Valletta is steeped in history. Depicted in its predominantly Baroque architecture, museums, galleries and numerous monuments and statues which all tell their own unique story of different times of Valletta’s history. it’s not surprising that the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Created in 1565 following the Great Siege of Malta, Valletta was named after Jean Parisot de Valette, a French nobleman who became the 49th Grand Master of the Order of Malta after leading the Knights Hospitaller to a successful siege of the island. Described as a ‘city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’. Italian military engineer Francesco Laparelli da Cortona was a highly regarded assistant to Michelangelo prior to being enlisted by the Pope to oversee Valletta’s construction. Both a city and a fortress, the building work of this masterpiece of a city commenced on land (Mount Sceberras) lying between two natural harbours.
An area of nothing but rock, other than a watchtower (St Elmo), quickly began to take shape. Initially assisted by architect and engineer Gerolamo Cassar, Laparelli departed Malta in 1569 leaving Cassar to take over. Cassar immediately went to Italy to further study architecture before returning to Malta to continue with the designing of Valletta’s buildings.
Designed in with a regimental grid formation, the knights worked to Cassar’s architectural plans to produce the city’s initial Mannerist style buildings. With the steeper roads to the rear of Valletta still lined with small steps (making it easier for the knights to embark upon in their heavy armour) and The Grand Master’s Palace, Auberge de Castille and St John’s Co-Cathedral, these are fine examples of Cassar’s work in Valletta and can still be seen today.
Sadly, not seeing Valletta’s completion, Grand Master de Valette passed away in 1568 and shortly after the Knights moved from nearby Birgu and settled in their new district of Valletta. Italian Pietro del Monte became the 50th Grandmaster of the Order of St John, three days after Valette’s passing and continued with the work of creating Valletta.
As the Knights of St John’s funding ran low, Valletta’s building work slowed down immensely, however the 17th century saw a financial boom which led to building work commencing again with vigour. Under the direction of new architects, along with new builds, the somewhat plainer buildings became Baroque in style and continued to seep with exuberance.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is a perfect example of the wealth of the time. Built as the conventual church for the knights, the ornately gilded interior boasts only the best works of art donated by the knights adorning the walls and the high arched ceilings. In addition to paintings, there are carvings, sculptures and tapestries all dating back to the 16th century and depicting life at the time. Artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio fled Rome after killing a man in a duel. Knowing his life was at risk, he learned that The Order was seeking a court painter and Malta immediately became his destination to flee to. In 1608, after spending 12 months in Malta, Caravaggio was accepted into the order as a knight. To this day, St John’s Co-Cathedral is home to Caravaggio’s masterpieces The Beheading of St John the Baptist and St Jerome Writing, both of which attract worldwide visitors daily.
Today Valletta is an eclectic mix of Baroque and modern architecture. From the 16th century Auberge de Castille to the relatively new controversial style Parliament Building at Valletta’s main entrance, a walk around Valletta is nothing more than breath taking. It comes as no surprise that Valletta, one of the smallest capitals in the world, is the 2018 European Capital of Culture.