Restoration works on the Addolorata Cemetery have finally commenced! Last February, the government announced that it would be investing up to €17 million on its refurbishment, which besides the addition of 2,880 new graves, will see the Addolorata Chapel and other structures being restored to their former glory. While many may disregard its historic and aesthetic importance, given the somber nature of its purpose, the Addolorata Cemetry is a melting pot of architectural gems, varying in style and historic periods. Granted, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the final resting place of so many loved ones is a lavish sight to behold, which makes this latest initiative by the Government a truly commendable one.
Back in 1862, the then British Governor, Sir John Gaspard Le Merchant decreed that a new cemetery be built for Valletta, Floriana and Cottonera residents to bury their dead. At the time, these were buried in their parish churches and as the aforementioned cities were, even then, quite heavily populated, the tradition of burying the dead in the heart of their respective cities became quite a cause for concern for the British authorities, who considered this a major health hazard due to the probable unhygienic method of burial.
A hilly site known as l-Gholja tal-Horr was located in the town of Paola and the drawing of plans was assigned to the Architect Emanuele Luigi Galizia, the then Public Works Superintendent. Its building took seven years and was officially opened on the 9th May 1869, costing the British Government the then exorbitant sum of £33,000. The first burial at the Addolorata Cemetry took place on the 23rd January 1872; that of a sixty-four-year-old beggar named Anna Magro. Although then residing in Naxxar, she died in Floriana’s Central Hospital (today housing the Police Headquarters) and thus qualified for burial at the Addolorata.
The Addolorata is built in the Neo-Gothic style, then in vogue throughout the entire British Empire. Some might argue that apart from its actual architecture, its precise layout is inundated with spiritual symbolism; that due to its steep ascending levels, its very architecture (sharp upward tapering spires) it generates the impression that upon entering one is gliding skywards towards The Creator.
Its ornate front gates open onto what is quite ironically known as the Reception; a vast courtyard flanked by two administrative buildings, also part of the original structure. Here, no details have been spared and the elaborate stonework and ironwork, not excluding the magnificent gargoyles, which have been in dire need of restoration for the past few years, are veritable masterpieces in themselves.
Leading up from the Reception courtyard is an impressive ‘loggia’; an intricately built vaulted gallery opening up to the cemetery itself, which forks out into three main pathways; the central, being a grand if somehow seemingly never-ending stairway leading to the fine church beyond, which is bordered by stone pillars depicting the Via Sacra (the Way of the Cross) also in the same neo-Gothic style. Two steep carriageways lead to the East and the West main sections of the cemetery, where thousands of graves and dozens of private chapels jostle for space. Built on a steep hill, the Addolorata is multi-leveled, with each and every level protected by stout retaining walls without diminishing its very grandeur; a true credit to the masonry skills of our forefathers.
Every structure serves a particular purpose; the mortuary building, while still used as such, was also used to perform autopsies in the olden days. The ‘ossario’ serves as the ultimate resting ground for those buried in what are known as common graves. Those who do not possess their own are buried in a common grave, where after a decade their remains are stored in the ‘ossario’. Many sections tell a different tale, it’s as if even in death man seeks his ilk; the Commonwealth graves for those who fell in the second World War, the Police Force grave – solemnly guarded by a massive black granite monument, which although quite simple in its design is nonetheless impressive, thoroughly befitting its silent charges. One cannot help but feel a tug at the heartstrings at the section where unborn babies are buried.
Walking through the silent pathways, one cannot but notice the eerie beauty of most headstones and monuments, some lavishly hewn from stone, bronze or marble into intricate sculptures. Of course, private chapels for those who afforded them abound, where whole families are buried beneath the majestic stonework. All are architectural gems in their own right, but a few fine exemplars are distinct by their very uniqueness. One such chapel is known as ‘Tal-Palma’; intricately sculpted in Maltese ‘franka’ stone to resemble a palm tree. Another outstanding example is hewn entirely out of Carrara marble and thus has withstood the ravages of time much better than its counterparts.
Several monuments stand out from the rest as outstanding works of art; the Sette Giugno monument is a case in point. Weathered bronze figures represent the anguish in the aftermath of the 1919 uprising against the British and the resulting fatalities. Private monuments, shrines to those so dearly loved and lost are also testaments to local artisan skills, ranging from neo-gothic to neo-classical styles, while statues depicting religious or holy effigies and headstones from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco period can also be found.
Of course, folklore legends pertaining to certain graves abound. One such legend has it that upon her son’s return from the Great War, a mother died of shock in his arms. He in turn, suffered such anguish that he died on the spot of a broken heart, still with his dead mother in his arms. It is virtually impossible to confirm the credibility of this folk tale, however, their bronze monument in the Art Nouveau style still stands at the Addolorata and is probably one of the finest of its era.
Beneath the ancient cypress trees, rest in peace Malta’s finest – literary giants, visionary politicians, holy people, great artists as well as a great number of unknown, anonymous souls whose only visitors to their resting place are the loved ones they left behind. The Addolorata itself is a vast shrine, embellished throughout the decades by the Maltese in memory of their loved ones who have passed on.
While it may be difficult to overlook the fact that the Addolorata is actually the city of the dead, a necropolis, it is also home to some of the finest art exemplars on the island – a true mélange of masterpieces where even in death one can still find a fleeting melancholic beauty in the peaceful if somewhat sad surroundings.