Flog! The horse is not dead.

Posted in 1 by Editor on February 16, 2009

Matteo Perez d'Aleccio, The Siege of Malta (detail), oil on canvas 1372 x 2007 mm, National Maritime Museum, London

Matteo Perez d'Aleccio, The Siege of Malta: Valletta (detail), oil on canvas 1372 x 2007 mm, National Maritime Museum, London



The St John’s Foundation underground museum project has been withdrawn but the issues involved are NOT over and done with. Gonzi’s government – or any other future Maltese government – must learn from the lessons of this shameful episode.


We – meaning all of us Maltese and Gozitans with a brain bigger than a shrivelled pizellu – should also learn the lesson. We can, we must, we will resist any attempt by any arrogant, self-righteous and pompous ass to muck around with our natural and historical heritage for reasons best known to her/himself. And any government – present and future, blue, red, green or whatever – daring to ignore the lessons of last week, will pay heavy political costs.


As Joseph Muscat pointed out about this story, “only half the story is known” http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090215/local/only-half-the-story-known-on-st-johns-museum-muscat/.


We are not publishing another post on the issue for the fun of flogging a dead horse…because the horse is NOT dead. Repeat: the horse is NOT dead. For your information, we are publishing below Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA)’s press release of February 14 as well as various government experts’ views (dating back to 2006). 


FAA Press Release

Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) welcomes the withdrawal of the St John’s Foundation underground museum, a decision which was indicated years ago by the MEPA heritage experts when they stated “The concept of excavations in the vicinity of the cathedral would not be favourably considered due to the risk these might pose to the structure of one of Malta’s foremost monuments and the art treasures within.”


FAA also welcomes the confirmation reported by correspondent Ivan Camilleri in Brussels that the EU funds earmarked for this project will not be lost, but go to another Maltese tourism-related project, as FAA has always maintained.


Along with architects and engineers who FAA consulted on this project, geologist Peter Gatt further reports some alarming facts about Valletta’s soft rock (globigerina limestone) :


“Tension cracks in rocks (joints) would be expected to be common at the top of Sceberras Hill where St John’s is located. If excavation exposes a sizeable joint oriented in a particular direction, an entire wedge of rock may fail, causing catastrophic damage to the Cathedral [similar to the] excavation of the Sliema car park, and Bugibba, when women died buried under rubble etc

Globigerina Limestone is a soft rock which may deform in a brittle as well as ductile manner. Even if we are spared mass failure, creating a void will alter stresses in the rock and cause slow deformation which will increase damage to the Cathedral structure in the form of tension cracks (kunsenturi) in the Cathedral. This may ruin Mattia Preti’s vault paintings.

The excavation will alter the local hydrology ie. pathways taken by rain water in rock and may result in a localised temporary build up of water along the walls of the completed (damp sealed) underground structure. This increase in humidity will be disastrous for the Cathedral, causing increased salt crystallisation.”


 In fact, recent excavations carried out beneath the Monte di Pietà resulted in serious and widespread tension cracks (kunsenturi) along the walls. This was also the reason why excavations of the car park next to the Mosta Rotunda were immediately ruled out and not allowed to go to EIA stage. One wonders what pressure was put on MEPA to allow an EIA for an excavation outside St John’s when this was refused for the Rotunda, a more recent and less vulnerable structure which is not listed as a scheduled heritage monument.

Contrary to what was incorrectly reported in the Times, FAA never urged any MPs to vote in favour of the PL’s motion. The parliamentary motion was not mentioned anywhere on FAA’s petition, however this case inevitably poses a number of questions which require answers from the Authorities.

Since MEPA had immediately indicated this application as unacceptable, why was it being processed if Mepa’s scheduling of St. John’s Cathedral as a Grade 1 monument specifically prohibits the proposed structural changes?

