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A unique work of engineering

Marielouise Musumeci, an architect who chairs the Rehabilitation Committees, explains how Victoria Gate was restored

The end of the Great Siege in 1565 and the consequent need identified by Grand Master Jean de Valette to fortify the island further brought along the inception of a new fortified city, Valletta, in 1566. Under the direction of military engineer Francesco Laparelli, who had been sent to Malta for this purpose by Pope St Pius V, some 6,000 men worked every day, day and night, throughout the year to erect the city's fortifications before the Turks launched a new campaign against Malta.

The fortified city had to be impermeable to the invading enemies with the minimum number of entrances possible. Del Monte Gate, which preceded Victoria Gate, was one of the three entrances to the capital city.

Del Monte Gate was a single entrance gate with a drawbridge, designed by Laparelli himself for Grand Master del Monte in 1569. To the left of the gate was a lush garden known as Ġnien is-Sultan (the Grand Master's Garden) and further down towards Notre Dame de Liesse church stood the old fish market and the famous Neptune statue. This area bustled with activity and the gate provided access to the city from the busy quay below.

The commercial activity of this area flourished under British rule as sailors were brought over in small rowing boats from the larger vessels docked in Grand Harbour. Agricultural produce from Italy and Gozo was also unloaded there and the shops lining both sides of Marina Street were an array of a colourful display of fruit and vegetable stalls.

The need to accommodate this influx of people brought about the widening of the Del Monte Gate, which was replaced in 1885 by Victoria Gate. Designed by Emmanuele Luigi Galizia, it was inaugurated in the 48th year of reign of Queen Victoria. This gate too had a drawbridge and old plans also show the existence of a ditch. The latter came to light in the historical research carried out by the Rehabilitation Project Office in preparation for the drawing up of plans for the restoration of the gate and its environs.

An ambitious project that is nearing completion has dealt with the restoration of the gate, the reinterpretation of the footbridge and the ditch, the widening and repaving of Marina Street and the paving of the area close to Customs House all the way to Crucifix Hill.

The gate itself, a unique work of engineering with its intersecting vault structure, can finally be appreciated after the layer of black crust has been lifted off. The work was very slow and meticulous as the right cleaning methods had to be adopted so that the original patina of the stone would not be destroyed.

Trial pits were carried out in an attempt to discover the ditch wall and the latter was in fact found, uncovered and restored. The footbridge was reinterpreted with modern concrete patterns resembling wooden planks, which can cater for vehicular loading.

Thanks to the learned and skilled workmen of the Rehabilitation Projects Office and the Restoration Unit within the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs, the whole project was completed in a mere six months under the direction of CEO architect Claude Borg and architect Alexis Inguanez.

The overhead cables and services were re-routed and placed in special designed service trenches below the pavement so as to get rid of the clutter from the façades. The pavements were widened and re-laid with hardstone paving and hardstone kerbs.

The passage of time has brought about change and today's needs necessitate a change in planning that goes contrary to what a fortified city represented nearly five centuries ago. Originally, its function was to keep the enemy out but this has now turned into the need to allow people in through as many nodes as possible. Valletta is the epitome of a city that has gone through a metamorphosis of socio-economic change and has adapted to this change in a manner that is fitting a Unesco World Heritage Site.

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