Valletta
Valletta’s Baroque roots give drama around every corner
With its dramatic forms and ornate street corners, Valletta’s soul is intimately tied to its Baroque past.

Rebecca Anastasi

“Some argue that Valletta is a Renaissance town while others argue it’s Baroque,” says leading architect Konrad Buhagiar, a founding partner of one of the island’s top architecture firms Architecture Project. But, while it was built at the peak of the Renaissance, the early 17th century saw Baroque influences first introduced to the capital.

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Undoubtedly, Valletta is a city swelling with grandeur. Modern architecture beams from its entrance as traces of history are draped on its façades, shops and walkways. It is a city as alive today as it was 300 years ago: residents buy their daily groceries from corner stores snuggled in between Baroque churches and palaces; lawyers sit at their desks in offices overlooking cobbled courtyards and tourists explore the tiny streets which once echoed with the sound of horses and carriages. It is a city alive with the past. It is simply known in Maltese as il-Belt (The City), as if there were no other urban space worthy of the moniker.

The transformation into Baroque architecture

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If you walk down St Ursula’s Street, St Paul’s Street and Merchants Street, you will see some of the best examples of Baroque architecture on the island. Curved balconies, elaborate stone carvings, and theatrical details such as masks and garlands all make their dramatic appearance. And, standing proud in some of the capital’s squares, Castille, the Grand Masters’ Palace and the Admiralty House also feature overhanging roof edges, known as cornices, and circular pediments which frame the windows.

These details would not have been created had it not been for the dissolution of slavery and the rise of the merchant class during the time of the Knights of Malta. When it was first designed and built, Valletta was typically Renaissance, with its austere buildings, plain façades and three-storey houses.

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But, following these societal changes and an increase in taxes, the Knights of Malta built and enhanced those landmarks of Baroque architecture we see in Valletta’s streets today: the Manoel Theatre, the public gardens, the very walkways themselves. “The whole city evolved, and it went from a very austere, military town to one that was much more graceful with residential areas, bastions and stores,” Mr Buhagiar says.

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The National Library, situated in Republic Square, is an imposing backdrop to Queen Victoria’s theatrical appearance in the pjazza. Its solid neoclassical columns do not strain and the arches at the entrance open up the space. This, as Mr Buhagiar explains, is an example of Sicilian Baroque architecture in style. “This is because there were a number of Sicilian architects working in Malta at the time, including Stefano Ittar, who built the Bibliotheca (the National Library), as well as some key buildings in Syracuse,” he explains.

Baroque art from across the sea

But, influences from across the Malta-Sicily strait did not limit themselves to the designs and forms of the buildings. The hold of the Italian masters is also evident in art from the period.

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In St John’s Co-Cathedral, built as the conventual church for the Knights, major works such as Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist which is found in the Oratory, and Mattia Preti's extraordinary ceiling decoration representing the life of the same saint, encapsulate the spirit of the 17th and 18th centuries. The building’s stark exterior is deceptive: inside is a gleaming spectacle of the best of Baroque art.

Author and academic Professor Keith Sciberras, whose book, Baroque Painting in Malta, provides plenty of insight into the era, and traces the impact Italian artists had on local artistic endeavours. “The story of Baroque painting in Malta reflects that of the Italian peninsula. Malta found itself at the stylistic forefront of the Baroque language, attracting some of the major protagonists of the art,” he says.

Professor Sciberras explains that the style was characterised by a triumphant manner and its propagandistic nature was very similar to the vision of the military order that governed the island at the time. Baroque sculptures were also moulded by the same themes. Many were shipped from Rome by artists such as Alessandro Algardi, Ciro Ferri, and Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, among others.

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This is what makes Valletta a city of Baroque architecture and art. This is what is etched in its walls and spaces, casting a powerful spell over its residents and visitors.

25th October 2020


Rebecca Anastasi
Written by
Rebecca Anastasi
Rebecca has dedicated her career to writing and filmmaking, and is committed to telling stories from this little rock in the Mediterranean.

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