Times of Malta, 23 July 2009 –
In the 18th century, young men from the north of Europe frequently travelled on a “grand tour” to the south, to complete their education. They visited France and Italy, admiring old monuments and viewing famous cities, buildings and works of art.
At the turn of the 19th century, many of these travellers were taking a special interest in the ancient ruins of classical Greek buildings.
A love of ancient Greek architecture inspired a wave of neo-classical buildings constructed by British architects in the 19th century. One of these was the opera house in Valletta, surrounded by columns like a Greek temple and designed by Edward M. Barry from London in the 1860s.
With an intriguing twist to the story, this theatre that was inspired by the ruins of ancient civilisation will now be preserved as a ruin. We are told that “after more than 60 years of controversy, the ruins of the demolished opera have undeniably reached the status of monument, irrevocable witness of history and the dignity of collective memory”.
Over half a century of passionate debate about this site since World War II has featured swarms of people and a thousand and one ideas. This passion has turned these remains into an extraordinary kind of national icon. The ruins have now been recognised as a historic monument. They are an attraction in themselves.
Some of the missing columns are to be reconstructed using the original stones. The internal area will be used as a performance space reminiscent of the open-air theatres of ancient Greece. Wide steps will be created for seating about 1,000 spectators with columns and panels all around like an enveloping sculpture.
In the words of architect Renzo Piano, the idea is “to dignify the ruins” and to maintain the memory or “soul” of the building as a beloved cultural site. Its role will be reinvented as a 21st century performance space through state-of-the-art technology.
Admiring the beauty of ruins was typical of the Romantic era at the turn of the 19th century. The crumbling remains of old buildings in Rome and elsewhere were picturesque and full of atmosphere. They also evoked meditations about human mortality and the rise and fall of empires.
Byron described the grandeur of Rome in his poems as full of “steps of broken thrones and temples” where “a world is at our feet as fragile as our clay”. John Keats, and so many other poets, painters and architects also travelled to the Mediterranean and were fascinated by ancient remains.
Classical ruins were the initial inspiration for Barry’s opera house. Now it seems that we have come full circle 150 years later, with the memory of evocative ruins rising up again as the highlight of the piece.
Renzo Piano believes this will be a magical space. Not everyone shares this vision and I can appreciate the wish for a more practical roofed theatre. Yet, all the same, our open air theatre within the old city walls promises to be an exceptionally beautiful and special place – and, yes, quite magical.
Petra Bianchi is Vice-President of Din l-Art Helwa