Hidden Gems of Valletta
On Friday, 17th February 2017, FAA members enjoyed an evening guided tour led by lecturer Vincent Zammit, a very knowledgeable and leading tour guide.
The tour began by walking up the steps alongside St. John’s Bastion, where Mr. Zammit talked about the location of the foundation stone for the new city of Valletta, which was laid by Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette at 11.18 am on the 28th March 1566. The date was chosen by an astrologer based on the position of the stars. The foundation stone is thought to be in a hole in St John’s Bastions close to these steps and City Gate, but the exact location of the foundation stone is completely unknown. A religious ceremony to inaugurate the laying of the foundation stone of the new city was held under a huge tent on or very close to the site where the first church in Valletta, the ‘Church of our Lady of Victories’, was later to be built to commemorate the victory of the Knights of the Order of St John and the Maltese over the Ottoman invaders on the 8th September 1565.
Pope Pius V commissioned Francesco Laparelli of Cortona, who was a famous Italian military engineer and architect, to plan and undertake construction of the new city of Valletta. Money for the construction was provided by Pope Pius V. Francesco Laparelli had drawn up the first plans of the new city laid out on a regular grid plan, and the bastions surrounding the new city, before the Great Siege in 1565. Francesco Laparelli arrived in Malta in December 1565 and sketched several plans before the laying of the first foundation stone on the 28th March 1566, after which work proceeded under Francesco’s direction. The final proposal, published on 18th June 1566, was for a fortified city that extended up the peninsula to Fort St. Elmo, with four bastions and two cavaliers guarding the landward side. The city was carefully planned to provide water and sanitation and to allow for the circulation of air. Laparelli left Malta in 1569 however in 1570 Laparelli died of the plague in Crete at the age of 49, before he could return to Malta. The building of Valletta was continued by his able Maltese assistant, Girolamo Cassar, who is now better known and responsible for most of the building of Valletta’s magnificent Palaces, Auberges and Churches, than Laparelli the planner.
The walk continued past Hastings Gardens where one of the British governors is buried, then to St. John’s Cavalier. Nine cavaliers were planned, but only two were built (St. John’s and St. James’). A short distance away was Old Mint Street where the Knights minted their own coinage. Initially the Knights of Malta established their own mint at Vittoriosa (Birgu) where the Master of the Mint in 1566 (shortly after the Great Siege) was Simon Prevost from Flanders in Belgium. He engraved and struck the special coins and medals which were placed in a copper urn under the foundation stone of the new city of Valletta. In 1573, the Mint was transferred to the tower of the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta, and then in 1604, it was installed in a building known as Auberge de France (the first Auberge built by Girolamo Cassar) in St. Sebastian Street in Valletta, today known as Old Mint Street. In 1778 the Mint was moved again, this time to the “Conservatorio” today the National Malta Library or Bibliotheca, in what is known to this day as ‘Strada Tezoreria’ or ‘Treasury Street’. It remained there until it ceased to function during the French occupation from 1798 to 1800. With the advent of the British Protectorate in 1800, the machinery was taken to the Civil Arsenal for storage. In 1828 the machinery for minting coins was restored and cleaned up, then sold to the Greek Government for the petty sum of £100 sterling.
Opposite the Auberge de France which housed the Old Mint were three fine 17th century houses belonging to the French Langue, known as the Demandolx houses. The main entrance is in South Street, now housing the Ministry of Finance.
Tour participants proceeded down Old Mint Street, accompanied by Mr. Zammit’s stories of the old houses in Melita Street. One such house at 122 Melita Street was the house known as the “Casa della Falconeria” or the Falconry, now rebuilt and consisting of apartment dwellings. During the lifetime of Grand Master Lascaris the house was never let, in conformity with the reserve which he had made in the usufruct and was used by him as a falconry.
When in 1530 Emperor Charles V, as King of Spain and Sicily, gave Malta, Gozo and the North African port of Tripoli in perpetual fiefdom to the Knights of the Order of St. John, it was in exchange for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon, which the Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem had to pay annually, on the Feast of All Saints, to the Emperor Charles V and his descendants. The falcon was to be presented by the Falconer appointed by the Grand Master, into the hands of the Viceroy or President, who may at that time be administering the government.
