Architectural Development in Vittoriosa
In the Holy Land the Knights built splendid large palaces and castles with ring upon ring of defenses by means of pushing the art of medieval castle and palace building to one of its high points. Years later in the island of Rhodes they built a formidable circuit of curtain walls and bastions when sloping parapets were also used to deflect shots by intruders. The famous obstacles in the middle of ditches with armed gun platforms including the design forming a tenaille (tongs) or even serrated forms of walled defense so that they, being the defenders of their base and belongings and the city could be very effective when firing across paths of any attacks on their defensive walls and bastions.
Regarding civil architecture they showed conservative attitudes as we expect from aristocracy that the Knights possessed whose main interests lay in making and fight wars with efficiency. The palace of the Grandmaster in Rhodes remains even after its devastation of the siege that started in June 1522 by the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. Their large auberges were stylistically antiquated much more than the ones built in Birgu and Valletta many years later. We noticed that a sort of local variations of Gothic persisted elsewhere such as Italy while the Renaissance of art and architecture was in full bloom even in Birgu and Valletta.
Occasionally the reports of the commissioners sent in advance simply to study the climate including all the characteristics of our island before they arrived, the Knights did realize that they had to make their best as much as they could of the poor situation, and if our beloved island was a fine strategic base to accept with the excellent deep-water harbours of ours in order to respects, it really seemed in 1530 when they arrived and said that they found unattractive and very ill provided locality in Birgu in which to settle, but they had to accept what Charles V and the Maltese offered to them as beggars can never choose. The Knights did hope that it was no more than a stepping stone hoping to a much better and larger home-base known to be to them as a temporary haven. Experience showed them that Birgu and Valletta were not a temporary haven as they lasted for almost 268 glorious years until they were forced out by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.
When the Knights arrived they had to abandon the idea of living in Mdina which was the old capital of Malta with any pretensions of architectural dignity. In favour of a small coastal humble village with its cluster of fishermen’s cottages by the neglected walls of an antiquated and dilapidated castle. In fact the new scene was a contrast to their very fine sized city that they had evacuated on the island of Rhodes. Their first task was to find the right and required accommodation for the eight Langues within the Order. This had to be requisitioned and even obtained or taken from the existing structures. The new building work took a long time and great funds of money to erect, they were not rich after almost eight years wondering in the Mediterranean Sea to find a new base since their departure from Rhodes on 1st of January 1523.
Most of the indigenous buildings in Malta were built of limestone, a material in an abundant supply with very thick and strong walls with flat roofs, churches, chapels and pitched tops. Building timber was in short supply that had to be imported and transversed arches were constructed to support flat slabs of stone to form ceilings and floors. Faced with such conditions in Birgu the Knights showed very little architectural ingenuity at first but were inclined in importing this very important material, timber for the roofs of their important structures in building high roofs in an Italian manner to accommodate the rising hot air in using pitched roofs and installing insulation against the excessive heat transmitted by the almost vertical sun in the summer months especially around the midsummer against the surface of the flat roofs.
Civil architecture during the early years before transferring their convent and seat to Valletta, the occupation was secondary while the existing plan of Birgu had to be accepted whether they liked it or not and they had to stay in it for 41 years. In the island of Rhodes they lived in segregation behind high walls that military isolated them from the other quarters of the city due to the large area that the city occupied, but in Birgu the situation was very different due to the limited size of the area. They called the reserved area as the Collacchio and this form of segregation was not so possible in the small area of the crowded conditions of Birgu.
A Greek builder from the island of Rhodes Nicolo` Flavari accompanied the Knights when they left Rhodes and acted as their principal architect in Malta until 1555 when he was replaced by another builder Nicolo` Bellavanti, later the Order began to import better architects from the continent mainly from Italy. One of the famous builders was the Italian Bartolomeo Genga who came to Malta and died in Malta. Besides working on fortifications he also modified the Magisterial Palace in Fort St Angelo and enlarged the chapel of St Anne in the same fort. Later, much better foreign architects were employed by the Knights such as Mederico Blondel, Romano Carapecchia, Francesco Buonamici and the Maltese Geloramo Cassar, although Lorenzo Gafa` did lot of work for the Knights but he was never employed by them as the other four mentioned. His early work for the Knights was the Palace for the Captain General of the Order at the Birgu wharf in 1680, used today by the Casino di Venezia.
Other very important buildings in Birgu built by the Knights were all the auberges that were eight in all, Universita` Palace, the ground floor of the Inquisitor’s Palace used before as the Castellania, the Conventual church San Lorenzo-a-mare after it took fire in April 1532, the first military hospital known as the Holy Infirmary Palace, the first civil hospital close to the Armoury Palace, Bighi Palace used years later as the British military hospital, all the palaces at the Birgu wharf including the Treasury Palace and the Bakeries, fortifications such as the gates, ravelins, bastions and cavaliers, all the Posts (eight in number) and many others.
