We couldn’t agree more with Vincent Cassar, Mepa chairman, about his plea for quality in the built environment. There is one sure place to start and that is at the entrance to our capital city, “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. “Valletta’s noble architecture equals, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe” and called it “comparable to Venice and Cadiz” and “full of palaces worthy of Palladio”. Not my words but Disraeli’s.
Unesco has included Valletta in its World Heritage list, outstanding sites belonging to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.
Valletta rubs shoulders with the Pyramids of Egypt, the Serengeti Desert and the Vatican City.
Valletta has been selected by the European Union to be European Capital of Culture for 2018. To qualify for selection, candidate cities must present the role they have played in European culture, their links with Europe and their European identity. They must also demonstrate current involvement in European artistic and cultural life, alongside their own specific features.
The Knights left us a honey-coloured gem, a city packed with 320 monuments in an area less than one square kilometre – the smallest capital city in the EU. Five of the original seven auberges still grace the cityscape with their sober military lines, reflecting the military and religious character of the order.
Adding a flea market does no good to the dignity of the entrance
Domes and steeples dominate the skyline and there are 25 churches in Valletta, mostly, but not exclusively, Catholic.
The first one to be built and also the first building in Valletta is the Church of our Lady of Victories in 1566 while the stunning high baroque interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral is in exquisite contrast with the essential lines of its façade.
Famous architects have transformed La Vallette’s vision into reality. The Pope sent Francesco Laparelli to the Order to draw up the plans for Valletta’s massive fortifications and ingenious grid street structure.
His replacement, Ġlormu Cassar, designed and supervised most of the early buildings including the Sacra Infermeria, St John’s Church, the Magisterial Palace and the seven auberges.
More recently, Renzo Piano has contributed, in his own way, to the renovation of the entrance to Valletta, intended to encourage a more dynamic, contemporary metropolitan culture.
CNN, one of the major international news agencies has listed Teatru Manoel as one of the top 15 most spectacular theatres in the world, placed ahead of the more famous La Scala, San Carlo and Covent Garden.
Certainly, Valletta has all the credentials to be regarded as a top echelon cultural, social and economic metropolis but as always there are warts that need treatment. The most prominent of which, because of its position, is the ambiance in the area surrounding Piano’s new City Gate.
Why should the ugly, smelly, polluting buses be allowed to terminate right outside the entrance of Valletta defacing the magnificent open approach from Floriana, with the eye-popping view of Grand Harbour on one hand and St Publius Church and Maglio Gardens on the other? The bus terminus should definitely be shifted somewhere else less obtrusive.
Overdue plans for a public garden on top of the MCP Car Park should get underway immediately to obscure this cheerless concrete bunker that makes not one single concession to aesthetics. We may have got used to it, but it still grates on the soul whenever you pass it.
Walking into Valletta one might think that this is a second-rate bazaar in a Third World country selling fourth-rate junk goods and not the entrance to de Vallette’s City of Gentlemen. A throng of nondescript stalls litters City Gate, bedecked with grubby torn sheets to shelter the wares from the sun, manned by uncouth, shabby individuals you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night.
The plan to shift the Monti to Ordinance Street a few metres away from City Gate and Parliament is frankly ill-conceived. Adding a flea market trading goods of dubious origin and sub-standard quality does no good at all to the dignity of the entrance to our capital city.
During state functions, local and foreign dignitaries could enter Valletta through City Gate, maybe to visit Parliament or to go to the open air theatre, weather permitting, but unless the surrounding area is given a massive brush up it would be cause for shame to the hosts.
What Valletta’s entrance lacks is quality. It is the entrance to a well-preserved historical walled city that is also the administrative, financial, cultural and commercial capital of a twenty first century West European republic and regrettably it is not living up to this identity.
We need to spruce up our act and give our City of Gentlemen the dignity it deserves.
George Camilleri is general secretary of Din l-Art Ħelwa.
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