With a clutch of its most historical structures recently restored alongside an influx of dazzling architecture, the Maltese capital is giving its storied past a beautiful new present.
In the scaffolded vault of the Church of Our Lady of Victory, dungaree-clad conservators from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art are putting the finishing touches on a restoration of the 450-year-old building’s ceiling murals. Painted by Maltese artist Alessio Erardi in the early 18th century, they depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary—full of drama and suspense, subtle colors and remarkable details. Malta’s oldest church has been long overdue a facelift; when I last visited in the late 1990s, it was gloomy, dank, and moldering. So I am thrilled to see these treasures reclaimed from the pall of decay.
It’s a story repeated across Valletta, which has been undergoing the most extensive bout of urban renewal and construction since it was built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John. And this is what has lured me back to the compact Maltese capital for the first time in 10 years. I grew up on the neighboring island of Gozo, and though I have spent most of my adult life abroad, I’ve returned there regularly to visit family and friends. But for the longest time I avoided Valletta, a historically rich but not terribly exciting city of government offices and tourist sites. After dark, the streets emptied as workers headed home to the suburbs—40,000 people once lived within the old city walls, a number that has since dwindled to 6,000. While restaurants and nightlife thrived elsewhere in Malta, Valletta slumped into a cultural malaise.
That all began to change about a decade ago with a concerted government-driven effort to revive the Mediterranean city, and the results are impressive. Stepping out of the Church of Our Lady of Victory, I can see recently restored buildings all around me—the Church of St. Catherine of Italy, a Baroque masterpiece dating to 1572; the Auberge de Castille, built to house Spanish and Portuguese knights and now the office of the prime minister; and the bulky tower of the St. James Cavalier, a 16th-century military stronghold that today houses the Centre for Creativity, Malta’s hub for modern arts.
And then there’s the project that has generated the most buzz: an extensive reconfiguration of the City Gate area designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano. Completed last year, the development has created both a dramatic new entrance to the city and transformed the square behind it, which had been damaged by aerial bombardment in World War II and rebuilt with bland shopping arcades and a haphazard car park. Now, more than US$100 million later, the once dour site has emerged as a minimalist gateway that gives pedestrians the distinct sense of transitioning into Valletta.
The project is not without its critics, the chief lament being that modernist architecture is incongruous with the Baroque cityscape, a World Heritage Site in its entirety. To make greater sense of it all, I seek out Guillaume Dreyfuss, a youthful, enthusiastic heritage consultant at Architecture Project, the eminent Maltese architectural firm contracted by Piano to carry out the project. We talk as we walk around the site’s largest feature, a new parliament building, designed on two separate polygonal blocks connected by elevated walkways.
“The building is designed to fit into a context, to reinforce the openness and flow in the area and fluidity in the lines of vision,” Dreyfuss says. “Pedestrians can literally walk underneath the building. It is not an imposition; it’s transparent.” Deliberately smaller than any of the surrounding structures and built with only two corners on the ground—the others are supported by steel pillars—the building feels airy, as if poised for flight. And with the raised scaly textures of the stones cladding its exterior giving the illusion of rippling water, the building feels like an abstract, modernist take on Baroque, like seeing a historical facade reflected in the windows of a glass skyscraper. Perhaps that’s what Dreyfuss is thinking when he talks about the scales mimicking the erosion of limestone on Valletta’s old buildings. Cleverer still, a slanted gap between the two blocks gives pedestrians glimpses of the adjacent St. James Cavalier—an intentional invitation to explore deeper into the city.
There is certainly a lot to explore, even if it only takes 15 minutes to walk down Republic Street, the avenue that bisects the city. Among Valletta’s headline attractions are St. John’s Co-Cathedral (home to Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St. John the Baptist) and the Grand Master’s Palace, built in 1571 as Malta’s administrative center, where state rooms boast coffered ceilings, lunettes and friezes, floors of inlaid marble, and lavish paintings and furniture. And around the corner is one of Europe’s oldest working theaters, the Manoel Theatre. Touring productions are regularly staged here, but the building manages to impress even when the curtains are drawn, with an oval interior constructed entirely of wood and balconies embellished with gold leaf.