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Architecture: George Gilbert Scott described the dome as 'the noblest of all forms', and it appears as a powerful symbol in secular and religious architecture throughout history. On the island of Malta, however, the craze for dome-building reached astonishing heights.


'The noblest of all forms by which a space can be covered is the dome,' announced George Gilbert Scott in his lectures on medieval architecture. 'I deplore, therefore, its non-existence in our old English architecture.' This was an omission he failed to rectify in his own modern gothic, but a splendid gothic revival dome was raised above the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest and another was achieved by F.W. Stevens above that St Pancras of the Orient, the splendid VT station in Bombay.

A dome is a powerful symbol, whether secular or religious. Elsewhere in India, a classical dome was placed over the seat of British power, Government House in Calcutta, and after the capital was moved to Delhi, Edwin Lutyens created a dominating dome above Viceroy's House (see Apollo's December issue). This most imperious of domes was partly inspired by the Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, but also was designed to compete with the domes of the Moghul emperors. Such Islamic domes are distinctive and prominent, but in the Ottoman Empire they are less so as the centralised internal spaces of mosques were covered by domes and semi-domes which derived from that most breathtaking of ancient Christian monuments, the former church of Hagia Sophia in Byzantium/ Constantinople/Istanbul.

That great building, three-quarters as old as Christianity itself, is roofed by a brick dome some 31.2m in diameter which, after an initial collapse and rebuild, still stands despite earthquakes and war. Its only competitor is the earlier dome of the Pantheon in Rome, 43.4m in diameter, built of mass concrete in the reign of Hadrian, which remained the largest in the world for 1,300 years. Such domes, covering vast internal spaces, are awesome feats of construction, but visually they are not impressive externally. The modern Western dome, raised high as a symbol of authority, is a creation of the Renaissance. There is Brunelleschi's polygonal brick dome over the Duomo in Florence (44m), soon followed by the dome and drum raised over the new St Peter's Basilica in Rome, finally achieved by Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta. This, at 41.4m, is a little smaller than Brunelleschi's but, at 136.5m from the floor, is the tallest in the world. It inspired countless other church domes, notably the smaller but more beautiful dome Wren raised over the rebuilt St Paul's in London, which itself was the model for several others, e.g. in Paris and Washington D.C.


In all this, of course, there was an element of competition as well as of emulation. Many were a little disturbed that the great Metropolitan Cathedral Lutyens designed for Liverpool in the 1930s was to have a dome larger than St Peter's but that, of course, remained sadly unexecuted. As did--mercifully--the colossal domed monuments proposed by the two vilest dictators of Europe in the same decade. When Hitler learned that Stalin's Palace of the Soviets in Moscow (designed by Iofan to be the tallest building in the world) was to contain a domed hall 160m in diameter, he asked Albert Speer to design a bigger Great Hall to stand at the end of the principal axis in the future Germania, the rebuilt Berlin. Here, the 250m-diameter domed circular hall was to be so absurdly vast that some thought rain clouds might form inside it.


The most rewarding cases of such dome envy are to be found on the islands of Malta. Inside the massive fortifications of the capital, Valletta, built after the momentous siege of 1565, is a wealth of baroque churches of very high quality, most with domes. But one in particular stands out on the Valletta skyline because of a tall, slightly pointed dome of huge proportions. It is that of the Carmelite Church which was badly damaged in Malta's second dreadful siege, that of 1940-43, and rebuilt with the intention of excelling all the earlier domes as well as to overshadow the Anglican cathedral next door.

But the largest dome in Malta dates from a century earlier. The small town of Mosta in the centre of the island is dominated by the circular church of Santa Marija Assunta, better known as the Mosta Rotunda, begun in 1833, consecrated in 1871 and covered by a 37.2m-diameter coffered dome (Figs. 1 and 2). The architect was a Maltese of French descent, Giorgio Grognet de Vasse (1774-1862), a remarkable character who had been with Napoleon in Egypt as a military engineer, and was an archaeologist who argued that Malta was the lost civilisation of Atlantis. His inspiration was clearly the Pantheon, though the Mosta church has a higher drum and was possibly modelled on the early 19thcentury domed church of San Francesco di Paola in Naples. The architect had problems with the bishop, who preferred a traditional Latin cross plan and disliked the pagan associations of the Pantheon. Others expressed doubts about the stability of so huge a dome, but it has stood the test of both time and of a German bomb penetrating it in 1942 (failing, miraculously, to explode).


If it is extraordinary that, in the 19th century, what was then a village on a small Mediterranean island should have built the third widest unsupported dome in Europe, even more extraordinary is the fact that an even smaller village on an even smaller island, Malta's satellite Gozo, should have managed to erect a huge domed church, almost as large and somewhat higher, in the middle of the 20th century (Fig. 3). Every village in these devout, conservative Catholic islands seems to want to have a dominating Catholic church, and in 1951 the inhabitants of Xewkija began work on replacing their existing church with a much, much bigger one to rival Mosta's.

Visitors today can be disconcerted by finding on Gozo what appears to be a replica of Baldassare Longhena's great and familiar church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. The architect was Guze Damato (1886-1963), designer of many churches on the islands including the rebuilt Carmelite Church in Valletta, but he did not, in fact, merely copy Longhena's original. Although it has a similar dome buttressed by massive volutes and a similar centralised radiating plan, not only is the detail different, but it lacks the domed sanctuary while having a smaller subsidiary dome over the entrance instead; it also has only one campanile rather than two. Above all, the interior is more open, and whereas the polygonal dome in Venice rests on complex piers, Damato's round dome, of reinforced concrete, is carried by slender, free-standing columns (Fig. 4). Despite local claims to the contrary, at 28m its diameter is less than Mosta's, but it rises much higher to 75m.

The Xewkija Rotunda was completed in 1971. It stands outside conventional architectural history, for while the Mosta Rotunda reflected contemporary neo-classical taste, this modern continuation of the baroque has no parallel. Indeed, this church is little known outside Malta. But its very existence--a baroque church built by local labour more than three centuries after its Venetian model--emphasises how inadequate is the idea of progress, dominated by the assumed hegemony of Modernism, in interpreting so much of the architecture which gives us pleasure.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Geographic Code:4EXML
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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