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Rain is rare in Malta. For most of the year, the archipelago is a cloudless, sunny idyll for vacationers. But since I like to photograph public spaces before they fill with people, I woke early morning and walked to Saint George Square. Valletta wasn’t awake yet, and I had the square to myself. It rained during the night, leaving the square largely a mirror of the surrounding architecture.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but the lovely square was once used as a car park for members of the House of Representatives. But fortunately, someone realized that this square, at the very center of Valletta, had a nobler calling. These days, it’s adorned with a fountain whose jets of water are in time with classical music. When the sun is up, children will dart in and about those streams of water as sunlight dances off their hair.
It’s such a rarity to see Valletta drenched in rain that I decided to try and capture the Grand Masters Palace reflected in the tiles of Saint George Square. To do this, I had to lower my tripod nearly to ground level. Then I used a panoramic technique to try and exaggerate the feeling of the place, the wide open square devoid of people. At this hour of the day, the square couldn’t be lovelier.
Though the Knights Templar may be the more famous, the St. John’s Knights, or the Knights Hospitaller, were an equally formidable military order.
Originally formed to treat the wounded and infirm, the Knights became an order of warrior-monks, and spent much of their early history fighting the anti-christian forces in Jerusalem and Holy Land. Among the Knights Hospitaller, Jean de Valette, Grand Master, soon emerged as a stalwart defender of Christianity, defeating Ottoman forces in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
As a result of that victory, de Valette became a beloved figure in Europe, and was offered the position of cardinal. He refused the offer, ostensibly because of both his modesty and his desire to be free from the papacy. Instead, he began the construction of a new city in 1566, reportedly laying the first stone himself. The new city was to be called Valletta and was located near Mount Sciberas, where much of the Ottoman army fought and died. De Valette would never live to see the completion of the city that bears his name, however; he suffered a stroke and died in 1568. The warrior remains here, entombed in a sarcophagus in St. John’s Co-Cathedral in the city he founded.
I wanted to see the city as de Valette and his Crusaders would have seen it, the ancient stronghold they held for nearly three hundred years. I woke early one morning, intending to see Valletta before the modern city came to life. The sun was breaking over dense clouds, and the effect was striking. Even at this hour, it was impossible to capture the city without cars and other evidence of modern life, but I felt that with the clouds forming an ethereal backdrop for its ancient architecture, Valletta must look for me much the way it appeared when it was a Crusader stronghold.
From 1530 until Napoleon’s arrival in 1798, Malta was under the control of the Order of St. John, or the Military Knights Hospitaller, an order founded to care for religious pilgrims and the infirm. In time, however, they joined their Crusader brethren in fighting, and the island remained a Crusader state long after other military orders lost their strongholds.
I think of this as I take in an evening view from the top of the Hotel Juliani. There’s so much history in such a small part of the world. Its location in the Mediterranean has made Malta a crossroads of sorts between European, Middle Eastern, and North African cultures, and like many of the world’s crossroads, its history has often been one of invasion and conquest. Invaded by Arabs and Normans and bombed by Axis forces during World War II, the island now faces a different kind of invasion — tourists.
From my vantage point on top of the hotel, my head swims a bit at the thought of such a long and storied history. Looking out over the curiously-shaped Spinola Bay, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Malta’s long history with its modern incarnation. It was dawn, St. Julian’s was beginning to come to life, and the city’s skyline was streaked with the headlights of passing cars. I found a spot that allowed me to capture the unusual curve of the bay, and framed the shot to catch as much of Malta’s past and present as one photograph would allow.
Looking at the beautiful Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it’s difficult to imagine that Malta was once the province of Crusaders, the last one, in fact, and the most impregnable bastion of Christianity in the Mediterranean.
The St. John Knights, in return for fighting anti-christian forces, were given the island by Charles V in perpetuity as long as one condition was met — they were to send him a falcon once a year. They held the island for nearly three hundred years, until overwhelmed by Napoleon’s forces.
