From the Holy Land to Malta
The Order of St. John as it became commonly known, was founded in the late 11th century in Jerusalem to provide care for the sick and needy pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. However, soon after the 1099 A.D. conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Order received its charter from the Pope to become a military religious order charged with the care and defense of newly minted Kingdom of Jerusalem. And there the knights battled and prospered until the Kingdom fell to Islamic forces in 1291. They then retreated to the island of Rhodes, where they ensconced their headquarters within the impregnable Byzantine walls of the Old Town.
From this Eastern Mediterranean naval stronghold, they set out to disrupt Turkish shipping, and generally become a major obstacle to Ottoman expansion in the region; until they were once again tossed out, this time by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. And that is when the Holy Roman Emperor stepped in, eventually granting the errant knights hospitality in Malta in 1530. They settled in Birgu, an ancient fortified city perched on a promontory jutting into the Grand Harbour, with at its tip, the colossal Fort St. Angelo.
The knights quickly returned to their lucrative occupation of raiding Ottoman shipping for God and profit, which predictably didn’t sit well with Suleiman. On May 18, 1565, determined to rid the Mediterranean once and for all of the troublesome knights, he unleashed upon them a Turkish fleet, by all accounts one the largest assembled since antiquity. The conflict, which would go down in Western history at The Great Siege of Malta, lasted four months. In spite of being exponentially outnumbered, the 500 or so knights and their small army, recruited mainly from the local population, held fast. They inflicted heavy casualties to their invaders and dispelled the myth of Ottoman invincibility.
The Birth of Valetta
By the time what remained of the battered Turkish expedition had retreated from the Maltese shores, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette had determined that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, its seat had to be assaillant-proof. Under the guidance of Francesco Laparelli, Pope Pius IV’s military architect (think Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome), work began in the spring of 1566 on the rocky Sceberras Peninsula, between the Marxsamxett and Grand Harbours. Starting with high bastions and deep moats, a magnificent new fortress city took shape: Valletta, named after the respected Grand Master and hero of the Great Siege.
Uniquely planned with defense in mind, the city was laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, its streets falling steeply as they got closer to the tip of the peninsula, to make it difficult for invaders to maneuver, and stairs were specifically designed to accommodate men in heavy armors.
But defense was not the only consideration: now the Knights needed places to live, worship and conduct business. A number of sumptuous residences were built, including the Grand Master’s Palace (a.k.a Magisterial Palace) and eight Auberges (or Inns) to house knights from the various Langues (or linguistic division) of Europe. All were designed in the Mannerist style favored by Maltese architect and resident engineer of the Order, Girolamo Cassar, and lavishly decorated by the best artists of the time. Several remain to this day, witnesses to the opulent lifestyle of the Order.
By the 17th century’s, tiny Valletta – a mere 630 meter (0.40 mile) wide by 900 meter (0.55 mile) long – had grown into a sizable city as people from all parts of the island flocked to settle within the safety of its fortifications. The austere military style of Cassar gave way to lavish palaces and churches with graceful Baroque facades. Today, in addition to being the smallest capital city in the European Union, Valletta is now considered one the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
The Grand Master’s Palace
Built as the formal residence of the Order’s Grand Master, the palace has remained Malta’s center of administration for the past four centuries, becoming the Governor’s Palace during British rule (1800 to 1964) and currently housing the Office of the President. Behind its Mannerist facade, it has evolved into a Baroque showpiece with lavishly decorated staterooms. Five of them are now open to the public, displaying most notably a number of 17th century French Goblin tapestries, several portraits of Grand Masters of the Order and oil paintings of naval battles. Additionally, the armory holds an extensive collection or arms, including the personal armors of several Grand Masters and Ottoman weapons captured during the Great Siege.
Casa Rocca Piccola
Minutes away from the Grand Master’s Palace, the Casa Rocca Piccola is another of the city’s treasures. This 16th-century traditional Maltese aristocratic townhouse was originally built around 1680 for Don Pietro La Rocca, the Italian-born Admiral of the Order. It remained the property of the Order until it passed into private hands when the Knights were once again expelled from the islands, by the French forces Napoleon this time, in 1798.
