Jesuit Church and College

Church and College (16th - 17th century)



The Jesuit College and adjoining church, dedicated to the Circumcision of Christ, were founded and built in the late 16th century, on a plot given to the Jesuits by the Bishop of Malta, Tomaso Gargallo (1578-1614), who is buried in the chapel of the Beata Vergine di Monserrato within the same church.The establishment of the Jesuit college in 1592 was an important milestone in the history of education in Malta, and many young knights and Maltese students were to receive their formation their. On of the most famous Jesuits ever to teach at the college was Father Athanasius Kircher, who taught mathematics while stationed in Malta for ten months between 1637 and 1638. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits Order from Malta in the eighteenth century, the assets of the college were used to establish and house Malta's first university in 1769. Today the University of Malta continues to use the same building as its Valletta Campus, and graduation ceremonies are held in the adjoining church.The church was extensively remodelled by Francesco Buonamici after suffering considerable damage in the explosion of a nearby gunpowder store in 1634. As a result of Buonamici's remodelling, the church became Valletta's most magnificent church after Saint John's Conventual Church, as well as becoming Malta's first baroque church.

Jesuit CollegeOn 4th September 1595, the foundation stone of the new college was laid by Grand Master Fra’ Martin Garzez. The plot allocated to the Jesuits, number 24 in the city plan, occupied the entire block covering an area of 3380m2, bounded by Merchants Street, St Christopher Street, St Paul Street, and Archbishop Street. The main entrance to the Jesuit College was located on Merchants Street. Works on the new college, including the building of the church, proceeded shortly after the acquisition of the plot.The church and adjoining oratories occupied almost half of the plot allocated to the Jesuits. The Jesuit church was designed in 1593 by the Jesuit Neapolitan architect, Giuseppe Valeriano. By then, the Jesuit architect had already designed several other buildings of the Society of Jesus including the church of St Michael’s in Munich, that of the Gesù Nuovo in Naples, the church of Sant'Ambrogio in Genoa, and the Collegio Romano in Rome. Besides architect Valeriano, another Jesuit architect Tommaso Blandino was involved in the design of the church. The designs of the Jesuit church in Valletta were influenced by the Gesù church in Rome of Giacomo della Porta and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, a church that served as a model to many others during the Counter-Reformation. The college was designed by the same Jesuit architect.In 1637 the Order’s resident architect-engineer Francesco Buonamici started works on the remodelling of the Jesuit church. Some years before, on 12th September 1634, the Jesuit church suffered considerable damages after the explosion of the polverista (gun-powder magazine) located across the street (St Christopher Street) within the other block adjacent to the college. These works were partly funded by Grand Master Lascaris who gave 200 ‘aurei’ for the rebuilding of the façade. Other damages to the church occurred later in the same century when the island was struck by an earthquake in 1693. Repairs were probably overseen by the Maltese architect Vincenzo Casanova.Buonamici’s modifications of the older church are also evident from close observations of the stonework and mouldings, namely that from the crossing piers the transeptal arms and the choir reveal that the superstructure at the level of the pilaster capitals upward was rebuilt to a different design than the original. The sixteenth century façade was redesigned by Buonamici. At ground level, the façade was divided into three distinct bays which rise to one central bay on the second storey. The extremities of this central bay were adorned by curved double-scroll Vignola-type links beautifully embellished with large cherub heads. Buonamici’s insertion of carved stone decorations such as the cherub heads amid floral decoration on the curved links, the omega-shaped hood enclosing a scallop shell on the windows of the lateral bays, and the pair of seraphim figures on the inverted volutes that framed the central window, dominate the composition.The Jesuit College had also suffered damages caused by the 1693 earthquake which had also badly damaged the church. At the college, extensive damages were noted at the lower part of the structure on St Christopher Street that this part of the building had to be repaired. The Maltese architect, Vincenzo Casanova was probably engaged to oversee these works. In a document by Casanova in relation to other works, the architect referred to his work at the Jesuit college and church, and also included a brief account of the architectural components of the Jesuit block at the end of the seventeenth century. The whole complex, Casanova explained, was a magnificent building that accommodated halls, dormitories, lecture rooms, offices, and loggias, as well as an internal garden. It is probably that as part of these works, the clock at the courtyard of the college with the inscription of Horae Pereunt et Imputantur (‘The Hours Perish and Are Put to Our Account’) was added. Several other alterations were done at the college in later periods, including the addition of a number of rooms occupying the west part of the courtyard which effectively reduced this open space in size and the addition of another floor.

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