September 2016 Lecture

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The Building of Valletta 1566


Joseph Borg

It is the 450th anniversary of the foundation of Valletta.   In 1565 Malta was in ruins after the Great Siege but the Order of Malta, under Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette, was being praised in the courts of Europe for their outstanding defence of the Island of Malta, stemming the Turkish tide into the underbelly of Europe.


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Some of the audience at Joe Borg’s talk  

Photo:  Lewis Zammit





Decisions had to be made as to what to do. Some knights wanted to leave the island but La Valette did not want the sacrifices the Order had made to be in vain. He appealed for help and this was readily given by Spain, France and Pope Paul IV.   Military aid and money were donated to rebuild Malta’s defences. The question was where to start. The fortifications were in ruins.  Should money be spent on rebuilding the old forts?


Before the siege, various ideas had been proposed for the Sceberras Peninsula.  It was an ideal location for a new fortress: on high ground, surrounded on three sides by steep falls to the sea - an ideal place to fortify and defend against all odds.  At the time, La Valette had asked various military engineers for their opinion.  Genga and Lanci had come up with plans for the building of a new city on Sceberras, but due to lack of funds and the threat of an Ottoman attack, these plans were shelved. 


However, after the siege, with help being provided by European Courts and the Pope, this dream could become a reality. Pope Paul IV sent a military engineer, by the name of Francesco di Niccolo di Marcantonio Laparelli de Cortona, who arrived in Malta in December of 1565.  After talking with the Grand Master and the Council, within a fortnight he produced plans for a new city to be built on the Sceberras peninsula. He proposed three possible positions for the main front. His preferred option was the one finally chosen and the foundation stone was laid on the 28th March 1566, amid much pomp and ceremony.


There were a few disagreements between Laparelli and La Valette, mainly due to shortage of manpower and, at least to Laparelli, a lack of urgency in using the financial resources available to hire labour from Sicily and Italy.


Laparelli also designed the layout of the streets of the new city. He was initially keen to have curved streets as in Pisa, but this was rejected.  He provided four proposals of straight streets with different layouts. Eventually one plan was decided upon, based on a geometric ratio pattern.

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Joseph Borg describes Valletta’s layout with the help of a 3D Model that he made                                

Photo: Lewis Zammit


In 1568, Laparelli was allowed to visit his family in Tuscany, but with the death of La Valette, the new Grand Master, Pietro del Monte, wrote to Cosimo, the Duke of Florence, to ensure that Laparelli was sent back to Malta to finish his work. While he was away, Gerolamo Cassar was put in charge of the project.


Laparelli, however, was keen to leave the island. On 21 June 1569, he was paid off. He wanted to extend his knowledge and spread his fame. He stated that he ‘left Malta because I wanted more fame and less of the hard grind’. He joined the Spanish fleet in Messina, making preparations to join with the Venetian state to defend its holdings on Cyprus against the Turks.


The fleet arrived at Candia (Crete). The ships were devastated by ‘contagion’ (plague). Men died like flies and, in October 1570, Laparelli also perished.  His contribution to Malta is the magnificent fortress city of Valletta.


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