The Birth of Malta

From this Malta website:

Forum: The Birth of Valletta.

Venue: Malta Labour Party Club, Republic Street, Valletta.

Date: March 26th, 1993.

Speaker: Joseph M. Meli, Secretary – Partit Nazzjonalista, Valletta Section.

Theme: The Historical Aspect of 28th March 1566.

Valletta Prior 28th March, 1566.

Valletta, is built astride a narrow peninsula consisting of plateau of land laying about 140 feet above sea level – now-a-days Castille Heights – 180 feet above sea level, placed South of the Plateau. Standing up from the blue sea it overlooks two magnificent harbours, one to the North bounded by what is now Sliema-Gzira-Ta’ Xbiex-Msida-Pieta, and to the South facing the inlets of what today we call Rinella-Kalkara and the creeks on which is now the Vittoriosa-Cospicua-Senglea are built.

The early inhabitants knew the tongue of land as Xaghriet Mewwija – meaning the inhabited promontory and the point of land was called Sheb-ir-ras – the light point. No doubt, the importance of the harbours was recognized from the earliest times. Long before anybody thought of building a city on this land the medieval Maltese used to say that “F’xghariet mewwija ghad kull xiber jiswa mija”, meaning, for every palm, a measuring unit, it will cost a hundred fold.

It appears that in 1488 a small fort called Torre della Bocca was constructed at the extreme point of Sheb-ir-ras. This tiny fort surrounded by a moat had crumbled down when the Order of Saint John took possession of the Maltese Islands and Tripoli in 1530. As it had a great strategic importance in the defense of the two important harbours it was reconstructed in 1552 at the times of Grand Master D’ Omedes. This fort, at the furthest end of the peninsula was known as Tarf il Ghases, which came to be known for posterity as Fort Saint Elmo.

The earliest proposal, to build a City on top of Sheb-ir-ras appears to have come from the engineers Ferramolino and Strozzi well before the Great Siege. On March 11th, 1558 Bartolomeo Genga, the famous Italian Architect and Military Engineer, arrived in Malta and after examining the position repeated the proposals, which have been made by his peers earlier. He made a model of his plan, which included a larger area than that of Laparelli. The front of the new city extended to the present Floriana, so that the City guns were able to cover Corradino high grounds.

On a personal note, I wish to see a “Greater Valletta” composed of Valletta-Floriana and the three Cities of Vittoriosa-Cospicua-Senglea to generate a strong economic and commercial zone which will bring economic benefits to the residents of the area and also a renaissance of the localities in terms of town planning and rehabilitation of the same.

Continuing on the historical aspects, rather than futuristic utopias, In 1559 Genga died in Malta and his place was taken by Lanci from Urbino. Lanci’s plan was simpler and thus more practical, however, short of funds the Order decided that the work was not to be undertaken and the proposal was shelved until later.

What made possible the Foundation of Valletta ?

After the victory over the Turks and in spite of the warm congratulations and promises of assistance which the Order had received from all parts of Europe, the Council of the Order was by no means assured about the safety of their position in Malta and many members wish to abandon the island.

Intelligence reports received from the Constantinople announced that the Grand Seignor, incensed at the failure of his troops under the command of his best generals had declared that he would place himself at the head of a new formidable army and attach Malta in the following Spring. Finances were in short supply for rebuilding the fortifications and to make matter worst, there were few soldiers to man them. The primarily reason for the short supply of funds and workforce is obvious – for the surrounding countryside had been burned down and depopulated by the Turks – most of the villages burnt, the cisterns drained or poisoned and to compound more the plight, no money was left either to buy provisions or repair what we call today the “war damage”.

What rendered the situation most desperate was the fact that the few soldiers and still the fewer knights remained – indeed their numbers were insufficient to defend Malta against the attack of the most consistent army of those times - a modern equivalent would be that of the United States Forces.

In this desperate situation, many of the members of the Council were of the opinion that the most prudent measure would be to evacuate Malta. Here we see the “political” de La Valette in what one can consider worth of a modern-day George Borg Olivier.

