The Birgu Collachio is being restored to its original state when this medieval maritime city welcomed the Order of St John in 1530. As the city prepares for the 450th anniversary of the epic Siege of 1565, when Grand Master Jean de Valette bestowed upon the proud title of Città Vittoriosa, Lino Bugeja, born and bred in the Collachio, reveals its secrets.

The Inquisitor’s Palace:detail of the Gothic cloister in the main courtyard. Pictures from the archives of the late Anthony Marquis Cassar de Sain by courtesy of the family.The Inquisitor’s Palace:detail of the Gothic cloister in the main courtyard. Pictures from the archives of the late Anthony Marquis Cassar de Sain by courtesy of the family.

After reading a narrative history of the 1565 Great Siege published in 2008 entitled Empires of the Sea – the Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580 by historian Roger Crowley, I was convinced more than ever before about the significance of the Great Siege for Christian Europe. I also realised the bitter sacrifice the old city of Birgu had to pay, particularly when a recently discovered marginal note in a contract deed dated September 7, 1565, at the Notarial Archives recorded that “at 11pm, hysterical shouts of joy and singing of hymns as when the Israeli slaves were liberated from the Egyptian bondage were heard in the narrow streets of the Collachio” as soon as the long-awaited news of deliverance finally arrived with the Grande Soccorso lined up in front of the Grand Harbour and the Turks beating a sudden retreat.

Even today as people stroll along the winding streets of the Collachio of this walled city girdled by mighty fortifications and lofty cavaliers, memories of its past haunt visitors in spite of its present vibrancy with its magnificent churches, band clubs, football clubs, bars, taverns and restaurants mingling with the gentle populace of a proud yet humble city.

This ancient zone portrays in microcosm a broad swathe of the influences of an active, prosperous port city of the period with its merchants, corsairs, courtesans, slaves and brothels running parallel with a proliferation of churches, chapels and holy relics

This ancient zone portrays in microcosm a broad swathe of the influences of an active, prosperous port city of the period with its merchants, corsairs, courtesans, slaves and brothels running parallel with a proliferation of churches, chapels and holy relics. Its beguiling streets have witnessed moments of rowdy mirth, like the frivolities of the first-ever carnival held in Malta, as well as scintillating glories as in the fantastic celebrations of the Great Siege victory alternating with various episodes of great poverty and plague epidemics. Many of these localities have survived the onslaught of the last war to tell the tale.

The medieval watch tower in the piazza near the Collachio. It was destroyed in World War II.The medieval watch tower in the piazza near the Collachio. It was destroyed in World War II.

The Collachio is located on the right-hand side of the ancient processional route starting from the unique three-gate bent entrance, a tangible sign of Vittoriosa’s European ethos, down Main Gate Street (Strada Porta Maggiore) to the medieval piazza previously dominated by an ancient watch tower.

On this main road there was the 15th-century church of the Annunciation, the Byzantine chapel of St George, the grain silos, still visible, the Inquisitor’s Palace, a unique structure of great historical and architectural significance, the old Bishop’s Palace where the Augustinian monk Fra Gesualdo was imprisoned for holding Lutheran beliefs before he was burnt at the stake in the piazza in 1546, as well as the seat of the Università (town council).

On their arrival in Birgu in 1530 the Knights of St John concentrated their main building programme in a particular area on the pattern of their Rhodes sojourn, however it was impossible to have exclusive access to this zone which became known as the Collachio. Birgu, with a cosmopolitan population from other European ports like Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Catalunya, was bursting at the seams, and an accelerated building programme was initiated following the contours and alignments of the original medieval buildings, some of which survive, a notable example being the 13th-century Sicolo-Norman house with its ornate two-light window.

Mattia Preti’s famous painting of the Holy Family at Santa Scolastica church in the Collachio.Mattia Preti’s famous painting of the Holy Family at Santa Scolastica church in the Collachio.

In this zone the Knights erected magnificent palaces and their auberges, two of which are still extant, namely the Auberge d’Angleterre and the Auberge de France, both recently restored to their former glory. On the outskirts of the Collachio, facing Porto degli Ebrei (now Kalkara Creek) they built a state-of-the art hospital, La Sacra Infermeria, which still bears L’Isle Adam’s armorial shield dated 1533. Today it houses the cloistered nuns of St Benedict, where Mattia Preti left one of his great masterpieces, Holy Family.

Behind mighty St James Cavalier on the land front, the Knights erected an impressive armoury as well as the fortifications of the Post of Castille, also known as l’Altare della Patria, in view of the scenes of bitter fighting in the Great Siege vividly recorded by Francesco Balbi di Coreggio in his extant Diary of Siege of Malta, and immortalised by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio’s painting in the Sala del Grand Consiglio at the Palace in Valletta.

Aerial view of the Vittoriosa hinterland with Post of Castille in foreground.Aerial view of the Vittoriosa hinterland with Post of Castille in foreground.

This ancient zone is packed with history and memories. Wander along its beguiling winding streets and the layering of different cultures unfold, stretching from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Baroque, with visible remains that gave Malta its first typical domestic architecture known as Melitan moulding.

Wander along its beguiling winding streets and the layering of different cultures unfold, stretching from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Baroque

It was in Strada Vecchia Albergia di Castiglis that the Gafa brothers of world renown, Melchiorre and Lorenzo, had their boteghe; and it was here that Girolamo Cassar as a young boy got his architectural inspiration for his many designs in the new city. As visitors stroll through this labyrinth exuding the spirit of place, memories of its past haunt them, contributing to a unique experience of when the now silent palaces hosted the nobility of Christian Europe.

La Sacra Infermeria. Armorial shield of Grand Master L’Isle Adam, dated 1533.La Sacra Infermeria. Armorial shield of Grand Master L’Isle Adam, dated 1533.

As I recently explored this iconic district with Tim Willocks, author of The Religion, a best-selling historical novel of the Great Siege of 1565, a kaleidoscope of colourful memories rushed to my mind as I felt the radical temper and vitality of this vibrant city and its humble populace still rooted in its extraordinary past.

A treasure trove awaits the discerning visitor on a pilgrimage to Vittoriosa, not least to discover and pay homage to Malta’s European roots. That such a small walled city can offer so much history reveals the richness of its past, when on many occasions, it was the main protagonist in the island’s turbulent history.

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