Valletta: a city built on a dilemma

As our capital city continues to celebrate its 450th anniversary, Teodor Reljic digs into both the theoretical and practical dynamics behind Valletta’s construction

Joan Blaeu (c.1599-1673), 'Valletta Citta et Fortezza a Nell'Isola di Malta', with a key to 57 place names (Amsterdam, 1663)
Joan Blaeu (c.1599-1673), 'Valletta Citta et Fortezza a Nell'Isola di Malta', with a key to 57 place names (Amsterdam, 1663)

Though Jean De La Valette will always be remembered as the true originator of our capital city – which turns 450 this year – it may perhaps be worth remembering that the headache of building a city like Valletta from scratch had to be shouldered by Francesco Laparelli (1521-1570), as is noted by William Soler in the most recent edition of Treasures of Malta. 

Writing in the Easter 2016 edition of the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti publication, Soler outlines the challenges posed by the topography of Mount Sceberras, and delves into how Laparelli both channeled and went against conventional wisdom as he plunged into the ambitious undertaking of creating Valletta from scratch. 

Delving into recent scholarship, Soler discovers a dilemma at the heart of Laparelli’s plans for Valletta: with the architect’s apparent wish to emulate the serpentine ‘sweetness’ of Pisa eventually giving in to the gridiron structure Valletta is famous for. The exact reasons for this shift remain a mystery, but they do reveal the tensions at play while our capital city was first being planned out. 

Francesco Laparelli (1521-1570)
Francesco Laparelli (1521-1570)

Soler describes how Laparelli’s first challenge upon arriving to Malta in 1565 was leveraging his plans for the city with the topography of Sceberras, which at that point was “a bare peninsula, except for the ruins of St Elmo, with a central spinal plateau and sinuous undulating sides”, which created “conceptual problems” because it could not easily accommodate the urban planning style preferred by his contemporary Renaissance context. 

In fact, instead of the Renaissance model – “where order emanating from old classical plans was reflected in revived urban ideas” – the lie of the land at Sceberras suggested that the less rigid medieval model may have been the way to go for Laparelli. 

Laparelli was therefore caught between “two opposed schools of thought” on urban planning. 

“Should he follow the Renaissance ‘ordered’ layouts, according to the then popular regular plans of theorists like Filarente’s (1400-1469) radial concept and Cataneo’s (1510-1574) orthogonal one, or would it be more conducive to city planning to accept the medieval layout of the natural contours in sweet serpentine forms… resulting in easier building due to the generally horizontal level which level which results from this idea?” 

Noting how Laparelli himself was partial to the ‘serpentine’ plan of Pisa as plan for Valletta, Soler describes how the architect was particularly keen on “a plan which is suggested by the site itself following the lie of the land, in opposition to forcing a layout with regular straight lines running against the natural lie of the ground, with one main street on the city’s spinal axis from the land in front, falling steeply towards Fort St Elmo”. 

Laparelli’s idea was to have the other streets be narrow and run along the contours of the peninsula, in direct opposition to the Renaissance theory of regular, straight streets. 

Soler describes this as a “perennial bone of contention” between the military-inclined Renaissance architecture and its more “flowing” medieval counterpart, which favours “an easier build and a picturesque sight”.

Ultimately, we will never know what led to Laparelli’s change of heart in opting for the gridiron structure, though Soler – drawing on the work of other scholars – suggests that the Order’s own military considerations, along with a desire for an urban plan that suggests a clear social hierarchy, may have both played a part. “This antagonism between the picturesque and the pragmatic is therefore clearly reflected in the dramatic dilemma faced by Laparelli, an engineer and an architect, in deciding which school of thought to pursue, rigidity against artistry,” Soler writes.

Urban planning: Greek beginnings

Hippodamus’ urban planning philosophy is evident in his layout of the port city of Piraeus in Greece, with its distinctive grid pattern
Hippodamus’ urban planning philosophy is evident in his layout of the port city of Piraeus in Greece, with its distinctive grid pattern

Though Laparelli assimilated various traditions of urban planning – also taking his contemporary Renaissance context into account – the foundational influence of the Ancient Greek model should also be noted. 

Soler claims that prior to Ancient Greece, cities “evolved organically without any ordered or conceptual planning,” expanding in accordance to whatever the general natural landscape would allow. But the pioneering observations of Greek architect and urban planner Hippodamus of Miletus (498-408 BC) would help usher in a more regimented approach to how cities are built. 

Hippodamus (498-408 BC)
Hippodamus (498-408 BC)

It is in fact Hippodamus who argued for “an orderly layout of streets according to a rectangular grid pattern to allow for better planning of public civic amenities which were previously haphazardly placed”, a vision for the city that has its conceptual root in Greek philosophy – in particular that of Aristotle, who argued that “the basic principle was social order and that cities should be planned by searching for order in society, with plots of equal size, form and orientation, contrary to early unplanned street layouts”.

More in Architecture

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition