Celebrating Valletta

Celebrating Valletta

Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities’ fortifications/town plans in 1733.

Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities’ fortifications/town plans in 1733.

Denis De Lucca, Giovanni Bonello and Petra Caruana Dingli (EDS.): Encounters with Valletta – A Baroque City Through the Ages,
International Institute for Baroque Studies at the University of Malta, Malta, €80.

I wonder how many cities can actually pinpoint their beginning. Well, Valletta can. It was Monday, March 28, 1566, at 18 minutes past 11 in the morning when the first stone was laid at the highest point of the headland of Sciberras where the church of Our Lady of Victories stands today. A Sicilian astrologer had determined the time that was chosen to herald an auspicious future for the city which Jean de Vallette ‘wished’ to be called after him and, in a patent case of false assumed humility, chose to call it ‘the most humble’.

Piazza San Giorgio, Valletta.Piazza San Giorgio, Valletta.

With Valletta’s term as European Capital of Culture having drawn to an end, one might as well question what will remain to re­mind future generations of this signal moment in its centennial history. Many activities were held not only in the city but spread all over the island, but like all ephemeral events they are bound to be forgotten as the mists of time slowly envelop the collective memory.

As is the case with temporary exhibitions where the items on display return to their owners, it is the catalogue of the exhibition that survives as a living example and makes it possible for generations still unborn to share the knowledge.

Even in this case, the publication of a lush volume entitled Encounters with Valletta – A Baroque City through the Ages will continue to proclaim the uniqueness of the city and its great heritage. Not that Valletta has so far lacked occasions and publications to assert its historic, architectural and artistic values – its acceptance on the Unesco World Heritage site is proof enough – but this book, edited by Giovanni Bonello, Petra Caruana Dingli and Denis de Lucca, is bound to place its claim for the foremost ranks.

Making use of some excellent photographs by Daniel Cilia (the picture on the dust jacket is indeed a visual treat) and laid out and designed by Stephen C. Spiteri, the book is an eloquent paean to a unique city which has withstood almost unscathed the abuse over several generations, not to say the enemy bombing of the last war.

Born as a fortified city as a statement to affirm the Order’s decision to remain on the island which had been bathed in the blood of martyrs, it soon became touched with the Baroque architectural and ar­tistic movement that the Counter-Reformation had given rise to. The Order’s massive wealth and the re­fined taste of its members made sure that it at­tracted to the island some of Europe’s top architects and artists. The fine auberges and palaces that arose, the gems of small churches that dot the city, and even the im­pressive fortifications that are a work of art their own right, make it ‘the epitome of Europe’ as it has been called.

The conventual church is indeed the paragon of the transformation of the city. Its austere façade belies the magnificent explosion of the sheer beauty of its splendid interior which engulfs the individual.

The British period saw a number of structures and interventions, such as the Opera House and the market, that still managed to integrate themselves well in its overall spirit, though the nondescript apart­ment blocks that were erec­ted after the war contributed the dollop of ugliness that we so perversely insist on adding to our habitat.

Renzo Piano’s intervention re­moved the garage-door gate, al­­though the present author, hopeless and incorrigible pleb that I am, can never stomach the idea that the fortified city was bereft of its most symbolic structure – the gate – and replaced it by two walls worthy of an Assyrian ziggurat.

The book consists of 21 contributions in five parts by 17 of the island’s top historians and experts (plus Antonio Belvedere from the Piano atelier), and together they provide what is perhaps the most extensive and authoritative study of Valletta in a single publication. This is definitely not a coffee-table publication that just regales readers with nice photographs and a little perfunctory text, although there are a number of impressive photographs taken by the prize-winning Cilia. This is a book to cherish primarily for its text. A coffee-table book feasts the eyes; this is a volume that primarily feeds the mind.

The director of the very active International Institute for Baroque Studies at the University of Malta, de Lucca, contributes the first and easily the longest essay that covers the entire gamut of the city’s deve­lopment, as well as placing it in the general overall developments in Europe and the Mediterranean. It is a richly researched paper that claims the lion’s share of the book and is the climax of the author’s many publications on so many varied aspects of Baroque Malta and its architects.

Model of the original Valletta land-front fortifications and town plan.Model of the original Valletta land-front fortifications and town plan.

The building of the city was actually very tightly regulated by a commission that was primarily conscious of defence needs but also conscious of aesthetic considerations, a lesson well and truly forgotten in recent years. The provision of a sewer system placed Valletta in the very front line of European cities but was to create numerous problems until the introduction of glazed pipes, traps and ventilating stacks in the 19th century.

