At the moment many roadsides, especially those on the sides of valleys or enjoying some shade are full of a common plant called Acanthus mollis – the Maltese hannewija. An imposing plant which grows to up to 80 centimetres in height and is very visible owing to its upright floral stem and its tendency to grow in groups. Standing to attention like alert soldiers. A deep green when their surroundings are generally drying as late spring makes way to summer.
But besides its natural beauty the humble hannewija has a much bigger claim to fame in the Mediterranean which is its natural homeland. For it forms the inspiration behind one of the three columns of classical Graeco-Roman architecture. Anyone with some knowledge of such architecture will be aware that our classical ancestors designed three types of columns: the plain Doric, the scroll-inspired Ionic and the ornate Corinthian columns. The Corinthian, which is by far the most ornate of the three columns is based on a leaf-motif which was inspired by the acanthus plant’s leaves. These columns were very common in ancient Graeco-Roman architecture and regained popularity in the neo-classical architectural style that emerged in the late eighteenth century and was obviously inspired by the great structures of Mediterranean antiquity.According to legend, the association of the hannewija’s leaves to the Corinthian column goes back to around 500 B.C. An Athenian bronze-sculptor named Callimachus chanced upon a child’s grave upon which there was a basket which was filled with the dead child’s toys. The basket was covered by a large terracotta tile to protect the toys from the elements. With the passage of time, an acanthus plant which had taken root beneath the toy basket had grown around its edges so that its leaves eventually curled up around it until they touched the base of the terracotta tile. Thus was born the idea behind the Corinthian column which is an artistic rendering of a basket wrapped in acanthus leaves.Here in Malta we have numerous examples of neo-classical renderings of the Corinthian column. Walking into Valletta this morning I witnessed two examples: the recently restored columns of the 19th century Royal Opera House and the colonnade supporting the portals of the nineteenth century Palazzo Ferreria opposite the Opera House in Republic Street.
So there you have it: a common, nondescript plant which not only beautifies our countryside during the late spring, but which, in association with a touching story from twenty five centuries ago, found itself immortalised in one of architecture’s classic designs.