Elated by the glory he had obtained in its defense, declared he would sooner be buried in the ruins rather than consent to abandon it. In this dreadful dilemma he had but one resource left, which indeed nothing but such strategists would have scrupled to employ. Soleiman the Magnificent, de La Valette knew very well, would never attempt to attack Malta without a most formidable fleet, he, therefore, caused the arsenal at Constantinople to burnt to the ground and thus destroyed a great number of Galleys and other warships intended for this expedition – in a true modern-day Delta Force fashion or for those of Anglophile sympathies, here present for this forum, in a true S.A.S fashion.

The person in-charge with this enterprise remained long incognito and the Order reaped the advantage of so daring attempt.

One is induced to assert that the burning of the Arsenal at Constantinople was by way of reprisal; Selim II, the son of Soleiman the Magnificent having caused the arsenal at Venice to be set fire before the beginning of the Great Siege.

De La Valette having no longer anything to apprehend from the Grand Seignor – at least for the short term resolved to take advantage of this situation to rebuild the fortifications so completely ruined by the aforementioned enemy.

Preparing for the Foundation of Valletta.

Jean de La Valette, was so well aware of the importance of Fort Saint Elmo he therefore immediately begun to repair it. He was a person endowed with foresight, unlike certain members of parliament – on both sides of the “gathering”, that he saw the strategic advantage of this peninsula. When this war should be finished, he meant to transfer the convent there and make it the principal seat of residence of the Order, who would be more secure there than in the Borgo, which commanded on all sides by the surrounding hills – those of San Salvatore, Santa Margherita and the aforementioned Corradino.

The most powerful assistance, however, was necessary to complete so great undertaking, the Grand Master sent ambassadors with the plan of the new City – shall we say, what we call today, a feasibility project ? – to all Christian Princes, who unanimously expressed their approbation of it. The Pope promised to contribute 15,000 crowns and the King of France 140,000 French Livres to be paid from the tithes of his Kingdom. Philip II of Spain granted 90,000 French Livres and the King Sebastian of Portugal 30,000 Cruzados. Most of the Commanders, nobly disinterested, stripped themselves of their property and even some of their most valuable moveables, the profits from which they sent to Malta.

De La Valette applied to Pope Pius IV for the services of an expert architect well versed in town planning and the design of fortifications to be sent to Malta to take charge of the preparations for the new City. For this task the Pope chose Francesco Laparelli da Cortona, an assistant of Michelangelo and a man with wide experience of military defenses.

Laparelli arrived in Malta in the final days of December 1565 at the time the knights were divided in their opinion whether of staying or departing as already stated above. In view of this uncertainty, de La Valette ordered Laparelli to prepare his plans with the most utmost speed; and hey presto !, within three days of his arrival he was able to lay his proposals before the Council. These proposals which were not altered in any important detail in the final execution of his scheme. There were times when the Grand Master wavered on his resolution, deterred by the thought of the tremendous expenditure involved. The money-no problem existed even then ! However, Serbelloni – who was sent to Malta by Philip II of Spain, supported Laparelli’s insistence. It was Serbelloni’s advice that has given the so-to-say “enforced” the action to be taken.

That fateful decision was taken on March 14th, 1566.

The Foundation of Valletta – March 28th, 1566.

Jean de La Valette and his Council and the rest of the Knights proceeded to Sheb-ir-ras in great pomp and there laid the foundation-stone of the new City – Urbe Vallettae, fouteen days later, that is, on March 28th, 1566, which bore his name, on which was engraven in Latin the decree of the Council.



The an English version of the full text is as follows :

“Fr Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of the Hospitaller and Military Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, mindful of the danger to which, a year before, his knights and the people of Malta were exposed during the siege by the Turks, having consulted the Heads of the Order about construction of a new city and fortifying of the same by walls ramparts and towers sufficient to resist any attack and to repel or at least, to withstand the Turkish enemy on Thursday 28th of March in the year of the Lord 1566, after the invocation of the almighty God, implored the intercession of the Holy Virgin Mother, of the Patron Saint John the Baptist and of other Saints, to grant the work commenced should lead to the prosperity and the happiness of the whole Christian community, and to the advantage of the Order laid the foundation stone of the City on a hill called Sheb-ir-ras by the natives and having granted for its arms a golden lion on a red shield wished it to be called by his name Valletta.”

