Should Jean Parisot de la Vallette awaken from his 500 year old slumber and visit the city he had proudly designed and helped build, (but unfortunately never managed to see), he would surely do a double take and frantically call his architects. The once closed off fortress city now has wide-open gates, which hundreds of people enter daily. Valletta was built as a fortress, but it has become a living work of art, changing with the times and reinventing itself to keep up with the ages. The beauty of it though, is that the new did not eliminate the old; it complements it in a way that makes Valletta a truly unique capital, a city where the Classic walks hand in hand with the Modern.
Built by the Knights of St John from scratch on an untarnished hill, and designed as a defence from future attacks (which thankfully never happened), Valletta was an impenetrable fortress city, with enormous, broad bastions, and an easily-closed off entrance in case of invasion. Today, these bastions still enclose the city, but the once-imposing city gate has been replaced with a cleaner, more modern entrance – comprised of two columns which lead immediately into Republic Street. Entering Valletta is an experience in itself; the awe-inspiring bastions serve as a magnificent backdrop for the hustle and bustle of city life, while crossing the short bridge leading into the heart of the city you will see all kinds of people from all walks of life – hurried office workers, lawyers, shoppers, and tourists, to name but a few. Past the entrance, Valletta opens up into two sides, with two grandiose staircases ascending onto opposite sides of the bastions – one leading to St James Cavalier and the other to St John’s Cavalier and Hastings Gardens.
Going on into Valletta, a colossal structure will tower over you as you cross the first part of Republic Street. The giant construction, seemingly held afloat on top of miniscule steel beams, is part of Italian architect Renzo Piano’s plan for Valletta’s revamp – and the seat of the Maltese Parliament. Piano’s reconstruction of City Gate, and also his construction of the aforementioned staircases were more or less accepted by the Maltese population; however, the Parliament building has been cause of much speculation and heated arguments among the populace, and has even been nicknamed the “cheese-grater”. Nevertheless, Piano was successful in integrating the traditional with the non-conventional, in creating such a modern masterpiece in the heart of a Baroque city such as Valletta. Beholding the edifice at night is another story altogether. As the warm yellow light lights up the façade as well as the adjoining staircases, you can truly comprehend the fluidity of this Capital. Baroque meets modern, 16th Century meets 21st Century, Maltese meets foreign.
The beautiful face of Valletta had also been damaged, in some cases beyond repair, after the horrific attacks of World War II, during which Malta, and especially Valletta, played a key role. Being the main port in Malta, Valletta’s harbour and its neighbouring towns were constantly bombarded with air-raids, some of which left considerable damage to the stunning architecture found in the area. One such treasure now lost forever, was the Royal Opera House in Valletta. A stately, ornate building, with a slew of Corinthian columns aligning the entrance, the ‘Teatru Rjal’ was a massive structure, capable of seating 1100 persons. A Luftwaffe bombing in 1942 left the theatre in tatters, with nothing else but ruins in its place. These ruins were to remain so for many decades, prior to Piano’s renovation project. The theatre’s remnants have now been transformed into an open air theatre, known as ‘Pjazza Teatru Rjal’, or Royal Theatre Square. Several concerts, gigs, shows and plays take place in this revived setting – where once again the contemporary plays well with the bygone.
Valletta has now become a shopping mecca. You can find all the best labels and brands a few metres away from each other, making it a must for anyone looking for some retail therapy. The brightly-lit shop windows line the pedestrianized main streets at eye-level; however there is much more to be seen than just what meets the eye. The National Museum of Archaeology is just a few metres down from City Gate, compressed between modern retail outlets. This building had been the Auberge de Province in the time of the Knights, and it is a fine example of Baroque architecture built in 1571. Here you can see the world-renowned ‘Mara l-Ħoxna’ statue (which translates to the Fat Lady), of which many representations were found scattered throughout the various Neolithic Temples in Malta. This statue is thought to have been a symbol for the fertility cult abounding on the island at that time. There are many more curiosities to find out in this Museum, which is worth a visit.
Another masterpiece in Baroque architecture and in the art of the City itself is the Co-Cathedral of St John, situated a few metres down from the Museum of Archaeology then to the right. This striking monument was commissioned in 1572 by the Grand Master La Vallette himself, as a convent church for the Order. This structure holds many treasures in its’ many chapels, the most famous of which being Caravaggio’s painting ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’. Mattia Preti had also been commissioned to work on the interior of the Cathedral, mainly in his depictions of the life of St John. The Cathedral ground is a work of art in itself, where hundreds of marble tombs line the floor creating a patchwork of artwork which you can literally step on. Some renovation works were carried out on the Co-Cathedral to preserve its beauty and splendour; however it has retained the same façade it had when it was redesigned in the 17th Century to keep up with the Baroque times.
The Grand Master’s Palace further down on Republic Street had been the seat of administration of the Maltese islands since 1571 until Spring 2015, when the Maltese Parliament was moved to the aforementioned building designed by Renzo Piano. Today, the Palace is home to the office of the President of the Republic of Malta. Today it holds many historical relics which can still be viewed. The square in front of this Palace has been renovated recently as well, and is now open and contemporary. Water fountains sprinkle inviting children to play with them, while comfortable, rounded benches entice tired parents and shoppers to take a rest and enjoy the scenario. This modernized square serves as an excellent backdrop for the remarkable Palace, complementing each other in a harmonious way.
One of the most striking things about Valletta is that no matter how many times it is reborn, revamped, refurbished, it always emerges phoenix-like – brilliant and lustrous, better than ever before. The Modern respectfully tips its hat to the revered Baroque style, integrating itself justly without dominating. Art abounds and architecture flourishes. Jean Parisot de la Vallette would breathe a sigh of relief (the Ottomans have not invaded again after all), and roll over to continue his perpetual sleep.