Perhaps the most extensive and authoritative study of Valletta

The fortifications of and around the city kept undergoing changes to bring them in line with the changing philosophies of defence. Their development are minutely described. Although they had a practical purpose, seve­ral engineers also recorded their aesthetic qualities.

De Lucca explains lucidly the baroque transformation of the city into a ‘theatrical setting’ where military considerations gave way to architectural adornments and urban embellishments that pleas­ed the eye but also served as statements of power.

De Lucca cautiously posits the origin of the closed balconies that first appeared in the 17th century to Turkish carpenters. But such closed balconies are a feature of northern Portugal and Galicia. Could that have prompted Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca to enclose the Palace’s balcony?

The author also carefully des­cribes most of the changes to public places, palaces and churches that took place in this period.

In his second paper, De Lucca singles out six buildings – the auberges of Aragon, Italy, Provence, and Bavaria, the Collegium Meli­tense, and the Castellania – and gives an account of their history and layout as well as some intriguing facts. The Bavarian auberge, for example, was designed by the grand­son of a converted Muslim emir.

Frans Ciappara gives a short account of Hospitaller history, while Bonello describes the accepted idea that Valletta was born as a consequence of the 1565 siege as ‘a figment of no substance’. It was in Valette’s head already in 1557, a plan had been drawn in 1561, and the Pope had even blessed this venture the following year. The Otto­mans reasoned out that if they were ever to get permanently rid of the nest of vipers they had to act before the city was built. His account of the development of the city is, as usual, interesting reading, with many anecdotes, no less authoritative and well-researched.

Bonello laments that not a single original gate has survived the exigencies of practicality, and gashes were made in the fortified enceinte. The latest is Piano’s cleft (there I go again).

Cynthia de Giorgio writes about the pride and joy of the Hospitallers, and which is slowly being returned to its former glory: the conventual church of St John’s. The baroque interventions transformed its interior into a miracle of gold and light. For over 200 years the gioie donated by the brethren on their promotions made it the island’s prime artistic repository. Even today, after the callous French depredations, we all wonder how so much beauty can be found under one roof.

The history and the treasures of that other great building of the Hospitallers, the Palace of the Grand Master, are described by Theresa Vella. The only building in the city to occupy an entire block, the palace was central to the history of the Order, just as it continued to be under the British and in independent Malta. It is only re­cently that the palace, originally intended to be sited instead of the Auberge de Castille, has been given the scholarly attention it deserves, and the ongoing restoration pro­cess should make it even more a star cultural attraction.

A baroque city needed also to have public, ecclesiastic and private artistic works. Vella also contributes ‘a short history of art, artists, and patrons’. Not only was there the regu­lar importation of works of art from abroad, primarily Rome, but a notable school of home-grown artists arose fuelled by such demand and inspired by foreign artists who made the island their home, for short or long periods of time. The author takes up her brief history right up to modern times, an approach that might evolve into a full-blown book in future.

Roger Ellul Micallef writes about the Order’s raison d’être: the Sacra Infermeria. The hospital was years ahead of its time in the care given to its patients – ‘our lords, the sick’ – which were accepted irrespective of their faith. It also had a good reputation as a teaching hospital. It continued to serve as a hospital under the French and the British until it was handed over to the civil government in 1919 and went on to experience a chequered existence until its final transformation into the Mediterranean Conference Centre. At one time, during its incarnation as a theatre, Noel Coward and Gracie Fields graced its floorboards.

Richard Cachia Caruana writes about the city’s grandest building – the Auberge of Castille – which was rebuilt in Grand Master Pinto’s time. The author gives a detailed account of the auberge’s vicissitudes. Under the British it served for a time as a barrack, married quarters, regimental companies’ headquarters and officers’ mess. Eventually it became the joint military and naval headquarters, before it fittingly became the office of the prime minister in 1972.

Fortifications authority and the person responsible for the layout and design of this volume, Spiteri writes about the pictorial treatment of the city plans and of its monumental fortifications, whose aesthetic qualities were no less ad­mired than their ‘invincibility’. This is a most interesting and origi­nal approach that has hitherto tended to be much neglected.

Caruana Dingli also contributes three studies. In one, she comments about the Grand Harbour waterside and how it was deve­loped in succeeding ages to provide the essential commercial link for the city. It was a very busy area that greeted most travellers, who were all duly im­pressed by its grandeur and the top-notch services.