In order to preserve to the latest posterity the remembrance of so important an event, a number of gold coins and silver medals were thrown among the foundation stone.

Coin type 1 : Bust of Grand Master de La Valette clad in armour / Plan of the New City with the legend Perpetvo Propvgnacvlo Tvrcicae Obsidionis.

Coin type 2 : Same as above but with a legend Melita Renascens.

Coin type 3 : Same as above but with a legend Dei Propugnatoris Sequendae Victoriae.

Coin type 4 : Same as above but with a legend Immotam Colli Dedit.

Coin type 5 : Same as above but with a legend / David beheading Goliath with the legend Unvs Decem Milia.

This ceremony was followed by the most assiduous application to the completion of the work. Everybody between the ages of 12 to 60, without distinction of rank, was employed on this grand project. Those who could not work had to pay 1 Tari for every day he kept away from work – Public Works Department employees lend me your ears !

Deep moats were cut down to sea level and strong walls were raised straight from the water. The approaches to the countryside were cleared of stones and earth, a work that proved as costly as the fortifications themselves. The space within the walls was then offered for sale. A considerable sum of money was thus obtained, though the price of the land was as low as 2 Tari per square cane.

The motivation was that of hope of speedily finishing an undertaking on which the public safety so materially depended.

In this military autocracy, all regarded themselves as concerned – including de La Valette himself. In his last two years lease of life left to him he never neglected his duties as the “foreman” on site. He took his meals like a common workman and gave audience and issued out orders “on site”. A modern statesman who used to this type of leadership by example that comes to mind is Benito Mussolini. De La Valette had a small chapel built at the highest point of the Plateau, in which he prayed and rested after his wearisome inspections. This small chapel, in 1667 became know as the Church of Our Lady of Victories, It was enlarged to its present size in 1752 by the Bailiff of Majorca, Fra Gerolamo Ribas Montelieu, however, the main features of the façade must have been fixed when Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccafull placed a bust of Pope Innocent XI above the central window in 1690 on account of the Pope’s successful intercession in a dispute between the Ecclesiastical Authorities and the Magisterial Court.

Commander de La Fontaine, celebrated for his skill in fortifications, was the principal director and superintendent of these works.

The want of more finance to carry them on was soon sensibly felt. The Order, therefore, to supply this deficiency, caused copper coins to be minted and annexed a different value to the pieces, according to the size into which they were cut. These coins know as Patacca were thin (value of 2 Tari) and large (value of 4 Tari).

Each coin on one side were represented two hands clasped together and the other side bore the arms of de La Valette, quartered with those of the Order, with the following legend – non aes, sed fides - not brass but credit, the value of each coin being shown in figures. This step rendered silver very scarce, but helped to pay the multitude of workmen engaged on the new works.

The punctuality with which payment was received from Europe established perfect confidence among the people, that they never complained against the circulation of copper coins nor were the works ever discontinued or at least neglected – this is what good project management, so much familiar with my architect colleagues on this panel, is all about !

According to the scheme of the engineers, the rocky and uneven top of Sheb-ir-ras was to be leveled before the erection of any building. The difficult work had been fairly begun when rumors of a Turkish expedition against Malta reached the Order. De La Valette directed that, independently of the leveling of the surface, the fortifications should be taken in hand. This was done at once with the result that the expensive leveling was abandoned for good and Valletta had to be built with steep streets following natural contour of the rock. As you have already guessed, the leveled stretched part was that is now Republic Street / Merchants Street area.

During 1566, practically all work was concentrated upon the fortifications in order to make the peninsula secure from impending Turkish force then being set up for another invasion.

Paleo Project Management Exercise – Valletta 1566.

As already discussed above, Laparelli’s first report can be said to be the first Project Management Exercise in Maltese History.

For example, he calculated that in order to repair the damage inflicted on fortifications of Birgu, Senglea and Fort Saint Elmo it would take 4,000 men, working day and night.