The church, perched above a series of steps leading to Balluta Bay, exists in the written record as far back as 1601, when a visiting bishop recorded that it was built in 1580. But that was simply a church on the same site; the present-day structure has been rebuilt or enlarged three times since the 1800s. The most recent incarnation, a striking Latin construction, was completed in 1958.
The church would be striking in any environment; in St. Julian’s — which is really just a fishing village at heart — it’s breathtaking. I struggled to find just the right angle to capture it. Ultimately, I settled on photographing it from the vantage point of a gentle curve in the steps, which focuses the eye on the church and the glittering reflection of the lights of St. Julian’s in the bay.
At one end of the Radhusplassen, Oslo’s expansive plaza, sits the Nobel Peace Center, a museum dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize.
A smallish yellow building along the sea, the size of the center belies the history and scope of the award detailed inside. It seems fitting that the Peace Prize — alone among the Nobel awards — is given in Norway, a country whose people seem to value nothing so much as stability and equal treatment.
There’s a story here, behind the yellow building’s facade. It’s the story of Alfred Nobel, inventor and pacifist, who created dynamite in the hopes that it would put an end to war — that the possibility of mutual destruction would lead nations to abandon fighting. When Alfred’s brother Ludvig died in 1888, newspapers mistakenly ran an obituary for Alfred, and the quiet, unassuming pacifist was shocked to find himself described as a “merchant of death”. Not wanting his legacy to be one of destruction, Nobel arranged for the bulk of his estate to go the creation of the Nobel Prizes.
Normally Radhusplassen teems with people, tourists and locals alike. But I waited until evening began to fall, preferring to contemplate the building and what it represents in comparative solitude. In the quiet, as dusk fell over Oslo, I photographed the museum, a small, relatively unassuming structure dedicated to the work of peace.
By day, the expansive plaza in front of Oslo’s City Hall teems with people, especially in the summer months when days are longer.
There are tourists here, many of whom come to the area to catch the ferries to the fjords. But there are locals as well, families with children who’ve come to enjoy the sunshine in Radhusplassen. With so much happening in the square, at least in the daylight hours, it’s hard to imagine that the busy plaza was once part of one of the city’s main motorways.
Radhusplassen is dominated, of course, by the strikingly modernist City Hall, its twin towers instantly recognizable on Oslo’s skyline. Equally emblematic are the statues adorning the square, their classical forms in sharp contrast to the severe functionalist structure overlooking them.
I came back to the plaza at dusk, when the crowds had mostly thinned. It was the end of a cloudy day, the kind of day that promises a spectacular sunset. It didn’t disappoint. To capture the vastness of the square, I used a panoramic technique. I wanted the viewer to experience something of what I experienced — the beauty of the sunset, the contrast of modernist architecture and classical sculpture, and the vastness of Radhusplassen.
Early the next morning I got up just as the sun rose over Oslo and walked to the Royal Palace. In the morning light, before the city fills with people, the palace is a remarkable sight.
Situated at the top of a rise overlooking a green expanse known as Palace Park, the palace is one of the most accessible in Europe, with tourists posing for selfies within steps of the entrance and children playing nearby. Though it is still used as the residence of Norway’s royal family, the palace and the surrounding park feel welcoming, as if it belongs to the people as a whole.
But that morning, with the palace illuminated by soft early morning sunlight, there were no crowds, not yet. I had the grounds largely to myself, free to stroll at my leisure among the trees and duck ponds. On a morning like that, in a not-yet-awake Oslo, it’s easy to see why the royals long ago chose this spot, the Slottsparken, as the location of their residence. It’s hard to imagine a more serene location.
My task, before the park filled with people, was to capture the palace in the early morning light, and to attempt to show something of the expansiveness of square in front of the palace. The square is massive and almost more than can be captured by one shot – I used panoramic technique to convey its size and make you feel the place.
The words “city hall” typically brings to mind a less than inspired architecture — something bland and bureaucratic with no artistic merit whatsoever.
From the outside, Oslo City Hall is such a building; consisting of two block-like towers that seem to loom over the city, the structure is reminiscent of Soviet-era Eastern Block architecture — severe, ominous.
