On Thursday, March 28, 1565, at 11.18 a.m., Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, while surrounded by his entourage and in the presence of the bishop of Malta, laid down the foundation stone that was to mark the start of a very ambitious project, the creation from scratch of a new capital city for Malta.
For the next five years, the project, designed by the Italian military engineer Francesco Laparelli, focused on the erection of the massive fortification walls meant to defend the city. This first phase was done under the constant threat of a renewed attack by the Turks, following the siege of 1565. At the early stages, the main focus was also shared by the reconstruction of fort St Elmo, then still in ruins. On the landward side of the fortifications, that is on the South Western walls, two Cavaliers (towers) were built, flanking the small and inobtrusive entrance of Valletta, in order to command militarily the surrounding landscape. The entrance to the town was to be defended by a deep ditch and a drawbridge that crossed over it. For the first ten years the moat was only some ten metres deep.
The Laparelli Gate 1569 – 1633
The Porta San Giorgio, as it was called was an austere archway, a gateway punched inside the rocky hillside. In later years, the entrance gained in its importance. Yet it took a long while for it to surpass Porta del Monte, the other gate facing the Grand Harbour as most of the commerce was then in the Grand Harbour area. The design of Porta San Giorgio was all about functionality, a mere access that led into the new city. As the small gate was exposed to cannon fire from land, a defensive system was raised to protect it on the other side of the moat. Porta San Giorgio, was accessed only by those approaching Valletta from the lesser populated countryside in order to direct access into Strada San Giorgio directly.
The detailed plans of this gate have not survived. A modest plaque was inscribed and placed on the rear of the gate to extol Pope Pius V and Jean Parisot de Valetta, as the founders of the new capital. No decorative features embellished the facade of the gate. This was a time when entrances were regarded as mere integral features of fortification systems that were not meant to be adorned in any way. Nothing compared to the Baroque Saint Helen Gate, built in 1738 on the Margarita Lines in Bormla, that reflected a sense of grandeur and was a symbol of power. Sometime before 1582, a stone bridge that crossed the moat replaced the wooden one. Throughout the centuries, the stone bridge itself was replaced a number of times, but its arched pilasters remain intact and continue to support the bridge to this day. In the late 16th century, a small outer wooden gate was built on the landward side of the ditch to protect the bridge structure from any subversive action.
Eventually, the gateway proper was developed into a triumphal arch as a way of embellishing the entrance of Malta’s capital. By the late 16th century, the gate eventually became known as Porta Reale, meaning the main gate of the city, just as the main street behind, Strada San Giorgio became known as Strada Reale. (since then, the Maltese started to refer to the gate as Putirjal (the Maltese way of pronouncing Porta Reale). The main street of Valletta, located just behind the gate was known as Strada Rjali – from the official name in Italian, Strada Reale). The same gateway was also informally called Porta di terra (meaning “the land gate”) since it served as the only landward approach to the city.
The Tomaso Dingli Gate (1633 – 1853)
During the magistracy of Grand Master Antoine de Paule (1623 – 1636), it was decided that the gate deserved a more ornate appearance. Thus in 1633, the old gate was demolished and a Baroque entrance replaced it. This time the gate consisted of a central archway with two smaller arches, one on each side. The wooden drawbridge across the moat, was also strengthened. This project is often attributed to the Maltese architect Tomaso Dingli, although there is no documentary evidence supporting this claim. A dilapidated wooden structure of the bridge from this period remains and is at present conserved at the Fortifications Interpretation Centre, located at the lower end of Triq San Marku, in Valletta.
Once the British had taken over Malta as a colonial possession, Sir Thomas Maitland, the first British Governor of the Islands, issued Proclamation No. VI of 1814, in order to have the British monarchy’s coat of arms installed on the gate’s facade. This coat of arms might have been the work of the sculptor Vincenzo Dimech and was erected in 1815. In later years, the British authorities demolished the demi-lunette on the other side of the moat and part of the advanced ditch was filled in.
The Thompson Gate (1853 – 1963)
In 1853, the British authorities realised that the main gate needed to be enlarged in order to accommodate the ever increasing flow of commuters entering Valletta from this thoroughfare. The new gate was designed by Colonel Thompson of the Royal Engineers. This time, the entrance consisted of two central arches meant to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and two narrower entrances, one on each side, for pedestrians to walk through. A guard room was built above.Two niches, each bearing a statue of a famous Grand Master, namely, Jean Parisot de Valette and L’Isle Adam, respectively, were installed on the facade. On 24 July 1892, a bronze bust of Pope Pius V was placed above the archway on the rear side of the gate. This entrance was partially damaged, during an air raid in April 1942. Even the bridge was severely damaged and the two statues of L’Isle-Adam and de Valette were destroyed in the process.