Another example can be that of siteing the land 500 canes away from the ditch of Fort Saint Elmo. He estimated that he would require the service of 3,000 labourers, half employed in stone cutting, the rest transporting materials, plus 100 stone masons and 400 manual craftsmen. With such workforce in three months the City would be able to resist a siege if manned by a garrison of 3,000 well-provisioned infantry. A thousand workmen would be retained for a fourth month to carry out such work as could be undertaken even is they were under siege.

With each day’s delay more workmen would be required to complete the works on time; Laparelli estimated that 5,000 labourers would now be needed before the end of January and by mid March 5,000 infantrymen would be needed to guard the works at Sheb-ir-ras and Mdina. If the new City was not commenced because of scarcity of workmen then 12,000 infantrymen and 200 light-horse company would be needed to defend Malta.

By the time of the publication of his second report, that of 13th January 1566, he had time to consider in more depth the scheme to fortify Sheb-ir-ras ad was fully aware of the problems involved.

Post Foundation Date Events.

By early April 1566, Laparelli had committed his designs to paper and was prepared to display his scheme to the European Princes by way of plan and explanatory reports – a sort of paleo-feasibility report. His confidence was not misplaced and from that time on the new City proceeded under his guidance without serious interruptions.

Laparelli’s reports after April 1566 convey an impression of steady progress despite his repeated complains about shortage of hands and finance. Since it was barely eight months before the enemy fleet might again be expected, the European princes supplied what was required – funds and workmen. Laparelli even engaged 500 workmen from Italy to finish off in time. It is estimated that in Summer of 1566 between 1,000 and 2,000 workmen were engaged on the project. The works progressed through the Winter months – breaking the traditional Winter closed season for works.

The following May, that is May 1567, listed various items of works which remained to be carried out in Valletta :· the ditch on the land-front had to excavated;

· the material excavated was to be used for the glacis;

· various gateways had to be made in the ditch and counterscarp;

· the material excavated had to be used as in-filling where it was unlikely to be affected during bombardments.

· When it was possible to do without disturbing of the front, the material removed from high ground was to be used to build up thick walls in those parts where there was no natural rampart.

Once the walls were raised they were to be backed by terrapins of well rammed earth which would protect the masonry from the effects of Sun and the winds – erosions in other words. To prevent any damage to the newly constructed walls through heat, it was necessary to keep them moistened so that the mortar could dry out and act as an effective binding agent.

It was decided to might as well to cease stone-laying altogether during the hot Summer months and use respite to build supplies of mortar, sand and cut stone.

There are certain discrepancies between Laparelli’s designs, the various reproductions based on his plans published after 1566 and the works carried out.

In other words, there are features on the plan which were never executed, such as for example, there are many cavaliers shown on the plan but only two – that of Saint John and Saint James were ever built; the galley-pen – the Manderaggio and the ship repair yard – the Arsenal were likewise never executed.

After the above mentioned report was submitted, Laparelli submitted a tentative schedule of works to be undertaken in the twelve months, from June 1st 1567 to May 31st, 1568, assuming a workforce of 4,000 men. This estimate was based on the volume of work carried out in the previous year. The ditch, which was still some 16 palms short of the required depth of 40 palms, was to be deepened. Laparelli proposed to allocate to this task half the workforce, who should be able to complete it in a year. The other 2,000 men would be employed on the lateral walls, either carving ramparts out of rock, or in building up masonry walls, according to the dictates of the terrain.

No wall building was to take place in the immediately ensuing three and a half months. The construction of magazines to store artillery munitions and victuals during the siege and of bakeries, cisterns, and corn and power mills was also to be undertaken. Laparelli estimated that in twelve months the City would be completed, but would be many years before a fully-fledged City emerged. From May 26th Report it is apparent that in the first year of construction Laparelli had concentrated on building the land front of Valletta, while at the same time repairing Fort Saint Elmo.

The Death of Grand Master de La Valette – August 28th, 1568.

