March 28, 1566: Knights begin building Valetta, Malta’s capital

·Christy Karras

 

The tiny country of Malta is a jewel in the Mediterranean Sea. Its capital city, Valletta, is itself a gem, with majestic stone buildings rising above the island’s rocky shores.

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, or Knights Hospitaller, founded the city as a fortified base for its defense of Christian lands. Under the order’s leadership, Malta had fought off an attack by the Ottoman Empire a year earlier. That victory strengthened Europe’s claim over the Mediterranean but prompted the knights to build a well-defended fortress city. The order’s grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette, laid the foundation stone of Valletta on March 28, 1566, in Our Lady of Victories Church.

Along with fortified walls, the Christian knights built a modern (for the time) city, with wide, straight streets and substantial palaces, churches and houses reflecting the Renaissance that was sweeping Europe. Later architects added graceful Baroque buildings. The city’s technical name is The Most Humble City of Valletta, but its ornate spires, gardens, towers and domes have earned it the nickname “Most Proud.” 

Although some of its prominent buildings were destroyed during World War II, others have been preserved, leading to the city’s addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980. But its architecture is only one draw for tourists. Others come for the Mediterranean climate, welcoming nightlife, art (including the only painting ever signed by the great Caravaggio) and views of 500-year-old battlements above the city’s Grand Harbor.