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Floriana’s Balzunetta district will soon be hosting Malta’s new contemporary art space. The Malta International Contemporary Art Space, MICAS, will be realised through the repurposing of the Old Ospizio and the Ritirata sites. These are located within the magnificent Floriana Lines overlooking Marsamxett Harbour.
The Old Ospizio, situated on the Polverista Curtain next to the Msida Bastion Cemetery, sits directly below the Police Headquarters. It can be reached by walking down Vincenzo Dimech Road past the Inland Revenue Department and on through the Polverista Gate. This historic landscape has a layered and interesting narrative.
In 1634, the main gunpowder magazine, located in Strada San Jacopo in Valletta, exploded, causing the tragic death of 22 people and significant damage to the neighbourhood, including the nearby Jesuits’ Church. The manufacture of gunpowder was essential for the defence of the island and its maritime economy, and so the Knights, keen to move volatile gunpowder production out of the city away from inhabited areas. They eventually built a new gunpowder factory on barren land in Floriana along the curtain wall to the north of the La Vitoria Bastion on the Marsamxett side of the harbour. The fortification curtain wall became henceforth known as the Polverista Curtain.
The new polverista designed by the military engineer Blondel des Croisettes in 1665 had three windmills for grinding and manufacturing the gunpowder and was fully functional by 1667. By the 1720s however, this industry was in the hands of Maltese entrepreneurs in other locations on the island and in 1729 the old polverista and a number of the barrel vaults or casemates were repurposed into the first state-run institution for the care of the elderly and the infirm by order of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. He also ordered the military engineer Charles François de Mondion to excavate a water cistern and to create a space for a kitchen garden. The repurposed polverista building was however not quite fit for purpose, being rather dank and gloomy with two lower level basements that overall proved too small for demand. In 1732, Grand Master de Vilhena had added new buildings to the site, as well as a fountain. The new improved hospice or Casa di Carità housed around 380 residents a year.
The Casa di Carità was run by an administrative committee while the staff included a surgeon with the responsibility of overseeing the medical needs of the residents, initially elderly men and women who were destitute or infirm. The institution became formally known as l’ Ospizio in 1785 when Grand Master de Rohan issued a set of regulations for the management of the institution. These regulations remained in force until 1816. Those residents that were strong enough to work were given various jobs.
In 1798, during the Napoleonic period, penitents or reformed prostitutes from the Magdalen Asylum at lower St. Elmo, Valletta, were transferred to the Ospizio. In the early 19th century, during the British colonial period, the foundlings, previously cared for at the Holy Infirmary in Valletta, as well as female prisoners, were all sent to the Ospizio. Male and female patients with mental health problems were also relocated to the Ospizio in 1816. In short, the Ospizio became a multipurpose institution that had to cater for the elderly, for orphans, illegitimate children, abandoned infants, the mentally ill and female prisoners. It was also at the Ospizio, in 1837, that Dr. S. Axisa, a Maltese doctor, diagnosed the first cases of the Cholera epidemic that had started in India in 1817 and then swept across the globe.
When the new Asylum for the Aged and the Infirm was opened at Ngiered in 1892, the present-day St. Vincent de Paule Residence, the Ospizio ceased to function as a hospice and closed its doors in October of the same year. The site was transferred to the British Army Ordinance Department. During World War 1 (1914-1918), when Malta received the wounded from the Mediterranean theatre of war, the Ospizio workshops helped the war effort by manufacturing hospital furniture and other medical items such as splints and crutches.
Malta suffered heavily from Axis bombardment during World War II. The Ospizio was hit in several air raids carried out by Italian and German bombers targeting the Floriana barracks, Msida Creek and Manoel Island on the Marsamxett Harbour side. After Independence in 1964, the British Forces gradually handed over the military buildings to the Maltese government and by the early 1970s the Ospizio complex served as a store for Enemalta and also housed a trade school. In 1997, the Restoration Directorate set up its offices in the casemated vaults of the Polverista Curtain and in 2017 the MICAS administrative offices were housed in the old Polverista buildings on Joseph J. Mangion Street.
Pisani, S. (1970). The Malta Cholera Epidemic in 1837. The St. Luke`s Hospital Gazette, 5(2), 150-156.
Savona-Ventura Charles (2004) Knight Hospitaller Medicine in Malta (1530-1798).P.E.G. Ltd. Malta.
Spiteri, Stephen C. (2012). “Arx Occasional Papers – Hospitaller Gunpowder Magazines”. MilitaryArchitecture.com.
Layout of the fortifications in the Ospizio area around 1730-50, prior to the conversion of the gunpowder factory (polverista) into the Ospizio compound.
Drawing with kind permission of Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri.