Culture of Malta

Malta reflects the influences of various cultures which have come in touch with the Maltese islands in the course of centuries, including the neighbouring Mediterranean cultures and those nations that ruled Malta before its independence in 1964. The culture of modern Malta is depicted as a motley pattern of beliefs, traditions and practices.

Malta comprises both Romance and Semitic origins. However, the 800-year-old Romance element is more evident in modern Malta, due to the cultural and political affinities between the people of Malta and their northern Mediterranean neighbour, Sicily, which also shares its religious beliefs, ceremonies and traditions.

While today the language of Malta is influenced by the Romance languages and English, the development of a native Maltese literature has been hindered throughout the history of the country. For many centuries, the background of the Maltese language included workshop and kitchen settings, while the Italian language was one of literature, the arts, commerce and law. Until the early 20th Century, the majority of literary works in Malta used the Italian language. Pietru Caxaro’s poem Cantilena is the oldest literary text in the Maltese language, followed by a sonnet to Grand Master Nicolo Cotoner by Gian Francesco Bonamico in 1672. Francois de Vion Thezan Court wrote the earliest known Maltese dictionary in 1640. The earliest known Maltese prose is in the form of religious sermons by Dun Ignazio Saverio Mifsud. The uprising of slaves in 1749 is depicted in the poem Fuqek Nithaddet Malta. Carnival in 1760 saw the publication of burlesque verses under the title Zwieg la Maltija (Marriage, in the Maltese style) by Dun Felic Demarco. Under the rule of Napoleonic France between 1798 and 1800, a Maltese translation of the Ode to the Triumph of Liberty was published for Bastille Day.

The first translation in Malta of the Gospel of St John was published on the initiative of the Bible Society of Malta. In 1839, the first Maltese language newspaper The Harlequin, or a mix of English and Maltese featured poems in the Maltese language. The first epic poem in Maltese The Turkish Caravel by Giovanni Antonio Vassallo was published in 1842. The first history book in the country The People’s History of Malta appeared in 1862. Elvira, or the Love of a Tyrant is the first novel written in Maltese, published in 1863. Another popular novel of the time was Inez Farrug by Anton Manwel Caruana, which was modeled after traditional Italian historical novels.

The buildings of Malta’s theatres, used for live performances, range from modern construction to historic purpose-built structures and retrofit structures behind historic facades. The calendar of events covers modern and period drama, as well as opera, musicals, dance, poetry recitals and concerts. The St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in the capital Valetta was built as a raised gun platform at the entrance of the walled city in 1565, and was retrofitted and inaugurated as a cultural venue in 2002. The Manoel Theatre in Valetta is Malta’s National Theatre, inaugurated in 1732.

Malta hosts many international and national folklore festivals held on an annual basis, most of which are supported by the National Folklore Commission. The Malta International Folk Festival is held each December in Valetta under the patronage of the Ministry of the Arts and Culture. Similar to the tradition in southern Italy, local festivals are commonplace in Gozo, an island of the Maltese, which frequently celebrate weddings, christenings and saint’s days, which honour the patron saint of the local parish church by marching through the streets with a statue of the patron. The religious atmosphere gradually leads to band processions, fireworks, late night parties and several days of revelry. When a local ‘festa’ takes place, the main streets around the parish church are richly decorated with banners and sculptures on pedestals. Stalls with traditional Maltese food and the local nougat are also available. The parish church is illuminated at night with brightly coloured lights. Each weekend in the summer, several ‘festi’ take place in various towns and villages across Malta. Some fishing villages feature a popular medieval game called ‘Gostra’, which entails competitors running on a greased pole which projects into the sea to take a flag.

The Mnjara Folk Festival Day is one of the most significant events on the calendar of Malta, which is devoted to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Its roots are traced back to the pagan Roman feast of Luminaria, when the night of June 29 was illuminated by bonfires and torches. Mnjara is a national feast which also includes traditional Maltese food, music and religion, and is one of the few occasions when participants can hear traditional Maltese Ghana (ballad) music. The Carnival of Malta has also had a significant place in Maltese culture since Grand Master Piero de Ponte introduced the festival in 1535. Carnival is held the week before Ash Wednesday and usually includes a masquerade ball with grotesque masks and elaborate dress competitions, as well as lavish night parties, a colourful parade, costumed revelers and marching bands.