The Bergonzo Gate (1963 – 2011)
By the mid-20th century, the entrance, as designed by Thompson was once again proving to be inadequate for the ever increasing traffic flow that now included heavier motor vehicles that accessed the city. Thus, in the early sixties a new design, completely different from the previous three was proposed. In 1964-65, just about 400 years after the initiation of the first gate, architect Alziro Bergonzo’s entrance was erected. This time the entrance did not include any wooden gates that could be opened and closed as required. In its design, the architecture harked back to the Italian Rationalist Style of the 1930’s, albeit with some modifications. The structure that became the new main entrance of Valletta now supported a one way vehicular road that traversed it from above. This road was to become a major artery for most of the traffic that entered Valletta from the side of Castille Square.
The now much larger gateway consisted of a squarish central archway with two smaller ones, one on each side for pedestrians. For posterity’s sake, the traffic road above was named Triq il-Papa Piju V, after the pope whose effigy had been removed from the previous entrance.
This totally modern design was not popular and proved to be very controversial amongst all of Maltese society, who were accustomed to the gloriously designed archways. Such modern architecture was decidedly cold and indifferent to the sensibilities of the Maltese. Throughout the subsequent decades, public outcry against this design never ceased.
The Renzo Piano Gate (2014)
In 1988, a plan was proposed for a project to rebuild the ruins of the Old Opera House that lied in ruins, following its destruction during the Second World War. A design by the internationally acclaimed architect Renzo Piano was submitted but it was shot down by the majority of the Maltese intelligentia and thus the project was soon shelved.
However, in 2008 the Maltese Government picked up Piano’s project afresh and added to it the redesigning of a new city entrance as well as the installation of a modern edifice to house the new Parliament. Piano’s all inclusive plans were revealed on 27 June 2009. The demolition of the Valletta Gate was started in 2011 for the new entrance to be installed soon after.
Renzo Piano’s plans for the new city entrance were totally different in concept than any previous one. Instead of a defensive gate which would be a blatant replica of the old military concept, Piano decided to open a defenceless breach, eight metres wide, in the fortification walls. Piano remodelled the fortified entrance wide open as a way of ‘welcoming’ visitors, contrary to the ancient defensive gates that barred all from entering. The stone chosen for the immediate vicinity of the new entrance was hard coralline blocks, cut from a Gozo quarry. Each of these blocks constitute a massive ‘megalith’ as if somewhat reminiscent of the prehistoric megalithic temples. Piano does not stop here with his allegorical innuendos. On the contrary, he focused on returning the width of the bridge to its 1633 ‘Dingli’s Gate’ dimensions. Also, the part of the bridge closest to the fortification walls was substituted by some six metres stretch of wooden flooring, that seem to hint to the once existing drawbridge.
Together with the past and present elements, Piano incorporated a futuristic element in the form of a sleek looking and ultra modern elevator that allows access to the bottom of the ditch below. Piano did not want to hide the new architectural interventions in any way. On each side of the wall he audaciously inserted two 60 mm thick steel blades to define a delineating line that separates the new stone structure from the ancient fortification wall. Indeed, Renzo Piano wanted to bestow his entrance by a timeless quality.
Further historical allusions may be spotted in the two great steel poles, each 25m high at the side of the entrance. To the visitor donning his imaginative glasses, these might well symbolise two flagpoles onto which festive banners often seen in Maltese festas would readily be hoisted to celebrate special occasions. At the same time the two poles might even be interpreted as lances held by two eternal sentinels standing guard at the gate while saluting all commuters who enter or exit the town. Running parallel behind the walls, Renzo Piano set up a pair of grandiose stairways that seem to entice all visitors to ascend them and explore the mighty fortification walls that surround the city from all sides.
In October 2014, an art installation entitled Prospettiva was inaugurated close to the bus terminus, overlooking the World War Monument. The installation incorporates elements from the five gates which have stood at the entrance of Valletta throughout the centuries. This piece of art was designed by architect Chris Briffa.
Borg Malcolm, British Colonial Architecture - Malta 1800 - 1900. PEG, 2001. Degiorgo Roger, A City by an Order. Progress Press. 1985. Zammit Ciantar, ‘Valletta - a city built on holy land’. The Sunday Times of Malta, June 7, 1998. Wismayer J.M. ‘Building the Fortress City’, A Miscellanea of Historical Records. Wismayer J.M. ‘Dingli’s Gate’ - An Entrance to a City (1632)’, A Miscellanea of Historical Records. Galea Debono Fiona, ‘Parliament in the Pink’, Times of Malta, 2012 https://web.archive.org/web/20120421033746/http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120418/local/Parliament-in-pink.415956 The Times of Malta 26th January 2009 http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090126/local/valletta-entrance-project-about-civic-pride-renzo-piano.242298 Archdaily.com 20th May 2015 http://www.archdaily.com/632066/valletta-city-gate-renzo-piano/ http://www.designboom.com/architecture/renzo-piano-valletta-city-gate-malta-05-20-2015/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Gate_(Valletta) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kORi8THjXw8&list=PL99C8D43DD90D5C47
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