Past acceptance of EU project proposals have required ownership of the site, however the ground under St John’s Square and Street does not belong to the Foundation. The Foundation’s application as an NGO is not valid as the Foundation is not a registered NGO. As such, how did the project qualify for funding from the Planning and Priorities Criteria Division within the OPM to the tune of nearly €14,000,000 from Malta’s Structural Funds?

Therefore notwithstanding Mr. Richard Cachia Caruana’s and the Foundation members’ statements on 12.02.2009, FAA reiterates that the Foundation board and Curator should immediately resign for the following reasons:

  • The Foundation members all acted beyond their remit to ‘administer the Church and Museum in order to ensure its effective conservation and management as a historic and architectural monument as well as a sacred place of worship.’ This does not authorise the Foundation to launch expansion projects without prior clearance from Church and State. This cost the taxpayer €15,000 in press advertising for the project in addition to hundreds of thousands of euros more spent on public presentations, architects’ fees and trips to Monza.
  • Systematically concealing this project from the public for over two years, (including only applying for a permit on the eve of the national elections when everyone would be distracted), could be considered a serious breach of ethics in a project concerning a scheduled public monument. Furthermore the Foundation allowed this application to be processed and obtained EU funding for the project in full knowledge that Government was carrying out re-paving costing hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds, which works would have been destroyed by the St John’s project.
  • Systematically misinforming the public about different aspects of the project, including the myth that there would be no excavation under St. John’s and that if the project were cancelled, Malta would lose the EU funding.
  • Gross irresponsibility in pressing on with the project in spite of being aware of many expert reports highlighting the grave risks of the project, including the MEPA Directorate declaration that “The project is a non-starter due to the fact that no mitigation measures can guarantee that the Cathedral’s foundations will not be affected”

Does this reflect the Foundation’s insistence that it “was only acting in the interest of St. John’s”?

FAA expects to the Government to request the resignation of the members of the Foundation as this is a matter of mismanagement of Malta’s prime heritage asset and also of public funds. The public has the right to expect good governance from its public representatives, elected or not.

14 February 2009




Heritage Advisory Committee Board Minutes for Case Number : PA00168/08

Doc 02


Estratt mill-Minuti tal-Laqgha nru.120 tal-KKWK tas-17 ta’ Ottubru 2006


1. Hwejjeg Ohra

2.1 Valletta Kon-Kattidral ta’ San Gwann


Is-Sur Joe Magro Conti ghamel prezentazzjoni lill-kumitat ta’ progett imhejji mill-Fondazzjoni tal-Konkattidral ta’ San Gwann ghall-holqien ta’ spazju gdid ghall-Muzew ta’ l-istess Kattidral.


Il-kumitat ra ukoll u studja dokument intitolat Specifications for a Design Brief for New Museum Complex. Is-Sur Magro Conti wera t-thassib tieghu, u l-kumitat unanimanent qabel mieghu, dwar l-impatti negattivi ta’ dan il-progett, li principalment huma:

(1) ir-riskju car ghal1-istruttura tal-Kattidral ikkawzat mit-tahfir konsiderevoli hafna li huwa propost Ii jsir filqrib;

(2) li dan johloq precedent ghall-domandi simili fl-inhawi immedjati, u (3) ir-riskju Ii jigu disturbati xi reperti storici u arkeologici li jistghujinsabu fl-area li se tigi skavata.


Michael Ellul




Extract from the Minutes of Meeting no. 120 of KKWK of 17th October 2006

1. Other Matters

2.1. Valletta, St John’s Co-Cathedral

Mr. Joe Magro Conti presented the Heritage Advisory Committee (HAC) with the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation projects to create new space for the museum of the same Cathedral. The Committee also saw and studied a document entitled Specifications for a Design Brief for New Museum Complex. Mr. Magro Conti expressed his concern, and the Committee unanimously agreed with him, about the negative impacts of this project, which are principally:

(1) the clear risk to the structure of the Cathedral posed by the considerable excavation that is proposed to take place nearby;

(2) the precedent being created for similar demands in the immediate vicinity, and

(3) the risk of disturbing some historic or archaeological remains which may be found in the area to be excavated.


