Most of us go to Valletta quite regularly, and we all like to think that we know our capital city quite well. But how true is that? Many would be able to recognise most buildings and know what role they play today, but once you start to dig deeper, there always seem to be some small snippets of information that we might not have heard before.
So how many of these were you aware of?
1. Upper Barrakka Gardens
The Upper Barrakka is probably Malta’s most popular garden, and certainly the most visited one. Although relatively small in size, it happens to be perched on the highest part of Valletta walls, known as the St. Peter and St. Paul Bastion, thus offering the visitor fantastic views of the Grand Harbour and surrounding areas.
But the area was not always a garden. Originally it was part of the defences of the city, and when it did start also doubling as a garden, it was a private one, belonging to the knights of the Italian langue, who were responsible for the defence of this sector. It was one of these knights, Fra Flaminio Balbiani, who in 1661 financed the construction of the arches we still see today, in order to support a wooden roof that is no longer there.
While there is some uncertainty as to why the roof was removed, there are two theories that have been suggested. The first is related to the Uprising of the Priests in 1775, during the reign of the unpopular Spanish Grand Master Francisco Ximénez de Tejada. It is claimed that having found out that some of the conspirators had been meeting at the Barrakka, Ximenes had the roof taken down as a symbolic warning. The other theory claims that it was stripped by French troops during the blockade of 1798 - 1800, to be used for firewood.
Whatever the truth, the legacy of the roof might still survive to this day through the garden’s name. Although once again there is uncertainty as to the origin of the name Barrakka, the Italian word baracca refers to some sort of temporary wooden structure and is possibly a reference to this no longer existing feature.
2. The Castellania
The Ministry for Health on Merchants Street is located in what was formerly the seat of the Magna Curia Castellania, which presided over the civil and criminal courts during the time of the Order of St. John. The present structure was built between 1757 and 1760 during the reign of the Portuguese Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, on the site of an earlier Castellania dating back to the 16th century. The façade in fact is adorned by a number of crescent moons taken from Pinto’s coat-of-arms.
The façade also offers clues as to the building’s former use through the allegorical female figures of Justice and Truth above the central balcony. While the scales representing Justice are now missing, the hand mirror representing Truth is still there. The building also housed a number of prison cells and a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, where those condemned to death could recite their last prayers.
Another interesting feature is the pedestal on the corner of the building with St. John Street. Many people walk past this feature without realising its former use - as a pillory stone where offenders were forced to stand and endure public ridicule as punishment for their crimes.
During British rule, the law courts were transferred to the former Auberge d’Auvergne - on the site of the present law courts - and eventually, the Castellania started to house the Public Health Department. It was here, in his laboratory, that Sir Temi Żammit, the renowned Maltese doctor and archaeologist, discovered unpasteurised goat’s milk as the main source of Mediterranean fever, or Brucellosis, thus solving a conundrum that had been vexing local health authorities for many years. The restored laboratory is still found within the upper floor of the building to this day.
3. The Main Guard
This small building in Valletta’s main square, located directly opposite the Grand Master’s Palace, was until recently part of the Office of the Attorney General. Before that, it was the Libyan Cultural Centre, and even before that it served the role for which it is still named - a guardroom.
Originally built in 1603 during the reign of French Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, it served as a guardroom for the Guardia della Piazza - the Grand Master’s bodyguard. The British later added a neo-classical portico, crowned by a stone sculpture of the British Royal coat-of-arms, and an inscription commemorating Malta becoming a British crown colony in 1814.