Floriana Tour and the Capuchin Crypt

Start Date & Time: 26/09/2017 - 12:00 am

End Date & Time: 26/09/2017 - 12:00 am

Floriana Tour and the Capuchin Crypt


On the evening of Friday 26th September, 43 FAA members gathered outside the Capuchin Friary in Floriana for a guided tour of the Capuchin Friary’s crypt and some of Floriana’s various monuments led by experienced tour guide Vincent Zammit and Friary host Father Martin.


The tour started in the crypt beneath the convent of the Franciscan Capuchin Friary in Floriana where Vincent informed FAA members that the Capuchin order had established the convent in 1588.  When the first Capuchins came to Malta in the earlier years of the 16th century they could not establish a friary in Valletta as it (the city) didn’t exist, so they established themselves in small chapels in the countryside.  Later, land was given to the Capuchins in what is now Floriana but which didn’t exist at the time the friary was built.


The first known Capuchin was Fra Roberto of Eboli who arrived and took up residence in Malta just before and during the time of the Great Siege.  Earlier, Fra Roberto had been captured by pirates (Dragut? or a nephew of Dragut?) in 1553 and remained in slavery from 1554 to 1564 until a ransom was raised by the Knights for his release.  When released he then embarked on a Maltese ship and landed in Malta in January or February 1565 at the time Malta was preparing for the Ottoman attack.  The Ottomans arrived to besiege Malta on the 18th May 1565.  On the 20th May 1565, Fra Roberto gathered the people and set up a whole day of prayer, thereby introducing the 40-hour prayer.  Fra Roberto also went to the bastions to encourage the Maltese defenders to fight.  At the end of the Siege, Fra Roberto was involved in Church celebrations.  A few months later Grand Master Jean de la Valette thanked Fra Roberto by proclamation bearing his magisterial seal dated 12th January 1566 for his valour and heroism during the Great Siege.  The letter still exists.


In later years when land was given to the Capuchins the present Church and Friary were built and completed in 1588.  The Crypt was later cut into the rock between 1725 and 1730 and became known for the mummified corpses of Capuchin Friars.  The mummification process took 1 year, after which the corpses of the mummified Capuchin priests were placed upright in specially constructed rows of niches along the walls of the Crypt.  To make room, older burials were moved out when there were new burials.  Presently, only two mummified priests are left, enclosed in separate glass cases.  In addition, many prominent local figures were buried in the Crypt such as Sir Paolo Dingli, the father of well known Sir Adrian Dingli, and several descendants.  Also foreign (British and Irish) people were buried in the crypt.  There were 125 to 130 burial places in the crypt.  On walking around the crypt, FAA members viewed the Dingli family tomb and several marble memorial plaques set in the walls of those buried in the crypt.  Also viewed were the two mummified remains in separate glass cases, a row of niches cut into the walls, cases of bones, a mummification table, and a well containing numerous bones (the Ossuary).  Mr. Zammit added that when prohibition of burials under churches in Valletta, Floriana, and the Three Cities came into effect in 1872 for health reasons, all subsequent burials in these areas took place at the new Addolorata cemetery.  Mummified skeletons of the Friars and other corpses, along with the remains of all those buried in the crypt were removed to the Ossuary in about 1880.


To end the talk on the Crypt, Vincent said that the lower level under the crypt had been used as an air raid shelter in WWII.  However, during an air raid on the 4th April 1942 both the Church and the Friary were badly damaged and almost entirely destroyed.  After the war the Church and Friary were rebuilt but the crypt was left abandoned for three decades, then restored and re-opened in October 1979.  Today there are Capuchin residences at Marsa (2), Kalkara, San Gwann, Xemxija, Ghajn Dweili Paola, Rabat, and Marsalforn in Gozo.


Outside the Friary, Mr. Zammit related the history of Floriana’s fortifications and monuments.  In 1635, the Grand Master Fra Antoine de Paule invited Pietro Paolo Floriani, the Italian military engineer, to discuss how to strengthen the landward fortifications of Valletta against possible further Ottoman attacks.  In 1636, the construction of Floriana Lines commenced as an outer defensive fortification of Valletta.  The Lines were named after their architect and were fully completed in the 1720s.  Subsequently in 1724, the area between the Floriana Lines and the Valletta land front began to be built up, when Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena founded the suburb Borgo Vilhena, now known as Floriana.


The group then walked to the small granary in Pjazza Robert Samut to see the statue of Pietro Paolo Floriani (1585-1638).  Here, Vincent drew our attention to the nearby baroque water fountain (known as the lion fountain) built by Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena in 1728.  This could be seen located on a traffic island in the middle of St. Anne Street.  The lion was part of the coat of arms of Grand Master Vilhena and is now the sole figure of Floriana’s coat of arms.


To end his talk, Mr. Zammit related the history of Floriana’s granaries, which were initially commissioned by Grand Master Marino de Redin between 1657 and 1660, as underground bell-shaped storage facilities, known as fossae, for grain or wheat imported from Sicily.  There wasn’t enough grain or wheat grown in Malta to cater for an increasing population over subsequent years.  Later in the 1850’s, due to the increasing population after the arrival of the British, more granaries were built which remained in use until the mid-1960’s.  The old Granaries Office building is now the Maltapost Office in Castille Place.


Mr. Zammit ended his guided tour here by the statue of Pietro Paolo Floriani and was thanked by FAA members for yet another highly informative and interesting tour.


Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer

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