Pietà World War II shelters reveal stunning votive relief carvings

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

Workers on a residential street in Pietà were in for a surprise recently when they unearthed a unique shelter with religious imagery carved into the rocks.

What happens when cultural artifacts such as these are discovered? Superintendent of Cultural Heritage Joseph Magro Conti told Newsbook.com.mt that the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage is consulted by the Planning Authority, Infrastructure Malta and the Water Services Corporation about works within heritage sensitive areas. 

“Given that parts of Pietà are an Urban Conservation Area, it is expected to find Second World War shelters as these were dug in inhabited areas at the time. Despite being a small locality, Pietà had over a dozen shelters,” he said,

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

The Superintendence checked its records for shelters and informed the applicant about the possibility of encountering a shelter during trenching works. It also included a condition in the permit for the applicant that in the eventuality of encountering a shelter to stop works and inform the Superinetendence. 

“In fact, as soon as the workmen encountered the upper part of the entrence trench of the shelter they halted the works and notified the Superintendence, which proceeded immediately to the site,” Magro Conti said.

The Superintendence’s officers investigated the extents of the shleter, started documentation and also discussed a way forward to deviate the service trenches to conserve the shelter. 

“What captured the attention mostly were the votive relief carvings in the rockface of the shelter”

“This is one of a few Second World War Shelters at Pietà. As cultural heritage is finite and non renewable, this shelter has a certain value to the local community, especially because many were not aware about it until its revealing during roadworks.  What captured the attention mostly were the votive relief carvings in the rockface of the shelter,” Magro Conti stated.

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

Such religious carvings are occasionally present in some other shelters, at times, very crude or very simple, such as crosses.  In a number of shelters at Pietà and Msida, religious reliefs are rather common, he said.

The Superitendent explained that these are not etchings (incisions in metal plates for use in printing) but reliefs (sculpture raised above the surface oif the material).  The reliefs, together with the shelter will be conserved and its access covered by concrete slabs to facilitate any need for controilled access in the future.

“Some of the reliefs at the recently uncovered shelter at Pietà’ are of very good workmanship,” Magro Conti continued, “The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage believes that at least one of the carvers was an able sculptor who may have practised his skill in larger commissions, such as funerary statues, sculptural decorations in churches and houses.”

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage is currently working on a project to document Second World War shelters, amongst other sites, in various ways and taking advantage of the latest technology in laison with other entities such as the University of Malta. 

“Eventually, the Superintendence intends to make the information available to the public through various means.  In the meantime, anyone interested in researching shelters can do so by visiting ones open for the public and consult documents in the national archives or abroad,” Magro Conti concluded.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage has acknowledged the co-operation of all involved, and welcomes the great interest shown by the people of Pietà and others.

One of the largest architectural feats ever attempted in our history

Chairman and CEO of Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (FWA) Mario Farrugia told Newsbook.com.mt that the underground air raid shelter at Pietà forms part of a vast network of structures excavated in the Second World War all over Malta and Gozo to offer safe refuge to civilians against bombing during air attacks.

“In the past many underground historic structures, including air raid shelters, were lost for the simple reason that no historic research is undertaken in the planning stage of construction project to ascertain the existence or otherwise of such structures below surface,” he said.

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

Fortunately, he explained, there is a vast corpus of documentation about the air raid shelters at the national archives and in other depositories which are ready to be consulted for that. This information can provide the means to avoid any further future destruction.

“When seen together they represent one of the largest architectural feats ever attempted in our history. They are also a monument to the great suffering that our forefathers went through to survive the war,” he said

FWA has taken direct copies of these for eventual copy-making to display at its Malta at War Museum at Couvre Porte in Vittoriosa.

Part of an extensive network of tunnels coming from the villas in Guardamangia Hill?

The house under which the shelter was found actually has a connection to 103 Malta’s Heart presenter Colin Fitz – he used to live there with his family.

“I was shocked when the man we sold the house to contacted me to tell me about the discovery,” he told Newsbook.com.mt, “I lived in that house for most of the 70s, 80s and part of the 90s and noughties, and in all those years, we had no idea.”

He says that there were rumours of a well underneath the house, and what they assumed was the well was discovered when they did some work underneath the house to create a garage, but that is all. There was no indication that the ‘well’ could have been part of a wartime shelter.

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

“I believe that during the Second World War, that area consisted of only one built-up street, Guardamangia Hill, leading up to the newly-constructed St Luke’s Hospital. The area of St Monica Street was constructed post-war, so the shelter entrance must have been in a field or on a farm track,” he surmises.

He wonders if, perhaps, it was part of an extensive network of tunnels coming from the villas in Guardamangia Hill, including Villa Guardamangia, where Princess Elizabeth lived for a while after the war: “Those villas were built before the war, and they aren’t that far away. I remember having a clear view of the Villa Guardamangia gardens from the roof of my house. Perhaps what we consider to be the entrance to this shelter was actually an exit?”

Photo credit: Ian Noel Pace / Archdiocese of Malta

Being a history buff, with a special interest in the Second World War, Fitz admits to being rather upset that he lived all those years on top of such an important example of the legacy of that conflict without knowing it.

“Sometimes I think my history obsession actually came about because of the unconscious influence the shelter generated – some sort of brooding spiritual presence that reached out to the world of the living,” he concludes.