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Restoration of The Lazzaretto
As the rehabilitation of Manoel Island gets under way the MIDI Consortium has turned its sight to one of the enterprise’s more challenging aspects: the restoration of the old quarantine buildings known as The Lazzaretto...a 17th century structure which, after decades of neglect, is today in imminent danger of total collapse.
Although commonly referred to as a single edifice, the former hospital on Manoel Island is in reality a complex of separate but interconnected buildings, varying in age and state of repair. The oldest parts are believed to be the ground floor of the Lazzaretto terrace, consisting of an arched elevation rising sheer from the sea – the hospital’s most conspicuous feature, plainly visible from Ta’ Xbiex, Pieta, Floriana and Valletta. This section dates back to the 17th century, when a previous temporary hospital complex was replaced by a more permanent structure in view of regular outbreaks of bubonic plague.
The main building took on its present form under the grandmasterships of Nicholas Cotoner, Gregorio Carafa and Manoel de Vilhena, and would serve as Malta’s official quarantine hospital in times of cholera, plague and other epidemics for over 250 years. Subsequent accretions to the original plans included an isolation hospital, additional wards, facilities for visitors, pens for livestock... as well as a restaurant for the wealthier quarantined inmates, who previously had to order their meals from the Beverley Hotel in Valletta, and have them ferried across Marsamxetto harbour by dghajsa.
Among the more notable “guests” to have sojourned at the Lazzaretto during this period were the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who lodged there on his way back from cholera-ridden Greece in 1811, as well as the young Cardinal Newman. Both left souvenirs of their quarantine: Newman penned the verses Christmas Without Christ, notated “Malta, December 25, 1832”; he also wrote numerous letters to his sister in which he claimed to hear mysterious noises at night, believed by some of his companions to be the work of a poltergeist. Byron, for his part, graffitoed his name in an idle moment on one of the walls of the main courtyard... an autograph which, sadly, did not survive the slow ravages of time.
Although the need for a quarantine and isolation hospital subsided greatly in the 20th century, the Lazzaretto continued to be administered by the Maltese health authorities until 1939, when the building was taken over by the British Admiralty and converted for military use during World War Two. In the years 1941 and 42, the Lazzaretto hosted a submarine depot, which naturally attracted much unwanted attention by enemy dive-bombers.
Although badly damaged and never fully repaired, the Lazzaretto hospital was nonetheless re-opened shortly after the war, admitting its first patients in 1949. However, the departure of the British Navy in 1970's spelt an end to the Lazzaretto’s use as either hospital or military arsenal, and paradoxically, more damage was caused to the building in the intervening 30 years than during the entire blitz of 1942. Vacated and abandoned, the former quarantine hospital of the Knights of St John gradually fell into disrepair, with results which are visible at a glance: parts of the ceiling caved in over the years, and much of the first floor is today totally inaccessible. The building’s original features were vandalised or plundered, although thankfully many of the graffiti, some dating to the early 18th century, are still visible in the courtyard. Meanwhile, the last use to which the Lazzaretto was put was as a temporary shelter for abandoned dogs; and while this may have been an improvement as far as its new occupants were concerned, the arrangement did little to ameliorate the fragile building’s condition.
In view of the present state of the Lazzaretto, the task facing the restorers is considerably daunting. Several sections of the first floor, especially those where the supporting pilasters are dangerously close to subsiding, will have to rebuilt from scratch. Elsewhere, the stonework will require treatment against algal growth, salt erosion and rust. Meanwhile, parts of the original building which were either destroyed or dismantled are scheduled to be rebuilt in close approximation with the original designs, many which are available for perusal at the National Library of Valletta. Among these features is a proposed second waterfront arcade adjacent to the one visible today, and which will be modelled on existing photographic evidence.