The Order of the Knights of Saint John in Malta
The coming of the Knights of Saint John to Malta in 1530 brought with it a radical change in every aspect of Maltese life. For the Maltese, this meant the beginning of a new era, and one can say that during this period the islands developed not only from the political viewpoint, but also with regards to the economic and social aspects.
During this period of 268 years, especially after 1565, the Maltese population increased, Maltese economy became more diversified, while the social level of the Maltese inhabitants developed to a very high degree. It was also during this same period that the Maltese Islands saw the rise of new towns and villages, since with the arrival of the Order many medieval villages continued to expand, while in many of these settlements, the Maltese started to build in a completely different architectural style.
The period of the Knights can be divided into two main parts; the first one between 1530 and 1565, and the second between 1565 and 1798. During the first phase of their occupation of the islands, the Order of Saint John tried hard and on several occasions, although unsuccessfully, to recapture the island of Rhodes, from which they had been expelled by the Ottoman Sultan in 1523. During this period the Knights did not plan to remain in Malta for a long time, therefore they considered the islands as a temporary base and limited themselves to establishing themselves in Birgu. They bought some houses to use as their Auberges, while the Castle of Saint Angelo became the residence of the Order’s Grandmaster. The second part of the Order’s occupancy is associated with the Baroque artistic style, which was present in both art and architecture.
After the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Grandmaster Jean de La Valette designed and built the city of Valletta according to this architectural style, with a grid forming a number of streets perpendicular to each other. The main street was Strada San Giorgio, named Republic Street today, in which were erected the finest palaces and houses, including the Grandmaster’s Palace. The layout of this new capital city is the work of the famous Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, but the main buildings are the masterpiece of his assistant, the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar. Cassar was also the main architect in charge of designing and building the seven Auberges of the Knights. Some of these still exist today while others were eventually demolished and replaced by other buildings.
The existing Auberges of Valletta are the Auberge of Aragon, the Auberge of Italy, the Auberge of Provence, and the Auberge of Castille and Leon, which today serves as the Office of the Prime Minister. Those that were demolished include the Auberge of Auvergne, the Auberge of France, and the Auberge of Allemagne. The Auberge of Baviere, within walking distance from Fort St. Elmo, was erected later on in the eitheenth century. The list of palaces and other beautiful buildings in the city of Valletta is very long. One can make a reference to Pereira Palace, the Bishop’s Palace, the Old University, Casa Correa, and Casa Castellania.
The Knights of Saint John also built a number of bastions and fortifications to defend the islands in times of peril. They improved the walls of the Castle of St. Angelo, in order for it to be a better defence for the Grand Harbor, as well as building the Fortress of St. Elmo, Fort Manoel and Fort Tignè. From the early 17th century onward, the Order also made great investments to develop an effective coastal defence system by building a number of towers in various strategic places around the Maltese Islands.
One can conclude that the period of the Knights of Malta certainly left a great impact on Maltese history and society, particularly with regards to art and architecture. Almost every Maltese town or village is adorned by monuments of this period, be they palaces, houses, churches or chapels. We must keep in mind that it is important that these historic works of art are preserved, as they are a unique and important part of Maltese culture.