Michael Ellul

A/Vici -Chairman



Doc 03

Comments by HAC re document ‘Specifications for the Design Brief for the New Museum Complex’



1] HAC understands the need to modernize the current Cathedral Museum and to have enough exhibition space to exhibit all the artifacts in the possession of the cathedral including those in storage.

2] HAC is however very much concerned that this very large underground Museum will create nlogistical problems for Valletta both because of the excavation itself [finds, underground tunnels, services, base of buildings etc] but also because of what will happen during the course of the work i.e. the damage to the image of such a central part of the city.

3] HAC is very concerned with the effect that the excavations may have on the cathedral structure in general and on its paintings and other fabric in particular.

4] Not enough evidence has been given to explain the need for such a large space, nor has any explanation been given as to what use the current museum space will be devoted to.

5] There is a very major concern as to the placing of air conditioning and other services in the area which would be hard to camouflage.

6] Such a proposal should include clear and specific ‘traffic’ flow around the museum. Such a proposal should include a visitors’ management plan for the cathedral.


Dr Albert Ganado, Chairman, HAC



Doc 04


From: Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee

To: Director General, MEPA

Extract from the Minutes of Meeting no.235 of the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee held on 28 August 2007.


The CHAC studied the 6th Draft of the Development Brief for a Visitor’s Centre and new exhibition spaces in St John’s Co Cathedral and discussed the project on the basis of the information contained in this document. The committee noted that the project for the creation of new expedition space for the museum entails two major interventions:


1. the excavations in St John Square up to façade of St John’s Co Cathedral


2. The roofing over of the cemetery courtyard on Merchant Street and the elimination of its current use.


With regard to Point 1 the Committee, together with IHM, are of the opinion that any excavation in the immediate surroundings of the Cathedral is extremely dangerous to the structural stability of the Cathedral itself, and the proposal is therefore not acceptable, also in view of the fact that it seems that there has been no thorough and scientific study of the condition of the foundations, the existing underground structures and spaces and the nature of the geology of the area.


Regarding Point 2, the Committee feels that the sacred nature of the cemetery should be safeguarded and respected and that the proposed uses are not compatible with the important historical and religious nature of the site.

The Committee would also like to point out that the Development Brier does not indicate the location of spaces required for the air-conditioning plant, electrical sub-station and services which are necessarily considerable in a project of this scale.


Michael Ellul




PA168/08 – CHAC mtg 349 bid-data 29/07/08

Illum saret prezentazzjoni taz-zewg progetti godda alternattivi rigward l-applikazzjoniet (PA167/08 & PA168/08) dwar il-Kon Katidral ta’ San Gwann fejn kienu prezenti Ms Cynthia Degiorgio, Mr Paul Attard u il-perit Bencini ghall-applikant u Mr Mark Anthony Mifsud ghall-SCH. Il-kumitat jirrakkomanda li il-case officer ghandu jikkonsulta l-EIA Team dwar jekk dan il-progett jikkwalifikax ghal-EIA jew xi studju iehor fejn ghandhom jigu ikkonsidrati b’mod partikolari, l-oggezzjonijiet tas-CHAC fiz-zewg minuti immarkati Doc 2/3/4 fil- PA167/08 & PA168/08. F’kas ta’ dan, il-Kumitat qed jitlob lill-Mepa jistabbilixxi it-Terms of Reference biex isiru l-istudji. L-SCH ghandhom jibghatu il-kummenti taghhom bil-miktub.