In another essay, Caruana Dingli writes about the development of the Valletta market. This iconic Victorian structure, which was built on the site of the old market, has today become an upmarket food centre but, for the many who remember its old form, it has lost some of its essential charm. Gone are the smells and the dubious hygienic standards, but then the bustle of people is gone too. Christian Mifsud provides an excellent graphic reconstruction of the old market, which was originally built in 1643 in the Piazza del Malcantone and was knocked down in 1858.

Caruana Dingli’s third contribution is about life in 19th-century Valletta. Under the British, the city boomed thanks to the presence of the navy in the harbours on both its sides. In times of war the economy boomed even more; the population increased, making the general living conditions rather poor. The British would, however, contribute another landmark to the city: the slender spire of St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral became a distinguishing feature, although the squat dome next door, raised high­er above it to proclaim the superiority of the Catholic faith, is far from a Brunelleschi creation.

The entrance has been rethought and reshaped with the Parliament building pushed into our faces

Claude Busuttil takes a brief look at the three parishes of the city and gives plenty of interesting details about their history and the artistic treasures they hold. Unfortunately, yet again in an authoritative publication, the parish of St Paul is wrongly referred as ‘St Paul Shipwreck Collegiate Church’ when its proper appellation should be St Paul Shipwrecked – San Paolo Naufrago. The same wrong appellation ap­pears in Bonello’s paper.

Interior of Tal-Pilar church.Interior of Tal-Pilar church.

The building of the National Library of Malta and the treasures it houses are discussed by William Zammit. The setting-up of the collection in 1760 was a landmark cultural event.

The library today houses a good part of the national memory. Among its printed books there are a rare complete edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and an early copy of Nostradamus. Its Melitensia collection is the largest such collection, while the archives of the Order numbers almost 7,000 volumes.

The Manoel Theatre, another little Baroque gem, is discussed by Paul Xuereb. Inaugurated in 1732, the theatre had a chequered history and experienced bad times with the opening of the Theatre Royal. Its nationalisation in 1957 eventually led to its renaissance and helped to make it the national theatre. Ray Bondin writes about the post-war renaissance of Valletta, which was thankfully spared too much des­truction by Fascist bombs, though the Opera House was razed and was a ruin for over 60 years. Some non-descript social housing was erected, and the notorious manderaggio was cleared. The Valletta Urban Regeneration Project in the late 1980s was the first step for a holistic approach to interventions in the city. It was a wise beginning, the fruit of which we are now enjoying.

Richard England, who trans­form­ed St James Cavalier into the Creativity Centre, writes that his “rehabilitation project concentra­ted on the narrative of the building being made legible from its time of inception to the present day”, avoiding “any form of restoration in an antiquarian manner, the creation of copies, or any cliché-ridden reconstructions”.

Antonio Belvedere from the Renzo Piano atelier gives detailed information about the philosophy of the City Gate project, which ended with no gate. It is doubtlessly a major intervention which may win the acceptance of many. Certainly the whole entrance has been rethought and reshaped with the Parliament building pushed into our faces continuously to remind us how politics have bulldozed their way into our lives.

Architect David Felice, who was a driving force in getting Valletta declared the European Capital of Culture for 2018, looks forward to the future. The city’s success, he says, “will be measured by its ability to grasp the opportunity to transform and regenerate its cultural landscape” As more and more permanent residents are moving away, handing over the city to tourists, offices, boutique hotels, restaurants and cafes, Valletta will always be on the cusp of great challenges which future generations will have to face and try to solve. The future, he writes, may be on the lines of a ‘fab city’, as was the case with Barcelona with its radical transformation into a buzzing city following major events like the Olympic Games of 1992.

In the final essay, William Victor Camilleri reads Valletta from a surrealist stance to reveal its ‘maturing identity’, basing himself on the short surrealistic film The Death of Valletta. The paper explains the storyboard of the film and analyses its interpretation.

Encounters with Valletta is indeed a fine achievement that chronicles the narrative of our city – il-Belt to all of us. Much water has passed under the bridge since that auspicious Monday morning in 1566 but the old saying that in Xagħriet Mewwija għad kull xiber jiswa’ mija rings more than true, although not a few would argue that a parking slot costs even more and is harder to find.

Unfortunately, while there is an excellent name index, the book lacks a general one, which would have made it more complete and more friendly to the researcher.

The book was generously sponsored by Dragonara Casino Gaming Company Ltd, and all proceeds from its sale will go towards the President’s Trust and the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

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