For over a century now, the mansion has been the private home of an ancient Maltese noble house. The current owners, the 9th Marquis and Marchioness of Piro, have opened twelve of the rooms including several drawing rooms, two dining rooms, the library, family archive and chapel to visitors. The fully furnished rooms feature a wealth of family heirlooms to give a glimpse at the life of a Maltese noble family over the centuries.
The guided visit includes the property’s basement. When Valletta was founded, the stone for its buildings was mainly quarried on the spot, creating foundations, as well as a cistern to store the rainwater collected from the roof, a necessity in a city built on arid rock. Visitors can descend into the vast conical cistern, which was extended during the Second World War to provide a bomb shelter for the family and their neighbors.
The Tongues of the Order
The Langues (or Tongues) were administrative divisions of the Order, referring to the ethno-linguistic and geographic distribution of its members. Each of the eight Langues had an Auberge (or Inn) where the knight lived and worked.
Five of them remain to this day, repurposed as public buildings. Most notable is the Auberge de Castille, built in 1740 at the highest point of the city by Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, to replace the original 16th century Cassar building. Once home to the Langues of Castille, Leon and Portugal, it now houses the Office of the Prime Minister of Malta, which is closed to visitors. However its flamboyant Baroque facade and spectacular views of the Grand Harbour make it well worth a walk-by.
What’s a Co-Cathedral?
Lest we forget the religious mission of the military Order, there are over 25 churches in Valletta, including one of the most opulent ones in all Christendom: the St.John Co-Cathedral. Originally commissioned by the Order in 1572 as the Conventual Church of Saint John the Baptist.
For the first century of its existence, the church’s interior was modest, until the 1660s, when Grand Master Raphael Cotoner decided it should rival – or preferably outdo – the churches of Rome. He commissioned the Italian artist Mattia Preti to turn it into a Baroque extravaganza of gold and frescoed arched ceilings. Further excesses were unleashed when a side chapel was assigned to each of the Langues. Rivalry became intense, with over-the-top monuments and mausoleums created to memorialize the regional knights who had served as Grand Masters. Additionally, as time went by, hundred of knights were buried beneath the elaborate marble tombstones that cover the entire floor.
Preti also sculpted the Oratory, the place of worship for novice knights, to house a Caravaggio’s painting of ‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’. The work is now considered by many art historians to be one of the best painting of the 17th century for its chilling realism and outstanding composition.
St. John’s remained the conventual church of the Order until it grew over the next two centuries to equal prominence with the cathedral at Mdina (the earlier capital of Malta). In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see – Hence the Co-Cathedral moniker.
The Iconic Gallariji
Valletta is a treasure trove of architectural statements, especially the ubiquitous enclosed wooden balconies (or Gallariji) that dot the majority of facades throughout the city. The origin of these Galleriji is obscure and it would be easy to think of them an an Arab phenomenon pre-dating the knights. However, there are no signs of them prior to 1675, when a long Gallarija appeared on the facade of the Grand Master’s palace. Which would account for its name, as the Grand Master’s was indeed a gallery running along several of the palace’s rooms. It provided him with a discrete vantage point from where he kept an eye on the goings-on in the streets and squares below.
This seems to have caused the sudden popularity of these wooden enclosures. Although most denizens of the city couldn’t manage a whole gallery, a shorter version, perhaps superimposed on an existing small stone balcony would do just as well. Whatever the reason, over the past four centuries the wooden Gallariji have become a colorful icon of the City of the Knights.
Good to Know
- Getting there — By air: Malta International Airport, with direct flights from most major Western European cities is located eight kilometers (five miles) southwest from the center of Valletta. By ferry: there are two ferry routes operating daily between Valletta and island Italian island of Sicily 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the northeast – serving Catania and Pozzallo respectively.
- Getting around — The best way to get around the grid of steep streets and wide stairways of Valletta is on foot. Comfortable walking shoes recommended. Taxis can only access the main arteries and squares.
- Visiting — The Grand Master’s Palace, St George’s Square, is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Casa Rocca Piccola, 74, Republic Street, is open for guided visits only, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. St. John’s Co-Cathedral — Triq San Gwann, Il-Belt, is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm and from 9:30 am. to 12:30 pm on Saturday.