Another house at 111 Melita Street was used as a reserve Armoury belonging to the Knights, and continued to serve as such until the last days of the Order’s stay in Malta. It was one of the many armouries, including the larger St. James Cavalier armoury where as many as 7,000 muskets were stored. Since the 1970s the armoury building has been occupied by the British Legion.
Further on down Old Mint Street a corner house is marked by a plaque on the wall, as the home of Fortunato Mizzi (1844–1905). A lawyer, he was the founder of the Anti-Reform Party (Partito Anti-Reformista) in 1883, which sought to preserve Italian as the language of education, government and law, and was in favour of the church retaining its power. The party operated a policy of non-cooperation with the British Authorities, opposing taxation decreed by the British colonial authorities and measures to Anglicise the educational and the judicial systems during the Language Question. The party was largely supported by wealthy urban professionals and was the forerunner of the Nationalist Party in Malta formed in 1903.
The walk proceeded down St. Mark’s Street to Marsamxett Street, where Prof. Zammit stopped to relate the history of the area, known as the Manderaggio (Maltese: Il-Mandraġġ). When the city of Valletta began to be constructed in 1566, the Order of St. John had planned to build a mandracchio, a small sheltered and safe harbour for galleys in Marsamxett Harbour. The area began to be excavated down to sea level, and the stones quarried were used to build houses in the city. However, the rock proved to be unsuitable for construction. The Manderaggio area is located in what we now know as St. Mark, St. Lucia, St. Patrick and Marsamxett Streets. The houses were built without prior planning, along winding alleys, unlike the grid-pattern streets of the rest of Valletta, and became a notorious slum area in the late 16th century, housing the poorest people and criminals. By the early 20th century, over 2,500 people lived in the Manderaggio area, in houses having the worst sanitary conditions on the Maltese islands. Houses in the slum area were demolished in 1955 and new modern flats were built as well as a square named Mattia Preti square in which stands a statue of Mattia Preti.
One of the buildings, which was demolished during the reconstruction of the Manderaggio, was a house which had belonged to the 17th-century artist Mattia Preti (1613-1699) who was an Italian Baroque artist who worked in Italy and Malta. A member of the Order of St. John, he was often referred to as Il Cavalier Calabrese (the Calabrian Knight). Mattia Preti spent the last 38 years of his life living in Malta and is the artist most associated with baroque church paintings. He painted the vaulted ceiling in the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta which depicts the life of St. John, as well as numerous altarpieces and works for parish churches across the Maltese Islands.
From Mattia Preti square members walked along Marsamxett Street, then up the steps to Independence Square where the Auberge d’Aragon and St. Paul’s Anglican Co-cathedral were located. This area belonged to the Knights of Aragon and Bavière. The Auberge d’Aragon (Maltese: Berġa ta’ Aragona) is an Auberge designed in 1566 by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, and built in 1571 to house knights of the Order of St. John from the langue of Aragon, Navarre and Catalonia. It is the only surviving Auberge in Valletta which retains its original Mannerist design by the architect Girolamo Cassar, being a single-story building with a rectangular plan and a central arcaded courtyard. In 1674, the Langue of Aragon built the Church of Our Lady of Pilar adjacent to the Auberge. The Auberge d’Aragon t housed the Office of the Prime Minister in 1921–33 and 1947–72, when the then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff moved the Office to the Auberge de Castille, where it remains to this day. Since then, various government ministries have used the Auberge building. Presently, it houses the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary for the EU Presidency 2017 and EU Funds.
St. Paul’s Anglican Co-cathedral was commissioned by the Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, during a visit to Malta in the winter of 1838/39, when she found out that there was no place of Anglican worship on the island. Queen Adelaide offered £8,000 sterling in payment for the building of the church. Built on the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne (the conventual home of the German Knights Hospitallers), the cathedral was designed by William Scamp and was built between 1839 and 1844. Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone on 20 March 1839. The cathedral became part of the Anglican Parish of Gibraltar.
This last location marked the conclusion of the ‘Hidden Gems in Valletta’ guided walking tour, which all FAA members enjoyed, finding Professor Vincent Zammit’s talk extremely informative and interesting.