Valletta, the Maltese capital, is one of the youngest in Europe. Founded in 1565 by the Knights of St John in response to the Great Siege by the Turks, by 1830 a visiting Benjamin Disraeli recorded that it equalled, if not exceeded, any of its rivals – think Paris, Rome, London or Prague.
The British have enjoyed a long love affair with the place. ‘A city built by gentlemen for gentlemen,’ wrote Sir Walter Scott, who also described it as ‘a splendid town quite like a dream’. Lord Byron, however, disabled as he was, complained about its ‘streets of stairs’ in 1811 – ‘How surely he who mounts you swears!’
Within the fortified bastion walls, its grid-based street pattern provides one of the most densely populated and culturally concentrated places of historic interest in the world: museums, churches, piazzas, palazzos, libraries and gardens. No significant changes have taken place since the Order of St John, which arrived in 1530 and left in 1798. It measures just half of one square kilometre in area.
The Turks occupied the Three Cities (Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa) across the port from the Scaberras Peninsula, where Francesco Laparelli, a former pupil of Michelangelo, later decided to build the new city. While the siege continued, the Turks launched crosses bearing crucified captives to land on the other side and intimidate the knights and the local population. The knights retaliated by beheading their captives and firing them back as cannonballs. Not for the squeamish, then.
The second and only other significant threat came from the Luftwaffe during World War Two, when Malta was famously defended by three ancient Gloster Gladiators, Faith, Hope and Charity, and a couple of super marine Spitfires. More bombs landed on Malta in three years than on the whole of London during the Blitz, but still it survived and received the George Cross from the king – an emblem that still adorns, controversially, the national flag.
No wonder, then, that it is a World Heritage Site, one of three on the island. The other two are the seven megalithic temples dating from the third millennium BC – and thus pre-dating Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza; and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean structure excavated c.2500BC. Unique in the Bronze Age, it was only discovered by accident in 1902 by a workman digging foundations for a house.
Sitting 90 km south of Sicily and 290km north of the African mainland, and between Egypt in the east and Gibraltar in the west, Malta really is at the shipping crossroads of the Mediterranean. For those who have never visited and need some indication of its scale, think of the Isle of Wight. At its extremities, Malta is just 27km
Successive cultures have overlaid it: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order. Napoleon Bonaparte arrived to oust the Order but after only three months was besieged by the local population with help from the British. The French garrison was blockaded for the next two years.
In 1814 Malta became a British colony and remained so until independence in 1964. Our legacy? Some Gilbert Scott telephone boxes, British-named bars, an English-speaking population and driving on the left-hand side of the road. The pot-holes are worse than ours but the weather is, of course, sublime, apart from the scorchingly hot Augusts.
In 1979 there came the termination of the military base agreement, in 2004 accession to the European Union and then it joined the Euro-zone. What is very unusual for a European capital, especially one located on the sea in the Mediterranean, is that Valletta bustles by day but is dormant by night – by which read when offices and shops tend to close. Bars and restaurants are sparse of an evening, but that may soon begin to change.
For in October this year, Valletta will be confirmed as (one of the two) European Capital of Culture for 2018. (The other will be in the Netherlands). There are those who argue that when Malta ceased being an anchored aircraft
carrier for NATO and the West, more than thirty years ago, it should not have pursued mass tourism (annual visitor numbers far exceed the native population of about 450,000) but that it should have embraced high-end cultural tourism and offshore banking instead (Beirut was going up in flames at the time).
Preparations for a phoenix in its cultural fortunes are well underway, in different guises – and, it must be admitted, with various success. Next summer, 2013, will see the formal opening of a new Maltese Parliament building and re-worked Opera House, both by City Gate, at the entrance to Republic
Street – by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The new Parliament is not universally applauded, not least because it is exceptionally heavy in its use of steel rather than load-bearing local limestone. Rather bizarrely, local stone was ferried to Italy and cut there before being repatriated as an unusually patterned veneer.
Next door is the bombed-out shell of the Opera House, designed by E M Barry, architect of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This was completed in 1866 but succumbed to the aerial onslaught of 1942. It had long since been
abandoned, often used as a car park, and subjected to various schemes, not least by Malta’s top architect, Richard England. He shares a birth year with Piano – 1937 – and they are friends, but perhaps a little rivalry may be discerned in their competing ideas.
What really gives hope is that the next generation of local architects is rising to the challenge of the cultural future being bestowed by Europe. The name that immediately springs to mind is architect Chris Briffa (born 1974), the founder- director of Malta Design Week in 2011, who launched his own practice in 2004 after
studying in Malta, the US and Italy (Milan). He recently completed the so-called Hanging House, a beyond-Bauhaus
family home at San Pawl tat-Targa, and has designed shops and boutique hotels for the capital. His latest project is the proposed conversion of the redundant and forlorn indoor market, with its fine wrought-ironwork, Is-Suq tal-Belt into a contemporary museum of art, mostly contemporary art.
In a city that is losing population, like Venice, it is important to state that his home is not way out in the country, like most of his contemporaries, but a refurbished townhouse only 100m from the market site. He has much invested in Valletta – and Valletta – as Capital of Culture – in him.