Defeated during the Turkish siege in 1522, the Knights of St.John, known as the Knights Hospitallers were forced to leave the island of Rhodes. After 214 years residing in Rhodes where they developed a great military and naval base, the knights were in search of a new home. King Charles V of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor was generous enough to give the knights refuge in Malta with permanent sovereignty over the whole island. The Act of Donation, a historical document of great importance can be seen inside the National Library in Valletta.
Upon their arrival in Malta in 1530, the knights opted to settle on one side of the Grand harbour, an area which was already inhabited to some extent by the local population. Here they built their first residences, a fortress and a stretch of defensive walls. This area later known as the 'Three Cities' became the seat of the Order. However, 35 years later, the Turks who ousted the knights from Rhodes besieged Malta. For 4 months, the knights hand in hand with Maltese civilians fought a bloody defensive war led by the 70 year old Grand master Jean de La Valette. Although the knights were finally triumphant, the losses in terms of deaths and destruction were huge.
Wary of what may happen in the future and fearing that the Turks would return to avenge the defeat, the knights aided financially by European rulers and the Catholic church set on building a new city where security and comfort would have priority.
Jean de La Valette laid the foundation stone of the city in March 1566 but it was not until February 1569 that Grand master Pietro del Monte, La Valette's successor established a commission to draw up plans and designs for the new city. Francesco Laparelli, an expert on fortifications and a leading urban designer of the time was sent by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to review and report on the design of the city. The plan was based on a grid of streets and a ring of fortifications. Named Valletta after the Grand master Jean de La Valette who died peacefully while the project was taking shape, the Renaissance-style city grew rapidly.
In 1571, the knights transferred their seat of power from the 'Three Cities' to Valletta. The initial architectural work of Laparelli was taken over by a Maltese architect and military engineer Girolamo Cassar who carried on where Laparelli left off. Among the first buildings to be erected were the Cathedral of St.John in 1573, the hospital of the Order in 1573 and the palace of the Grand master.
Designed by Girolamo Cassar, the Cathedral of St.John has a plain modest exterior but once inside, a wealth of artistic treasures and decorations await you. Most of the artistic works inside are attributed to Mattia Preti, a 17th-century Italian artist who spent 30 years of his life decorating the churches of Malta. Enter the cathedral's oratory to see the most valuable and wonderful sacred painting in Malta: Caravaggio's 'Beheading of St.John'. Having just been meticulously restored in Florence, this priceless treasure is a landmark of 17th-century sacred art. There are also many artistic works inside the cathedral's museum, the highlight being 'St.Jerome', another masterpiece by Caravaggio. Upstairs, the museum houses sacred vestments and handmade tapestries of great beauty.
The Grand master's palace is a huge two-storey building that occupies a whole block and borders four of Valletta's principal streets. One of its fine arched entrances leads into Neptune's courtyard, named after a bronze statue of Neptune which together with 5 marble coat of arms adorn the courtyard. The other opens into Prince Alfred's courtyard named in memory of Prince Alfred who visited Malta in 1858. Apart from these two courtyards, most of the palace is kept closed indefinitely. However, you can visit the excellent Armoury housed on the ground floor at the back side of the palace. Highlights inside include the Grand master's carriage, the full suit of armour of Grand master Alof de Wignacourt, two showcases containing Turkish weapons and a wide impressive array of decorated helmets, breastplates and back plates. Today a section of the Grand master's palace is used to house the Maltese Parliament and the office of the President.
The hospital of the Order, built on the eastern tip of the city was used by the knights to treat the sick. The former hospital's main ward was transformed into the Mediterranean conference centre, an excellent setting for conferences, concerts and banquets. Part of the hospital houses the Malta Experience, an audio-visual walk along Malta's past with multi-lingual commentary available on headphones. Don't miss it!
In Valletta, there are numerous other residential structures, churches and forts that were constructed during the era of the knights from 1530 to 1798. Most noteworthy is Fort St.Elmo constructed at the very tip of the city overlooking the Grand harbour from the east and Marsamxett harbour from the west. The defensive walls which surround Fort St.Elmo are a beauty of unique architecture though they require urgent restoration. The National Museum of War housed in a section of the fort is worth visiting for its excellent war memorabilia and authentic furnishings.
The majestic auberges which were the former living quarters of the knights have Baroque architectural details in stone that are amazingly beautiful. Don't miss the wonderful exterior architecture of the facade of Auberge de Castille which is used today to house the office of the Prime minister.