On August 28th, 1568, Grand Master Jean de La Valette passed to a better life and was first interred in the vault of the chapel of Castle Saint Angelo, however, Grand Master Pietro del Monte, who succeeded de La Valette, saw that it should be laid to rest in his own City.

The funerary arrangements of the departed Grand Master took form of a State Funeral in which the knights and the whole of the Maltese population participated. The remains of de La Valette were placed on board of the admiral’s galley, which was disarmed and dismasted and towed by two armed galleys hung with mourning black cloth. The same galleys likewise towed the banners, standards and arms taken from the Turks and other barbarians whom he conquered. These were followed by two galleys, which had particularly belonged to de La Valette, covered also with mourning black cloth.

Grand Master del Monte and Council, Commanders and the Officers embarked on these two galleys. The household of the deceased landed first, the majority of them carried flambeaux and the rest colours taken from the enemy. The clergy bearing the inert body and singing hymns followed these. De La Valette was finally laid to rest at his own chapel, where he used to work and rested, to become the first and sole resident of Valletta.

Del Monte was extremely anxious to complete the City of Valletta and for that purpose not only attended himself to the works but also contributed to the expenses out of his own private property.

In 1569, it was decreed that all stone to be used in the building of Valletta was to be quarried from the Manderaggio. Unfortunately, eventually, a layer of stone unsuitable for building was encountered before the sea level was reached. This together with the realization that the Marsamxetto Harbour did not afford sufficient shelter in rough weather led to the abandonment of the site and unplanned mass of slum dwelling spring up in the old quarry – only to be completely ridden off in the late 1950’s.

The Chapter General held in November 1569 decided to move the Convent from Birgu to Valletta. After a delay of over a year the transfer was effected in March 1571

Valletta fortifications were finished three years after the death of its founder, that is, in 1571, and the convent was transferred to the new city and it became the seat of Government ever since.

Tit-Bits of interesting information about Valletta and its early days.

Promises must be kept !

Despite the shortage of work-men and the time schedule brought forward about by the Turk’s impending return, Laparelli believed that the knights had no alternative but to proceed with Valletta if they were to fulfill their obligations towards the rulers who had generously contributed towards the building funds.

Keep them posted !

Both the Order and Laparelli appreciated the importance pf supplying up-to-date progress reports to interested foreign parties. The military engineer probably saw this as an excellent opportunity of acquiring prospective patron with his work, while the Order was dependent on the princes of good-will if the project was to be perfected.

Gerolamo Cassar

By April 1568, Laparelli was confident that his assistant, Gerolamo Cassar, if well briefed in what was to be done, could be left in command while he visited Cortona to attend to family business. As what happens in similar circumstances, the master gives instructions to his subordinate, allowing him little scope to show initiative. These instructions, during Laparelli’s absence work could proceed only to predetermined point and no further. Laparelli returned to Malta towards the end of 1568 and supervised the works until his final departure from Malta about a year later.

The sad end of Francesco Laparelli da Cortona

One of the reasons put forward by Laparelli when he quitted the service of the Order was the desire to gain military glory. When on active service to the Venetians he died of plague on October 26th, 1570 in Crete, or as it was known in those days – Candia.

Main Sponsor of Valletta

Pope Pius V (1566-1572) – a domenican

The Bastions - thickness

Flanks – 10 canes;

Lower parts were cut out of solid rock – 6 canes and 5 canes at the shoulders. References :

The following is a list of books and other documents consulted for this article :

Valetta ,by Temi Zammit
Bliet u Rhula Maltin,by Alfie Guillaumier.
A History of Maltese Architecture,by Leonard Mahoney
A City By An Order,by Roger Degiorgio.
The Building of Malta,by Quentin Hughes.
The Knights Fortifications,by Stephen Spiteri.
Medieval and Early Renaissance Architecture in Malta,by J.B.Ward.
Malta and Gibraltar,edited by Allister MacMillian
The Fortifications of Malta,by Alison Hoppen.
Valletta and the three Cities,by Harrison and Hubbard.
Valletta 1566-1798 an Epitome of Europe,by Victor Mallia Milanes.
Various Articles in the Times of Malta and other newspaper clippings, Joseph M.Meli Collection.

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