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E - 1 : La Valetta - Ideal City?

Updated: Jul 11, 2021

View from the Saluting Battery on La Valetta's Grand Harbour

Walking in the streets of La Valetta in 33 degrees Celsius during the summer is quite an experience. It is bearable though due to the shadows cast by tall buildings and the sea breeze that gently blows through the town. One could believe that this is by accident, but it is actually by design.

Republican Street in La Valetta, its main Shopping Street

At the beginning of the 15th century, it became clear that medieval towns could not be held against gunfire. The old paradigm to pack as many people into as small a place as possible to maximize the numbers of defenders and minimize the length of the town wall did not hold any longer. Guns could punch indefensible, large breaches into medieval walls.

The Ideal Town as painted by Fra Carnevale (1400 - 1484)

Many Renaissance artists and scientists started to look at town designs again. If high population density did not provide protection any longer, why accepting the high cost that came with it as during the plague in 1347? Some of these thinkers came up with new concepts and advocated for planned instead of organically growing towns. The Italian mathematician Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) wrote in his book “De Re Aedificatoria” that choosing the location of a town should be the done deliberately, followed by deciding on its size and the type of fortification, then placing the gates and finally establish perfectly symmetric building patterns.

The never built "ideal town" of Sforzinda by Filarete

His Florentine colleague and architect Antonia Filarete developed the concept further and laid out “the ideal city” in his book “Trattoria di architettura”(1400 – 1469). Other architects added further design features like a rectangular street grid to facilitate the flow of fresh air (stale air was considered to carry diseases) and small town-squares as green lungs. It did not take long before such “ideal towns” were built. One of the best known examples is Palmanova to the north-east of Venice. It was built in 1593 as a garrison protecting the Veneto against an Ottoman invasion from Croatia which was under Turkish control.

Venetina Palmanova a good half an hour by car to the north-east of Venice

La Valetta was built earlier though. Immediately after the end of Malta’s siege, Pope Pius IV sent his star architect Francesco Laparelli (1521 – 1570) to the island to assess the damage. Laparelli had made a name for himself by building the new bastions around Cittavecchia, the Vatican City and the Pentagon Bastions around Castell St Angelo. Laparelli’s damage report was sobering. He wrote that the fortifications of Birgu and Sanglea and the Fort St Elmo had suffered so badly that it was better and cheaper to build a new town on Mount Sciberras which had served the Turks as artillery base. Grand Master Parisot de la Valette had exactly the same idea and so it was done. In March 1566, barely 6 months after the end of the siege, the foundation stone was laid. By 1571, the key parts of the town were completed.

Laparelli's Plan for the new town of La Valetta

Laparelli followed the principles of the “ideal city” for La Valetta, surrounded the new town with strong fortifications and laid down a building plan with regular street pattern, water cisterns and a sewage system, public buildings, and big warehouses. He left La Valetta in 1569 to serve his Pope on other projects against the Ottomans and died of the Plague in Crete in 1570. He never saw his town completed.

La Valetta today as seen on google map

The concept of the ideal town was picked up by the French and English Kings in the 17th century. Many French towns which Vauban fortified were extended and followed the design of the ideal town like Lille or Neuf-Brisach. In London, the entire Westend was built with rectangular street pattern and periodic town-squares. Most of them are accessible by the public today like Grosvenor, Hanover and Berkeley Square, others like Connaught Square stay private – only the surrounding buildings have a key.

Marylebone and Mayfair in London with rectangular street pattern and small parks

From London the idea of the ideal city crossed the Atlantic and found its first application in Savannah’s Historic District in Georgia, the original downtown. Could not find out when it was exactly built but found a map from 1818 after it was completed.

City Map of Savannah in Georgia from 1818

It served as a blueprint for many towns in the United States such as Chicago or New York. Who does not know NY’s Washington Square at the bottom of 5th Avenue or Union Square on 14thStreet? Fewer probably know that New York’s street pattern follows an Italian design and that tiny La Valetta is a design cousin of the mighty metropolis. Neither has become an ideal town to live in – but both are interesting places.

From Washington Square upwards New York's Street Grid is strictly rectangular (except for the Broadway)

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