The Cultural & Historical Society Vittoriosa founded in 1954 by Mr Lorenzo Zahra its secretary with the help of others felt a thirst for an organization to forward suggestions to the local government during the period of post-war repairs including re-building of the many historical architecture in Birgu. Many were the elements of the Royal Navy that were located in Birgu especially the ever important shore establishments and H.M.S. Fort St Angelo and the Dockyards. We know that Birgu had lost many historical buildings, palaces, medieval houses, the Clock Tower, two auberges, churches and chapels including others. In fact these were very few buildings that survived and escaped fully from the terrible savages of World War II.
Although Mdina was the old capital of Malta before Valletta, Birgu was and I think still is the maritime and commercial locality and Malta’s link with the outside world, and until the Knights had built Valletta to serve as the new capital and replaced Mdina, our beloved island was administered from Birgu. In fact Birgu was the capital chosen by the Knights of St John when they settled in after their arrival on the island in 1530. It was from here that they ruled Malta for the first 41 years, and it was from here mainly that they had to fight the Great Siege of 1565 which is the imprint of Maltese history. After this siege they started the building of the new capital, Valletta that had remained the capital of Malta.
The Knights lived in Birgu for a short period where they had their convent and seat, their hospital, arsenals, auberges, the Conventual church of St Lawrence, including all the functions of their great power. We know that the importance of Birgu goes back many centuries before the arrival of the Knights. Due to Birgu’s central and sheltered position within the Grand Harbour, its promontory jutting out into the harbour on which it stands is very likely to have been inhabited long before the Punic wars 216/218 BC when Rome conquered Carthage and the islands in the Mediterranean Sea including Malta and by the trading and colonizing Phoenicians since 1400 BC.
The earliest records indicate that the ancient and strategic castle Fort St Angelo was built by the Arabs during the 9th century while Count Roger of Normandy united Malta to the Kingdom of Sicily in 1091. The Normans also built their first chapel in Fort St Angelo, the chapel that was dug in rock and dedicated to the Mother of God known today as the chapel of the Nativity of Our Lady which congregation was changed by Grandmaster La Vallette after the victory of the Great Siege of 1565. Birgu grew in its importance during the Spanish rule since 1283, what remains after World War II of the medieval houses and dwellings is a great evidence of the life the inhabitants during the period when Malta changed hands from one feudal lord to the other. By the arrival of the Knights Birgu’s status was changed and enhanced with fine building including the earliest fortifications by the French engineer Francois de Mondion. Many of these fortified structures remain standing as testimony to the present day.
In 1571 the Knights moved their convent and seat to Valletta, and Birgu retained its importance for them and for Malta with Fort St Angelo to serve as the integral link in the Grand Harbour defense while the Order’s fleet had its basis on the Birgu Marina, the arsenals were kept till the end when they left Malta in 1798. Even the French in their very short period in Malta found Birgu a refuge from 1798 to 1800. The British gave new life to this medieval and maritime locality that lasted throughout the whole dominion of the British in Malta. Many of the Navy’s administration like the British Bakery, later the Victualling Yard and other stores based in Birgu catered for the Mediterranean fleet.
The Independence in 1964 was followed by the confirmation as a Republic ten years later with the final act taking place by the British withdrawal in March 1979 from Malta and from Birgu. This closure of the Royal Navy based in Birgu signified the end of an era that took 179 years for Birgu and its people by the raising and inauguration of the Freedom Monument at the wharf in front the Parish church. The following is an inscription in the monument in Maltese reading :-Ghollew lehinhom il-feddejja, inghaqdu l-Haddiema, batew, tqabdu, Hadmu fuq li Hadmu u wasal il-jum rebhet Malta l-HelsienMy translation in English is as follows :-“As they raised their voices the redeemers were united, the workers suffered, struggled, worked and worked and finally Malta won Freedom”.
The bronze statues on this large monument were made by Anton Agius of Rabat in 1979.
Progress and modern requirements brought new changes for Birgu such as the new international yacht marina, the Casino di Venezia found in the palace built by Lorenzo Gafa’ in 1680 for the Captain General of the fleet of the Order including other facilities with the maritime activity. In November 2005 the Birgu wharf was re-named the Grand Harbour Wharf of Birgu and was inaugurated by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.The Phoenicians who sailed the Mediterranean Sea around 1400 BC used Birgu as one of their most important harbours. The sister cities of Senglea and Cospicua are famous for their Dockyards which are still in good use today while Senglea was built on a grid system like Valletta. These three old cities including Valletta played a good part during the war that dealt a very severe blow also to Birgu, the area suffered from intensive bombing that caused total destruction of a large number of houses and palaces. Although a number of historic buildings along the Birgu waterfront survived, some of them were totally destroyed, others were badly damaged. During the war residents sought refuge elsewhere on the island. After the war Birgu was subject to widespread reconstruction particularly in the housing sector. Given the urgency of accommodating several households the programme of reconstruction was not in keeping with the real character of the historical areas. After the reconstruction a significant number of pre-war residents did not return to Birgu. Over the last few decades the population of Birgu has been in continual decline, and it is quite evident through the lists of past census.