When the fortress city of Valletta was built on Mount Sceberras by the Grand Master Jehan de Valete (his signature on documents at the National Library) to the expert designs of Francesco Laparelli, starting in 1566, after the terrible and costly Great Siege of 1565, two were its main points: speed and impregnability.
Firstly that its main defences should be completed before a return of the Turkish navy and army which would overwhelm the Maltese, Spanish, Italian and Knights defenders and turn their new unfinished city against them.
Secondly that Mount Sceberras or Mount St Elmo, with its land front at the hill’s highest point, was an ideal site for a new fortified city which had been pointed out in 1524, six years before the Knights of St John took over the islands of Malta and Gozo and the castle of Tripoli. It stood on a lofty hill and on a long promontory that commanded a strategic position between the two main harbours of Malta: Grand Harbour and Marsamuscetto Harbour with its attendant isolotto, now Manoel Island. It also stood out of reach of the important water source, indicated on maps as Fons on Fonte, at Marsa.
Mount Sceberras fell until then within the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the parish of St George in Qormi. Hence when Laparelli decided on erecting first of all the land front with two cavaliers, those of St James and St John, then the enceinte around the new city up to an almost destroyed Fort St Elmo, he inserted a gate across the deep ditch on the landward side having a drawbridge, which was named Porta San Giorgio. That was in 1566.
Twenty years later, around 1586, when much of the fortified city was completed and many buildings including the principal auberges had been erected, Grand Master Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle, now commonly known as Verdala, changed the city gate’s name to Porta Reale – not in deference to the Emperor Charles V who had bequeathed Malta to the Knights’ Order, or to King Philip II of Spain his son, who contributed heavily, financially and militarily towards the building of the new city, but as an assertion of the status of the Grand Master himself and of his Order, who were in many cases indeed royal, or considered themselves as such.
Hence the name Porta Reale reaches back nearly to the origins of the city of Valletta and was only retained by the British as a sign of continuity since their country constituted a monarchy – until they anglicised the name to Kingsgate. We Maltese always knew the city’s main gate as Putirjal.
In comparison, the name City Gate adopted in the 1970s sounds prosaic and devoid of any sense of history. Traditional names are sometimes changed for a misplaced sense of nationalism, while the Italians retained royal names even when their country had become a republic: Viale Principe Amedeo, Viale Regina Margherita, and so on. And Valletta was described in the 16th century as being not inferior to any Italian fortified city. It was a city erected on the Order’s initiative, by the Knights and by the Maltese for the use and peace of mind of both. Laparelli soon left Malta, then returned, and on his final departure his able assistant the Maltese Girolamo Cassar carried on and completed the task of major engineering, planning and development of the city.
Albert Ganado – Valletta, Citta’ Nuova – A Map History (1566-1600), 2003 – has documentary evidence to show that the chequered street plan of Valletta may have been copied from that of the Spaniards’ newly built walled city of Carlentini in eastern Sicily, after that of Lentini had been heavily damaged by an earthquake in the early 16th century.
A fortified city is entered through a gate enclosed within the fortifications. Even the entrance to the city of Noto in south Sicily is entered through a free-standing baroque gate named Porta Reale, following the visit of the Bourbon king of the period in the 18th century.
Hence it is possible that the present proposed entrance to Valletta is ill-conceived, when assigned the task of restoring Valletta’s gateway to some semblance of beauty, balance and decorum.
In a fortified European 16th century city, a proper mannerist or baroque built gate is of the essence. Let us not sacrifice our capital city once again on the altar of modernity, which here in my opinion is out of place. The exigencies of high heavy modern vehicles entering the city have to be met but does this mean introducing a high and wide open slit incorporated in the city’s entrance walls? Maybe a more congruous solution could be found on due consideration.
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