In fact, the building is a fine example of Functionalism, the architectural movement of the early twentieth century which stressed that a building’s design should closely follow its purpose, hence, the straightforward, sparse lines of Oslo’s City Hall.
But dismissing the blocky, somewhat forbidding structure as simply another workaday municipal building would be a mistake. This is the building where the Nobel Prize is awarded, after all, and it’s the interior that regularly lands City Hall on “must-see” lists. The building’s interior is a celebration of Norwegian national identity portrayed in the work of eighteen different artists. During the building’s construction, a competition was held to determine which artist’s work would adorn the interior. So many artists submitted designs that the jury chose to allow a larger number of artists, as well as a host of artisans and craftspeople. The result — quite at odds with the building’s rather unremarkable facade — is an interior that is a riot of color and design, a tableau of murals and tapestries which tell the story of the Norwegian people.
The building’s stark facade, beloved by some and derided by others, makes it an unmistakable landmark of the Oslo skyline. In a scenic spot (the former location of a permanent circus) overlooking the harbor, it’s one of those structures that commands attention, regardless of your feelings about its style.
On a June evening, when nights are short but twilight lingers, the light that falls over City Hall is perfect for photography; it’s difficult to look away from the striking pair of towers and the history celebrated within.
“Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive! Why is he such a coward? Why won’t he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won’t he die willingly?” Imagine a crowd shouting this at you as you fight for your life. This is the famous philosopher’s, Seneca, eyewitness account of what the crowd would chant at matches. He was not a fan of the games, calling the gladiatorial games, “plain butchery”.
He warned his friend to stay away saying, “Unhappy as I am, how have I deserved that I must look on such a scene as this? Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games, I pray you. Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them. So stay away.”
When you enter the space one can’t help but think back to the gladiator games. It is hard to even imagine that at one point the gladiators and the Colosseum were forgotten or disregarded as insignificant. At one point the Colosseum was quarried for building material. Other times used as a place to garden. Even it was considered for a wool factory.
Luckily none of these things came into fruition. Thanks to restoration and preservation we are able to enjoy this glimpse into history today.
Half of the building was covered in scaffolding, so the classic view of the building was not available for a shoot. Luckily, I was able to find a unique angle that did not have scaffolding or people covering my view.
Much of history has been destroyed, looted and burned. The building pictured here, the Pantheon, is one that managed to escape the destruction of the Middle Ages.
Instead of destroying it, the Pantheon was converted into a church. This doesn’t mean it stands as it once did back in acient times. Paul the Deacon records the destruction of the building:
“Remaining at Rome twelve days he pulled down everything that in ancient times had been made of metal for the ornament of the city, to such an extent that he even stripped off the roof of the Church of the blessed Mary, which at one time was called the Pantheon, and had been founded in honour of all the gods and was now by the consent of the former rulers the place of all the martyrs; and he took away from there the bronze tiles and sent them with all the other ornaments to Constantinople.”
We are lucky that something remains of the Pantheon, and it truly is one of my most beloved buildings in Rome. Before I even planned the trip, I was desperate to shoot it as soon as possible. During the trip a dozen different reasons kept popping up that I couldn’t make it to the site to shoot it in the morning – it is too busy in the evening to try to even shoot it.
The last day the opportune moment pops up, but guess what, it rains! I was devastated. Still, as many desperate man has done, I decided to shoot it anyways despite all forms of logic and experience telling me this would not be a fruitful experience.
When I arrive at the Piazza della Rotonda it looks completely ominous like a villain just entered the scene. The clouds are dark. The rain is heavy. The Pantheon is actually closed for the night since I arrived well before dawn. Like a trooper, I find a space under the pillars to hide from the rain, but this limits my view.
As the sunrise approached, it starts to get brighter. I set up my tripod under my hiding place from the rain. Miraculously the sun comes out! This is like Christmas morning for this photographer! I run out from hiding then start shooting like crazy.
The sunrise offered the perfect light and it was a fantastic shot! Remember to be persistent and sometimes the sun will shine just for you!