PA 168/08 – Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee (CHAC) meeting dated 29.07.08

Today the two new alternative projects re. the applications (PA167/08 & PA 168/08) for the St John’s Co-Cathedral were presented. Ms. Cynthia Degiorgio, Mr. Paul Attard and Architect Bencini were present for the applicant, and Mr. Mark Anthony Mifsud for for the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. The Committee recommends that the Case Officer should consult the EIA Team as to whether this project qualifies for an EIA or other studies where the CHAC objections marked Doc 2/3/4 in PA167/08 & PA168/08 are to be specifically considered. In this case, the Committee asks MEPA to establish Terms of Reference in order to carry out these studies. The Superintendence asks to be sent the comments in writing.



LEGAL LEVEL OF PROTECTION given to St John’s Co-Cathedral

Grade 1: Buildings of outstanding architectural or historical interest that shall be preserved in their entirety. Demolition or alterations which impair the setting or change the external or internal appearance, including anything contained within the curtilage of the building, will not be allowed. Any interventions allowed must be directed to their scientific restoration and rehabilitation. Internal structural alterations will only be allowed in exceptional circumstances where this is paramount for reasons of keeping the building in active use.





The problem is related to permissible risk in view of the importance of St John’s. The following are the geological problems of excavation:

1. Tension cracks in rocks (technically called joints) would be expected to be common at the top of Sceberras Hill where St John’s is located.

2. Joints (tensional features) in rock may be expected to decrease with depth, because of greater confining pressure. However, the structural geology of Valletta is also affected by numerous faults of Late Miocene age which are poorly studied. These are clearly visible wherever there are rock outcrops in Valletta. These faults have created stresses in the rocks which release jointing. An example of deep jointing is found in the tunnel linking the Floriana car park to the waterfront. The roof of the tunnel shows classic cases of wedge failure ofrock which occurred during or after tunnelling, indicating the presence of joints even at deep levels.

3. Increasing depth of excavation increases risk of failure sometimes at an exponential trend. Deep excavation increases the likelihood of encountering joints. In addition, deep excavation can ‘daylight’ large blocks that become loose, and may remove ‘keystones’ with catastrophic consequences to nearby buildings.

4. If during excavation, a sizeable joint oriented in a particular direction (there are elaborate techniques to determine this) is exposed, an entire wedge of rock may fail, causing catastrophic damage to the Cathedral. There have been several instances when this happened in Malta, e.g. during excavation of Sliema car park, in St Paul’s Bay, when two women died buried under rubble etc…

5. Globigerina Limestone is a soft rock and may deform in a brittle as well as ductile manner. Even if we are spared mass failure, creating a void will alter stresses in the rock and cause slow deformation which will increase damage to the Cathedral structure in the form of tension cracks (kunsenturi) in the church. This may ruin Mattia Preti’s painting on the vault.

6. The excavation will alter the local hydrology ie. pathways taken by rain water in rock and may result in a localised temporary build up of water along the walls of the completed (damp sealed) underground structure. This increase in humidity will be disastrous for the Cathedral, causing increased salt crystallisation.

7. Core sampling, the system commonly used by MEPA is totally inadequate for a case like this as a fissure or joint can easily be missed. Similarly, more high-tech radar techniques cannot penetrate beyond a certain depth. The only reliable method of geological survey in cases such as these is an investigation trench that goes down the FULL DEPTH of the final excavation, however a four-storey trench is very unsafe and no geologist will risk his life to go down such a trench. Such trenches are usually about 5m deep, at most. These issues are very delicate and cannot be concluded overnight e.g., it took years of study before a ground intervention on the leaning Tower of Pisa was concluded and surely St John’s Cathedral is as precious to us as the Tower of Pisa. A superficial approach such as core sampling would be ludicrous and would ignore the complex and intense population of faults in the area. We cannot have that at St John’s, especially since this is a masonry building unlike modern buildings with reinforced structures. In conclusion I believe the level of risk being taken is too high and a risk assessment seems to be lacking. I am not at all convinced about the effectiveness of MEPA’s EIA methodology for site investigation prior to excavation.


Peter Gatt,



See http://www.ambjentahjar.org/pressRelease/stJohns140209.htm




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