Cities, Harbours, and Artefacts: Transformations of an Early Modern Landscape

By various authors

Edited by Maroma Camilleri and Mevrick Spiteri

Published by Malta Libraries, Malta 2021

It was indeed an excellent initiative by Malta Libraries to launch a programme of annual thematic lectures, the first series of which focused on urban and maritime aspects of Valletta and the transformation of the landscape around it. Held between November 2018 and June 2019, the lectures met with a very positive response and encouraging attendance. But, since verba volant, it was also crucial that five of the eight lectures deli­vered be ‘immortalised’ in a publication to reach beyond our shores and beyond time. Publication, of course, also makes available the full precious references.

The net outcome is a very elegant publication that must be of great encouragement to all involved, although there is a couple of small things I must get off my chest.

View of Valletta from across the Grand Harbour.View of Valletta from across the Grand Harbour.

The eight point font size chosen for the text is readable thanks to the generous leading, but when it comes to the notes and the appendices, where it is canonically reduced by two points, the text becomes a bit arduous, not to say painful, to follow. With italics and light-reflecting art paper, you get a triple whammy.

The papers discuss the evol­ving urban landscape of Valletta and its harbour in particular, in the process making use of an interdisciplinary approach which weds together history, geography and economics.

Stanley Fiorini writes about the topography of the Xiberras peninsula before the building of the city and how the sale of plots proceeded, making use of the rich material from the archives of Notary Placido Abela, who was to draw up no fewer than 573 relevant contracts between 1569 and 1576.

A close reading of the various contracts provides a useful idea of the original layout of the peninsula. A 1417 record mentions a church dedicated to St Elmo at the tip, while later refe­rences mention two other churches, together with several hovels and at least one farmstead. The Xiberras family, nicknamed Beraq, were the major original landholders; their descendants apparently still claim a glass of water every year from the Palace well.

Drawing showing the palace and house of the Correa family.Drawing showing the palace and house of the Correa family.

Mifsud uses archival records to map the intricate relationships among the people in the market over the years to obtain an insight into the economic life of the city

Sites were offered to the public at just two tarì per square cane, a bargain indeed, while public sites were granted free of charge. Strict regulations were issued, and adhered to, which explains the general consonant structures that arose. It makes one want to cry when one looks at the un­sightly architectural jumbles we, who pride ourselves at how much we have progressed, are erecting nowadays.

Fiorini tabulates the people who took up the available plots in the period under study, enabling the researcher to draw interesting conclusions.

Claude Busuttil’s contribution concentrates on the progress of the building of a new city, where “defence considerations, simplicity, and adherence to the vows of poverty did not imply ugliness, bad taste, or lack of hygiene”. Officers of the Order built their houses in the main thoroughfares, while members of the emerging commercial classes built theirs in the side- and less important streets. De Valette’s ‘most humble city’ would eventually grow into an “epitome of Europe”.

Christian Mifsud’s very origi­nal study of the Valletta marketplace is essentially an explo­ratory study of “a community within the specified space and the individual’s private relationship within this space”.

Built by the Lascaris Foundation as a property investment, a second floor was added by the Cotoner Foundation with 22 rooms as residential spaces. The building was replaced by the modern wrought-iron structure in 1858.

“The author expresses his hope that his study will serve as a stimulus for historic community networks-oriented research which might even be relevant to current urban dynamics.

Bird’s-eye view of Valletta and the Three Cities.Bird’s-eye view of Valletta and the Three Cities.

Mevrick Spiteri contributed the two other studies. In the first he analyses the structural transformations of the properties of the Order of St John, which soon realised how land and property in the city could be made to render profit through leasing.

The author focuses on two properties owned by the Fondazione Manoel. Casa Marion, near the Upper Barrakka, was bequeathed to the foundation and divided first into three and later into four separate tenements, to provide ongoing returns. Casa Correa Piccola, in Old Bakery Street, was bought in 1732 and underwent transformations in 1782 and more extensively in 1789.

Spiteri’s pioneering work in the Order’s cabrei is proving extremely valuable as many details are slowly emerging, not least the identity of local individuals involved. Spiteri’s other contribution focuses on the links of the city with its harbours, which were the only positive aspect that had drawn the Order to the island.

Opting to settle in the harbour, the Order shifted therein the centre of social, political and economic power from inland Mdina.

The new city’s attention was more focused on the Grand Harbour, which it developed and exploited fully and more or less turned its back on Marsamxett until the 18th century. Valletta could, therefore, grow in population in spite of its limited size, with the knights and the richer classes building palatial homes  and the poor overcrowding in tenements.

Spiteri refers to records to show how “varied cognitive values identified the urban space – topography, fortifications, squares streets, and buildings – with landmarks and points of interest”.

The names given by the people facilitated the identification of various specific areas, while the sea provided an essential source of foreign and local trade and communication within the great harbour conurbation.

Spiteri posits that the development of urban history provides “a fundamental approach for comprehensive studies of historical landscapes”.

Also included in the book are abstracts of the other lectures delivered in the first programmes as well as generous illustrations of archival material and contemporary maps and views of Valletta.

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