‘Reading the Valletta 2018 cultural programme, one word stood out to me: Community,’ writes Andrea Rossitto, Capturing Valletta Student Journalist. ‘Straight away, I thought of Mr Barbara.’
"With community at the heart of island life, encouraging active participation in the arts is one of the highest goals of our European Capital of Culture," says the Valletta 2018 Capital of Culture catalogue. But what is the situation really like for members of Malta’s traditional artistic and artisan community?
I am studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Communications with Italian at the University of Malta. In December, we were given a pretty unusual, hands-on task: to get in touch with a local media house with a very clear pitch and possibly work together on a story.
This was where the cap milliner story started. I was originally in touch with a journalist at Television Malta to ask about doing a story about palm oil consumption, however it was something else that he said to me stuck in my mind, something completely unrelated to palm oil.
"By the way," he whispered in passing, "A few weeks ago I met the last Maltese milliner on the island. Get back to me if that might interest you."
Reporting on the Capital of Culture for the British Council, the history of the British in Malta, the community aspect, and the picture of artists and artisans – everything came together and the ‘milliner’ story suddenly seemed to fall into place.
A family trade
Based in Vittoriosa, one of Malta’s so-called ‘three cities’ along with Bormla and l-Isla, Josef Barbara has been making military and ceremonial caps all his life.
This was an important and prestigious trade on the island. But Mr Barbara is the last craftsman on this Mediterranean island who designs, sews and makes hats and caps, these days mostly for policemen and band members.
"I was only nine when I made my first cap," Mr Barbara told me. "That day was the first step in this line of business and I joined my father in his trade."
Now a pensioner, Mr Barbara has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather Ġużeppi and father Ġeraldu, both of whom earned their livelihoods making caps for members of the British armed forces.
Caps for military leaders
The first British Civil Commissioner of Malta, Sir Alexander Ball, had the foresight to see how Malta’s Grand Harbour and the Order of the Knights of Saint John’s shipyard at Cottonera could accommodate the Royal Navy.
The Maltese Islands became a British protectorate in the early 1800s.
Given the islands’ strategic position, they eventually served as the base for the British Mediterranean Fleet until 1979 when the military base was closed.
Even Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, when he visited Malta for the first time in 1973 as a close ally to Malta’s Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, came to Mr Barbara to have a cap made.
I asked Mr Barbara how he made a cap for the former Libyan leader, and what it was like. "I first established the size, then modelled the four quarters, the crown, the lining and the perimeter, and finally put everything altogether to shape the wire framework," he said.
"My family has always been in Cottonera," said Mr Barbara. "What mattered was that our workshops were cheek-by-jowl to the port, and the British warships."
Destined for the history books?
Today, Mr Barbara still makes a cap or two to keep him going. But he is deeply fazed about the future of the trade.
"Now demand is only high when it comes to such annual commemorations as Good Friday and village festas," he says.
Mr Barbara laments the fact that unless an apprentice learns this dying craft, the art he inherited from his father will be lost. But he is less than optimistic that anybody will come forward, because the trade no longer offers a livelihood.
"The few trades remaining are destined for the history books, I’m afraid," he says. "No one seems willing to invest in such a business because the demand is not there anymore.
"With fierce competition from imported items breathing down their neck, local craftsmen feel they are fighting a losing battle."
Can the Capital of Culture’s mission to encourage active participation in the arts provide a chance to change this outlook for Mr Barbara and traditional craftsmen like him? The Capital of Culture promises to engage young people, but can this be done in a long-lasting way that makes traditional trades a proud part of the local economy? Stay tuned to discover whether the Capital of Culture succeeds in proving its statement that ‘community’ truly is at the heart of Malta.