This month (January 2016) De Montfort University architecture students specialising in Digital Building Heritage spent a week on an overseas study trip to Malta. Based in Vittoriosa the oldest part of the historic Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, the field trip was an opportunity to explore the architecture and history of a well preserved medieval urban fabric and the profusion of baroque churches palazzos and streets both here and across the bay in Valetta. Fortunately the weather was very good, sunny with outdoor temperatures of 18 degrees centigrade which encouraged extensive exploration on foot. This is one of the great advantages of the City of Valetta and the Three Cities, everything is very walkable, even the water taxi/ferry between Cospicua and Valetta only takes ten minutes. The students will be working on architectural designs to adaptively re-use sites and derelict buildings in Vittoriosa over the next five months with all of their schemes addressing present day social and economic needs in the area. In order to better undertsand the complex cultural and phyiscal context they were exploring they visited a number of historic sites with heritage presentation facilities; the maritime museum, the inquisitors palace, the archaeology museum and the Palazzo Rocca Piccola. This latter was one of the high points of the visit, a private Palazzo, still in use and completely furnished. We are most grateful to Frances Elizabeth the 9th Marquise de Piro for providing Victoria, our marvellous guide and for saying hello to us.
Of course another high point of a visit to Valetta is the remarkable St. John’s Co-Cathedral, established, like Valetta itself by the Knights of St. John with donations from 16th and 17th century aristocrats from all over Europe. Attracting highly talented artists (including Caravaggio) the Co-Catherdal is an extraordinarily exuberant example of the baroque (on the interior – the exterior is plain), housing chapels for the eight Langues of the Knights of St. John as well the tombs of the Grand Masters, vast ceiling and wall paintings by Mattia Preti, the largest collegion of Flemish tapestries in the world as well as fine collections of church silver and vestments. The sheer richness of the interior, the density of art, sculpture, architectural enrichment and artefacts is breathtaking.
Valetta was a planned city, established by the Knights after their heroic and successful defense of the Three Cities during the Great Siege against the Ottoman Turks. Fortifications are everywhere, built by the knights and then later added to and adapted by the British Navy for whom Valetta and the Great Harbour was the home base of the Mediterranean fleet for nearly 200 years. This produces an architecturally fascinating topography, great defensive ditches and walls criss-cross the urban landscape, punctuated by star-forts, bastions and batteries all interwoven around a complex of peninsulas and harbours. As such Vittoriosa and the three cities is changing, for some time economically depressed, it has in recent years been undergoing a transformation with European Union investment in roads, infrastructure, tourism and conservation. Recently twinned with St. Tropez, Vittoriosa has the feel of a historic city in transition, shaping a new future for itself. Adapting and re-using historic buildings and sites in such a way that the uniqueness of its physical fabric and its lively and colourful culture is preserved for future generations has to be the most important guiding principle of any new development. De Montfort University’s architecture students were deeply impressed with the need for this approach and the insights this UNESCO World Heritage Site brings to their education.