Valletta
Secret history of: The National Library
A must-see for book lovers and history aficionados, this literary treasure trove is all yours to explore for free.

Adriana Bishop

Presiding grandly over Piazza Regina, at the shoulders of Queen Victoria’s statue, the National Library, or Bibliotheca, houses the most precious of Malta’s literary heritage, including the complete archives of the Order of St John from the Middle Ages to 1798, and the largest collection of Melitensia books in Maltese or concerning Malta. 

History

The history of the collection within the National Library predates the actual building we see today. Back in 1555, Grand Master Claude de la Sengle decreed that all books belonging to the knights should be passed on to the Order’s treasury upon their death. In 1761, the Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order Louis Guérin de Tencin opened the first public library featuring an impressive collection of 19,000 volumes, including 9,700 books from his own library plus several other collections. The library was housed at No. 251 Strada San Giorgio (today Republic Street) corner with St Lucia Street and was known as Il Forfantone. Destroyed by enemy action during World War II, today the building has been replaced by the Embassy Complex. Legend has it that Tencin used the wood of the cases in which the books were transported to build the shelves for his library. 

Malta Libraries

The collection soon outgrew the confined space of Il Forfantone, so in 1786 Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc commissioned the Polish-born Italian architect Stefano Ittar to design a new library building. It was to be built on the site of the Order’s former Conservatoria where the Knights’ gold and silver bullion was kept. Completed in 1796, it remained empty for several years during the French invasion of Malta, and would later be used as a club for British army and navy officers. 

Built in the era of the Knights, it was finally inaugurated as the library it was intended to be in a new era for Malta, under the British occupation on 4 June 1812, by Civil Commissioner of the island, Sir Hildebrand Oakes.

Collection

Before entering this early example of neoclassical architecture, take a moment to pause in the arched portico and look up at the exquisite ceiling, punctuated by rosettes. Once inside, you immediately feel that you have stepped back in time, as you head up the monumental staircase towards the reading room on the first floor. On the landing, look out for the 1929 Nebiolo Guillotine used by bookbinders at the library until as recently as 2005! 

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Today, the library is home to over a million literary items, including archives and library manuscripts, with the oldest artefact, an Egyptian papyrus of the Ptolomaic period, dating back to 332-331 BC. However, the most important document in the library is undoubtedly the Pie Postulatio Voluntatis (“The request of a pious desire”), a papal bull issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113 recognising the establishment of the Order of St John and confirming its independence and sovereignty. The Melitensia collection includes some of the earliest newspapers published in Malta during the French occupation between 1798 and 1800. 

Upcoming exhibitions

7 May 2018 - 2 June 2018: Ex Libris by Marie Louise Kold is a display of works made of etched and patinated copper, bronze and brass inspired by old texts and books from the library’s archives. 

8 June 2018 - 31 July 2018: Bulgarian Exhibition in collaboration with the Embassy of Malta for Bulgaria.

Opening hours

Winter (1 October - 15 June) Monday to Friday 8:15am - 5pm; Saturday 8:15am - 1pm; summer (16 June - 30 September) Monday to Saturday 8:15am - 1:15pm. Entrance is free (Take along your passport or other identification document to be allowed access).

24th February 2018


Adriana Bishop
Written by
Adriana Bishop
A former journalist and travel PR executive, Adriana divides her time between her adopted home Switzerland and her forever home Malta where she enjoys playing the ‘local tourist’ re-discovering favourite haunts and new attractions on every visit.

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