white Carrara marble, dances on the cenotaph’s lid, her left wing caressing the obelisk as her left hand holds up her gilded bronze trumpet; she seems to be pausing between fanfares to look down toward a painted portrait of the periwigged Grand Master (itself probably executed on copper). Her right hand grasps the gilt bronze wreath that surrounds the image, as a Carrara putto steadies it from below and gazes admiringly on the image of the great man.

For their final message to posterity, some knights give way to eternal expression of their frustrations in life, like Giovanni Domenico Mainardi of Turin, twice thwarted in his quest to become bishop of the cathedral, who uses the term antistes, “stand-in,” to describe his position as the cathedral’s grand prior, reminding passersby that he ought to have held still higher office:

extraordinarily equalled his most distinguished grace with
intensity of spirit, integrity of life and refinement of morals,
did not neglect any task of a dutiful prelate
regarding prominence of the divine worship
and reverence of sacred rites,
with his moderation, courtesy and kindness,
had endeared himself to the hearts of everyone.
Although he had preserved his steadfastness to the end,
he piously passed away on the 19th of February 1785,
81 years, 3 months, 10 days of age,
[spent] over 26 years at his Grand Priorship,
and was laid,
in the peace of Christ,
in the grave,
which he had chosen for himself while living.

A good many deceased knights make the down-to-earth observation that we who walk across their tombs today will be joining them soon enough in their world beyond. “His hour came,” says the skeleton who guards the clock on the tomb of Fra’ Gaspar de Figuera. “Yours will come too.”

Fra’ Anselme de Cais set his tomb by the co-cathedral’s side doorway, where Giuseppe Hyzler’s redecoration let it be; now it is the first slab we step across in entering the church:

Whosoever treads upon these unknown remains,
venerate the memory of
Frà. Anselme de Cais
of Nice, Bailiff of Manosque,
who wished to be buried at the threshold of this church
in order to be trodden upon by everyone’s feet.
This marble was intended, while he was alive,
to be a tombstone without name, without coat of arms.
You have from this one proof of humility
how much the splendor of virtues illuminated him.

The designs of the tombstones, beautifully clear in Maurizio Urso’s meticulous photographs, are as diverse as their epitaphs and as the men they commemorate: many of the master drawings were created in Italy, always the chief source of art and artists for the Maltese islands.7 The French knights, not to be outdone by the Italians, chose tomb designs from France, with a more restrained rococo style; many of the tombs for German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Maltese knights were designed in Malta itself. Some frugal knights simply adapted the designs of their neighbors, changing a few details of color and substituting their own coat of arms. Of the skeletons frequently seen in action on the tombstones, one, visibly smiling, is cutting off a branch of an oak tree with an axe (an inscription reads “spare the other branches”), another helps to carry a casket, a third points to the phrase “blessed hope” in the epitaph of Garsia Xarava Castro. As Munro notes, another skeleton has borrowed both its pose and its bone structure from the illustrations (by Stephan Calcar) to Andreas Vesalius’s pioneering book on anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

The marble for these elaborate designs is all imported, much of it from Italy, but also from France and North Africa. The inlay is only a few millimeters deep, so that the floor, despite its durable materials, is painfully fragile, and in places already damaged beyond repair (the Royal Fencibles were probably the worst recent culprits, followed by chairs and stiletto heels, but the armored knights must have wrought their own mayhem). The artisans who carried out the intricate labor of cutting the marble and incising designs in it were probably all Maltese, the ancestors of the skilled workers who take care of the floor to this day. Some of their cut-stone figures are as convincingly modeled as if they were painted, exploiting veins in the marble to create contrasts of light and shade. Furthermore, by holding yellow marble to a flame, the stoneworkers could change its color to brick red, a technique that allowed them still further means of suggesting shape and shadow.

Malta provided the co-cathedral with more than these remarkable craftsmen; many of the knights commemorated on the floor of the co-cathedral were themselves natives of the islands and proudly so. Furthermore, despite the order’s vows of chastity, contemporary police records show that the Hospitallers fathered their share of Maltese children; these were assigned the surname “Spiteri,” and often belonged to the islands’ aristocracy.

For years after the knights’ expulsion by Napoleon, the Maltese (helped along by the British) remembered them mostly as haughty foreign oppressors. Increasing distance has gradually tempered that judgment, as it has also tempered judgment of the knights’ Ottoman adversaries. The knights’ cathedral now shares its status as co-cathedral with the traditional Maltese cathedral in Mdina; the old and the new have made peace with each other. And now, through Dane Munro’s book, the tombs of the proud old knights, photographed, transcribed, and with their difficult Latin translated, can finally invite our thoughtful consideration without our always having to step on them in the process.

The floor tombs of the co-cathedral also suggest that our own ways of commemorating the dead might benefit from a close look at this peculiarly affecting collective monument. In a letter to a visitor to Malta, Munro himself made pointed comparisons between the knights’ monument and the various plans for Ground Zero in New York. Indeed, in many ways, the bastions of Valletta are a more marvelous work of technology for the sixteenth century than any concept of “Freedom Tower” so far promises to be for the twenty-first, but Valletta’s huge, anonymous limestone emplacements also protect a consecrated space at the city’s heart reserved for particular souls, in all their individuality. One can only hope that New York might be able to bring similar wisdom to the dead of Ground Zero, and, still more emphatically, that like Malta today it will understand how culture can ultimately transcend the clash of cultures.

  1. 1

    The other co-cathedral is in Malta’s ancient capital city of Mdina.

  2. 2

    The Royal Malta Fencibles (an archaic term for local militias) were formed under British supervision in 1829. Queen Victoria transformed them into an artillery corps in 1865; they were finally disbanded in 1889.

  3. 3

    All of these have been reconstructed since the bombings in World War II except the auberge of Germany, whose site now houses Valletta’s Anglican Church.

  4. 4

    The Maltese people received a collective George Cross from the British crown in 1942 for their valor in enduring these attacks (which only ended in 1943 after the Battle of El Alamein); even after independence, the George Cross still appears on the national flag.

  5. 5

    Tellingly, the tomb of Fra’ Rodriguez Miraval y Spinola states that the natural allotment for a human lifespan is eighty rather than the biblical threescore and ten. The average age for the four hundred–odd epitaphs is a venerable sixty-nine.

  6. 6

    Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, newly proclaimed a knight after painting several canvases for the order, was imprisoned for his part in a summertime brawl before he could even take part in his own investiture—instead, he slipped out of prison and wandered back to Italy, where he died of malaria on a desolate beach north of Rome, stripped of his knighthood and bereft of any tombstone whatever.

  7. 7

    See, for example, Keith Sciberras, Roman Baroque Sculpture for the Knights of Malta (Valletta, Malta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2004).